ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Lilly Barrack has made a name for herself as a jewelry designer, yet there are no rings on her fingers, no silver or gemstones hanging from her neck.
In fact, the president and creative force behind the Lilly Barrack line wears no jewelry at all.
Barrack always has shied away from the spotlight – one she remembers burning especially brightly when she was in the company of her sister and fellow Albuquerque jewelry designer, the late Gertrude Zachary.
“Whenever I’d go (out) with my sister, everyone would (say), ‘Oooh. Oooh.’ And when I would wear jewelry, (they’d say), ‘Oooh. Oooh,'” Barrack says when explaining her aversion to donning the rings and bracelets she’s known for. “It was uncomfortable for me to have people come and compliment me.”
Barrack’s low-key persona matches her low-maintenance lifestyle.
Born in Germany but raised in the midwestern U.S., she likes things simple.
In contrast to her sister – who built a castlelike residence near Downtown and filled it with treasures – Barrack lives on a seven-acre parcel off Rio Grande Boulevard.
Her home, made of cement, contains little.
“The other day my youngest said, ‘Mom, we have three towels. Do you think we can get some more?’ I said, ‘No, we don’t need more than three towels,'” she says with a laugh.
Barrack’s oldest daughter used to tell visiting friends that the limited amount of furniture in the family home was part of a “redecorating project.”
Barrack’s wardrobe is similarly plain. She says she owns just two outfits. Both of them are black.
“My grandkids always say, ‘Oma, don’t you want to put another dress on today?’ And I say, ‘This is my other dress, and it looks just like the one yesterday,'” she says.
Barrack was raised with a waste-not, want-not mentality.
She was just 2 when she, her brother, her sister and their engineer father and homemaker mother moved to the U.S. from Germany after World War II. Although her father worked for Mercedes-Benz, the children learned to take nothing for granted.
“We were raised to be thankful you have food in front of you,” she recalls.
In addition to an appreciative nature, Barrack says her parents also taught her to love art.
A young Barrack preferred to sculpt, paint or draw than do just about anything else.
“It was always art. We always went to the art museums,” she says. “My whole life, everything I felt good about was in art. English and that stuff, no. Math, no.”
Growing up in Michigan and Ohio, Barrack was so painfully shy that she often skipped school, preferring instead to stay home in the company of her mother.
“(She’d say) ‘That’s fine. You just come stay home with me today,” Barrack recalls with a laugh. “I think that’s how they felt, too – they couldn’t push me out into the world.”
Ironically, Barrack wound up spending most of her young adulthood exploring foreign lands.
Her first husband – a fellow art lover she met while attending Trinity University in Texas – was an international banker, and he whisked Barrack off to live in Nigeria, Liberia, Greece and Italy. She spent about 10 years overseas, raising a young family.
She says she never contemplated a career – not while she was growing up, not when she was going to college and not even as an adult.
In fact, it wasn’t until she and her husband parted ways and she moved to New Mexico – where her sister already had settled – that Barrack got her first job.
She was already in her 40s at the time.
Zachary hired Barrack to do bookkeeping for her jewelry company, but it was the wrong fit. Barrack began helping with the design process, and, at the urging of her second husband, branched out on her own in the late 1980s.
She remembers being thrilled to make $1,000 her first month.
Today, her jewelry is sold in stores throughout the U.S. and in three eponymous boutiques in Albuquerque. Though she considers herself retired, she still handles much of the jewelry design and maintains a presence at the company’s manufacturing facility.
But less work means she has more time for herself, time she often spends quietly sitting.
Barrack appreciates stillness.
“It is kind of meditative, where things go through your head and you’re just quietly sitting there,” she says.
Q: How much time do you spend designing today?
A: It’s difficult to say. … whenever the inspiration comes. I run in and I grab the silver, take it to the silversmith. Now, mind you, I could not make a piece of jewelry myself. I mean, I know what I want (to make), know the design, but if you sat me down with one of those acetylene torches, I would say, “How do I turn it on?” I go to the silversmith and say, “OK, please, this is what I want. This is the feel I want.” (Or) “No, you didn’t quite get it. Let’s try it again.”
Q: How do you think all your traveling impacted design aesthetic?
A: I’m sure (it made it) more natural. Their lives are not so confusing as our lives, where there’s this, this and more and more. We used to go to the (American) stores and say, “We’re going into the ‘more-more stores.”‘ There’s so much, whereas in the jewelry, I narrowed down to simplicity – just plain. I think the jewelry is very simple – very simple, very direct – and what does always amaze me to no end is the way an older woman can wear the jewelry, a young girl can wear the jewelry, in the middle they can wear it.
Q: Do you have any other artistic outlets? Do you still paint and sculpt? What do you do creatively?
A: Sit. You know, that’s what I tried to get through to my sister: “Can you sit here and look at the trees, look at the stars?” She’d look at me like “You’re crazy!” (laughs)
Q: In what ways were you and your sister, Gertrude Zachary, alike?
A: Money-wise. (It’s) how we’ve accomplished what we did. We were always careful with money. It was never a play thing.
Q: What is the best compliment anyone has ever given you?
A: “I can’t live without my Lilly Barack.” (I’ve heard that) several times, several times. Every time I hear it, it’s, like, “Are you joking?”
Q: What are your pet peeves?
A: I guess my pet peeve is when I see people abusing things and not respecting things. That would be my pet peeve that annoys me to no end, when they just abuse something. (Something) as simple as napkins. They give you 50 napkins (at the restaurant). I don’t need 50. Give me one. To waste – I do not like waste.