After 18 years as a high-powered marketing executive in the pharmaceutical industry, Niki Manoogian seemed to have it all: big salary, tons of responsibility, and seniority in a burgeoning field. But the San Diego resident lacked one important thing: passion for her work.
So she quit. Over the course of the pandemic, Manoogian followed her personal interest in jewelry to build a new career around jewelry design, beginning with classes at the nearby GIA. In 2022 she founded 79 Fine, a jewelry company that specializes in lab-grown gemstones—her attempt to democratize jewelry and make fancy styles accessible to all.
Manoogian, who sets all her jewelry in 14k gold, said she now feels a fire for how she spends her time professionally, a wonderful and satisfying departure from the monotony of a career that provided for her family but failed to nourish her soul. “I’m helping facilitate the creation of fine jewelry and making people’s dreams come true,” she tells JCK. “As far as second careers are concerned, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Manoogian, 40, may be more of a trendsetter than she thinks. Since the start of the pandemic, a number of people switching careers have landed in the jewelry trade, engineering major professional transformations to embrace a more creative lifestyle. Almost all the newcomers we talked with say they feel more fulfilled in their new roles. Some add that they’ve learned some surprising things about the business, as well.
Journey to Fulfillment
Akaila Johnson, 32, knows all about following her heart. While her first job out of college was working for her mother’s medical billing company in order to earn a living, she never stopped dreaming bigger. “My mom was always very analytical, my brother had a way with words, and I was the one dreaming about art and color,” the New York City resident says.
After two years in the family business, Johnson leaned in to her bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising and enrolled in courses at GIA. Johnson describes her time at the institute as “one of the best experiences of my life.” After completing the program, she established her Akaila Reid jewelry brand in 2020, starting the career she’d always fantasized about.
Today, Johnson describes her collection as “unapologetically girly” and fun. “I design my life to be filled with as much pink and sparkle as possible, and that translates to my designs as well,” she says. “I have love and appreciation for the deep rich hues of a blue Ceylon sapphire or a brilliant Russian alexandrite, but pastel hues are what truly make me giddy.”
In London, Daisy Simpson took a similar path toward finding her second career. Previously, Simpson worked in the media and advertising industries for clients such as L’Oréal, Penguin Books, and Guardian Media Group. At one of her jobs, Simpson was tasked with developing magazines. That’s when she discovered design.
Simpson heard about a jewelry and silversmithing course at Kensington and Chelsea College and enrolled. After acquiring these new skills, she fell in love with jewelry-making. She bought a workbench, set it up in the corner of her bedroom, and made jewelry in her free time. She started her Skomer Studio brand in 2019 and ramped up to full-time jewelry-making in 2020.
Simpson focuses on creating sustainable products but says she has her own idea of what that means: “I always approach the process of creating by asking myself, ‘What would be the most responsible way of creating jewelry?’ I am not a fan of terms such as ethical and eco-friendly. Maybe from my career in media and advertising, I am a little jaded by that terminology. For me it’s about taking responsibility for what I put out into the world.”
Simpson says she’s never been as happy as she is when working at her bench. “I love the communication with the metal, heating it up, forming it by hand, and working the design out in real time through techniques such as texturing, stone setting, and surface application,” she says. “It’s the best feeling when a design is taking shape and the proportions are just right.”
Lessons Along the Way
Simpson, 31, says she’s learned a lot about the industry in the few years since she’s embraced it as a full-time commitment. One of the biggest takeaways: Jewelry is at its best when designers make pieces on their terms.
Simpson notes that Skomer Studio’s signature style (say that 10 times fast!) is to mix and match opposing design elements to create easily wearable sculptural pieces. For example, she regularly pairs silver and white gold with yellow gold, and traditional gemstone cuts with modern-style settings—decisions the “old guard” of the industry would likely never have made, she says. She also built an entire recent collection, Poise, around red jasper and unakite, a metamorphic rock that is pistachio-green and salmon in color and is more commonly used in architecture and construction.
“At the time I launched Skomer, I felt like jewelry brands and their styles were really polarizing—they were either very dainty and feminine or very chunky and masculine,” Simpson says. “I wanted to create a brand that brought everything together.”
Manoogian credits colleagues in her new profession with helping her learn a valuable personal lesson: how to grapple with impostor syndrome. For the first few months after she started 79 Fine, Manoogian says she doubted herself constantly, questioning her chops as a designer in an industry where just about everyone else had far more training and experience. She says she’d suffered the same self-doubt in the health care profession. The more people she met in the jewelry industry, however, the more comfortable and confident she felt.
“If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about this industry, it’s that everyone is incredibly friendly and supportive—there’s no gatekeeping at all,” Manoogian says, likening her new trade to a sisterhood. “The people I’ve met continue to go out of their way to make me feel included. You don’t see that in every industry. I’m glad I finally found one where you do.”
Top: Mini Poise red jasper and white topaz 9k gold earring and Mini Poise unakite and white topaz 9k gold earring, £380 ($484) each or £635 ($809) for pair; Skomer Studio