After two decades in the business, Melissa Joy Manning unveils a fine jewelry collection imbued with her signature rough-meets-refined style
When designer Melissa Joy Manning decided to expand her namesake line into fine jewelry, she did it with little fanfare, announcing the move last August via posts to her 28,000-plus Instagram followers. Since founding her company 20 years ago, Manning has trusted her instincts. She chose to work exclusively with recycled metals and responsibly sourced stones long before the industry moved toward sustainability. From the beginning, her popular hug earrings and hammered gold hoops have been handmade in New York City and Berkeley, in studios certified green by the state of California. Her website now generates half of the company’s in-house sales, plus worldwide e-commerce via Net-a-Porter and Ylang 23, among others.
Manning’s blend of environmentalism and technological savvy helped her build and maintain a thriving brand, and she is convinced that the same principles can make her fine jewelry collection a success. “Part of moving into ‘fine’ is embracing my maturity as a designer,” she says, “working with vintage and reclaimed stones to create pieces that can be passed down and worn forever. I feel like I’ve been in the industry long enough to have built a customer base willing to support it.”
Warm and unpretentious, Manning describes the evolution of her work while standing behind a display case in her Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, storefront. It’s charmingly cozy, with a tin ceiling and an exposed brick wall, in a neighborhood that supports mom-and-pop grocers as well as luxury retailers. On display are the beautifully simple pieces the designer is best known for: drop earrings, hoops in varied sizes and shapes, and delicate cuff bracelets with stones on each end. MJM Fine pieces, nestled in antique tins, include an oval white diamond in a split-shank setting, a cushion-cut pink diamond solitaire in rose gold, and a curvy gold choker dotted with colored diamonds. The range is striking: from $90 triangle studs to a $15,710 rose-cut diamond ring.
Manning aims to please buyers on both ends of the price spectrum. “I started my business with $500, making whatever I could afford, and we’ve never forgotten the aspirational customer,” she says. “That’s why we still have $25 silver hugs as well as a $15,000 ring you can drool over. It might take you five or seven years to be able to afford it, but we want you to be part of what we do.”
Proof of Manning’s belief in the proverbial high-low mix can be seen on her own arm, where MJM cuffs are part of a stack designed by her friends Polly Wales, Lauren Wolf, and Kaylin Hertel, along with a gold Love bangle from Cartier.
After declaring that her customer “is not the person Tiffany or Cartier markets to,” Manning laughs when asked about the screw-studded bangle, a treasured 30th-birthday gift from her parents. “This bracelet is genius!” she cries. “I love seeing how different women style it.” Imagine, then, her reaction when the Cartier saleswoman warned that the bracelet would scratch if mixed with other jewelry. “I said, ‘Oh my god, you so don’t know me!’ ” Manning recalls with amusement. “It needs to be scratched. It needs to have a life. It needs to show that I love it.”
A lifelong interest in history and art fuels Manning’s passion for pairing vintage stones in modern settings of her own design. “A perfect dendritic agate or black opal or pink sapphire is as valuable to me as a diamond,” she says, adding, almost as an aside, “and as a mom, I just want to create things that resonate in my life right now.”
Manning became the mother of a baby boy two years ago, in her early 40s, an event that caused her to rethink her goals and priorities. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, she spent her postcollege years in sales before a career counselor urged her to use her training in jewelry design, metalsmithing, and sculpture to debut her signature line. “I started my business when I was 26,” she says, “and when you’re 26, you’re ego-driven. It’s all about ‘I wanna have a brand, I wanna be in Barneys.’ I’ve developed some amazing professional relationships, but they no longer define me. What defines me are my family, my son, my friends, my customers, and finding balance in my life and my work.”
As co-chair of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s sustainability committee, Manning has led by example in creating timeless styles from 100 percent recycled metals. Her chain necklaces have two hooks for versatility; the pinhole clasps in her gold hoops “are engineered to function,” she says proudly. Speaking of those hoops, Manning doesn’t mind revealing the everyday objects used to create their shapes. “Our triangle hoop is three tampons duct-taped together,” she says. “Our square hoop is a paprika can. The baseline of what we do hasn’t changed in 20 years, and I think that’s what sets us apart—there’s a brand integrity that people understand.”
And yet Manning is savvy enough to extend her line not only with fine jewelry but also a new Celestial Metals collection of crescent moon–shape rings and studs, lightning bolt charms, and triple circle earrings. The craftsmanship and clean lines of these mixed-metal pieces pop on the brand’s newly redesigned website. “We do our own photography, so we can control how things are presented,” Manning says, “and we’re careful to remain noncompetitive with our retailers unless it’s a basic metal piece.” American businesses, she adds, are finally catching up to e-commerce trends in countries such as Japan, where MJM jewelry is popular and one-click shopping from a smartphone is routine.
For Manning, the goal is to maintain a bond with her customers, even those who live far away from her shops in Brooklyn and Berkeley. “The biggest trend right now is that consumers want to feel like they’re part of something,” she says. “They want to feel a connection. It’s all about telling a story, and we’re trying to be even more story-driven.”
Whether she’s reworking a client’s heirloom ring or creating a wedding band from a string of colored diamonds, Manning continues to look for meaning in her work. “I always wanted to build a brand that had influence,” she says, “not just in terms of what people bought but how they think. I want them to appreciate what we’re doing and feel passionate about every piece they buy.”
All jewelry: Melissa Joy Manning; email@example.com; melissajoymanning.com