Charting the designer’s rise from combing rocky driveways to making jewelry and home decor coveted by the celeb set
All fashion talks about now—or seems to talk about—is social media: where it’s going, who’s doing it, and how. Not on board? Good luck with that. So it’s not surprising that jewelry designer Kimberly McDonald has active Facebook and Twitter accounts (@KMD_Jewelry), the latter of which is a savvy mix of the professional (press updates, bauble shots) and personal (Gummy Bears! Minnesota Vikings!).
But if you thought this was all part of a grand scheme—a pointed business strategy—to reach a larger demographic and push a branding message with McDonald front and center, think again. She’ll readily admit that she’s not much of a planner. Things just happen. One thing leads to another. And as the Asheville, N.C., native traces her career—from boutique owner to makeup artist to jewelry consultant and designer—you realize it’s always been this way. “Every move I’ve made,” she says, “it’s happened organically.”
Gold and opal cuff
That’s an interesting turn of phrase considering the Los Angeles–based McDonald is famous for her luxury spin on raw gems such as geodes and quartz, but the perfect description for her CV thus far. Shortly after studying psychology at college, she headed away from the cozy environs of her hometown and toward the big city—in this case, Atlanta. There she opened a tiny accessories store in the early 1990s, Mon Armoire, which specialized in French accessories. It came about, McDonald says, “because I went through this phase where I loved everything French.” (Pushed further, she adds, “I met a guy from France.”)
The shop didn’t last beyond a year, but the relationship did, leading to a transatlantic life where she traveled to and from Paris. Which then led to a love of Parisian flea markets, like the legendary Marché aux Puces. And lots and lots of shopping, snapping up antiques for a fraction of the price. “Finally, my boyfriend said, ‘You have to find a hobby—you can’t shop all the time,’?” recalls McDonald. “He had this friend who was at this makeup school…”
|Emerald slice, opal, and diamond earrings|
Zebra opal (a designer exclusive material) and diamond earrings; price on request; Kimberly McDonald, NYC; 646-205-9994; kimberlymcdonald.com
So she became a makeup artist and, back in Atlanta, began garnering a clientele that included local socialites and the mayor’s wife (thanks to an editor friend who threw some press her way). It’s here that the jewelry angle first came into play. “These women fell in love with the antique pieces of jewelry I’d wear,” she explains. “Pretty quickly, it became, Okay, I can make a couple of hundred dollars doing someone’s makeup or a couple of thousand selling jewelry.” The decision was a no-brainer. Besides, McDonald adds, she was never cut out to be the next Pat McGrath. “The whole touching the face of someone you don’t know,” she says, “was always weird to me. I was the makeup artist doing your makeup from three feet away.”
Her interest in bijoux now sparked, McDonald went to work at a diamond brokerage firm, New York City’s Diamond Floor Co., to learn about cuts and grading. Then somehow, chalk it up to sheer moxie, she persuaded her best makeup client from Atlanta—medical exec, philanthropist, and the late jewelry lover Sandra Anderson Baccus—to take her on as a jewelry consultant, curating her collection. “I didn’t think it through,” remarks McDonald. “I just did it.” But it worked.
With her client base now expanded, McDonald began working closely with jewelers such as Henry Dunay, Lorraine Schwartz, and Nicholas Varney on custom designs, even whipping up her own. It was a good living, until she’d open up a magazine and see other designers getting credit for “something more or less I had designed and had just gone to them to make. It happened a few times,” she says. “I didn’t know how to handle it.” A close friend convinced her to finally fly solo. “You’ve proved yourself,” she assured.
Up until that point, McDonald’s creations always had been on the more traditional side of the fine jewelry divide. Her now-signature earthy aesthetic came about as a happy accident; on her first sourcing trip to a “kooky” little gem show in Tucson, Ariz., she fell in love with two small black geodes and fashioned a pair of drop earrings for herself. A friend bought them straight off her lobes, paying twice the cost. “And that was that,” McDonald says with a laugh. Her collection debuted in 2007.
Cobalto-calcite and diamond drop earrings
In hindsight, McDonald’s penchant for the organic was always there. She remembers as a kid visiting her grandmother in Wisconsin every summer and going rock-picking in, yes, the driveway. “Because of the Great Lakes, you would find these amazing agates. Her driveway was a kaleidoscope,” she recalls. “I used to keep my collection in those old Orville Redenbacher popcorn jars.” She adds that her hometown, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is known for its high energy levels. (Google it: The Asheville Vortex is a thing.)
In fact, when the designer introduced her line, she dubbed it Rockras by Kimberly McDonald (a play on chakras) in a nod to her spiritual side. And while that four-word moniker didn’t last—her first retail account, New York City’s Bergdorf Goodman, deemed it too long—the fascination with natural stones remained. McDonald now has carved out a niche with her fine jewelry renditions of raw geode, drusy, and quartz, where the stones are audaciously oversized and embellished with sprinklings of diamonds. Next up is a new agate-inspired collection using pavé diamonds and sapphires to re-create the banded patterns and swirls.
|At McDonald’s three-month-old West Hollywood, Calif., boutique, customers can find everything from one-of-a-kind jewels to bejeweled home goods.|
“Our philosophy is that nothing is better than nature,” McDonald says, pointing out that even the shocking, high-octane pink of her cobalto-calcite drop earrings are au naturel. “We just stay out of the way and let the natural beauty shine through.” It’s an eco mind-set that underscores the rest of the business; she uses only recycled 18k gold and conflict-free diamonds—like in the jewels Michelle Obama wore on Inauguration night Jan. 21—and has partnered with the nonprofit Conservation International on two collections benefiting endangered turtles and polar bears.
|Just a few items from the KMD Home Collection: a Lucite box with amethyst topper, a bespoke lamp, and pillows in rich gemstone-esque patterns|
Diamond slice earrings
When your company revolves around such a specific hook—where nothing trumps the raw stone and the design process begins and ends there—how do you push the business forward? Not by doing trade shows, McDonald will readily tell you. “Absolutely not,” she says. “I don’t feel it’s productive to spend thousands of dollars so people can walk by, see original works, then turn around and copy them.” Thankfully, she adds that business is still at a point where she’s fielding incoming requests from retailers and can be selective.
As for who makes the cut, the designer breaks it down into a three-part formula. First, location—i.e., if she already has distribution in that area, she’d rather not oversaturate. Second, what other lines do the stores carry? And that applies to the fashion merch, too. “We want to partner with people who have high-end, progressive luxury lines,” she continues, “like Stella McCartney, Rick Owens, Derek Lam, Missoni, and Margiela.” The third criterion is simple: “If we felt someone didn’t have a good payment record based on feedback from other designers, we’ve passed.”
McDonald’s geode and diamond Path bracelet
Besides, for McDonald, she can grow the business by pursuing that ever-popular L word—lifestyle, as in: There’s a lifestyle brand to be spun from these rocks. In 2011, she began dabbling in tabletop design, revamping vintage silverware, candlesticks, and serving pieces with her signature gems, before expanding to a full home collection ($185 to northward of $20,000) this past fall. Think Lucite boxes with geode toppers and lamps with cool slices of agate. Even her softer goods—pillows and scarves—offer a whimsical take on the theme with abstract patterns pulled from stone formations. So far she’s partnered with existing retailers Bergdorf Goodman, Dallas’ Forty Five Ten, and Nashville’s Jamie Wolf in addition to Moda Operandi, but has plans to expand to her other accounts as well as home and decor stores.
If anyone wants to take in the Kimberly McDonald lifestyle in its full 360-degree glory, all they have to do is step into her first freestanding boutique in West Hollywood, Calif., which opened in November 2012. With its warm, dim lighting; mica-covered gunmetal walls; and plush, gray flannel curtains, McDonald describes it as “a cave founded by some crazy-spoiled princess who put all her luxury accoutrements in one place.” The shift into retail was, she adds—bringing in that favorite word of hers again—purely organic. McDonald moved from New York City to Los Angeles two and a half years ago, spurred by the then–increasingly important red-carpet factor to her business. Halle Berry wearing her black geode drop earrings to the 2010 Golden Globes was her “big wow moment,” she says, noting that she eventually stayed for the casual-chic lifestyle. “California is very in touch with the Earth and the energy and meaning of stones. I’m very inspired by that.
“And then this space became available,” McDonald continues. “It was the right size, the right location, and even though I hadn’t planned on the timing now, it ended up being right. It seemed like a natural step to open a store here.” Kismet played its bit part there, too. That perfect space? She’d been walking past it every day on the way to the gym, next door.