Follow Your Dreams
ON GIANT SHOULDERS
Daughter of Joseph Distefano (“Joey D. from the Bronx”)
My studio is like a second home, a place where I can relax, listen to good music, and get lost in my work. Scattered amongst the art supplies and jeweler’s tools, I keep family photos, newspaper clippings, letters and notes that remind me of my dad and how he has helped me to follow my dreams and become a jeweler.
My father grew up in the Bronx. He was one of New York’s Strongest, a worker for the New York City Department of Sanitation. He called himself a “Debris Disposal Technician,” and this self-appointed title still makes me smile. In the 1970s, I learned more about landfills than a typical ten-year-old. NYC’s Sanitation Department is a leader in environmentalism and a decade before the recycling laws were put in place, I was I learning how to “put litter in its place.” My father taught me how to pack and separate trash so that it wouldn’t inadvertently injure a Department worker. Dad lifted heavy loads and faced many dangers to keep the streets clean, healthy and safe. I remember thinking that without him, the city would be a mess (no pun intended).
It wasn’t just my father’s work ethic that left a lasting impression on me; my dad had a striking sense of style. His 1970s wardrobe included any version of thick black framed glasses, wire framed sunglasses, dungarees or slacks, a lapeled leather jacket and a shimmery floral shirt or black turtleneck. His style was the added spice to his wavy, dark hair and remarkable good looks.
Although my parents separated when I was eight, my brother, sister and I looked forward to our dad’s weekly visits, each filled with much talk, laughter and adventure. These were wonderful times together. My mother understood how important a father is to his children and encouraged and supported our relationship in every way that she could.
His weekly visits were filled with surprises. He’d pull into our driveway, open the car trunk, and start sorting through boxes filled with discoveries that he collected from the job. “Mongo” is what they called these barely used treasures confiscated from the trash. Among my favorites were a book on Vatican art, sleek portfolios on how to draw cartoons, an art easel and puppets. I loved to draw, and as soon as Dad realized that, he’d look for more findings to cultivate my interest in art.
I will always remember the day my dad came with a large assortment of vintage costume jewelry. I loved looking at these old pieces, admiring the beautiful colors, taking things apart and putting them back together again. Dad was so delighted with my fascination that he continued to seek out more and several times came up lucky. I think that’s when I really discovered jewelry, although I had no idea that it would become my true passion and life’s work. I still have these pieces in my studio, and the collection continues to inspire me today.
As a kid, I often played alone in my “clubhouse,” a corner of the garage that I created as my very first art studio. There, I especially loved drawing, constructing and sifting through the books my dad had brought me. I also loved decorating the clubhouse. I remember taking the pull tabs from old soda cans, weaving them into long chains, and draping them along the walls. Those chains were the inspiration for the Idol chain that I designed and continue to handcraft today. I spent hours in my clubhouse, imagining, creating, dreaming and playing with the bounty my dad brought; things that were more precious because they came from him.
My jewelry studio today is really an extension of that little corner of my childhood garage. Once just a dream, my dad helped me to make my life as a jeweler a reality. When I was setting up my current atelier, he was there, lending a hand, helping to assemble things and supporting me in any way he could. His enthusiasm for my work today continues to bring me into reflection on how it all began.
Above my workbench, there’s a beautiful old photograph of my dad’s parents, a symbol of our Italian heritage and the longstanding tradition of hard work that our family has embraced for decades. Next to it, there’s a small scrap of paper tacked to the wall with a quotation from Yogi Berra that reflects a little pearl of wisdom that I learned from my dad and baseball: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” My dad’s passion has always been baseball and through him, baseball has become a metaphor for many of life’s lessons. “Donna, it ain’t over till it’s over,” he’d say. Or “Hustle, hustle, hustle” words that I’ve come to understand more meaningfully as a small business owner.
Throughout my life, Dad has brought me Catholic medals, and I kept each of them. My collection grew so large that I attached them to a seven-foot garland of hand wrought fine silver chain links which I call Ever More Saints. In 2018, in celebration of The Met’s Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibition, my piece went on loan to The Met Store’s Special Exhibition gift shop. I was the official jeweler for the duration of the Exhibition. My dad’s expression when he saw Ever More Saints sparkling behind glass moved me. His words weren’t the expected “Congratulations! I’m so proud of you.” Instead I smiled as he said, “How are we going to keep this gig going?” overwhelmed by the idea that he might have to find more.
My dad always made it clear that he believed in me. He encouraged me to be true to myself and follow my dreams. That’s my dad: a real gem.
Distefano is a retired worker for the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY). Prior to his career with DSNY, Joseph worked for the Journal of Commerce Maritime Department for ten years reporting on ships’ arrivals and departures. The son of Sicilian immigrants, he was born in the Bronx, New York. He was drafted into the US Navy in 1956. “Joey D” is the self-proclaimed “greatest fan” of his hometown team, the New York Yankees. With his first wife Virginia Picarazzi, he has three children, Nancy, Donna & Joseph Jr. Married to Marie Distefano since 1979, he is now retired and lives in Brewster, NY.
Donna Distefano Thomas, a native New Yorker, founded her own jewelry company in 1994. She has created collections for the Whitney, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C. Distefano’s creations have been featured in leading publications and red carpet events including The Academy Awards and The Met Gala. Her designs are worn by celebrities including Johnny Depp, Marilyn Manson, and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. Her collaboration with Aerosmith, Aerosmith x Donna Distefano launched in May of 2020. Donna resides in Manhattan with her husband, Sean Younger Thomas.
On Giant Shoulders… A Daughter Can See Clearly
- Setting Clear Limits and Providing a Moral Code (submit your story here)
- Spirituality and Religion (Ingrid Peart)
- Standing Up for Your Beliefs (Dominique Sharpton)
- The Importance of Humility (Kathryn Ho)
- Lasting Values Over Materialism (Nan Nicklaus O’Leary)
- Helping Others (Helen Rafferty)
- Failure…and Learning from Mistakes (submit your story here)
- Value of Hard Work (Stephanie Staubach Phillips)
- Mindfulness (Carmela Cipriani)