Interview with Lisa Jenks: Home Again in Jewelry

Back from a three-year hiatus, a longtime jewelry designer brings with her some new and familiar styles.

By the time Lisa Jenks marked her 15th year in jewelry in
2002, her business was booming: She had 30 employees, more than 100 accounts,
and her own production house in New York. At the same time, however, the
business was changing in a way that Jenks didn’t like. Department store demands
had reached critical mass—the designer was mandated to employ one full-time
salesperson in a major store’s flagship location—and Jenks’s time became
swallowed up by managerial duties and collections, leaving little time for her
true passion: design. So she scaled down the business dramatically, closing up
shop completely from 2006 to 2008.

“I just needed a change,” she told JCK last winter during
the globalDESIGN show within the Buyers Market of American Craft in
Philadelphia.

Now, a little over a year after returning to the industry,
Jenks opened up to JCK in a second interview, explaining why she took a
three-year break from her successful jewelry design business and what compelled
her to return.

JCK: What did you do during your break from jewelry design?

Lisa Jenks: I designed picture frames, vases, wrapping
paper, and flatware. I had a lot of licenses, like designing flatware for
Lifetime Brands, and packaging, gift items, and cosmetic bags for Estee
Lauder’s Origins. I also designed linens for a license, but it didn’t evolve
into a finished collection. I did three years of pure design and I loved it. It
was really good for me in terms of flexing my design muscle.

JCK: What are you doing differently this time around?

LJ: I used to produce two to three big collections—70
pieces—a year, but now I create smaller collections with fewer pieces at a
time. I’m like an athlete preparing for competition! I’m creating smaller
collections more often—perhaps six a year, containing 45 pieces per launch. I’m
seeing what feels right, and going with the flow.

Sterling silver is in a different place—it’s more happening
now. There is more of it in fashion, and it’s taken more seriously by those who
once only looked at gold. Now I get to make what I like, and it sells!

I’m also running the office very differently; it’s much more
organic. I have a bookkeeper and part-time production helper, and I work with
manufacturers to make the jewelry. The only thing that is challenging is the
amount of time I have; I’m doing this all by myself. I really like working, but
it gets a little overwhelming at times.

JCK: How many clients do have now?

LJ: I have about 30, all former clients. They’ve been
keeping me busy!

JCK: Has your signature style changed at all?

LJ: No, it’s still what we used to call “modern primitive”
because it’s a combination of a lot of ancient influences—Mayan hieroglyphics
from the Yucatan inspired the Mesmer earrings—and ones from the mid-century to
the turn-of-the-last century (the Vienna earrings are inspired by art nouveau
details found in some subway stations), all mixed up.

JCK: What designs are you selling now?

LJ: I’m getting a lot of requests for older pieces, so I’m
offering 40 pieces—all from previous collections—in what I now call my
Signature collection. They are all sterling silver and start at $150 and go up
to $1,500 retail. My Bumba bracelet is in that collection; it’s patterned beads
on a chain. I’ve also modernized one of the first pieces—the Amulet pendant—I
ever made by making into an independent pendant; you buy the pendant, and it
comes with an oversize spring ring that you put on any necklace I sell or any
necklace you own. The first version was a just a pendant on a leather cord.

JCK: What are some of your best-selling pieces right now?

LJ: More people are responding to the Riptide bracelet than
I thought; people are getting it, and it makes me so happy! The Riptide
bracelet is pretty out there—it’s cast links on a chain, and the way they fit
together and the way the whole thing moves … it’s an extreme piece, but
interesting construction-wise. It retails for $995.

The Jumble necklace is also selling well. It’s adjustable,
works with a pendant and can be converted into a Y necklace. It’s $995.

Then I have all of these etched earrings that are doing
really well. They are lightweight hoops in different sizes and wild patterns.
There are eight patterns total, ranging in price from $180 to $195 depending on
the size.

JCK: Have you had any direct feedback from consumers since
your return?

LJ: Last December, an order for a $1,310 Sonata necklace
came in on my website—I do retail sales on my Web site—from the husband of the
granddaughter of the architect of the Chanin Building in New York. The Chanin
building has a bronze art deco frieze around the first and second floors, and
this is the source of my design inspiration for that piece; it’s one of my favorite
buildings in Manhattan. This is the kind of connection I am hoping to
experience more of this time around.

JCK: Do you have any regrets about the break?

LJ: No! It was a good thing, because I missed some terrible
years in business. And I was gone long enough that people really missed me but
didn’t forget about me. Accounts have been telling me, “I tried to fill the
hole [that your line left], but no one does what you do.”

JCK: Where is the jewelry being made, and what is your
retail price range?

LJ: All the jewelry is currently being made in the Diamond
District in New York. Retail prices range from $68 to $1,695.

JCK: What trade shows will you do in 2011?

LJ: I’m hoping to do Accent, and I’ll do globalDESIGN again.
I’ll see about Las Vegas—probably not this year. And I wouldn’t do Couture—not
with a small business like mine; it’s not realistic. I may get a [hotel] suite
[during Jewelry Week] and make appointments.

JCK: What made you come back?

LJ: I missed working with my hands. I missed the whole
process, that’s what I really love. And being away for a while made everyone
miss me.

JCK: Did you have any light-bulb moments upon returning?
Anything that just crystallized once you started designing and selling your
jewelry again?

LJ: Perhaps after all of these years, I’ve finally figured
out who my customers are; my stuff does best at a gallery or design store or,
occasionally, a fine-jewelry store where the owner really likes the work. If
the store owner really gets it, then we all do really well.

JCK: What’s next?

LJ: I just finished my Holiday collection, which my accounts
are putting in orders for now. There are 30 pieces in this collection, and some
lower prices that give a younger clientele some gift options. Prices start at
$105 and go up to $1,200, but there are a lot of special gift items—like stud
earrings, smaller bracelets, lighter-weight necklaces, and I’ve also
reintroduced some new styles of rings—in the $200 to $300 range. I’m bringing
back categories that people have asked for, such as pearls and silver. That
line will be ready in time for spring.

Lisa Jenks, Brooklyn, N.Y.; 646-519-7229, lisajenks.com

Silver Jewelry Designs from Lisa Jenks