How He’s Managing: Awe Inspired Cofounder Max Johnson

Every Thursday during the pandemic, we’re checking in on members of the jewelry trade in an attempt to glean shareable tips and tricks for doing business—and living as well as possible—during the COVID-19 crisis.

Today we hear from jewelry designer Max Johnson, co-owner of Awe Inspired, an up-and-coming fine jewelry brand he founded with his mother, Jill Johnson, a three-time cancer survivor.

The duo developed the brand specifically to create designs that celebrate iconic women of the past and present. Central to that mandate has been to give back to causes that benefit women. Since its inception, Awe Inspired has donated over $500,000 to charitable partners. 

JCK: Hi, Max! Where are you based right now, and where are you from?

Max Johnson: I’m currently based in Los Angeles, but I’m originally from Minneapolis.

How has the COVID pandemic changed your life, and how are you managing life in the pandemic?

COVID has greatly affected my personal life—in fact, I’ve completely uprooted. I was originally living in New York and have relocated to four different cities since the start of the pandemic. I’ve decided to utilize this moment as an opportunity to research places where I might want to live, and truly figure out what the next phase of my life will look like.

The pandemic has also given me more time to connect with my husband. Prior to COVID, he would travel for work from Monday through Thursday, and now we’re finally able to see each other every single day. This time together has been incredibly meaningful.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg silver coin
Awe Inspired sterling silver Ruth Bader Ginsburg coin pendant, $135

I know you’re a mission-driven brand—how has COVID changed your business?

The biggest change for me personally, as well as for the business, is that it has really taken off throughout COVID. We’ve definitely been keeping busy!

When quarantine and lockdown [happened], people were immediately reallocating their personal spend from events and experiences to more meaningful products. They were looking for things that they can have with them at home that would bring them strength, hope, and resilience. This is everything that Awe Inspired stands for. We’ve seen a huge increase in sales for our meaningful Goddess Coins [which feature detailed reliefs of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Harriet Tubman, Frida Kahlo, Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, and other legendary women].

At the same time, we were able to create relevance around our products through thoughtful charity partnerships. We partnered with American Nurses Foundation on a Florence Nightingale Goddess Coin to honor nurses and frontline workers, and were able to engage our community through getting our consumers to share stories about frontline workers that inspire them.

When George Floyd was murdered in my hometown, my mom and I immediately knew we had to do something that had more permanence, which is why we partnered with the NAACP in Minneapolis to donate 100% of proceeds from our Harriet Tubman Goddess Coin Necklace. We needed to make a lasting commitment to our community and to people of color.

The most significant impact on our business this year came from the devastating passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This unexpected, heartbreaking event has greatly increased interest in not only our RBG coin necklace, but in the brand and the concept itself of celebrating incredible women throughout history.

How is business now?

Business for us has been really great. In terms of challenges, we’re definitely seeing a slowdown of the rapid growth that we were experiencing, because advertising costs are skyrocketing as we get closer to the election and Black Friday/Cyber Monday.

The good news is that this puts pressure on us to diversify our acquisition spend allocation and explore channels that we haven’t yet before. We recently started working with an affiliate program and invested in PR in trying to acquire customers in a cost-effective way—through scaling our relationships with editorial publications, influencers, and VIPs.

Awe Inspired Cleopatra earrings
Awe Inspired 14k yellow gold vermeil Cleopatra earrings, $120
Awe Inspired Kamala Harris coin
Awe Inspired 14k yellow gold vermeil Kamala Harris coin necklace, $150 (a portion of proceeds from this design goes to Emily’s List)

Your Kamala Harris coin pendant has been getting a lot of buzz. What made you want to create that? 

The Kamala Harris coin was a bold way for us to have a voice in this election and make our stance crystal clear. For us, it was the perfect opportunity to honor the nominee who could potentially serve as the first woman in the White House.

We were never going to be a brand that would take a nonpartisan stance in this election. So instead, the question on our minds was, how partisan will we be? Soon after the Kamala Harris coin was created, we decided to partner with Emily’s List, contributing to a cause that would continue to support diverse, progressive women throughout the political process.

Awe Inspired celebrity hits
Awe Inspired celebrity shout-outs on social media

How has the pandemic changed how you’ll be moving forward in your business?

The pandemic has definitely bolstered a lot of our hypotheses around how our business needs to grow. We never thought that Awe Inspired would become a brand with a focus on brick and mortar, and we still stand by that. However, we do see a ton of potential in supporting small businesses, local boutiques, and gift shops. Overall, as a business, we really want to stay focused on scaling our online platform and the digital experience that we offer consumers.

What have you been doing to relax and have fun during this time?

I have been practicing yoga and working on my handstands! I also dyed my hair blue recently, which has become a full-time maintenance project, but super fun. When it comes to relaxation, I’m obsessed with candles and always have a few around the house!

Have any book/podcast/TV/movie recommendations?

I just read Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman, which I highly recommend. I also really enjoyed the new documentary Blackpink: Light Up the Sky, on Netflix!

Top photo: Max Johnson, cofounder of Awe Inspired (all images courtesy of Awe Inspired)

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JCK Magazine Editor