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Gold Is Lovely and Diamonds Are Forever, but Bonwillum Creates Jewelry Out of Plain Old Wood

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Relax. No one’s chopping down redwoods and sneaking the logs to Bonwillum, the hottest new jewelry company on Seventh Avenue. Bonnie and William Duncan get nearly half the timber they turn into high-fashion trinkets out of old swamps and dumps in New Jersey. The rest they buy from wholesalers or from Bill’s father, who ships them Osage orange from Nebraska. “I am a scrounger,” says 38-year-old Bill. “I like to cruise for wood. I’m no tree murderer.”

He is in fact a skilled sculptor whose beads decorate the mannequins of designers like Stephen Burrows and Oscar de la Renta. “Calvin Klein has also flipped over natural woods,” adds 37-year-old Bonnie. Recently the Bonwillum line, which is sold in Saks, Henri Bendel, Neiman-Marcus and I. Magnin, has been turning up on believers like Ali MacGraw, model Jerry Hall, Suzanne Somers, Marie Osmond and even Yul Brynner.

All this visibility has created one ironic problem. “Because it’s wood, people think our prices should be dime-store cheap,” complains Bonnie. “For years the market didn’t understand our beads.” In a large West Side loft, the Duncans and their close-knit staff of seven work with 36 varieties of hardwood (“never with dying species like elm”), often painting every piece by hand. “Americans are not used to paying for American hand labor,” says Bonnie. “But we sit here and carve everything. Each of our teardrop earrings is like a little sculpture, done one at a time.” Of their 50 pieces—bracelets, necklaces, haircombs, earrings and pins—the cheapest is a rosewood bobby pin at $4.50, the costliest a $950 satinwood brooch with semiprecious citrine. Bill is proudest of the swimmer’s comb he calls “the Bearclaw.” “Bonnie jogs and swims in it,” he says happily. “And her hair always stays in place. She can even make love wearing it.”

Both Duncans were born Midwesterners. Bonnie, who handles the marketing, grew up in Sturgis, Mich. and graduated from the state university (’65) before coming to New York, where she worked for a stockbroker. Bill, design and production chief, started whittling jewelry as a teenager in Omaha. After studying at art institutes in San Francisco and Kansas City, he moved to New York in 1968.

They met at a birthday party in 1972, 10 months after Bill had separated from his first wife. “He had a fluffy beard and twinkling eyes,” she remembers. “We had two more dates and that was it. From then on we were inseparable.” Moonlighting from her Wall Street job, Bonnie helped Bill peddle his beads on the sidewalk outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1976, the year they got married, their luck changed. Alert to the budding vogue for haircombs, Bill started carving them in rosewood and walnut. Bendel’s snapped them up and the family firm, Bonwillum, was launched. “Those combs fed us for months,” says Bill.

Yet, in spite of dazzling credits in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, the Duncans are just barely staying in business these days. “The rent and taxes are overwhelming,” says Bill. “We have been pouring all of our lives, our time and our money into this business. We have laid it on the line. It’s a real dice roll.”