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May 13, 2014

Through grief, local mom does good with unique jewelry line

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
Elizabeth Guz, of Franklin, stands with selections from her Ella Designs jewelry line. Half of all sales go toward research of bipolar disorder.

FRANKLIN — Every time Franklin resident Elizabeth Guz puts together a piece of handcrafted jewelry, she does it with her son in mind.

“Even just the process of making jewelry is very therapeutic and relaxing,” she said. “Michael is always on my mind, and it really keeps him with me.”

It was about five years ago that Guz’s son, 17-year-old Groves High School junior Michael Guz, passed away. For some time, the teen had struggled with bipolar disorder and worked hard to fight the affliction quietly, away from the prying eyes of the community.

His family, of course, was devastated. So was much of the Groves community, some of whom had known of his disorder. They all grieved, and in Michael’s memory, pulled themselves up to take action.

The Guz family established the Michael Guz Memorial Fund at the University of Michigan Depression Center. The fund supports U-M’s Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Project, which researches a genetic basis for the disorder.

Guz had been devoted to supporting the research through fundraising, and then a little over a year ago, she had a great idea. She and her daughter, Lauren, loved to make beautiful and distinctive jewelry. So they started creating it together and sold the jewelry to benefit Michael’s fund.

“It really took off. The whole idea of giving money back to bipolar research was an interesting tie-in,” said Guz. “And it really opened up to me a really big chance for conversations. I’d be at a show or a party, and I would explain that I’m giving 50 percent to Prechter, and everyone would open up about their story about bipolar with themselves, a child, a brother or sister. It’s interesting how something that was never really talked about for so long now, now people really want to talk about it.”

Bipolar disorder is described as a condition that causes manic or depressive episodes, sometimes going from very upbeat to suddenly depressed or even angry. Like many mental illnesses, bipolar disorder has been something of a taboo in years past, and many affected by the condition choose not to share their symptoms with doctors or family, and thus go untreated.

Michael and his family made sure he had the care he needed, but they also kept it pretty quiet about town. Now, Guz is glad the topic is getting more attention.

“I think in the last five years, people are really starting to talk about mental illness and the stigma. I definitely felt it was private and wanted to protect Michael. That’s a very lonely feeling,” she said. “But there’s been a shift, and people feel more comfortable talking about it and recognizing it’s a legitimate illness — nothing to be ashamed of and OK to talk about.”

That awareness and drive to find answers is what keeps Guz making jewelry. The line, Ella Designs — taken from the first two letters of her and her daughter’s names — is eclectic, ranging from stacked chains to quirky, vintage and exotic-looking pendants.

Guz prides herself on the line’s success, as well as her daughter, who’s away at the University of Michigan studying languages. She’s also pleased that she’s able to create jewelry to fit almost any price point, and still be able to give 50 percent of her sales to the Prechter project. Last year, she handed over about $25,000, all of which went toward research.

According to Wally Prechter, founder of the project, her research team is making great strides tracing bipolar disorder to genetic markers. Recently, they’ve published a paper about stem cell tests, where the team has made neurons out of skin cells from a person affected by bipolar disorder and compared them to those who don’t have the illness.

They’re in the midst of developing voice recognition technology to detect manic episodes before they strike. It’s great progress on a topic that means a lot to the project’s founder, who lost her husband, Heinz, to the disorder when the illness overcame him in 2001 and he took his own life.

“Liz is a tremendous friend to the fund and a good friend of mine,” said Prechter. “I admire her for what she does. She’s made several large donations, and we’re very grateful to her. She’s doing her part and beyond, and that’s really terrific.”

Until recently, Ella Designs could only be found at in-home jewelry parties and at art shows. While Guz still offers those options, the Guz family has now launched a website with hopes of spreading even more awareness for their cause.

“We’ll see where it goes,” she said of the business. “In five or 10 years, I would love to still be selling the jewelry if it takes off. I started this as something that’s fun for me and not stressful, so if it’s doing well, I would definitely keep doing it. I would love for it to catch on and people can buy jewelry and know they’re also helping a really great cause.”

Visit Franklin-based Ella Designs at www.EllaDesignsJewelry.com.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.