How Turkish-born Atelier Minyon designer Alp Sagnak built an empire on gold, grit, and Gothic aesthetics
A lot can happen in six years. It’s the difference between a newborn and a first grader. Or L.A. Dodger Zack Greinke becoming $147 million richer. But a lot can not happen in six years as well, especially for a first-time jewelry designer out of the gate. For Alp Sagnak of Atelier Minyon, the years since 2008 have been a mix of both—highs and lows. Rinse and repeat.
But as a result, the New York City–based Sagnak—who’s from Turkey and is known for a decidedly edgy take on handcrafted gold and silver finery—has become a nimble designer and businessman. For every hurdle, he’s filed away important lessons learned. It hasn’t been easy, and is all the more noteworthy when Sagnak, 37, tells you of his ego issues. “I give too much importance to my ego,” he explains. “It’s not really possible—who would give a f–– about a single jewelry designer?—but you would like to think everyone is paying attention to you.” He laughs, knowing how that sounds.
Hooded Hercules Skull ring in 24k yellow gold and oxidized silver with 1.1 cts. t.w. diamonds; $30,750
In the course of an interview, sitting behind a desk in his SoHo boutique, black button-up buttoned down to a deep V, his fingers dotted with imposing tough-chic rings, as he talks about his career—how he got visibly angry when declined by a store, for instance—Sagnak seems the least likely candidate for Mr. Self-Aware. But he is. And he’ll be the first to tell you he wasn’t always like this. “I was so opinionated,” he says. “You’d come talk to me and I wouldn’t listen. I would think that everything I thought was right, which is pathetic.” Chalk it up to the hard-knock life (of a jewelry entrepreneur trying to make it in the Big Apple).
St. Albertus pendant in 18k yellow gold and oxidized silver with emeralds and diamonds; $15,600 (shown with Signature Chain in 14k yellow gold and oxidized silver, $390); Atelier Minyon, NYC; 646-478-7220; atelierminyon.com
Born and raised in Ankara, Turkey, Sagnak had ambitions of being the first Turkish NBA player. He studied industrial engineering instead before joining his father’s firm, Jewel House of Minyon, which, prior to its 1970 launch as a gold jewelry retailer and manufacturer, had gone through various iterations—all involving the name Minyon, after a former partner—and sold everything from cosmetics and LPs to silverware and bomboniere. By the mid-2000s, Sagnak was coming to the States to represent the company at JA New York. His first time, he had a single display case of Ottoman-inspired designs and went home “feeling like the strongest person alive,” he says. “Everything was selling.”
So, the next show, he beefed up his presence with a double-booth and…bombed. “I only sold to a personal shopper there,” says Sagnak. But he kept in touch with that customer, who agreed to hold a trunk show in her Westchester County home. Thirty women showed and shopped. “I was back to strongest-man-alive mode,” he recalls. “I told myself, ‘I’ve got to come here.’?”
Woven Skull cuff in oxidized silver with 18k pale rose gold clasp and 5.13 cts. t.w. diamonds; $11,000
A stop at the 2007 JCK Las Vegas show (as an attendee, not exhibitor) proved even more fortuitous. There, at breakfast, he met a couple, Elizabeth Genel and Mark Nyman, the duo behind the Connecticut-based JD’s Cosmetic Essentials chain, who bought a few pieces from him. They became friends and, eventually, business partners. The three opened Atelier Minyon, an offshoot of his father’s company, in the current Spring Street store on Dec. 8, 2008. Sagnak flew in tiles and glass lanterns from Turkey in a nod to the collection’s roots, and installed a jeweler’s workbench, out in the open, to highlight its handcrafted appeal. All signs were pointing up. Except this was 2008 and the economy was going down.
Angel and Devil necklace in 18k yellow gold and oxidized silver with 0.4 ct. t.w. diamonds; $8,500
A year and a half into the business, Genel and Nyman pulled out of the venture (while their own beauty concern went bankrupt). Sagnak’s father begged him to cut his losses and come back to Ankara. Sagnak held his own and stayed, even though “we were losing money so fast and nothing was happening,” he says. “But the more I had wrong experiences, the more I matured and learned.”
A pivotal moment came when Sagnak shifted the design output. Whereas before, the merchandise hinged on his Ottoman heritage and what he calls “47th Street–type jewelry,” by 2010 he was relying more on pieces that reflected his personal taste: Gothic styles; dagger pendants; finery in the shape of crocodiles, gargoyles, and scorpions. It was during this time, too, after a particularly reflective period, that he came up with his philosophy of the two egos, the Naive and the Wild, which has become a cornerstone of the brand. The more classical designs—teardrop pendants, floral rings—fall under the former; an anything-goes, rock-’n’-roll mentality punctuates the latter. Among the more outrageous fare here: a 24k gold and enamel skull ring, with an 18k gold spider suspended inside; the Sex Bangle with its 18k gold and oxidized silver Kama Sutra–like figurines; and a guillotine pendant—complete with a tiny severed head and rubies for blood. Next up: a steampunk-inspired collection, with shifting mechanisms “that move like butter.”
Large Evil Eye cuff in 24k yellow gold and oxidized silver with a synthetic eye and 2.5 cts. t.w. diamonds; $27,870
Sagnak says his success comes from finding and owning his niche—which, in turn, allows him to control the markup. “That gives me a profit range, because there’s nothing else like it. I do the weird things that other people won’t,” he says. “Whether you choose to buy it or not—your call. But if you do, you pay the price.” Today, he adds, 90 percent of sales stems from Wild, which, like Naive, runs $390–$350,000, with the average price point between $2,000 and $10,000.
3-D Baroque Furniture ring in 18k yellow gold and oxidized silver with 0.67 ct. t.w. diamonds and 0.63 ct. blue sapphire; $7,500
Not that the business is without its challenges. His SoHo boutique—which he dubs his “Madison Square Garden, how we make money”—is a trial every day. “Chanel, Armani, Mulberry, hotels, restaurants—we’re all feeding from the same purse,” Sagnak says. “We’re all competing; it’s not just jewelry designers.” There’s a sister store next to Atelier Minyon, its architectural twin, that sits empty. Sagnak has seen five tenants circle through in the past six years; the last was an international hosiery company dating back to the ’20s.
Felix Felicis Potion Bottle pendant in 18k yellow gold and silver with 0.56 ct. t.w. diamonds and blown glass bottle filled with diamond dust, loose diamonds, rubies, and blue topaz; $8,800 (with Signature Chain, $390)
While Sagnak remains mum on sales figures, he notes that Atelier Minyon is a small three-person operation, having split from the Ankara-based parent company earlier this year. Which brings us to that nimbleness again. Recently, he made the business decision to accept custom projects, which now represent 20 percent of the pie (not including adjustments in size or stone to already existing designs). No job is too big or too small. Sagnak will do everything from repairs—including for neighboring eyewear and tech stores (e.g., broken screws and headphone jacks)—to more elaborate designs like an incredible sci-fi robot-hand–as–hand-jewelry or a hinged, winged ring that climbs up the finger. He has bespoke clients everywhere, from Russia to Saudi Arabia.
Lace cuff in 18k yellow gold and oxidized silver with 7.8 cts. t.w. diamonds; $22,500
“Custom is a fantastic way of communicating and understanding your customer,” he adds. It’s the same reason Sagnak delights in trunk shows. In fact, ask him about his wholesale business and he admits it’s not much despite the roster of 35 stores listed on his site. Some are more active than others, he points out. “They’re listed but are they generating?” Sagnak adds. “I would love to tell stores I have a $100,000 minimum, but that’s not my reality. Overall my wholesale sales are not a big amount.” But his wholesale business is vital for that trunk-show factor. “It’s a small world here,” he remarks, gesturing around his store, “and when you start going out, you learn. So wholesale means trunk shows for me. I will love them until the day I die.”
Humble Man pendant in 24k yellow gold and oxidized silver with 0.87 ct. t.w. diamonds; $16,530
Sagnak does about 12 shows a year, in locales ranging from Texas and Pittsburgh to Colorado and New Orleans. He’s such an enthusiast—and has made plenty of mistakes, like the time he got so noticeably frustrated at a slow three-day show (“I didn’t know it was showing on my face, but my reactions and body language…”), the store owner warned him afterward not to let it happen again—that he could write his own how-to primer. “You have to put your f—ing feet on the ground,” he begins. “You’re there to communicate yourself and make money—never forget this. Don’t show up acting like a superstar or be too shy. You are the face of the product and that product has to sell. You have to perform, like at a Broadway show.” At the same time, he cautions, thinking back to his gaffes, “you have to remember you’re a guest and representing the host store.” The markets he has yet to crack: Chicago (“a nightmare”) and Los Angeles (“a mystery”). Although he has hit Hollywood: You can spot his wares on Fox’s Gotham series, appropriately enough, on the sexy-dangerous nightclub owner–slash–crime lord Fish Mooney, played by Jada Pinkett Smith.
The Sex Bangle in 18k yellow gold and oxidized silver; $10,650
“A lot of artists don’t push themselves to communicate,” Sagnak notes. “And if you don’t communicate, what the f— are you doing? Artists love masturbation, including myself, but if you cannot sell, you cannot masturbate anymore. The more you talk and listen to people, the more you learn.”
Plus, Sagnak emphasizes that he enjoys interacting with people as well as being both creative and business heads of the firm, both designer and salesperson. And then the E word pops up again: “It feeds my ego,” he explains. “People compliment me, that gives me drive to make more, the piece sells, which is another compliment, and pays the bills so you can keep doing what you’re doing.”