Jewelry designer and Isleño descendant Jose Balli creates handmade sterling silver jewelry inspired by the unique beauty and culture of Louisiana. Now, his daughter Sarah is creating striking and youthful jewelry of her own. The Balli brand is expanding more rapidly than ever before thanks to the dynamic father and daughter duo.
Jose Balli knew that he was destined to be an artist when he was just a child, but he couldn't predict what type of discipline he would eventually settle into. He explained, "Since I was a little boy, I knew I was going to be an artist. It stems back to when I was about 6 years old living down in Delacroix. I was at a friend's house one day just sitting around drawing. I held my paper up to show my friend's mom, and she looked at it and said, 'It's so good! You're going to be an artist one day.' From there, something just blossomed."
After high school, Jose took a job in a steel shop, and a seemingly inconsequential event changed the course of his life. "While I was waiting for a large pipe to finish cutting, I carved an alligator out of soapstone with a Barlow knife that I actually still use to this day. I showed the gator to a friend that I was working with, and he said, 'You ought to become a jeweler.' I told him, 'That's a good idea!' I give God credit for that day because he gave me two things: a gift and direction. I found out I could carve and I knew I was going to be a jeweler."
Jose enrolled in a jewelry repair course at Delgado while teaching himself how to wax carve, create molds of original designs, and cast them in metal using the lost-wax casting method. After completing the four jewelry courses at Delgado and scouring the yellow pages for jewelry stores that might have a job opening, he took his skills to Aucoin Hart Jewelers in the late 1980s. After 10 years of honing his craft, Jose felt that it was time to create his own jewelry line and began wholesaling and exhibiting at local art shows. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he then decided it was time to expand into retail. He explained, "My brother owned some commercial property in Chalmette that had about 10 feet of water. After he fixed the place up, a couple of my brothers and I pooled our resources and, in 2006, Balli Gallery was born. It offered custom framing, jewelry, steel art, and home decor. We created a following in St. Bernard, being one of the first new businesses to open in the parish after Katrina. A year later, we opened up a second store in Slidell. It wasn't long after that I thought that it was time for me to open up stores under my own name."
Jose Balli now has four stores, which are located in the French Quarter, Magazine Street, Metairie, and Mandeville. They have thrived thanks to the business acumen of Jose's wife Lisa, their children Sarah, Joshua, and Lucas, and his sister-in-law Tina. From design conception to the sales floor, it's truly a family business. Sarah and her brothers have been actively involved in the family business since a young age. But she wouldn't become inspired to be a jeweler until years later. "All throughout college, I was working on the sales floor. I always had a creative eye, so my mom hired me to do the digital marketing and social media for the business. Then when I got my Fine Arts Degree from Southeastern, my mom hired me to be the creative director for our annual catalog. It wasn't until last year during the pandemic that my brother Lucas came up with the idea for me to design my own line. I was collaborating with my dad on a pair of hoop earrings that would have interchangeable charms. Then Lucas suggested, 'Well why doesn't Sarah just design her own line?' Then we all stopped and were like, 'Wait! That's a good idea!' I've always been interested in designing. I have piles of old sketchbooks from high school and college full of wedding dresses, theatrical costumes, logo designs, you name it. But it wasn't until last year that I considered designing jewelry. Now I can't imagine doing anything else." Sarah debuted her first designs in the winter of 2020.
While many businesses were struggling with the fallout from last year, Jose Balli Jewelry broke its own sales records. Jose said, "With all four stores closed, we were relying solely on our website, which we weren't really utilizing like we should have been before the pandemic. We did the opposite of what most business owners would do: we started donating to charities." Sarah continued, "We design, wax-carve, and manufacture everything ourselves in-house. And that's how we were able to quickly produce and launch brand-new designs while most of our competition struggled just to get new inventory. Together as a family, we collaborated on every new piece. And almost every design that came out last year, we donated 50% of the sales to charities that were local with a mission that was important to our family."
The Balli brand is on a trajectory to become more beloved than ever before. Jose captured this moment in his business's history, saying, "Sarah's designs are strong, and that's not just a proud father talking. Her Taffy Collection is one I wish I would have come up with myself. I'm so proud of her, words can't even describe." Sarah beamed as she discussed all the fresh, unique designs she has in store for Jose Balli Jewelry's loyal customers, who have so enjoyed her father's designs. "It's been wonderful working with my dad. Since I was young, he has encouraged my creativity, so to be at a place in life where I'm designing my own line of jewelry alongside him has been an incredibly rewarding experience. I love being able to carry on his legacy in a new way."