Invitation to fame

Whitinsville’s Thomas counts movie stars among clients of her one-of-a-kind creations
By Pamela H.  Sacks

NORTHBRIDGE — Maria Thomas rubbed a little powder on her right hand and picked up a small paintbrush.

Her long, auburn hair falling over her shoulders, she made a few deft strokes across a sample wedding invitation. Within seconds, she had created a delicate long-stemmed rose bud.

The rose, Ms. Thomas said, is the most popular of several flowers that grace her luxurious invitations, made all the more distinctive by her skill at a type of swirly, spidery script known as vintage Spencerian lettering.

Over the past quarter-century, Ms. Thomas has built a successful business around her artistry with lettering and watercolors by producing the sort of one-of-a-kind invitations that suit the tastes and the pocketbooks of the upper crust.

After signing a multipage confidentiality agreement, Ms. Thomas, who lives and works in a sprawling Victorian house in Whitinsville, made the invitations for the posh November 2000 wedding of actors Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. When the invitations went out, the press quickly got a hold of one, and a photograph of it soon appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world.

Those who knew Ms. Thomas’s work recognized it immediately.

“My girlfriend in England called me and said, `Did you do Catherine Zeta-Jones’s invitation?” she recalled.

Along the way, Ms. Thomas also has designed decorative papers, wrapping papers and greeting cards. She creates custom-ordered testimonials, awards and commemoratives for anniversaries and birthdays, all lettered in Spencerian script and hand-painted with flowers, birds and whimsical designs.

“No one gets to tell me what to do,” she said with a laugh. “They get the finished product.”

Ms. Thomas is frank in acknowledging the joy she takes in her work. She seems congenitally chipper and appears far younger than her 51 years.

“My mantra is, `Life is good,’ ” she said, smiling brightly.

Indeed, Ms. Thomas enjoys lettering and drawing so much that she is branching out in a new direction. She paints classical botanical flowers on goat skin and has them reproduced on fine rag paper. Each customer can choose a personalized message, which she writes in Spencerian script on the print.

“It becomes one of a kind,” she said.

There’s little question Ms. Thomas’s sumptuous invitations are her bread and butter — and, right now, her claim to fame.

Ms. Thomas said she loved painting and lettering from the time she was growing up in Northbridge. She formed her own company soon after the youngest of her three children, Molly, was born. She remembered mulling over what she should call the business.

“I wanted something that didn’t say, `Woman in Business,’ or `Maria’s Calligraphy,’ ” she said.

She settled on Pendragon Ink Ltd. Initially, she specialized in wedding invitations in typical calligraphy — heavy Celtic stuff, as she described it.

Her first big break came when the magazine section of the Boston Sunday Globe ran a short article about her. Word spread and her business gradually grew. Over the years, she has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Victoria Magazine and Bride Magazine.

Around 1990, Ms. Thomas attended a demonstration of Spencerian lettering by an artist from Kansas City, Kan., named Michael Sull.

“The first time I saw it I said, `Oh my God.’ It was like seeing in black and white and then everything going technicolor,” she said.

Mr. Sull followed up with an intensive, weeklong seminar in Ohio, where the creator of the ornamental script, Platt Roger Spencer, was born. Spencerian lettering, the only American calligraphy font, was popular during “the golden age of penmanship,” from 1850 to 1925, and now is considered an art form.

Ms. Thomas caught on quickly.

“I was hooked,” she said. “My passion is this script.”

The trademarks of her invitations soon became Spencerian script with hand-painted flowers. After doing the lettering on an invitation, she has it reproduced by offset printing on thick paper stock of the customer’s choosing. Four employees help her paint the flowers.

Pendragon invitations generally retail for from $10 to $30 apiece, but they can cost a good deal more. Ms. Thomas has created several with price tags in the $100 range. Those interested can inquire about ordering by calling the studio at (508) 234-6843.

Ms. Thomas recalled an order for a birthday bash in London that totaled $100,000. The hostess, a Texan married to a Saudi Arabian, was throwing the party for her father, who was turning 80, and her son, who was turning 21.

The hostess came to Massachusetts twice to consult with Ms. Thomas in person, and settled on invitations encased in glass and set into a cigar box lined with decorative paper and scented with rose water. Each was hand delivered in a black satin box.

Ms. Thomas was flown to England to make last-minute place cards for the gala, which was held at Cliveden, a castle about a half-hour’s drive outside of London.

“Everything, everything was over the top — the flowers, the orchestra,” Ms. Thomas said. “We thought, `How could anyone spend that on invitations?’ We found out they spent twice as much on chocolates.”

Pendragon fills between 500 and 600 orders a year for invitations to weddings, showers, birthday and anniversary parties, Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs. The busiest times are winter and early spring, when Ms. Thomas and her crew often have 50 or 60 jobs in various stages of completion.

Her samples are available at 70 locations across the United States, and in London and Puerto Rico.

“We’re very picky. They have to be high-end shops,” Ms. Thomas said.

Nonetheless, some people see her work and want it no matter whether they can afford it.

“There is something magical about Maria’s work,” said Rachel Yohai, who owns Rae Michaels Ltd., a custom-invitation business in Manhattan. “She has a hand so light and delicate. People try to copy it, but they can’t. Customers ask if we have anything similar that’s less expensive. There’s nothing to compare to it.”

Reducing the price of the invitations is not an option, Ms. Thomas said. Production involves 25 steps; if each one isn’t perfect, it’s a no-go.

“With this, everyone expects perfection,” she said.

It was Ms. Yohai who took the order from Ms. Zeta-Jones and Mr. Douglas. At first, Ms. Thomas was told only that the invitations were for “a high-profile couple,” and she was given fake names to use for her mock-up. She and her staff correctly guessed who the customers were.

Ms. Thomas was not surprised when the famous twosome added a couple of extras. Their invitations were engraved and printed on extra-heavy Crane paper stock with gold edging. They chose the red rose for decoration.

Ms. Thomas has a theory that to create beautiful things one must work in a congenial and aesthetically pleasing environment. She seems to succeed with both.

Persian carpets cover the floors of the six-room studio, and her framed artwork decorates the walls. The furniture is old and in keeping with the house, which was built in 1877. Rolls of satin and silk ribbons in purples, greens and golds are scattered across work tables; paintbrushes and pens stand in blue and white china cups.

Her employees all are relatives or good friends. Every morning at 10:30, they stop work and have tea.

Ms. Thomas personally trained her painters, who include her elder daughter, Martha Huggins, who lives in Newport, R.I., and works from home.

Ms. Thomas noticed the graceful hand movements of her house cleaner, Nancy Tibbetts, and taught her to paint. Nancy Sampson, who helps with orders and shipping, said it took her a year and a half to learn to paint the flowers.

Ms. Thomas’ sister, Suzanne Benedetto, is in charge of quality control. One day last week, she sat at a work table tying champagne-colored bows on wedding invitations.

“Once in a while we’re asked to assemble the invitations,” Ms. Thomas explained. “It’s $3 or $4 a piece.”

Maxine Wheelock paints and manages the studio, while Bruce Carr, Ms. Thomas’ boyfriend, “does everything we don’t do, from shipping to delivery,” she said.

Ms. Thomas said the smartest thing she did in creating a successful business was to train people, trust them and then give up control.

“I’ve done OK,” she said, wide smile crossing her face. “I’m not a millionaire, but I’m able to support myself.”