Natalie Gentilo’s striking jewelry pieces had caught my eye on social media before, but when I saw photos of her exquisitely painted floral earrings (shown above), I wanted to learn more about her work. I browsed her Etsy shop and was charmed by the unique pieces that she sells there. Just as rewarding was getting to know Natalie through an interview and finding her to be a warm and thoughtful woman who is as lovely and interesting as you’d imagine from reading her online posts.
The stunning floral earring illustrations that had captivated me took a year to complete. Natalie explains, “Custom orders and special projects were pulling me in different directions during that time, but I always kept the earrings within sight, studying them, and working on them when time permitted. I was so proud of the final result — it was like I personally gave birth to them!” The earrings sold the same day that Natalie listed them for sale on Etsy. She adds, “I keep thinking I’ll make another pair for myself because I love them so much (occupational hazard), but the idea of them being an exclusive pair is part of their charm.” I have to confess that I hope she makes more pieces with a similar floral design, though I understand the artistic desire to move on to something new, especially when the production time is so long.
Natalie’s talent for executing fine detail in very small-scale illustrations lends itself beautifully to jewelry. Asked if her painting style comes naturally, she responds, “Totally natural, and it’s the weirdest thing. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, sculpting, and painting, basically anything artistic. But there’s something challenging and rewarding about doing it on such a small scale. So I kept pushing myself to see how much smaller and more intricate I could get.” Natalie was encouraged by the positive reactions she received to the fine detail in her art, and that made her feel like she was doing something special. Small-scale, finely detailed illustrations have become her style and comfort zone, but she does sometimes do full-scale paintings as well (“much kinder to my neck!” she admits). Although most of her pieces measure less than two inches, Natalie works freehand and does not use magnification devices when she paints.
Many natural materials find their way into Natalie’s jewelry: mother of pearl, seashells (unoccupied), feathers, wood, leather, and gemstones. Natalie describes her style as leaning “earthy/bohemian,” and her painted illustrations often feature natural themes of trees, flowers, birds, and animals. Growing up in rural North Carolina nurtured Natalie’s love of nature and the outdoors. “I had a love affair with nature from the moment I met her!” she says. “Whether combing the beach for shells and shark teeth during summer vacations, or playing in a nearby creek that had the most beautiful, glittery sand. And don’t even get me started on the woods… The woods have always been an escape for me. It’s the perfect fairytale setting of tall trees providing protection and separation from the real world, leaves crushing under your feet, and it all smells so heavenly. I still wander off into the woods every chance I get.”
“I knew at that moment that I wanted to be what they were”
Like many artists, Natalie’s creative urge began when she was young; one of her early projects was making illustration books to share with her family. She remembers the strong impression made by a group of artists who arranged a special visit to share their art with the students at her middle school. They gave live demonstrations of singing, acting, painting, sculpture, and other art forms. She recalls, “It was incredible, and I’d never seen anything like it. I knew at that moment that I wanted to be what they were, or some form of it. And looking back on it, I realize how lucky we were to have that experience in a public school system, and I find myself wondering how many other lives they changed or careers they inspired that day.”
With two sisters, family pets, and her mother’s in-home day care business, Natalie grew up in a busy home. Family is still important in their lives, and they find a way to get together for holidays and vacations. Natalie’s parents recently celebrated their 60th anniversary and still keep in touch with many of the now-grown children that were under her mother’s care years ago.
Although her interest in art continued through courses in high school and then night classes as an adult, Natalie put her passion on hold for 15 years while she worked in the corporate business world. She decided to return to her art full-time in 2002, and her business has since bloomed.
Natalie’s family ties led to the creation of her best-selling jewelry design, her family tree pendants. She hand paints a tree shape on each mother of pearl pendant and then adds jewels in birthstone colors to represent each person in the family tree. The inspiration for her first family tree pendant came the night before Mother’s Day when her husband needed a gift for his mother. Natalie explains, “Family means everything to my mother in-law; she’s a true momma bear. At the time, I had been experimenting with some tree designs and decided to create one centered around her family. The stars aligned because in my stash of Swarovski crystals I found all the correct birthstone colors to complete her tree. I stayed up all night to complete that first family tree pendant, and my husband jokingly takes the credit for inspiring it! It’s funny how the things we don’t plan in life often become the most appreciated. That pendant went on to become my best selling product.”
Natalie and her husband currently live in Pennsylvania and love to kayak on the nearby Susquehanna River, especially at the Conejohela Flats, which is a group of islands that are famous for bird watching opportunities. She explains that visitors can see bald eagles, osprey, peregrine falcons, and shorebirds such as tundra swans and snow geese during yearly migrations. “If you’ve never witnessed the sight and sound of thousands of geese – all rising off the ground at once like some digitally-enhanced flying saucer made of birds, and taking flight in unison — you’re missing a remarkable experience,“ she says.
In addition to spending time outdoors, other activities that Natalie enjoys include attending live music events with friends and spending time with her pets. She has adopted numerous rescue animals over the years (including dogs, cats, pigeons, and mantids) and currently has two adorable rescue dogs, a terrier mix named Brewster and a Cairn terrier named Rosie. She says, “My husband and I have had some pretty amazing companions over the years, all rescues, and I feel so fortunate for our time with each of them. Each arrival is a pleasant surprise that magically uncovers another layer of love in our hearts.”
Music has also been a big part of Natalie’s life, and especially now that she is married to a musician. Natalie’s husband, Bobby, runs a recording studio and will soon release his first solo album. He has recently completed a collaborative project, an album that is a fusion of traditional Colombian music with Mississippi blues. “It would be easy to think my love of music is partly due to my love of him,” Natalie says, “but it’s only a fringe benefit. I’ve loved music since early on, sitting in front of my dad’s old Telefunkin console (a prized possession he bought while stationed in Germany) playing and singing along to everything from Chet Atkins and Fleetwood Mac to Olivia Newton John and The Runaways. I was all over the place! And that 53-year-old Telefunkin? My father asked if I’d like to take it home with me this past summer since I’d always loved it so much. She’s all mine now.”
Natalie hosted a giveaway during the holiday season where her social media followers could nominate someone to receive a gift of a custom piece of her jewelry, which strikes me as a lovely idea. Like most artisans, she is happy when she can make someone’s day brighter through her art.
“And then a thank you note comes along (email actually) from a 98 year-old recipient of one of my creations, saying it brought her to tears and was the most meaningful gift she’s ever received… There’s no better confirmation than that.”
Many artisan business owners contemplate whether their art makes a difference in the world and feel gratified when they hear happy feedback from customers. Natalie sums up this universal experience when she explains, “Over the years, I’ve received correspondence from customers and recipients of my work, particularly the family tree pieces, and it truly fills my heart with joy to hear how much it means to them. But a common thing that I, and other creative people, seem to struggle with (especially during those quiet times) is wondering if we’re doing the right thing. Are the items we create serving a purpose or do they have any relevance in this world? And then a thank you note comes along (email actually) from a 98-year-old recipient of one of my creations, saying it brought her to tears and was the most meaningful gift she’s ever received… There’s no better confirmation than that.”