Designers / Industry

Designer Catherine Zadeh On 25 Years of Creating Gender-Neutral Jewels


When Catherine Zadeh (pictured) founded Zadeh NY in 1995, she took something of a contrarian approach to the jewelry business. “I started with men’s jewelry—cufflinks,” Zadeh tells JCK. “Nobody starts in men’s jewelry. But it was so perfect because when I was ready to launch my women’s line in 2014, it was understated and unisex. I was gender-neutral before it was in vogue.”

Below, Zadeh, who opened her first retail store in Southampton, N.Y., last fall, reflects on her quarter-century of designing men’s jewelry, the gradual shift in jewelry tastes among even the most conservative men, and why Hermès is a useful barometer for her designs.

Zadeh NY boutique exterior
The exterior of the Zadeh NY boutique in Southampton, N.Y.

On why she started with the men’s category

I wasn’t formally trained as a jeweler. I designed a set of rings for myself because my husband was in the diamond industry and kept gifting me jewelry and every time he gave me a piece, I would make a face. One day he said, “Why don’t you start designing your own jewelry? Here are the diamonds.” I made my first ring and was dropping my daughter off at the 92nd Street Y and a guy in the elevator said, “I love it. Are you a designer?” I said, “Yes, I am!”

He commissioned me to make one piece of jewelry for his wife, then another piece. Designing for him, I learned how jewelry was made. And one day he said, “Enough for my wife, why don’t you design a pair of cufflinks for me?” I designed 10, he bought them all and told me I should sell them. I called Bergdorf Goodman because that’s the only store that came to mind. I was very lucky that they welcomed me. That obviously opened many doors. I was in the top menswear stores for 15 years. I did only cufflinks. That really allowed me to lead a life where I could be creative, have a small business, and was able to raise my kids.

On how Zadeh NY’s men’s line spawned a unisex-leaning women’s collection and a boutique of its own

I did a pop-up at Hampton Classic in 2014. It’s a one-week competitive equestrian show that takes place at the end of the summer. There’s a boutique garden with different vendors. In one week, I sold more than I sold at Barneys in one year. I said wow, this direct-to-consumer business is amazing. I decided to take a booth at Wellington, another equestrian/dressage competition in a three-month venue near Palm Beach, in Wellington, Fla. In two months, I sold an incredible amount. People were lining up. I cultivated a beautiful following and then did pop-ups in Palm Beach, Aspen. I went where all my customers traveled.

Zadeh NY Santos bracelets
Santos bracelets in silver, $396 each

I had only men’s jewelry, and women were coming in and coveting it. I realized my men’s jewelry was perfectly suited for women who had a sporty lifestyle and wanted something that was not very chichi. That’s when I started seriously developing a women’s side.

It was meant to be that I started with men because a men’s aesthetic informs my women’s line. It’s not trendy or delicate.

On the defining characteristics of the Zadeh NY collection

The line is modern. And what makes it different is the juxtaposition of the materials with precious metal and diamonds. I use Asian buffalo horn. It’s completely sustainable—the meat is used for consumption in Vietnam and Laos, and the horn is discarded. It’s used to make combs, objects, eyewear. We slice the horn to make it look like elephant hair and make it into bracelets with 18k gold clasps and diamonds. It’s unisex. Men wear it, women wear it. It’s fine jewelry that you never take off. And the more you wear it, the more the horn gets a beautiful patina.

Zadeh NY Capri stack
Capri bracelet stack with Brant horn bracelet in 18k white gold, Stitch cuff, and macramé Hook bracelet in 10k pink gold; $7,900

We also use parachute cord. All our pendants are made of exotic wood or horn and we drape it on parachute cord, so it’s jewelry that’s so cool. Parachute cord is a unique material, also completely sustainable. We make bracelets in different colors and use 18k gold and diamonds.

On designing jewelry for men who don’t wear jewelry

I’m not too fond of diamonds for men. Even though it’s a unisex line, I’m still very traditional in some ways. I design for men who don’t wear jewelry and for them, diamonds are not what they like. Whenever I design for men, I always think of conservative, traditional men, who are much more open to wearing jewelry today. But none of them wear diamonds. My clientele are investment bankers, the kind of men who work for Goldman Sachs.

Zadeh NY boutique
The Zadeh NY boutique in Southampton, N.Y.

Five years ago, I finally had straight guys coming to me making appointments. The first words out of their mouths used to be, “I don’t wear jewelry, the only thing I wear is a watch.” And I’d say, “Let me gift you a very slim bracelet, just a pop of color on your wrist.” Two months later, they’d call to make an appointment to see what else I had. My jewelry is not rock-n-roll. It’s understated, discreet, the way I stack it is very handsome. It’s not gaudy. Whenever I design something, I always say to myself, “Would Hermès put this in their boutique?” If the answer is yes, then I know it’s the right design.

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By: Victoria Gomelsky

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