Trailblazing in a Challenging Environment: Designer Jewelry 2018

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Accessory Council President Karen Giberson rounded up an impressive panel of three trailblazing female jewelry designers for her recent panel: Trailblazing in a Challenging Environment, Designer Jewelry 2018, held as part of the Initiatives in Art and Culture event. Here, Freida Rothman of Freida Rothman, Elizabeth Suda of Article 22, and Jennifer Zeuner of Jennifer Zeuner discuss their careers and lives. 

By Lauren Parker, Contributing Editor 

 

Accessories Council: How do you juggle kids and your successful careers?  

 

Freida (4 kids): I am always multitasking. It’s amazing what women can accomplish and what we can do. Women are so, so powerful and we don’t even realize how much power we own! 

 

Elizabeth (new baby): Being an entrepreneur caused me to delay having a kid because I was spending so much time traveling to ‘build my first baby.’ I had to walk before I could run. But my challenge is to be good at saying no. You have to know your limits in order to be good at what you do say yes to. 

 

Jennifer (4 kids): When I was making all my jewelry by hand, I was staying up till 3 and 4am and was just exhausted. One night I told my husband ‘I can’t do this anymore, I can’t even see!’ My then 5-year-old overheard and got up and brought his little desk lamp over to me. Then it all clicked! I always thought the kids were suffering but no. They are proud of you and want you to succeed. It gave me an unexpected purpose. 

 

What kind of hurdles, challengers and barriers have you faced by being a woman or just in general? 

 

Freida: My biggest barrier is the mom guilt; always feeling like you’re not giving enough. There’s nothing like a mother’s love and that’s been a barrier for me. Like I should be there more for them, but to Jennifer’s point, they really are so proud of you and it keeps you going.

 

Elizabeth: I try to think about my priorities. I think ‘What if my entrepreneur pursuit failed? What would I have? What really matters?’ A business can fail but life foundation is more important. I had an a-hamoment standing in a rural Laos village on a mountaintop where they were transforming American bombs into soup spoons. It was their idea 40 years ago to transform something negative into a positive. I came back really excited, but when I talked to people in business, the idea of giving back through business felt confusing. How can you have this hybrid charity/profit motive? Sustainability in fashion seemed like oil and water, which made initial fundraising challenging. But ultimately, people were buying the jewelry so we didn’t need so much investment. It convinced me that we were on to something.

 

Jennifer: I’d say 35% of my jewelry is Made in the U.S., with the rest made in Santa Domingo, Mexico and China. I don’t think most consumers value Made in the USA and that’s been a challenge. I’ve also had a lot of male manufacturers who don’t take my negotiating seriously because I am a woman. I’ve also had manufacturers apologize to my husband for disrespecting me, and I’m still waiting for their apology. 

 

How do you use your women’s intuition in business?

 

Freida: I work with my husband and find that women have a different point of view and come with a more emotional standpoint. He always say I bring so much value to the table. He thinks more logistically but I’m more about how the staff and the customer feels. My company is 95% women, and my husband sees that as a tremendous value. But the fine jewelry industry is very much a Boy’s Club and I’ve experienced that at certain shows with our female team. We have a little shimmy we do in our company and we were annoying everyone but we’re here! We’re making noise and this is the time to do that. 

 

Elizabeth: In a way, intuition helped me launch Article 22. I had many Vietnam vets ask for bracelets in their size and it was very heartwarming moment for me. I never wanted what I did to seem disrespectful. I got letters and emails from vets who showed lots of vulnerability and thanked me and told their stories. It opened up dialogue that hadn’t necessarily been there. Goes back to the idea of trusting yourself, and listening your consumers. They’ll tell you what they want. 

 

Jennifer: Everything I do is gut driven. Creativity is gut driven. I was about to sign a contract with a partner after 14 years on my own. My gut told me not to and I walked away. 

 

Do you have advice for young women starting out in an industry that can be male dominated? 

 

Freida: Trust your gut. Be strong. Have a great product. Men will pull out a loupe to look at my jewelry, but I’ll pull a woman over. Women buy for themselves so men shouldn’t make the decision for them. 

 

Jennifer: Always be nice, kind and respectful. I deal mostly with men in manufacturing, but in fashion jewelry, a lot of the faces are female.  

 

What kind of events and mentoring do you have going on? 

 

Freida: I am mentoring women and men in starting their business. And I teach them that making mistakes are key. If I can be a mentor in people just starting out and helping them mentor to not make those mistakes, that’s great. I’m doing lots of traveling and events around the country, but it’s key to connect with your customers. 

 

Elizabeth: One of our big milestones was when Emma Watson was doing the “Beauty and the Beast” press tour and wore our earrings on the Ellen show and told the Article 22 story. It was a combination of commitment and luck. They say, ‘Luck is the meeting of preparation and opportunity.’ So now we can say Emma Watson wears our jewelry! 

 

What are the hot gift items for Holiday?

 

Jennifer: We have a huge personalized business. We sell a lot of crosses too. I had a huge cross business about 6 years ago and the celebrities are wearing them again. We’re in such a celebrity-driven culture so that pushes the trends. The Victoria Secret models just all wore my earrings in their show so we’ll be selling a lot of hoops. We’re doing personalized hoops with people’s names. 

 

Elizabeth: We’re also going down the personalized route, the idea where you can engrave your own message (in your own handwriting) on the jewelry. That really resonates. 

 

Freida: In my business model, I’m less focused on celebrities and more on my customer and what she wants. For us, I find that necklaces are the No. 1 gift item. Earrings are more personal, while rings are tricky with sizing. 

 

Which women inspire you? 

 

Jennifer: Diane Von Furstenberg, J. Lo… and my mom! She looks at everything through rose-colored glasses and is so positive. When things get disappointing, she inspires me to appreciate that rose or sunset. Take a deep breath and appreciate live. She was a little resistant when I first started because I wasn’t sleeping, but I didn’t stop. I didn’t take her advice in that case! 

 

Elizabeth: The word ‘interdisciplinary” comes to mind. I surround myself with friends of all types who enrich me. I have a friend Beatrix Ost, who looks deeply into her own principles and goes from there. And my mom. She always says, ‘When there’s a will there’s a way.’

 

Frieda: My two grandmothers are both survivors of Auschwitz but are always so positive and laughing and warm. What they went through is beyond what anyone we know have been through. But they still remain happy and positive and have so much love. 

 

How do you use omnichannel in your business? 

 

Freida: It’s my No. 1 priority for 2019. Direct-to-consumer business is where the world is going and as entrepreneurs we need to watch what’s happening. We’re all trying to build our e-commerce and it’s a new business challenge. I’m more comfortable with the direct-to-retail model, but e-commerce is essential. 

 

Elizabeth: Our business is a third wholesale, a third online and a third retail pop ups. The thread is the idea of community. The jewelry carries a certain weight as people can personalize it, and consumers bring their stories of transformation to us. Focusing online in 2019 is a top priority because of community building.

 

Jennifer: We just launched a new website and through our website we sell to China, Saudi Arabia, etc., and we offer free international shipping. We stay very competitive with all the other retailers who have millions of dollars to support their omnichannel like Nordstrom, Saks, etc.  But it’s all about making it easy to shop on our website. But it’s still important to keep those relationships with the retailers strong, as they’re marketing your brand also. We’re doing a collaboration with FabFitFun Subscription Box soon, and we’re making a million pieces for them. So now, a million people will see our pieces and come to our website to learn more. 

 

Courtney Benjamin