Those first jobs when you’re a teen or a college student can truly form you, and that’s true for Plum Diamonds cofounder Kristy Cullinane—if you include those two awful hours that she worked as a telemarketer.
“That was a miserable job,” Cullinane says. “My college jobs were in bars and restaurants with one exception: I trained for two weeks to be a telemarketer and then quit about two hours into my first shift.”
So what did she learn from two measly hours? More than you’d expect.
“What I learned early on was the difference between a job I hated and a job I loved,” Cullinane says. “I hated watching the clock during lonely shift work, but I loved creating and making an impact as part of a team. It took time to put the pieces together, but eventually, I would combine those loves and find my perfect fit in the jewelry business.”
This winding road led to her new position as a leader at Plum Diamonds, a direct-to-consumer, lab-grown diamond jewelry company launched in 2022. Plum Diamonds focuses on luxury wedding jewelry with a digital custom ring builder as well as a Find Your Diamond Kit, which helps couples determine what kind of ring they want. The company also hopes to stand out with its lifetime concierge services that include an annual “spa treatment” for maintenance, resizing, and polishing.
Beyond those scary first jobs, Cullinane says she had an idyllic childhood in Harbor Springs, Mich., a small waterfront city on the north shore of Little Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan. Cullinane says she was a classic artist, raised to be adventuresome yet grounded.
“Growing up surrounded by a mix of preppy and organic influences has always inspired my ideas for jewelry,” Cullinane says. “I want high-quality yet unpretentious pieces, which is how I view Plum Diamonds’ first assortment of bridal—classic yet unfussy.”
Cullinane says her college route took her from East Lansing, where she got a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, through semesters abroad in Australia and a Washington, D.C., internship, where she focused on human resources for NBCUniversal.
“A full-blown business degree scared me at the time—it felt too buttoned up—but once I got into the workforce and started exploring, I knew I wanted to dive deeper into the nuts and bolts of how companies run,” Cullinane says.
Cullinane got her MBA from DePaul University, but also set up her own jewelry bench at home, where she learned wax carving, gemstone identification, and sketching. Her grandmother was an avid traveler and jewelry collector, so Cullinane says she got the jewelry bug early and it never left her.
Her early career gave Cullinane the tools she now uses daily in her cofounder role. Working in the United Kingdom, Cullinane coordinated design, development, and launch of luxury jewelry and leather products for Links of London. From there, she worked in marketing and product development for Casting House in Chicago.
She joined Walgreens for some e-commerce experience as well as Tag, to learn about its business-to-consumer e-commerce and retail operations. A couple of jumps more and Cullinane became president of Ethan Lord Jewelers for four years, focusing on diamonds, engagement rings, and custom designs.
“I’ve heard that a rewarding career can be more of a jungle gym than a ladder—it’s not always straight up,” Cullinane says. “Instead of looking to move to the next rung, I would look for the next set of skills I thought I needed most.… I always felt I wasn’t cut out for corporate life in the long run. What I love about smaller companies is the sense of freedom, creativity, and the impact that can be tough to get in a huge organization.”
Both large and small businesses turned out to have the real-world experiences Cullinane says she now feels help her the most as a leader and team player.
“You can design the best jewelry in the universe, but if you can’t master the business side of your operation, no one will ever get to enjoy it,” Cullinane says. “Which is how I think of Plum Diamonds: small-company heart and soul, big-company legacy and excellence. It’s important to keep in mind that Plum isn’t just me; my partners are the best in the jewelry manufacturing business.”
Focusing on lab-grown diamonds for their beauty and value for today’s couples also drives her work.
“Couples should know that we take their jewelry very seriously,” Cullinane says. “I also believe in adventure and following your heart, which is actually why I love lab-grown diamonds. The price point frees couples up to invest in other things they care deeply about. I don’t look at lab diamonds as a compromise or budget buy because this suggests that couples miss out on something when they choose lab-grown diamonds. I see the complete opposite.”
Top: Kristy Cullinane has traveled the world from her hometown in Michigan to Australia to London to Chicago, studying business and learning the skills she would need to serve as the cofounder of Plum Diamonds, a direct-to-consumer jewelry company she helped to start in 2022 (photos courtesy of Plum Diamonds).@jckmagazine
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