Bozeman jeweler is a force of nature

By Emily Stifler Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

BOZEMAN – Babs Noelle closed her jewelry shop in Denver when the Russian Mafia held her up at gunpoint.

“They all but cleaned me out,” she recalls of the late 2003 robbery. “When I bent over to get something that the guy with the gun was demanding, he hit me in the back of the head with his gun. It made my knees go out, and I hit the front of my head on the door of the vault, which made me go out cold.”

Deciding it was time for a change, Noelle, 50, and her husband JT Theobald moved to the Paradise Valley in July 2004. Two weeks later, Noelle opened Alara in a little storefront on the southeast corner of Main Street and Willson.

Classy, edgy and hip, the downtown Bozeman shop carries items from $25 to $30,000 and is now a staple for men on Valentine’s Day and Christmas; Bozeman brides; and for “anyone looking to celebrate something in themselves or in someone else,” Noelle says.

Trained first as a biochemical engineer at Rice University in her home city of Houston, Texas, Noelle has a graduate gemologist diploma through the Gemological Institute of America, and she learned jewelry design through a seven-year program at the prestigious Goldschmiedeschule in Pforzheim, Germany.

She has earned many awards for her designs, including first place in the Jewelry Division of the 2011 American Art Awards, second in the 1991 DeBeers Diamonds Today, and the Visionary Award in the 17th International Pearl Design competition in 1989.

Her style is cultivated, classic and a little wild.

A dedicated philanthropist, Noelle gives 51 percent of the profits from one of her lines, Adam’s Rib to the Yellowstone Park Foundation. She has cast these elegant gold, platinum and silver pieces from baculum of red fox, coyote, beaver, gray wolf and grizzly. The bone found in most male animal reproductive parts, baculum are long, slender and organically shaped.

In the rural south, Noelle says, men use raccoon baculum as a good luck charm while hunting – for animals or a mate.

With 57 other designers, Alara carries a range of styles including designer pieces from New York, Zurich and Rome; heirloom-quality diamonds and gems set by Livingston, Mont.-based jeweler Elichai Fowler; and contemporary work from Mexico City designer Mauricio Serrano.

Noelle’s technical expertise and industry experience allow her to charge top dollar for her custom pieces and work with such high-end designers, but her magnetic personality is what draws people to her and to Alara.

The tall, animated blond looks 10 years younger than she is, in dark rimmed glasses and a high-waisted dress. She greets the Fed Ex worker by name, and jumps up to talk with the locksmith when he walks in.

The store manager, Rebekah Marshall, moved from Alabama last September to work at Alara.

“I feel blessed to be excited about going to work every day,” Marshall said. “[We have] an atmosphere where people come in, enjoy themselves, and [don’t] feel pressured. It’s fun and upbeat.”

Noelle offers profit sharing to her employees to encourage teamwork.

“That way everyone’s equally important,” she said. “Otherwise, how do you incentivize the person that’s better at straightening up the back room? That ultimately helps sales.”

Chica, Noelle’s 5-year-old goldendoodle, welcomes customers to the shop, watching over as her owner works 60- to 100-hour weeks between the shop, a studio on Four Corners, and her nonprofit, Women Who Wine.

“I love retail,” Noelle says. “I love jewelry design. I love marketing. I happen to be doing something I really, really love.

“For the most part, people come in here with awesome intentions…That’s what makes jewelry so much different than fine art. Fine art can hang on a wall – it’s beauty in its own right. These things aren’t truly pretty until they’re on a human being. They celebrate the human form.”

Women Who Wine

In 2007, Babs Noelle started Women Who Wine, a 501(c)3 that meets monthly at a member’s home or place of employment or business. Everyone brings a bottle of wine and $10. Half the money goes to the hostess for food, and half goes to a nonprofit of her choice.

The nonprofit gets a chance to explain its mission that evening and what kind of help it needs. Meetings range from 30-60 women, Noelle says, and “basically we just all have a good time.”

In 2012, the group raised $12,000 for area nonprofits.

“It’s about getting more bodies involved in what is a pretty rich philanthropic environment we have here,” Noelle said.

To get involved, contact Women Who Wine Bozeman through Facebook.