“If you peer to the right, you can see Lincoln Center. And over there, directly behind us, is the School of American Ballet.”
That’s jewelry designer Jamie Wolf talking, as she gestures out the window from her penthouse perch. We’re in her pristine office—white desk, white couch, white curtains—on New York City’s Upper West Side, and she’s pointing out that nerve center of the city’s arts for reasons beyond its visual appeal: Wolf spent a decade dancing, professionally, with the New York City Ballet. She still takes the occasional class at SAB.
In fact, read any interview she’s given and that plot point inevitably pops up—the influence of ballet on her classically femme designs. Today is no exception. It’s hard to extricate one from the other and a snapshot of her career reveals as much. Wolf’s entrée into jewelry design began as a hobby while at the NYCB. She’s done ballet-themed collections, including one worn by the corps for a production of Balanchine’s Symphony in C onstage. Her big celebrity coup was designing Black Swan star Natalie Portman’s engagement ring. And, oh, did we mention she’s an extra in that very movie?
18k yellow gold long Vine earring with ombre black, white, and cognac diamonds; $6,990
For this New York native—who grew up facing the other side of Lincoln Center, with a bedroom view of its fountain—there’s always been something Proustian about dance and design. Her very first performance, at age 8, was as a bunny in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker; on opening night, after the show, her parents gifted her a gold Tiffany & Co. locket. “I always think about that as the origin of my love for jewelry,” says Wolf, who joined the NYCB nine years later. “People develop these very dear attachments to it that live and carry on.”
Jewelry soon became a milestone marker for the ballerina, the emotional factor as weighty as the carat count. On her first tour of Brazil with the company, she picked up a pair of diamond and aquamarine earrings from H.Stern. When she finally performed Balanchine’s Square Dance, high on her to-do list, she celebrated with a diamond pendant necklace. And so on. “I would always buy things I felt I was going to wear all the time,” she explains, “because I was commemorating something I wanted to remember all the time.”
18k yellow gold wide Marquis cuff with diamonds; $19,900; Jamie Wolf, NYC; 212-595-0065; jamiewolf.com
So it made sense when Wolf soon began dabbling in jewelry design after picking up your basic how-to books to pass time between seasons. (“Being a dancer is very similar to being an athlete,” she says. “You go from 13-hour days to having almost no responsibilities at all.”) The rest of the tale is a familiar one: She wore her pieces, then friends began to, and more and more people took notice. “I started selling pieces from my dressing room,” she recalls, joking that she had “a very captive audience of people who didn’t really have time to go shopping.” Finally, the retail set bit: In 2003, a friend put her in touch with Barneys. After 10 years, she retired the pointe shoes and became a full-time jeweler. A generous check for a small role in the 2000 dance film Center Stage helped pay the startup costs.
Ask Wolf about the influence of career No. 1 on career No. 2, and she dives into a description of how, in ballet, you think about how every part of your body “comes together to create something beautiful—head, hands, shoulders, and back.” It’s the same with jewelry, a thoughtful hybrid of color, scale, and movement, she continues. The aesthetic connection is a no-brainer as well. Her designs are inherently feminine, with a focus on easy, graceful silhouettes—delicate marquise-shape earrings and thin, stacked rings with bezel-set gems.
“As a dancer, you develop visual sensibilities about lines,” Wolf says. “My innate go-to is femininity, but that doesn’t mean saccharine; it’s more the shape, the movement, the simplicity.” If her collection hinges on anything, it’s Balanchine himself. “He was a classicist but also contemporary and entirely timeless,” she says. “Those are the cornerstones of what I think about when designing.” (Wolf was trained in the Balanchine technique and the NYCB is a Balanchine company.)
18k yellow gold large locket with scallop diamond edge; $11,900
While that narrative closes the circle nicely, the story doesn’t end there. Years at the barre made their mark in not-so-perceptible ways too. “When I first got into the NYCB, I was injured but didn’t want to tell anyone,” Wolf shares. “So I wasn’t working as hard. [Director] Peter Martins called me into his office and basically told me, ‘I gave you the job, the rest is up to you. I can’t hold your hand.’ I will never forget that. So when I started my line, I never expected anyone to help me. I think that’s why I’m a very analytical designer. I’ve relied on myself to figure things out.”
She’s not kidding with the analytical talk. Wolf focuses as much on number-crunching as she does on design. For instance, she knows to always include smaller scale pieces because her clientele, while mostly self-purchasing, also comprises loads of moms buying presents for their daughters. And she’s aware of the growing number of men who come to her for gifting, both in-store and online. For her, the rationale is pretty clear-cut. “There’s a perceived value with my jewelry,” she says. “It’s clean, timeless, made of gold and diamonds. You can understand the correlation between design and price. I think sometimes with more edgy jewelry that can be less clear for someone who’s not well-versed in the designer scene.”
18k yellow gold woven Aladdin Acorn earring with tanzanite; $8,900
And Wolf is well aware that her specific sensibility (“classically beautiful”) may not always be in step with the trends, which can swing to the outré and chunky. “But that’s not what drives our customer,” she says. “She comes to me for something she can wear all the time.” As a case in point, Wolf brings up her celebrity clients, who have included Catherine Zeta-Jones (her first, in 2003) and Portman (husband Benjamin Millepied is a former NYCB colleague). “Stylists tell me that I offer something harder to find—a simple, chic piece their clients can wear to a lunch or a dinner,” she continues. “I mean, actresses have so many red-carpet choices in terms of big and over-the-top jewelry.”
18k yellow gold wrapped Vine ring with tsavorite; $2,800
If Wolf is savvy about her audience now, she admits this wasn’t always the case. When she first launched, the designer says she was fairly clueless, running on instinct and entrepreneurial moxie: “I mean, I was 23. I wasn’t even my own client.” The retail-vendor relationship proved especially integral here. When she wanted to continue producing best sellers, subscribing to the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it maxim, her Barneys buyers persuaded her to push new designs. “Then I spent time in the store and was taken aback by how many clients would come in and say, ‘I bought that already, what can I get now?’?” recalls Wolf. “I learned to have diversity within my collection so clients can keep coming back and keep investing in the brand.” Those buyers had a hand in defining her early designs, she adds.
18k yellow gold oval Aladdin pavé point earring with blue chalcedony and diamonds; $3,410
Did Wolf—an admitted Type-A personality—ever struggle with that? Nope, she says, connecting another dance-to-design dot. “As a dancer, you spend your entire day judging yourself, in class, during rehearsal, and all in front of a mirror,” she explains. “Your ego can’t be attached. You have to be hungry for feedback.”
Last year, Wolf marked her 10th anniversary. She celebrated with the debut of the Signature Collection—inspired by early pieces she designed while still a part of the NYCB—but behind the scenes, she set a number of business gears in motion. For starters, she finally hired an official CEO: her husband, Michael Brown, a trader, who had always helped out anyways. And she left Barneys, with whom she had an exclusive. “When I was with the store, I was deeply aware that I needed to know my client, understand the psychology, focus, and go slow,” Wolf says of the decision. “I wasn’t really focused on growing the business. Now we are.”
18k yellow gold Bisou ring with dark blue chalcedony and diamonds; $3,990
In addition to a handful of boutiques, including the Squash Blossom in Vail, Colo., and Mitchell’s in Westport, Conn., Wolf is now selling at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, Neiman Marcus, and Shopbop.com. “It was an undeniable opportunity to grow our client base,” says Wolf, noting, for instance, that Barneys has eight doors versus, say, Neiman Marcus’ 41. One day, she adds, she hopes to open her own store as well as expand internationally. She wants to enter into other categories, too, like the jewelry boxes she did with Brenda Houston. But don’t ask for dates or details; as she’s proved, Wolf is a fan of measured one-day-at-a-time growth.
“The first 10 years were about learning,” she says. “Now I’m in the application phase.” Improbably, Wolf brings in an analogy from the world of not échappés and entrechats but…electronics. “I read this New Yorker article eons ago about the Sony PlayStation and the Nintendo Wii,” the ex-ballerina begins. “I’m paraphrasing, but it talked about how PlayStation had to be this giant marketing machine, changing every year. Nintendo was the little engine that could; it had its following and steady business. I remember thinking, that’s what I want to be. The Nintendo Wii.”