Susan Davis has told the story so many times it has taken on the aura of myth—how one afternoon in 1985 she was visiting with her 95-year-old grandmother, rummaging as they often did through the elderly woman’s life-time accumulation of keepsakes and treasures. That afternoon they delved into her many boxes of buttons, and Susan suddenly saw the possibility of a new career and cottage industry. Plucking a sparkling jet glass from the jumble, she held it to her ear and said, “Grandma, this would make a beautiful earring!” Her grandmother agreed, cheerfully donated her buttons to Susan’s new cause, and Grandmother’s Buttons was born.
For the first few years Susan led a gypsy life, selling her jewelry at crafts fairs and antique shows while Donny farmed garlic and vegetables. By 1989, though, Grandmother’s Buttons had landed its first large department store account, and Donny parked his tractor for good, joining the company as business manager. Two decades then flew by as the couple raised two children and hired a long list of energetic and talented women who helped them design, create and sell tens of thousands of antique button earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and watches to a host of shops and boutiques throughout the United States and into Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Europe.
In 1994, the couple bought and restored St. Francisville’s grand and historic 1905 bank building, opening a retail store downstairs and moving their workshop and studio upstairs. The bank, with its imposing 16-foot ceilings, carved oak paneling and mosaic tile floors, made for a dramatic retail space. One year later, they transformed the original bank vault into a tiny and jam-packed Button Museum.
Through the years, Susan has searched for buttons from Paris to Shanghai, the New York Garment District to the New Orleans French Quarter. The thrill of the hunt is what keeps her inspired. And that inspiration is what has kept Grandmother’s Buttons, for all its growth and change, true to its original idea of transforming venerable old buttons into artistic one-of-a-kind jewelry. Through the years, company’s mantra has become: “honor the button.”
In 2006, Sterling Publishers commissioned Susan to write a book on making antique button jewelry. Beautiful Button Jewelry, a 144-page coffee table book with a history of buttons and pages of beautifully photographed projects, was the result. Lark Books issued the book in paperback three years later.
Over the decades, Grandmother’s Buttons has sold to many fascinating stores and catalogs. A short list would include Anthropologie Direct, BBC America, the Palace of Versailles, Signals, Lord and Taylor, the Smithsonian, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, HSN and Japanese QVC. The company has also had a few brief brushes with Hollywood, most notably when the store’s façade was used in a set for The Reaping, and actress Hilary Swank shopped in the closed store between takes. John Malkovich was also a customer while filming Jonah Hex on Susan’s family’s farm, buying sterling antique button rings for himself, his wife and his daughter.
Susan’s grandmother only lived to see the scant beginnings of the company she inspired, but Susan’s mother served, until her recent death at age 94, as a constant supporter of and muse for Grandmother’s Buttons. Susan and Donny’s daughter Anna has recently come on staff, bringing her talent as a professional photographer and writer to the mix.