When you walk onto Jes MaHarry’s Sun Horse Ranch, you’re first greeted by a friendly butler: Juniper the donkey. On his heels is Henry the horse, followed closely by Roxy the dog, all three with tails wagging and noses nuzzling. The warm welcome is made even more pleasant with the knowledge that they, like the other 20 or so other animals living on the idyllic Ojai property, have been saved from lives of abuse or slaughter by MaHarry, whose compassion for all things living is matched only by her talent for making jewelry.
The New York native and married mother of two has crafted herself over the past 18 years into a household name with a wildly successful and much sought after line of handmade charms that have garnered the admiration of both everyday folks and celebrities like Hilary Clinton and Jennifer Aniston. But rather than let the success inflate her pride — MaHarry has been the top selling jewelry designer in Sundance Catalog for 10 years running — she uses whatever time is left in her busy day of raising a family and running an eco-minded business to put back into communities a sense of awareness and love that, she sometimes feels, there just isn’t enough of.
“It gets to the point where I get completely overwhelmed by the sadness in this world,” MaHarry said over iced green tea recently. “It’s so disheartening what’s happening to animals and the environment.” Motivated by the birth of her children and spurred, she said, by a bit of unapologetic feistiness that came with age and maturity, MaHarry finds herself channeling her energy and professional success more and more into raising funds and consciousness for charitable causes. “Little by little I’m getting stronger in my beliefs,”said MaHarry, speaking a mile a minute with an infectious enthusiasm. “I usually kept it quiet before, but now I’d like to be that voice and take it to the next level.”
MaHarry involves herself with organizations and events — including Surfrider Foundation, Global Fund for Women, and PETA, to name a few — that she feels a personal connection with. She also donates 15 percent of the profits from her Jewels of Kindness line and provides a number of custom pieces to be auctioned off for the benefit of organizations like Heal the Ocean and the Gentle Barn. “It’s like wearing Nike, but instead for a really cool purpose,” she joked.
An ardent animal welfare advocate, she is the president of WIN (Wild Horses in Need), which was founded in 2004 when MaHarry and others helped rescue hundreds of starving mustangs from a Buellton ranch during one of the largest horse abuse cases in U.S. history.
While she’s embarked on a couple of speaking engagements, sharing her passions and encouraging others to donate their time or money to charitable groups, she’s looking forward to doing more and has built up an impressive fan base through Facebook and her Web site. “Jewelry is the backbone of my life and business,” she said, “but now I’m able to get the word out more.”
However, perhaps most significantly, it’s MaHarry’s innate ability to provide her customers with an intensely personal token of jewelry — always forged with reclaimed metal and often inlaid with antique gems — that feel more like gifts than sales transactions. Rather than just accenting an outfit or acting as a mere accessory, MaHarry’s works are treated like talismans, worn close to the heart and cherished for their one-of-a-kind, poignant magnetism.
Receiving thousands of letters a month from fans who say her pieces either touched, roused, or consoled them, MaHarry credits her capability to feel deeply the thoughts and emotions of those around her, which she then uses to inspire her designs and the sayings often etched into them. These phrases of hope and empathy come from the conquering of her own life’s challenges, said MaHarry, but they — like most everything she makes — also stem from the beauty of the natural world.
Ever since she was a young girl, MaHarry reminisced, she’s felt a deep compassion for animals. She would cry, she said, when she’d see horses get whipped as they raced around the track. That connection, and the urge to speak and care for critters who find themselves in dire straights, continues today and explains why her ranch is populated by rescued horses, donkeys, goats, sheep, dogs, cats, and a cow, all of which owe MaHarry their now-content lives.
“There’s a huge animal influence in the work I do,” said MaHarry — who comes from a family of artists and grew up riding horses — as she walks through the barn and beams at her many friends. Most visibly, perhaps, is the rendering of her Angus cow, Jane, on a number of her works which were recently showcased on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. She even moved to the Ojai ranch solely because she needed more space to keep the many rescued dogs she was looking after at the time, and said she’s always been drawn to the South Coast’s natural beauty.
Some fosters, some permanent pets, the animals are cared for by MaHarry, her family (who also help run the business), and a few hired hands, a number of whom she taught to read and write in English. Keeping her company projects close to home and close to her heart, MaHarry has passed up a number of opportunities because they didn’t align with her convictions. In one case she had an opportunity to showcase her jewelry at a high-end retail store, but she refused because they placed her next to the fur items.
It’s this commitment to stay true to herself and her work, MaHarry said, that’s put her where she is today, and she has no intention of changing things now despite her recently ramped-up desire to give while continuing with her art. “I’m doing this because I love to do it,” she said. “It’s for no other reason. If someone doesn’t get it, that’s okay. But if they do, thank god. And when they get it, it’s an incredible thing.”
While acknowledging she’s had her fair share of success, MaHarry dismissed that it’s had anything to do with fate or destiny. As someone who held a number of odd jobs — including selling ice cream and flowers in the streets of New York — before landing her Sundance Catalog contract, MaHarry has worked tirelessly to build her sanctuary at the foot of the Los Padres mountains. “I don’t believe in luck,” she said of life’s trajectories. “It’s what you create and it’s your intentions.”
MaHarry’s work can be ordered online and is featured in Montecito’s Wendy Foster stores.
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A version of this story ran previously in Ventana Magazine.