Whenever we profile a new designer for JCK, the first thing we ask is: What’s your background? It’s all about understanding the context in which the designer creates. For many jewelers, the answer involves a family connection to the industry, experience in the fashion world, or time spent in a similarly creative field.
Melissa Kaye is different. The lifelong New Yorker majored in computer science at MIT before going to work on Wall Street. She loves boxing and fitness so much that she once thought about opening her own gym. It’s a fitting background for someone who holds contrast as a defining principle: Since founding her jewelry business in 2013, Kaye (pictured below) has earned a reputation for creating diamond-centric yet surprisingly whimsical fine jewels.
Exhibit A: Last week, Kaye debuted the Ada collection, her take on the classic gold chain. “I’ve always loved chains,” she says. “I’ve been working a long time on a variety of winning and not-so-winning options, but this is the one we put forward to the world.”
The line, which ranges from $2,750 for a pinky ring to $24,450 for a necklace with all-diamond links, incorporates white diamonds and enamel in shockingly bright colors—another counterintuitive twist from a woman who describes herself as a typically black-clad New Yorker. Below, Kaye tells us about the highlights of her jewelry career, how she came to embrace neon, and why she’s a big believer in “transitional value.”
Are you from New York originally?
I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker. The only time I have lived anywhere else was when I went to college at MIT for four years. What does that have to do with jewelry? Absolutely nothing. My background is very technical—I have a degree in computer science and engineering. I worked on Wall Street for many years, for Goldman Sachs, as a quantitative strategist. While I was there, I got a master’s degree in computational finance from Carnegie Mellon. I had a lot of interest in math and science. I cannot pinpoint how my interest in jewelry started, but I’ve always had it. As a kid, I had a bench set up in my room. But I don’t come from a jewelry family. I’ve just always been interested in jewelry and making things.
How did you get started in jewelry?
When I left my job at Goldman Sachs, I knew I wanted to do something different. I decided to take a couple classes at FIT, loved it, and did their two-year jewelry design program, doing both benchwork and design. I officially started my line in 2013. I started out building the collection, doing private sales. My interest was always fine jewelry. I’ve always been focused on diamonds, but I’ve learned a lot along the way in terms of refining your voice and evolving your aesthetic, and what makes sense from a business perspective. It’s one thing to make things that are beautiful, and another to be able to sell them. Diamonds are definitely the focus, and I don’t anticipate that will change.
Were there any big milestones along the way that, looking back, took your business to the next level?
Our first retailer was Saks [Fifth Avenue] in Beverly Hills. That was really amazing. We still work with them closely today. That was April 2015, so, clearly, it takes some time. It wasn’t like we were everywhere overnight.
Cindy Edelstein was a great mentor, and one of the things she said that stuck with me was that it takes three to five years to become an overnight success. It’s a reassuring idea for most of the designers I know.
I don’t think there was a clear tipping point for us, but when we introduced enamel into our collection in 2019, people started to show even more excitement. That’s when things happened, and we tended to get a little more visibility.
I had wanted to work with enamel for a long time. I started working on it in 2018, testing out colors. Our Cristina earring, our bestselling, marquise-shaped hoop, seemed like a natural starting point for introducing enamel into our collection. I started with various iterations of this earring. I liked it so much and decided to expand the enamel collection into a full set of offerings.
You were among the first jewelers to pair diamonds with neon-colored enamels. Why were you drawn to such a bright palette?
I’m not a super-colorful person, so it might seem funny that I’d pick the loudest possible colors. (I’m a New Yorker, typically wearing all black.) But I’m also a real gym rat and often wear gym clothes. And I love sneakers. When I do wear color, it’s usually vibrant colors, like neon pink Golden Goose sneakers. And I really do love athleisure as well. So I like the idea of something that is super luxurious but is also fun and easy. That kind of brought to life the idea for this collection, what we refer to as “fun luxury”: high-quality materials, exacting craftsmanship, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
And diamonds are an integral part of that equation?
Yes! We do have some pieces that are just enamel, but for the most part, the real focus is the diamonds with the enamel. The idea is to be able to have fun with it and style it however you want, make the look your own, as well as the juxtaposition of bright, fun, cool colors with high-end, high-quality diamonds and gold. It’s a little bit of uptown meets downtown.
One important point in general: We can’t be all things to all people, but when we’re creating a new piece, I like to be able to have a particular design—take the Cristina earring—where we have the full diamond version, we have the diamond-gold version, the diamond-ruby version, etc. So if you like neon, you can get the neon. Or if you’re more classic, the black or white enamel. By implementing a design in a bunch of different ways, it takes on a bunch of different personalities. Maybe the extra-large full diamond version is something you wear to an event, but the neon and diamond is something you wear with jeans and a T-shirt. It’s a broad way of addressing different personalities within the same design.
Tell us about your new Ada collection.
I’d been thinking about enamel for a long time, and as long as I’d been thinking about enamel, I was also thinking about making a custom chain. I wanted to make a chain that was unique to us, one that included enamel as well as diamonds and gold. So we could have a diamond-gold version and a pure gold version and the enamel options. I had tasked myself with coming up with a design for years, and I finally came up with one that answered these questions. So that’s the Ada collection.
We’re really excited about it. It’s incredibly heavy, in a good way; it has a really nice weight to it. It does have the option to have the bright fun colors, the more neutral colors, or the full gold. We made bracelets, necklaces, and, with the same chain link concept, two different earrings, a pinky ring, and a regular ring, so we covered all the categories.
We’ve seen a lot of designers taking a more casual approach to diamonds, especially to appeal to younger buyers. What’s your take on this trend?
I remember growing up, my father would tell me, “When you get on a plane, people are going to be dressed up.” Whereas now, people wear their pajamas on a plane. When people go to the theater, it used to be kind of a formal experience. Now, if they show up with black tie on, people look at them funny.
When I worked at Goldman Sachs, one of the happiest days of my life was getting the email saying we’d gone to business casual. I like to be comfortable. I love jeans, sweaters, and sneakers. But I also love nice-quality things. It’s not that casual attire is not necessarily not high quality. With jewelry, it’s the same thing. I could wear one of these chains with a white T-shirt or more formally.
One of the things that’s important to me as a designer is this concept of transitional value: When styled differently, a piece can work just as well with jeans and a T-shirt as it can with formal wear.
I’m sitting at home in my sweatpants, but I want to put on these rings because this jewelry is fun and mood boosting, and I want to wear pretty things. This idea of fun luxury is really relevant right now.
Top: Ada bracelet in 18k pink gold with neon pink enamel and 1.13 cts. t.w. diamonds, $10,850Follow JCK on Instagram: @jckmagazine
Follow JCK on Twitter: @jckmagazine
Follow JCK on Facebook: @jckmagazine