July 09, 2001 12:00 PM

Leaving her 18-year-old son Nicky in the California woods last fall for a four-month survivor-school course affected Cathy Waterman deeply. “It was the first time he’d been away so long,” she recalls. “I was crying. There were times I could barely eat.”

To cope, the L.A. jewelry designer decided to commemorate her son’s forest adventure by creating a $50,000, 22-karat gold cuff emblazoned with pinecones. “It’s probably the prettiest thing I’ve ever made,” says Waterman, 51. Why just probably? “You don’t want to think you’ve [already] made the most beautiful thing you’re ever going to make,” she says.

She needn’t worry. With each new collection Waterman’s handmade designs, often based on Byzantine art and natural wonders like spiderwebs, seem to become more exquisite—and more in demand by Hollywood’s elite. Nicole Kidman, Jamie Lee Curtis and Rita Wilson all buy her work, which ranges from tiny $200 earrings to gem-encrusted necklaces, brooches and bracelets that sell for thousands of dollars. Freddie Prinze Jr. picked a platinum-and-diamond Waterman ring when he proposed to Sarah Michelle Gellar in April. And Gwyneth Paltrow looped Waterman’s $33,000 ruby-tassel lariat around her neck at last year’s Oscars. “She’s amazingly inventive,” says Paltrow. “There’s a beauty and lyrical quality to her pieces.”

The success comes despite the fact that Waterman keeps an unlisted phone number to weed out window shoppers. Customers must track her to her Los Angeles studio by word of mouth. “When they find me, I know it’s because they really love my work,” she says. Those who do manage to find the rose-and-lavender-scented workshop receive homemade minestrone and tea while they shop. Says Paltrow: “She’s very un-Hollywood.”

Waterman’s commitment to her children—Nicky; Claire, 15; and Coco, 12—also, impresses her fans. Most days she ends work at 3:30 p.m. to get home to her Mediterranean-style house in Santa Monica before they return from school. “Her connection to her family is the strongest element in her life,” observes Jamie Lee Curtis, who met Waterman in 1993 when their kids took dance classes together. “I admire her as a woman and a mother.”

Family loyalty is nothing new for Waterman. She grew up in Burbank, the oldest of three children of Seymour Waterman, now 82, who sold aircraft supplies, and Evelyn, 75, a psychologist. At age 5, Waterman sorted rivets at her father’s company; as a teenager, she operated the switchboard. “She was different in the sense that she did everything she was supposed to do,” says her mother. “She was never rebellious.”

At UCLA Waterman studied history and met her future husband, Eddie Kislinger, now 53 and a pop lyricist. She went to law school and passed the bar in 1978 but never practiced. Instead, she found her true calling in 1989 when, on a lark, she made herself pair of earrings featuring an angel carved in gold. “It was immediate gratification,” she recalls. When she took a collection of other designs to Barneys New York in Manhattan a year later, the store promptly placed a $50,000 order.

Now, “people are copying her left and right,” says Rita Wilson, who is working with Waterman on a line of jewelry that will benefit children’s charities. “When I ask her, ‘Doesn’t it bother you?’ she says, ‘I consider it flattering.’ ” Plus Waterman knows her fans can tell the difference. “Everything I do looks like mine,” she notes. “It’s mine because it’s lyrical, it’s beautiful. People say, ‘I get why that’s yours.’ ”

Sophfronia Scott

Karen Brailsford in Los Angeles

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