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Marsha Brenner, leader in Chicago jewelry scene, dead at 80

Ms. Brenner was executive director of the Apparel Industry Board; she formerly owned Just Jewelry, a line that was sold in major Chicago department stores.

Marsha Brenner
Marsha Brenner began her own jewelry line, Just Jewelry, in 1978; it proved so popular it was picked up by department stores across Chicago.
Provided photo

Donna Marinosci remembers the first time she met Marsha Brenner.

Ms. Brenner came into Marinosci’s office at Tercet Tool & Die in Providence, R.I. one afternoon to order manufacturing parts for her jewelry business.

“She had a long list,” said Marinosci, then a Tercet sales representative. “She knew exactly what she wanted.”

Impressed by Marinosci, Ms. Brenner soon called to say they were going to lunch.

Thanks, Marinosci replied, but that’s not necessary.

Ms. Brenner didn’t back down: “I’m taking you to lunch. … And it will be a lengthy lunch.”

Over a tuna melt at an Italian restaurant, the two bonded despite a 15-year age difference. They laughed and cried so much the waiter, startled, offered them a complimentary pizza.

Since then, “whenever we had a bad day, we’d say to each other: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make you a beautiful pizza,’” Marinosci said.

Donna Marinosci (left) with Marsha Brenner at the Inn at Castle Hill in Castle Hill, R.I.
Donna Marinosci (left) with Marsha Brenner at the Inn at Castle Hill in Castle Hill, R.I. Ms. Brenner would keep this photo on her office desk and call Marinosci to tell her she was “looking at us.”
Provided photo

Ms. Brenner, a fixture in the Chicago fashion industry for decades, died June 16, her 80th birthday, after a long battle with lung disease.

A third-generation Chicagoan, Ms. Brenner was born Marsha Golden. She grew up in Logan Square, attending Roosevelt High School and the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, where she met Ray Brenner. In 1959, they married.

The couple moved to Highland Park in 1966 — the home Ms. Brenner lived in for the rest of her life. That was a big change; Bill Brenner, one of Ms. Brenner’s three sons, said his mother considered Highland Park “the country” — and she was always a “Chicago girl” at heart.

Bill Brenner said his mother was caring in every respect — as a mother, a wife, and a working professional.

“When you talk about women who do it all, she was doing it before it was a thing,” Brenner said.

She woke early to prepare her sons’ lunches, made sure dinner was ready for Ray after he worked late and attended all of Brenner’s high school football games.

It was Just Jewelry — Ms. Brenner’s own jewelry line, begun in 1978 — at which she earned her first professional success.

By 1990, Just Jewelry was sold in major department stores across Chicago and had $1 million in annual sales — but Ms. Brenner had bigger dreams.

She closed Just Jewelry and became resident at Apropos in January 1990; Ms. Brenner told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1991 that at Apropos, she could work with castings, epoxy and silk screening.

In 1996, Ms. Brenner left Apropos to become executive director at her friend Dorothy Fuller’s new Chicago-based nonprofit, the Apparel Industry Board, a role she held until her death.

Marsha Brenner (center) with Ambar Campos (left) and Jacqueline Johnson of the Apparel Industry Board, Inc.
Marsha Brenner (center) with Ambar Campos (left) and Jacqueline Johnson of the Apparel Industry Board, Inc.
Provided photo

Ambar Campos, who worked with Ms. Brenner at the board, said Marsha was always a realist.

“Dorothy was the dreamer,” Campos said. “Marsha was the one who made sure everything got done.”

Given the size of their organization, Campos, who worked alongside Ms. Brenner for 12 years, said they often were the only two in the office.

“She taught me everything I know,” Campos said. “She never sugar-coated anything. … One of the biggest things she taught me is that … your first ‘no’ is your best ‘no.’”

Ms. Brenner, with Marinosci’s daughters Julia and Deana.
Provided photo

Deana Oswald, Marinosci’s daughter, also learned much from Ms. Brenner.

Oswald remembers Ms. Brenner, who frequently visited Marinosci, always showed her life was bigger than any problems at hand.

“I always said to Marsha,” Oswald said, “that ‘because of you, I’m going to figure it out and make the most of the situation.’”

Oswald was by Ms. Brenner’s side in her final days at the hospital — but that’s not how she will remember her.

“She always looked so elegant,” Oswald said. “It was either [that] her hair was slicked back in this gorgeous, flawless ponytail. Or she had this wonderful like, big black hair.”

“You know, she just had this presence.”

Marsha Brenner (center) with Deana Oswald and her three sons at Max’s Deli in Highland Park in July 2018.
Marsha Brenner (center) with Deana Oswald and her three sons at Max’s Deli in Highland Park in July 2018.
Provided photo

Ms. Brenner told the Sun-Times in 1988 her favorite Christmas gift was a weekend in 1984 when her husband surprised her with a stay at the Drake, “involved in the hubbub but still separated from it.”

The two celebrated their 60th anniversary the Wednesday before she died.

Besides her husband, and her son Bill, Ms. Brenner also is survived by sons Scott and Steven; and grandchildren Madeleine, Max, Joshua, Jordan and Lily.

Services were held June 19.