Thirteen years into running her own jewelry line, Laura Gaines tells us “cool things have happened,” but that seems like a bit of an understatement considering the likes of Selena Gomez, Britney Spears, Reba McEntire and Julianne Hough have all worn her pieces.
Just before the interview for this article, a makeup artist for the NBC show Will & Grace reached out to Laura. “We see everything (that) came through here, and your jewelry is incredible,” she told Laura. “You have a lot to look forward to.”
Another time Laura was writing out an invoice at a show in Nashville when Faith Hill grabbed Laura’s hand to compliment her bracelet. Could she buy it, Faith asked. “It was actually mine, and it had taken me forever to make it. And I loved it. But I said, ‘Of course!’” Laura recounts.
When she happened to meet one of the producers of the 2011 film Something Borrowed, the producer asked to use Shalla Wista jewelry for actresses Ginnifer Goodwin and Kate Hudson to wear—and indeed her designs ended up on the big screen.
Most recently, Laura had been working two models for Shalla Wista photo shoots who happened to have the same first name, Hannah Godwin and former Miss Alabama Hannah Brown—the same two Hannahs who would go on to compete on The Bachelor earlier this year. Now that Hannah Brown is the star of this season’s The Bachelorette, Shalla Wista has sent in more than 100 pieces for them to choose from for shooting, but Laura isn’t sure what will make it on air so stay tuned.
Back in 2006 though, Laura didn’t know any of those stories would be in her future. She had worked for designer Lynn Wood’s Camany & Company for seven years in Homewood, and following a move to Atlanta, the man she was dating at the time encouraged her to start her own line. The prospect was terrifying, Laura says, but she decided to try it, crafting designs in her Piedmont Park condo. Later she’d move operations back to sweet home Alabama and eventually settle into a cozy spot above Church Street Coffee, where Michelle’s gift shop had formerly been housed to serve as her studio.
When it came time for a name, Laura was stuck, and so the night before she was submitting a form for a business license, she emailed family and friends to ask for ideas. The vote was nearly unanimous: “Shalla Wista.” No, you can’t look up the words in any foreign language dictionary, but the words are what she would walk around whispering before she was able to talk as a small child, and became her nickname in the years to come. Laura hadn’t been called “Shalla Wista” in years, but she listened to her people—and now celebrities know that name too. Today you can buy Laura’s designs in boutiques across the Southeast and a handful of stores in California and Colorado, and she has her sights on getting more stores on the West Coast.
Laura herself struggles to put words on exactly what makes a piece of jewelry a Shalla Wista design, but her friends know it and can spot it almost anywhere. There’s no doubt anything Shalla Wista is inspired by nature and animals, often incorporating leather, antlers, buffalo horns, fossils or python skins paired with hydro coated gold, brass or sterling silver. Plus, the rugged sparkle of pyrite goes with anything and everything in Laura’s book.
Laura also loves to add shine to her designs. Her higher end Madame Fifi line—named after her dog who has since passed away—incorporates more expensive pieces with diamonds. No matter the year or line, you’ll find golds and sterling silvers in layers.
Wherever she travels, she’s taking in colors and textures for inspiration. “I love florescent pinks and canary yellows, but I also love the natural colors, the colors of the buffalo and any colors you’d see on an African safari, which is next in line on my bucket list. I search all the time for new things.” In Rhode Island she knows where to find old warehouses full of leather and fabrics and gems and buttons.
Some Shalla Wista pieces have a more youthful feel for teens and 20-somethings, while others are designed with women in their 30s and beyond in mind—knowing her tastes started to favor more tans, blacks and earth tones in her 30s and 40s.
While Laura’s studio doesn’t make their own chains, most everything else is hand crafted in Crestline. There Laura and her four staff members are cutting up large sheets of leather, drilling holes in buffalo horns and making computer-aided design drawings. During the holidays, Shalla Wista will hold pop up shops in the retail space below her design space, and no matter the time of year Laura pops downstairs to Church Street for coffee.
Last year her friend found baby seahorses’ skeletons that washed ashore in Portugal, so Laura hydro coated them in gold in a design that she says speaks to her “go to” look. This year she says coins are in, so she’s found historic ones and replicas to work into her designs. Silver is slowly coming back in style too.
What does Laura like to wear herself though? Her short answer is “all of it,” but she admits most days she wears workout clothes with her Kaylee hoops, a best-selling earring that’s been around since her second ever employee found a piece of wire that inspired it 10 years ago.
When she has a party to attend, though, Laura’s likely to bring out a funky necklace—like one of her favorites that looks like fishbone—and pair it with long earrings. “When I do wear jewelry I wear a lot of it,” she says. “I’ll wear five gold necklaces or diamond earrings with a buffalo horn fringe necklace I love. I don’t wear small things.”
Looking back over the years of Shalla Wista, Laura talks about the sideways cross necklaces they sold a ton of a while back, but it’s an angel wing necklace sold in black, champagne or dark purple druse encased in gold that she has heard the most stories about. “A lot of people love it and buy it for a friend who has lost a loved one or just to be a blessing to someone going through tough stuff,” Laura says. “For years I have prayed over my jewelry because I really want to touch people. I never know what a person who puts it on might feel.”
As an Enneagram Type 1, Laura knows she is always wanting to make things better. “Maybe that’s why God gave me this gift,” she says. “I love working with people. Life is hard, so (I want to do) anything I can do to make people feel better.”
Where to Find Shalla Wista Designs
- Lavender, Mountain Brook Village
- South Boutique, The Summit and other locations
- Lady in Lace, Tuscaloosa
- Carriage House, Decatur