Mom story: I’m a top jewelry designer

Aug 16, 2012 at 11:00 a.m. ET

Erica Courtney took a jagged path from being broke in Dallas, Texas, to launching a top jewelry design business in Los Angeles, California. Finding success was a gem, but she almost lost her freedom and her only child along the way.

by Erica Courtney
as told to Julie Weingarden Dubin

Living on the lam

When I was 26 years old I kidnapped my son, Josh, then 4, after escaping an abusive marriage to his father in Louisiana. I was going through a violent and acrimonious divorce and custody battle for three and a half years and feared for my life. I was desperate and felt running away was the only choice for me at the time.

I hit rock bottom when I ran away. Knowing that I was leaving behind my mother and sister was gut-wrenching. I went from living in a penthouse to poverty. I brought one pair of plain jeans, hot rollers, clothes for Josh and two teddy bears. I had to create a new life with little money. I left behind my real name and had to be reborn into a person I didn’t know. I made her up as I went along.

Luckily, my mom sent me money wherever I ended up. It was tricky finding new ways for her to send me money because she knew she was being watched by the police. Even with her help, money was always tight when I was on the run. I remember having to eat potato soup all day — for days — so that I could buy Josh a hot dog.

I constantly missed my family back home. I felt very alone. It was difficult seeing Josh’s picture on milk cartons for missing children, at the post office and even at Denny’s. I can remember for the first two years away, I cried every single day. Then one day I realized that by crying I was allowing my ex-husband to continue to rule my emotions and life, so from then on I decided not to cry anymore. I changed Josh’s identity to keep him under the radar. I used a different name and had a fake social security number and birth certificate for him, so I was able to enroll him in school.

A bejeweled new life

We lived in Dallas in an efficiency apartment with a Murphy bed when I started my jewelry business. While in hiding, I was at home a lot. One day I was feeling creative, so I started gluing jewels and Swarovski crystals to my sunglasses. I wore them out and got tons of compliments and was asked where they could buy them. From that moment on, I started selling these sunglasses and even sold watches with the same design. I felt a great sense of self-achievement.

In 1989 Josh and I moved to Los Angeles and the business flourished. My jewelry was used in commercials and other productions and then costume designers and stylists started requesting my designs for celebrities. I think the moment I realized I had “made it” in the industry was when one of the hottest stylists in Los Angeles told me Calista Flockhart had chosen to wear my jewelry over Harry Winston to the Academy Awards. I love being in the jewelry business because I love making people happy. There’s so much sentimental value in jewelry and my designs are very personal.

Fugitive found

In 1992 after eight and a half years as a fugitive, the cops arrested me when I was in New York for a jewelry show. (I had fired my bookkeeper because she was embezzling money and she turned me in.) I was sentenced to two years’ probation. I avoided jail time because my ex-husband knew the judge and requested no jail time. I guess it was an act of kindness toward his son’s mother.

After I got caught by the FBI, I lost custody but was granted supervised visitations. Josh went back to his real name after he was taken away from me. I didn’t connect or relate to my old name — it just wasn’t who I was anymore, so I decided to keep my fake name. Josh lived with his father until he was 16, and then got himself kicked out of his dad's house on purpose. Josh called me and we were finally reunited.

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I know I’ve taught my son how certain wrong actions can cause tremendous pain to other people. Fortunately, Josh and I are very close and he is now happily married with a beautiful young daughter.

It’s hard to believe that I once struggled to feed my son and now I head a Los Angeles jewelry company and sell my jewels on QVC. I’m thrilled about my latest launch — a collection of diamonique and real colored gemstone designs for QVC, but I’ll never forget that motherhood showed me how fearless I could be.

Having a child changes the meaning of life. Motherhood’s taught me how profound love is. I don’t think I truly knew what love was until I had my son.

Mom wisdom

Tomorrow is another day. Whispering that to myself during the rough times helped me feel better, have blind faith and look ahead.

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