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Diamond in the rough: Helping students discover their potential as jewelry designers

Group of jewelry design students posing in front of University of Texas signage

University of Texas, Austin students with Professor Jessica Ciarla (far right) wearing the bracelets they designed for Kendra Scott at the product launch in stores.

While exams, research papers, and group projects are an important part of the learning process, these evaluations typically don’t hold much weight outside the classroom. What if instead, a student project could translate to real-world job experience?

For students studying Textiles and Apparel at the University of Texas (UT Austin), their group project isn’t just for class; it comes with an exciting opportunity to work with a successful jewelry company in their desired industry, Kendra Scott. To sweeten the deal, one lucky group of students will have the chance to see their final design produced and sold in stores.

UT Austin students visit Texas Inventionworks to learn how to 3D print jewelry.

Leading these students is Jessica Ciarla, an associate professor at UT Austin who teaches Accessory Design, Development and Merchandising. Drawing on her own professional background, Jessica’s teaching philosophy is to broaden students’ perspectives of the industry by showing them the many roles and processes behind bringing a product to market.

I’ve worked closely with UT Austin for years and first met Jessica when she was looking for solutions to help her class print 3D models of their jewelry. I knew that Fusion 360 offers capabilities that would benefit these young, budding jewelry designers. It was a natural connection.

I recently caught up with Jessica to discuss her unique approach to this course. She shared, “This class isn’t just design; it’s a product development class and draws on students’ ability to work across job functions and expertise. They have to be able to conduct research, manage the project, sketch their designs, use CAD in Fusion, and employ storytelling to convey their vision.”

Introducing a new tool to the design process 

For Jessica, it was essential that her students be able to use manufacturing design technology to build a physical model of their jewelry. Many of her students come from other departments, drawn in by the uniquely creative outlet of jewelry design. It’s typical to have a geology student, dance student, business student, and design student all working together in one group.

Additionally, most of these students had never worked with CAD software before and were now being asked to learn a completely new tool in order to complete their final project.

Screenshot of jewelry design

Students use Fusion 360 to render 3D models of their jewelry designs.

While working with the students, I was surprised how quickly they picked up the terminology and workflows. Once they got a feel for the software and started working, I stood back and offered my support with any issues. Often, their innovative designs tested my many years of experience, and I began to learn alongside them.

After just a 90-minute workshop covering the basics, I was blown away by how far they had come. Not only had they embraced the power of the platform to design beautiful creations, but they had 3D printed full scale mock-ups.

From student to professional jewelry designer

At the end of the semester, students present their products to the class and post their designs online. Their fellow students and the general public then virtually vote for their favorite, with the winner receiving a special prize: their design produced and sold by Kendra Scott. This semester, Jessica’s students are currently hard at work finalizing their product designs, with public voting beginning on December 7th.

The latest student-designed product to land in stores was the course’s first foray into men’s jewelry design. The bracelet, inspired by the design of the South Congress Bridge in Austin, hit store shelves in September 2022 and has already sold out.

Hands posed together wearing jewelry designs

UT Austin students wearing their design, the Eli Cuff Bracelet, at the product launch event at the Kendra Scott Flagship store.

Kendra Scott has a longstanding relationship with UT Austin, paving the way for the recently endowed Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute (KS WELI). This course (and others) are sponsored by KS WELI and are part of a new Women in Entrepreneurship specialization offered as part of the Entrepreneurship minor at UT Austin. All proceeds from the winning student design are donated back to KS WELI to support the next generation of courageous leaders. 

Maddy Ailes, a recent UT Austin graduate who studied textiles and apparel design, took Jessica’s course in 2020. Reflecting on her experience, she shared, “I grew up wearing Kendra Scott and was so excited by the chance to take part in this course, given their close involvement.”

Inspired by the act of sharing jewelry with friends and loved ones, Maddy’s group developed a multi-functional pair of earrings that can be detached and worn separately as rings. Their innovative design proved to be a winning idea, and their product was selected to be sold in stores the following year. After winning, the group got to work with the product development team at Kendra Scott, learning firsthand what it takes to move a product through development.

Hands holding gold hoop earing display

Maddy Ailes with her design, the Maren Convertible Hoop.

Learning from professionals and getting hands-on experience with industry tools is essential to Jessica’s mission for the course. To help students secure roles in their desired careers, she feels they should be equipped with a broad array of knowledge and skillsets that are sought after by employers.

These skills proved to be more than helpful for Maddy’s own career. Soon after graduating, Maddy secured a role on Kendra Scott’s product development team, where she is heavily involved in the job functions that she had previously studied in Jessica’s class.

She told me, “It really is a full-circle moment. My whole path leading up to product development started with this course!”

Maddy’s successful move from student to professional exemplifies what’s possible when we open young minds to career opportunities they had never even imagined. And with educators like Jessica at the helm, the next generation of designers is in good hands.

See this semester’s student designs here.