Christiana Molina

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Christiana Molina
Joe Hagan
26 March 2010
Short Profile 2: Mary Jo Pane of Miracle Icons
Mary Jo Pane sits in a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop near Union Square on a brisk and
sunny afternoon showing off her jewelry. “This is a vintage medal of the Virgin Mary from
1906, and these are vintage quartz rosary beads,” she says, pinching her double-chained,
elongated necklace. “And this second strand also has old metal beads from a WWII soldier’s
rosary.” Pane’s clearly proud to behold this tarnished unusual accessory as she so emphatically
explains its origins. She’s proud of her distinctive find.
But Pane isn’t raving about her newest impulse purchase. Instead, she’s happily gibbering
about one of her latest pieces from her own jewelry line, Miracle Icons. Her collection is a
combination of two recent trends: religious jewelry and charm accessories. But Mary Jo’s pieces
go beyond the trend in that they enter the realm of authenticity; there is a true history behind
every piece that bears the sense of an ancient discovery. Pane creates each individualized design
by hand, clamping on anywhere from one to seven vintage saint medals on oxidized silver chain,
leather, or beaded necklaces and bracelets. Since its inception in 2001, Miracle Icons has
garnered somewhat of a “cult following” as Pane puts it, with celebrities like Johnny Depp,
Matthew McConaughey, Halle Berry, and Justin Timberlake as fans; and has gained media
attention from such magazines as W, GQ, Elle, and Rolling Stone. But Miracle Icons is more
than just a stylish fashion statement, because the religious iconography attached to each piece
makes it a spiritual talisman of sorts for many, and is the source of the true value of the jewelry
for most.
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Pane, 57, was inspired to create Miracle Icons nearly a decade ago after a combined
reflection on 9/11 and a close friend’s battle with stage-four inoperable lung cancer. It was her
friend’s 55th birthday when Pane made her a card enclosed with an icon of St. Anthony. Pane
explained to her Jewish friend that St. Anthony was the patron saint of anxiety that she could
hold onto while she underwent chemotherapy. Pane was ultimately moved at how much peace it
brought to her regardless of her religion. “Even though she’s Jewish, she’s really very spiritual,”
explains Pane. “She thought it was great and was very supportive of the gift.”
Pane remembers the precise day, on November 12th, 2001, when she was walking back
home from another visit to her friend. She was musing on the newfound strength her friend
seemed to have along with the city’s steadfast reactions to 9/11 as a whole. “It’s an astonishing
thing to me how resilient New Yorkers are. And at that point I felt that the sense of rebuilding
was starting to come back.” Pane recalls people beginning to make eye contact with one another
for the first time, strangers deliberately saying hello and meaning it, mere acquaintances
initiating deep conversation. “The feeling of comradery in this city was unbelievable,” she says.
Pane wanted to be the one to advance this feeling of recovery. She wanted to create
something that would instigate this sensation of revival. “There still needed to be a sense of wellbeing,” Pane says. An idea struck her as vividly as a yellow reflector sign in the night. She
decided she would take the medals she wore as a child in Catholic school and revamp them into a
fashionable source of peace that people would want to wear. “By the time I walked back home, I
knew I wanted to call it Miracle Icons, because I do believe miracles can happen. And the next
day I started the process of trademarking the name.” Six years later, her friend’s cancer went into
remission. “I’d like to think it had something to do with my medal,” Pane says.
But Pane insists her epiphany had more to do with wanting to promote a broader sense of
spirituality than direct Catholicism. “I have always felt that my jewelry is for the spiritually
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evolved,” she explains. “It’s for people who are looking for something to make them feel good,
better, protected, in touch, whatever it may be.” Pane believes this is why the icon may have held
such resonance with her Jewish friend. Not to mention the fact, she adds, that other Jews, Hindus
and Muslims have even purchased her pieces. “I think everyone makes their own personal
connection to it,” she says. Pane surmises that in the end, her icons represent not a specific saint,
but a tangible link to spirituality “that you can touch in times of anxiety, stress, and just know
that it’s there.” Indeed, Pane says her favorite icons she finds are ones that are so worn from
incessant rubbing that the image has almost disappeared.
Still, her revelation should not have come as a surprise considering her pious upbringing.
She was the third of seven children who were all raised in a devoutly Catholic household in
Omaha, Nebr. “We absolutely would pray before every meal. We had a statue of the Virgin
Mary and Pope John Paul on the mantel. My mom hung a big picture of the Sacred Heart as you
came down the stairs,” says Pane as she takes a sip of her steeping peppermint tea. “It was
everywhere.” Her religious-inspired jewelry line was an obvious choice to Pane’s friends as well.
“When she first told me about Miracle Icons, it made sense to me because she’s truly connected
with her Catholic spirit,” says Gretchen Radler, a friend of Pane’s who scours estate sales three
times a week in Omaha for vintage medals to provide to her. “It seems like she’s passing on
some of her own connectedness to someone else.” Add to this Pane’s 30-plus years as a fashion
buyer, and the concept of Miracle Icons was a perfect fit. “She’s always been extremely creative
and talented,” says Stacey Rockman, whom Pane used to babysit as a child and who now
searches flea markets and antique malls for Pane’s saint medals. “I always knew she was going
to do something important.” Lewis Hopkins, former Vice President of Neiman Marcus, Pane’s
fashion colleague, and mentor, describes how she and her brand make an ideal pair, “Mary Jo
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and Miracle Icons are very similar. They both have a respect for tradition, a sense of modernity
and an authenticity that raises them both above the crowd.”
But despite her extensive background in the fashion industry, Pane didn’t have the first
clue about making jewelry at the start. Inevitably, she taught herself through the simple process
of trial and error. “It was like I inexplicably knew how to do something I’d never done before,”
Pane says about clamping her first icon to a chain. “It always felt like it was coming just from
someplace innate.” Aside from utilizing her friends as sources for the uncommon medals, she
began searching for a place she could buy them in bulk. The result was the online discovery of a
man in Europe who collects these mostly ‘40s and ‘50s icons all across the continent. She now
buys thousands at a time, which she organizes and stores in her Gramercy Park studio
apartment/workplace. “If anything ever happened and police broke into my apartment they’d say,
‘Man, this lady must be sooome holy-rider,” Pane says with a sarcastic roll of her eyes.
Pane now has perfected the rhythm of creating hundreds of new pieces a day, which
range anywhere from $70 to $600. Still, she never overlooks a single detail. She’s very
methodic and conscious about the combination of medals on her necklaces. Nothing is left to
chance. First, Pane designs by similar shapes and sizes; then she gets down to the specifics. “If I
realize I have St. Christopher and St. Anthony on a chain, I’ll go, ‘Oops, we need some feminine
vibration here,’” she says as she sorts imaginary groups of medals on the table, a wristful of
saints jingle-jangling on a string of Tibetan Buddhist prayer beads. She also only uses odd
numbers of medals on a piece, whether it is one, three, five or seven. “It’s an aesthetic thing. I
don’t know why,” Pane shrugs.
This creative process is also what makes Miracle Icons so individualistic, and is what
scored Pane her first major sale. It was June 2003; nearly two years after Pane formulated her
concept but was still working in fashion showrooms. She was at an industry trade show when she
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came across an old colleague, Fred Segal Finery owner Michael Campbell. He noticed the
Miracle Icons necklace Pane was wearing and asked her about it. “I’m tired of crosses. But put
that on a leather chord and I could sell it all day long,” he said. Campbell placed an order that
day for 12 pieces to be sold at Fred Segal. He later explains his initial attraction to the line, “My
first impression was, ‘Wow, finally something new!’ The irony is that it’s made from vintage
Things began to snowball following this first sale with Campbell. Three months later,
Pane landed what was, in her opinion, the crème de la crème of sales: a 200 piece order from
Barney’s. “I literally was dancing down the block on 5th Avenue,” Pane says as she slightly
bounces in her seat, her chocolate-brown layered bob following suit. “It was really validating
that I had made it. I took pictures of the cases when they came out.”
After Barney’s, there was no turning back. Pane began waking up at 4:30a.m. before
work--which at that time was selling wholesale for emergent designers--to begin accommodating
the massive once-a-month Barney’s orders. In August 2007, she quit her day job. “I didn’t know
at that point that I’d be able to fully support myself,” she says. “I was probably eight months
ahead of schedule.”
But the sudden mass media coverage of celebrities sporting her jewelry got Pane back on
her feet. Before she knew it, she was taking personal orders from Jake Gylenhaal (who first
received a Miracle Icons necklace as a gift from Matthew McConaughey), entertaining Mira
Sorvino (who came to Pane’s apartment one afternoon to make jewelry with her children), and
fixing a necklace of “The Rock” Dwayne Johnson’s when he unexpectedly walked out of his
hotel bathroom in nothing but a bath towel. “He was really a pretty specimen to see,” Pane says
as she tugs at the high neck of her charcoal cashmere sweater. As an expression of gratitude for
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Pane’s products, Johnson initiated a 20-minute phone conversation to her hospitalized nephew
who had cancer at the time, which later went into remission as well.
But Pane says the “biggest thrill of her life” came three years ago when she saw Bruce
Springsteen wear two Miracle Icons necklaces on The Today Show. “I knew a lot of celebrities
wore my stuff but this was like--” Pane places her hands together in prayer and solemnly bows
her head, her orange-trimmed black rectangular glasses sliding down her nose. Springsteen is her
god. (He would later wear three more of Pane’s necklaces on his “Magic” album cover and on a
Rolling Stones cover.) Later that week, the two briefly ran into each other at a benefit.
Springsteen’s team of attached minions introduced him to Pane. “And he was like--” the
energetic Pane starts shaking in excitement, mouth open wide. “Even celebrities need something
real and authentic in a world that sometimes resembles a bad reality show,” explains Campbell.
This authenticity also resonates with magazine editors who frequently feature Pane’s
pieces. “I see a lot of commercial junk, and so it’s always refreshing to come across a vendor
who really has thought carefully about their intent and design,” says W Accessories Market
Editor Beitressa Mandelbaum, who first featured Miracle Icons in the magazine’s June 2009
issue. “I think there’s always a need in the market for a strong fashion accessory, but it’s great
when you can mix that aesthetic with something subtle and personal.”
Pane is often surprised at how personal customers do become with her. She says she
receives at least two or three meaningful thank-you letters a month. The District Attorney of
Pittsburgh was one of them. He wore a Miracle Icons bracelet featuring St. Maria Goretti (the
patron saint of children) while prosecuting a man who was accused of being a child abuser. “He
said that standing there in court with that bracelet on, he just felt like he could do it all,” says
Pane. “He sent me the article when he won the case.” Beyond this, Pane is startled at how private
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the stories are that people reveal to her at trunks shows. “I feel like I’m a bartender some days,”
she says. “Because it’s amazing the things they’ll confess to you.”
Looking toward the future, Pane and friends say Miracle Icons is more than just a onehit-wonder. Part of that reason is because Pane is continuously updating her line with different
concepts and designs (from rosary beads to leather chords to wallet chains.) “What Mary Jo does
is to make religious jewelry that is constantly modern and relevant,” says Lewis Hopkins. But he
also says there is something inherently meaningful beyond the frequent transformation that will
make Miracle Icons last, “As our world vision changes and people look to belong to concepts
larger than themselves, these icons will inspire and shape fashion now and into the future.”
Pane is also firm to insist that “This is more than just making trendy accessories.”
“I really do believe there is some kind of healing spiritual thing here. And it gets
validated all the time through this jewelry,” muses Pane as she rubs her medal of the Virgin
Mary between two fingertips.