She Has Always Been Drawn To One-of-a-Kind Jewelry, With Each Piece Having Its Own Story. Globally Inspired, Meet Jewelry Designer, Poppy Zurcher
Poppy takes pride in her Jewelry Shows as well as with her Speaking Engagements. She’s a Seven-time cancer survivor, her motivational speeches are of Hope, Courage, and sharing ways to Focus away from health challenges.
Q: So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
PZ: I was born in Greece, to a very poor fisherman and his wife. The youngest of eight. I was a sickly baby, but there was no money, so I was never seen by a Doctor. By the time I was 18 months old, a large sore appeared on my knee and our church collected money to send me to Children’s Hospital in Athens, for evaluation. It was determined I had Juvenile Sarcoma and the recommendation was to amputate my leg. My father would not allow it saying I came into the world with two legs and I would leave it with two. I underwent several surgeries over my young years to basically remove affected bone … since there was no money, there were no treatments.
I remember the pain just as well as being referred to as the “little crippled girl.” I felt like my Papa was my only friend. When the pain would be severe, he decided to teach me how to bake bread at the young age of five. He knew I would do anything for him, so he used to have me believe I was helping him bake bread he sold as a side job. I remember his calloused hands holding my tearstained face, as he told me, “today, I will teach you how to make bread. We will sell your bread and people will no longer call you the little crippled girl. Instead you will be little Poppy, who makes the best bread in town.” He succeeded in two very important ways: People did begin calling me by my name but most importantly, it was not bread he was teaching me to make … he was teaching me to focus away from my pain, and it worked. A lesson that still helps me today!
Then, an American couple from the US, while visiting Greece and their good friends, for whom I worked for at the age of seven, heard about my family and my predicament with my leg and decided to help me. The only thing they could do, after six years of trying to work with both the US and the Greek government, was to legally adopt me. They brought me to America to get me the appropriate medical care, as well as give me a better future. This was an act of love and sacrifice, both by them and by my biological parents. They were great people and made sure that my biological family and I stayed connected. So much so, that when I was married, they surprised me and brought my parents to the States to be a part of my wedding.
Moving to America was not easy for me. I spoke no English and my adopted parents spoke no Greek, so we initially began our life together using Greek/American dictionaries to communicate. I had been taught to never cry in front of people because it would show weakness. So, I wore my God given smile at all times, with God in my prayers every night, as my pillow encountered my tears.
Papa had told my adopted parents to make sure they kept me busy when I was in a lot of pain. It wasn’t till months later after surgeries and treatments for my leg, at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, that I could no longer hide all my tears, and they brought their friend to meet me. His name was Mr. Lang, he was a teacher they hired to be my English teacher. Some days we worked for 30 minutes, and others as much as two hours. He was a kind, patient and gentle man and I liked working with him. I came to the states in February of the following October and I went to school, speaking English and feeling good about myself.
Q. Was it a smooth road?
PZ: Absolutely not! I constantly remembered my Papa’s advice, each time there was a bump on my road and it always brought me through my challenges. He did not believe in “I can’t” and “what ifs.” He did not believe in looking back … only ahead and he strongly instilled in me that I would succeed in life as long as I remembered to help enough other people to succeed with their dreams. I remember him saying: It’s your “attitude that will determine your life’s success, not your abilities to get things done.” “Show people who you are by your actions and not your words and don’t let barriers stop your dreams.”
I was only 20 years old when I got married to my handsome 2nd Lt. in the US Army, Bob Zurcher. We moved to our first Military Post together and I kept very busy as a substitute language teacher. Mid-year, a full time position became available but would not be given to me, because even though they found me qualified, I was not allowed to sign a contract since I was not 21. A flood of emotions came over me and then I could hear Papa saying “don’t let barriers stop you” I went back to the school and told the Principal that my 2nd Lt. husband, was three years older than me ... would they allow him to sign my contract?” They agreed and I received my job.
Each time my health interfered with my life, God, my husband, and wonderful Doctors across this wonderful country, helped me through it all. The only thing I believe I did that helped me emotionally, is to focus away from the stress and pain of it all but being busy. A friend had come to visit and was wearing a lovely necklace. I asked to get a closer look at it and returned it to her. The next day I asked my husband if he’d get me some acrylic beads and thin jewelry wire. He did, and I began “crocheting the wire and beads together, into beautiful necklaces! Such great fun and even better therapy. I decided to sell it, word of mouth, and give the proceeds to Cancer Action. Eight years ago, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy. A few short months later, I lost feeling in my right hand. I was devastated and was going to keep it myself, not wanting to worry my husband or having to see yet another Doctor. But I couldn’t hide it. One night, I came up with an idea. I whispered to my husband “honey are you awake?”
Concerned that something was wrong, he sat up quickly and I assured him there was nothing wrong, but I wanted a favor. He looked at me strangely. I said, not now, but in case I forget, in the morning, would you please go to either Kmart or Walmart and buy me either assorted buttons or plastic beads that I could thread, as my own physical therapy for my hand? I remember him interrupting me halfway into my favor request and saying, and we’re talking about this at 3:10 in the morning? It took me nearly five weeks, but I mastered threading and re-threading my little plastic baseball and football beads … bottom line I got my fingers to work again!
Q: Tell us about Poppy’s Jewelry and some of the custom redesigns you do.
PZ: Our daughter was visiting from CA, and before leaving to return to her home, she gave me a bag of some costume beads and wire and said to me “here Mom, make something for yourself.” I remember looking at her and forgetting for a moment, my Papa’s advice, I said “I can’t do that”, I don’t know how.” Quickly she replied, “what is this … my Mom would find a way!” Well I played and played with them and after several days, I succeeded in making a lovely necklace. It was so lovely I wore to one of my appointments, and my Doctor bought it off my neck to give to his wife for their anniversary! I was on top of the world with pride.
My husband encouraged my pride by taking me to buy more and more beads, and I would make more and more necklaces and earrings that people would literally buy off my neck. I decided to try and sell them in mini trunk shows. People liked them and bought them and began to place orders with me. I chose to only make pieces I would love for myself and only make one of a kind. I then decided to play with my ideas and make both necklaces and earrings asymmetrical because I liked that look … well, so did my customers! The look and design of my work sold and continues to sell itself. What began as my therapy and later, but only for a very short time, my hobby, has turned in to a wonderful and prosperous business.
About a year later, while leaving our church one Sunday, a dear friend handed me a small brown bag and said, “take these and maybe you can make something with them.” I looked at them and they were these beautiful, assorted sized pearls. I called her as soon as we got home and said I could not take them without paying her because they were real pearls. She convinced me to keep them and added “I’d love to see what you do with them.” Four days later I had designed a gorgeous necklace and earrings with them. One night I posted them on Facebook getting a feeler about what my friends thought of the set. The first to respond was my lady friend who’d given the beads to me. She wrote “I LOVE THEM AND I AM BUYING THEM FROM YOU!” She would wear them and tell her friends about them and me.
More and more people began calling me to see if I could make something out of an Aunts old, broken bracelet or Grandma’s not so pretty, but special necklace. The rest is now history as I continue to design and redesign beautiful pieces.
Q: Did you know growing up you would be a Jewelry Designer?
PZ: Most definitely not! I was good at languages so I knew I would pursue a career as a multilinguist teacher, interpreter, or businesswoman. I knew I loved cooking, baking pastries and breads, crocheting, tatting, and embroidering as I found great joy in doing all of it. My adopted parents introduced me to pretty jewelry and my wonderful husband continues to lovingly spoil me by giving me beautiful and unique jewelry, like he knows I love. So, when I began playing at making my early pieces, I only tried to make unique ones, just like I love to wear. It personally worked for me and it seems to be what my clients also love and look for!
Q: How many shows do you usually do a year?
PZ: Before COVID, I would do two or three major shows at Convention Centers and Club Houses. At least two Trunk shows in lovely Boutiques, and four to six private shows for book clubs, alumni gatherings; neighborhood HOA gatherings and smaller scale shows as part of my speaking engagements.
Schools and Hospitals also invited me to speak and bring my jewelry along to show one of my ways of focusing away. Since COVID, 95% of my sales have been through my website, both nationally and internationally.
Q: Were there moments in your career that were pivotal to getting where you are today?
PZ: Yes, I am grateful to say, there have been many. It began with a prominent businessman in our community who liked the first necklace I made for myself and asked where I purchased it. He wanted to buy one like it for his wife for their anniversary. I told him I made it and tried giving it to him for her. He would not accept it as a gift and insisted on buying it. I wanted to gift it to him, so I said, “ok, please give me a dollar and we’ll consider it a sale.” He paid me $ 100.00 for it, saying “keep doing what you are doing, you are very good at it!”
In a short period of time, in a series of public gatherings, strangers would complement what jewelry I was wearing. When I would proudly share that I had designed and made it, their next question was “where can we buy it, do you have a store?” I am still approached with the same comments and questions today and it pleases me to share my website with them and sooner than later welcome them into my circle of clients.
Q: What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
PZ: I have many satisfying moments. Those that especially stick out are pieces I design and make for wedding parties and have been given the go ahead to do “my” thing and surprise them! Since I do not make more than one of a kind pieces, for weddings, I have incorporated the bride’s birthstone somewhere on each piece that I make. When there is something special the bride loves and the mother has told me without her knowing, such as starfish, moon, rainbows, and dolphins to name just a few. I will contact my vendors and find exactly what that special something is, buy it and incorporated it into each piece. The surprise and tears of joy are a huge reward for me.
Q: You also do speak engagements. Can you share with us some of the topics your motivation speeches cover?
PZ: Being a survivor of multiple health issues, some in remission and others ongoing, I am always asked both by physicians and friends “how do I stay positive and happy?” The answer that immediately comes to mind is “my strong faith in God” and because of all the daily blessings I am given, my attitude is gratitude!
I don’t believe in why and what if. My choice is once the initial shock is over, be hugged by my husband and together we sit to plan the next move. Finding the best Doctor needed, always getting a second opinion, and aggressively taking care of business. We’ve learned that Cancer and other serious diseases, are only words, and I work hard by following my doctor’s orders to insure they don’t become my sentence. So, I encourage people to be proactive in their health care and seek the proper medical care for them. I tell them not to sit back and think about their choices over weeks and months.
I share my success stories of HOPE and staying positive even at my most difficult times. I share what I have done that’s helped me. I encourage them to call me if they need to talk. I work at caring rather than curing those hurting. We are each different and so are the different health issues that challenge our lives, and I choose to avoid medical advice unless it’s given to me by my own Doctor or Specialist.
I share my Papa’s gift of focusing away from pain and find things that will help each of them do that successfully. I share what helps me persevere through the most difficult times and have them choose if, and what they could do that will also help them. I believe that we are all blessed so we can bless others, and I share some of the ways I do this, even during my most difficult times. People I reach out to are so thankful and grateful, and in turn I feel so very rewarded because of them! I let my Doctors worry about how to care for me and I choose to care for others whether by phone or frequent notes.
Q: What’s one lesson you’ve learned in your career that you can share with our audience?
PZ: Be true to myself and to my skill. Don’t try to please everyone every time. I would rather stick to what I love and do well, one piece at a time, rather than improvise to copy or make pieces my heart is not into.
Q: What advice would you give to young women who want to purse their dream and start a business?
PZ: Most certainly “go for it!” One of my all-time favorite Authors wrote, and I quote: “You don’t have to be great at something to start, but you have to start to be great at something.”
I say what I believe, and that is failure is an event, not a person, so go out and pursue your dream and do not let others dictate your abilities or inabilities. It’s hard work and not always how we hoped it would be, but when you love what you are doing, it shines through and makes you the winner!
Five things about Poppy
1. If you could talk to one famous person past or present, who would it be and why?
I have always loved Helen Keller’s story. I would love to have met her and to learn firsthand, how she gained her inner strength and determination that got her to earn a bachelor’s degree, and do so as the first person who was deaf and blind, since her toddler years.
2. Is there anything you wished would come back into fashion?
Oh, that’s easy … Manners and classy elegance.
3. What's your favorite family recipe?
I have many, since I have been cooking since I was seven years old and love every moment of it, but if I must narrow it down, I must choose two. One from my Greek childhood and one since coming to the US. The Greek recipe would have to be “Stifado” (a wonderful stew). The American one would have to be my adopted Mom’s “Lasagna”.
4. Favorite dessert?
I love all kinds of fruit pies and tarts, but my favorite desserts are Greek one “Loukoumades” honey puffs!! American one Rum Bread Pudding.
5. Who is your favorite Author?
Without a doubt, I always enjoy and love reading anything by Zig Ziglar.