Women at the Helm

Some come from a family background of fine jewelry. Others fell in love with the product or the challenge and forged their own way. Their fields differ, ranging from retailing and design to manufacturing, contracting and stone dealing. Their important commonality is vision: each recognized an opportunity to provide a service or product unavailable before.

Each started her business from the ground up; she didn’t inherit it, marry it or win it in a crap game. This isn’t intended to denigrate the accomplishment of those who have taken over a family business from father or husband. But these women did it the hard way: they started from scratch.

In researching their stories, we found they have a lot in common: guts, love for the business and determination to succeed supported by a sense of humor and a certain undeniable charm. Most got their early experience working for others, but soon tired of following someone else’s rules and yearned to try their own ideas about merchandising, marketing and design.

Yet each has a unique story, as well. What differ are their backgrounds, their reasons for starting their businesses, and their fields of choice. Here are those stories.

Osnat Gad Osnat Gad Inc. New York, N.Y.

Her family was in the gemstone business, but she decided to carve out her own niche. Buoyed by a love of travel and a determination to succeed in a man’s business, this young Pakistani-born entrepreneur hung out her shingle two decades ago with a goal of supplying manufacturers and retailers with the finest quality precious gemstones.

As expected, her work took her to some of the world’s most exotic places. Some proved dangerous because of political upheaval and hard to reach due to their distance from populated areas. But as she puts it, “travel exposed me to people and events that I only read about in story books. Being a woman in these places was exciting!”

The business grew steadily, as she built solid relationships with clients and provided rare fine gems at the best prices with the best service. Gad notes, “During my 20 years in the business, I have kept the relationship going with many of the same people, women mostly. My success is due to all of these friends and associates that helped me along.”

After building this business for years, Gad realized she needed to diversify in order to grow. In 1996, she began a new venture that made the most of her knowledge and experience in colored gemstones, yet opened new doors for sales.

OGI Unlimited, the new company, manufactures a line of diamond and colored stone eternity bands using top quality gemstones and a precise, machine-set production technique. “It was a natural extension of my business,” she explains, “and yet it opened new opportunities for me.”

In the last five years, Gad says she was thrilled to see growing numbers of gems in fine colors and clarities, the likes of which had not been available for years. But she soon found these stones came by their beauty through treatment. This discovery prompted a new venture: selling certified natural stones.

Gad expects the next several years to see the emergence of a two-market system: one for enhanced stones, one for certified natural ones. How does she feel about this? “There are so many opportunities in our industry,” she says. “The possibilities are numerous. I look forward to a great future.”

Nancy Klein Antica Designs New York, N.Y.

This young entrepreneur cut her teeth in the jewelry industry upon graduation from Ohio University’s School of Journalism when she became advertising coordinator at Henry Birks Jewelry Inc. A GIA diamond certificate program firmed up her education in jewelry and pointed the way to her next position as account executive and brand manager on the De Beers account at NW Ayer, former publicity and marketing arm for De Beers.

But her real merchandising and marketing experience came from buying jobs at Finlay Fine Jewelry and QVC, two of the country’s biggest retailers. At QVC, Klein’s senior assistant buyer position put her in charge of approximately $60 million in diamond, gemstone and pearl jewelry.

While she loved the challenge of her various jobs, she wanted to be her own boss. “I had worked in all facets of the business and had a lot of knowledge of how the industry works. I always worked very hard for my employers, but decided the next step was to start my own company.”

Klein also felt something was missing in the jewelry market – contemporary, affordable styles for women between 25 and 55, who purchase jewelry for themselves and their friends. It was this growing niche serving practical, price- and fashion-conscious women that she intended to fill.

After securing the necessary financing, Klein created Antica Designs Inc. Fine Jewelry. She worked with three award-winning jewelry designers to put together a 60-piece coordinated collection of rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets and pins. Many pieces were convertible and able to be worn in a variety of different ways. Today, the line includes 180 pieces retailing from $230 to $10,000, with the bulk of sales in the $850–$1,000 range.

Klein’s plans for the future? “I want to grow the business to include a staff of salespeople and an ad department so I can do the creative parts myself – the advertising, marketing and designing.”

Linde Meyer Linde Meyer Gold + Silver Philadelphia, Pa.

German-born retailer Linde Meyer is a woman with definite opinions and a trust in her own judgment. Whenever she’s gone against her gut instincts, she says, she always regrets it.

She opened Linde Meyer Gold + Silver five years ago in Philadelphia’s elegant Liberty Place, adjacent to the posh Ritz Carlton Hotel. Meyer says her jewelry assortment is based on one criteria: good design. While the aim is to offer unique merchandise that can’t be found anywhere else, simply being different isn’t enough.

“Being unusual doesn’t make it good,” she cautions. The store’s merchandise comes from a roster of American and international designers who offer original design and impeccable workmanship.

Meyer was trained as a bench jeweler and goldsmith in her native Germany. Although this wasn’t her first choice in occupation at the time – she wanted to go to art school – Meyer says she recommends bench training for anyone wanting to enter this business. “It gets respect and gives you an understanding of the product.”

After working for a small company with production and retail facilities in Hamburg, she gained new insight by working with customers in the salon. Soon she came to New York “for a year” to expand her experience. Looking for a job in the only field she knew and not sure exactly how to go about it, Meyer “bought a nice hat and went to all the stores on Fifth Avenue.”

She landed a job at Georg Jensen, the trailblazing Scandinavian design store, began in sales, rose to merchandise manager and finally became a senior vice president. At that time, Jensen, along with Cartier, Mark Cross and other luxury goods producers, was part of the Kenton Corp. owned by Roger Horchow. “I saw the inside of a luxury products empire,” she says, gaining important knowledge about high-quality merchandise, marketing and staging events.

Within a few years, Meyer was asked to join the Philadelphia institution J.E. Caldwell as its first female president. She remained there for 12 years and tripled the store’s sales, but says she never felt “fully utilized.” In her words, it was time to stretch out and follow her own vision.

In 1993, she opened her shop in a small retail atrium in the middle of an office tower in Philadelphia’s Center City. Remembering the retail dictum (location, location, location), this entrepreneur chose her venue with care. The neighbors, like her operation, were upscale retail outlets and the atrium lacked the typical touristy flavor of other downtown addresses.

The store mixes elements of several styles, but remains true to itself: clean and uncluttered, with a clear focus on the product. Meyer uses no display fixtures or props, instead allowing the design of the jewelry to dominate the cases. There are no price tags on the merchandise. “I want my sales associates and customers to talk about the pieces without looking at the price.”

Linde Meyer has the same definite ideas about the type of people she wants working for her as she does about the merchandise and design of the store. Rather than seek people with expertise in gemstones or jewelry, or luring employees with big commissions, Meyer looks for intelligent, secure people who are well-spoken, confident and interested in art. She says it’s this combination of characteristics that makes the store work. The expertise for pulling it all together, however, is hers alone.

Aya Azrielant Aya Azrielant Fine Jewelry New York, N.Y.

Born on a kibbutz in the Israeli countryside and educated at Haifa University, Aya Azrielant is a modern renaissance woman who used her artistic background to create a recognizable brand in today’s jewelry market. Creativity and a passion for the arts were probably inherited traits, she says. She proudly speaks of a grandfather skilled in sculpture, painting, poetry and philosophy, a music-loving mother and an inventor father.

After completing her studies in fine arts, literature and film making, Azrielant met her future husband Ofer, also a documentary filmmaker in Israel. During the mid-’70s, the young couple took a calculated risk: they opened a chain of jewelry stores in Israel with no previous experience in either jewelry or retailing. The business prospered. By 1981, they had moved to New York and established Andin International, which grew into one of the largest private label jewelry companies in the United States in less than a decade. Andin now has a volume of more than $300 million at retail.

Not one to rest on her unbranded laurels, Azrielant says she saw a void in the market for jewelry styled for women like herself. These active, professional women want jewelry that is “sophisticated, practical and with intrinsic value.” So she took another chance, designing the Aya Azrielant Collection of 18k gold necklaces, pins, earrings, rings and bracelets. These feminine, nature-inspired designs were bold in style yet light in weight.

The collection is housed in specially designed showcases and fixtures and comes with signature gold and white packaging. It sells in fine jewelry and department stores throughout the U.S., in Galeries Lafayette in France and in Japan, where it is known as Aya New York. The five-year-old line has expanded to include an extensive collection in all-gold and gold accented with diamonds, pearls and colored gemstones, retailing from $125 to $1,500.

Today, Andin International employs more than 1,000 workers and produces its jewelry in factories around the world, including a 133,000-sq.-ft., state-of-the-art facility in downtown New York. Named one of Working Women magazine’s top 50 American women business owners for the third consecutive year, Azrielant says she sees jewelry in the same light as film: “Both are not really necessities, but they enrich your soul and life and beautify the world.”

Robin L. Austin Austin & Elkins Fine Jewelry, Alexandria, Va.

It began as a summer job while she was in high school and continued through her years of studying international affairs at George Washington University. By then, she was hooked.

Robin Austin worked in a local jewelry store during her school days. She credits a “terrific mentor” with teaching her the fine points of display, customer service and technical skills. After graduation, the very thought of entering corporate America was anathema, so she stayed on as one of the few female managers of a five-unit guild operation in Washington.

In December 1987, she and her husband bought a Victorian house in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Va. She opened her first store in its downstairs parlor. After two years, Austin outgrew the tiny space and moved the business into a 200-year-old Victorian townhouse, site of a former dress shop.

For eight years, the 900-sq.-ft. space has been home to Austin & Elkins. It’s decorated with elegant Louis XV showcases and jewel-toned carpeting and fixtures. The look is that of a European salon, filled with fine contemporary jewelry.

Her specialty is unusual designs of 18k gold and gemstones that are made in limited numbers by smaller designers. Pieces must be the best of their kind. “I want my stock to remain unique, not just to me, but to my area,” she says. She knows her customers don’t want to see their friends wearing the same pieces.

She finds most of her designers at trade shows in New York, but recently found four new sources at the ACC Craft Show in Baltimore. Much of her business is custom work, involving the styling of engagement and three-stone rings of diamonds and colored stones.

“Most of my customers are career-minded women buying jewelry for themselves or men buying jewelry for these women. Today, women are so busy, they wear their jewelry to work all day and sometimes out to dinner. They don’t have time to change. So the biggest demand is for more tailored styles that offer versatility.”

Although Austin says the idea of expanding her business would have been unthinkable a few years ago, she now has a strong management staff in place. She’s working to increase her marketing efforts, offer better service and expand her customer base. “It’s time to grow the business again.”