When designer Jillian Sassone, founder of Marrow Fine Jewelry, learned that a jewelry retail space had opened in Newport Beach, Calif., last year, her first thought was, “We’re in a pandemic, I’m not going to open another store.”
Famous last words! The opportunity was simply too good to pass up, so Sassone and her husband and business partner, Tim, moved forward with the store, which opened in mid-January. Like their flagship retail space, located at One Paseo in the tony Southern California beach enclave of Solana Beach, and their mid-century modern home in nearby Cardiff-by-the-Sea, the Newport Beach store was designed by the Los Angeles–based interior design firm Bells + Whistles.
The store is the culmination of Sassone’s six-year journey in the jewelry industry. The former medical-device rep began designing jewelry as a hobby after her grandmother died in 2015 and left her some heirloom pieces she wanted to reimagine. “I found a wholesaler who was able to take my sketches and put them into a CAD,” Sassone recalls. “I was able to tweak them and ended up with a piece I really loved. I was told all these things I couldn’t do. In a way, not having a traditional jewelry background, I didn’t know what rules I was or wasn’t breaking.”
Her “nighttime side hobby” exploded within the first year, with more than 250 clients, many of them seeking distinctive engagement rings and wedding bands. Sassone quit her corporate gig, cashed in her 401(k), and opened Marrow Fine Jewelry in 2016. Now, with two retail stores, a progressive and celebrity-filled clientele (Hilary Duff and Margot Robbie wear Marrow bands), and a fast-growing Instagram following, Sassone talks to JCK about what she’s learned about the bridal jewelry business over the past five years, and, especially, in 2020.
On Becoming A Bridal Sensation
“I started out designing chunky pieces. I really loved opal and mixing white diamonds and black diamonds and turquoise. I loved seeing turquoise set in yellow gold. Then what happened very quickly is that I started skewing bridal. I still make those statement pieces, but the business, based on demand, started skewing bridal.
“Engagement rings and wedding bands started becoming our bread and butter. A lot of people [in the market for an engagement ring] say, ‘I got a guy.’ They may feel this connection to a family referral, so they’ll get their engagement ring from that corner jeweler who’s done grandma’s and mom’s rings. But the girl will sometimes want to add her own spin on it. So I started designing wedding bands, and that really took off around 2017. Now we have over 70 different wedding bands. A lot of them fit together, have different stones. It’s rare that a girl with a solitaire will come in and will leave with the same look as someone else.”
On The Ballerina Ring Look
“I became really interested in art deco–style ballerina rings. A lot of girls started coming to me with solitaires, but they really liked the ballerina concept. So I said if they already have this solitaire, how could we create this look that’s more versatile? I created an oval style where you could take two of them and sandwich your engagement ring for that whole look, a mix-and-match approach, and those really took off.”
On Banding Together
“Chunkier, bolder, heavy metal looks are where things are going. Mixing, say, an emerald cut set in a very simple solitaire with a 10 mm chunky cigar band. The juxtaposition of simple with thicker bands seems to be really on trend.
“I did an analysis of 2020: Every picture that went viral on Instagram had a thick band, every single one. And it’s shifting. Even a year and a half ago, it was dainty. Now things are going more bold, more bezels, more gold. Which is fun.”
On What Differentiates Her Business
“We’ve had our flagship at One Paseo in Solana Beach for two years on March 1. And the Newport space just opened at the end of January. We’re sourcing a lot of antique diamonds now—such a fun aspect of the business. It’s such a treasure hunt. It’s from the 1800s and we pull it out of a tiara. And that differentiates us from a Blue Nile or Costco. Some of the stones we find are such one-of-a-kind pieces, they’ll never be re-created.”
On Why The Newport Beach Boutique Is Her Dream Space
“This space feels really elevated. The colors are our brand colors. The floor is this rad terrazzo flooring. The walls are hand plastered by an artist who does these hand wall treatments. Bells + Whistles did our first spot, our flagship; they did our home, a mid-century modern; and then they did this space. Even the fabric of the furniture—everything just feels luxe. We consulted these lighting experts who put this lighting in that makes the jewelry sparkle.”
On Bucking Tradition
“If you’ve been in a traditional jewelry store, it can feel really intimidating. For a lot of our clients, this is the biggest purchase they’ve ever made, so it can feel really intimidating. That’s why we hired Bells + Whistles. They don’t do jewelry stores, they do hospitality. We wanted it to feel like a really luxe hotel lobby, where you leave feeling better than when you came in.”
On The Store’s “Babe Cave”
“We have a private babe cave. They see it on Instagram and want to come in and see it in real life. When they’re selecting their forever stone, it’s a big moment and we want to meet that moment. It feels like a hotel lobby that you’d be happy to chill in. We want to feel accessible.”
On Love In Lockdown
“Even with quarantine, we had our best year ever. We were already set up to do virtual appointments, so we didn’t have to adjust. Even though we’re a retail space, our staff members field several virtual appointments a day and were able to do that all through quarantine. Right now, there are a lot of sofa proposals: ‘We’ve been looking at each other for six months, let’s make this official.’ A lot of people, the only place they’d been to was Marrow. Once we opened, we had a lot of private appointments.”
On Testing Out New Markets
“We started a trunk show program, but it was on pause for five to six months. We have two teams, West and East coast, and they pop up in a different city every weekend. That’s our litmus test for a third store. Sometimes we announce a pop-up, and it’ll sell out in an hour.
“Oftentimes they’ll be at hotels. We also have an office building partner (now with so many office buildings being empty, they’ve got furniture and they’re secure, which is the biggest part). For example, San Francisco right now you can’t book a hotel to be used in that way. The team travels with plexiglass and sanitizing stations. But it’s been fun. And we’re learning which cities people are really excited to see us. We just did Chicago two weeks ago and it booked up in a day and a half. Miami didn’t do as well. It’s interesting to see that. It’s exciting to bring the brand to new places.”
On How People Discover Marrow
“In the very beginning, all my budget would go to photography. If I have really good photos and use them on Instagram, that’s always been the focus. We spend a lot on photo shoots and quality models. In the beginning, I’d hire a photographer that had 50,000 followers and a model that had 100,000. Now we have 127,000 followers. We’re in every city that way.
“Our stories are where the engagement happens, whether it’s following my design day, behind the scenes of what we’re working on, or showing a dealer that came to see us, and asking, ‘Should we buy this stone?’ People love to engage in that way.”
On Lessons From 2020
“We usually source all the stones in our wedding rings, but if it’s your heirloom and it’s in good condition and I can confidently pull it out and set it, I will. If it means something to you, it means something to me.
“During the pandemic, people started to feel really connected to their roots and their families and what’s important. As part of that, they’ve gone through their jewelry boxes. They’ve had this pendant from their grandma for 20 years and want a piece of their grandma—people are coming to those realizations. They’re saying, ‘Okay, I want to make something beautiful and have it imbued with meaning. Not something sparkly just to be sparkly.’ Everything feels more intentional.”Follow JCK on Instagram: @jckmagazine
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