NEW YORK –– In a small storefront on Park Avenue, steps away from Tiffany & Co., Bulgari and Harry Winston, designer Rosena Sammi makes her boldest statement yet about who should be part of the great class of fine jewelry.
The first pop-up store for her online collective, The Jewelry Edit, offers more than 150 fine pieces of jewelry — priced between $1,000 and $30,000 — from nearly two dozen mostly female designers, including Katey Walker, Silvia Furmanovich, Jennie Kwon, and Pippa Small. Sammi hopes the store’s prime location will help her goal of opening up the jewelry store to a larger group of designers.
As an industry, the barriers to entry for aspiring jewelry designers are high. Established houses such as Tiffany, Bulgari and Cartier have long dominated the high-end jewelry market, and brands of all sizes must navigate a market for valuable stones and precious metals where trade is often based on relationships that can span generations.
It can be difficult for any budding jewelry designer or entrepreneur to break into – but doubly so for many black and brown folks, who often lack industry connections that could be essential to getting a business off the ground. For minority consumers, the shopping experience can be as intimidating as it is exclusive.
“You often feel like ‘Am I dressed enough? Do I look like I can afford this? Am I asking the right questions?'” said Sammi. “Buying jewelry shouldn’t be like this.”
All of these challenges were at the top of the New Zealand-born Sri Lankan designer’s agenda when she launched The Jewelry Edit in Fall 2020 as an e-commerce site featuring pieces almost exclusively from female designers and priced between $50 and $4,000. Today, the site features 60 designers, nearly half of whom identify as people of color.
While Sammi is generating buzz, the company is still small. For example, revenues at The Jewelry Edit are still in the six-figure range, even though they’ve grown 100 percent in the past six months, Sammi said. She’s self-funding, but will begin pitching to investors next year with the goal of adding more in-person shopping, launching a podcast, and amplifying themes like ethical jewelry design.
The pop-up, which opened in October and runs through the end of December, is designed to expand its “responsible, diverse and inclusive” mission to higher-end fine jewelry and burgeoning categories like ethically-mined gold. The store has hosted five Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) designers who have received the Emerging Designer funding credit from the Natural Diamond Council. It also served as the debut of The Jewelry Edit’s “fair mined gold” collection, a private label range made from metal from small-scale mining communities where workers are paid fair wages, Sammi said.
Although it is located in one of the world’s wealthiest neighborhoods, the goal is to create a space where everyone feels comfortable walking into.
“I had access to that red carpet treatment where you go in and the [jeweller] wears white gloves, you get champagne and you get shown around,” she said. “I also went to the Zara checkout and there are just a few earrings hanging on a turnstile. Why isn’t there one?”
An unlikely change agent
In some ways, Sammi was an unlikely newcomer to the jewelry industry. While working as a lawyer in Manhattan in the early 2000s, she found herself craving a creative outlet and decided to take a few evening classes at the city’s Parsons School of Design. There, Sammi discovered a “passion for jewelry” that she hadn’t realized before, despite her South Asian heritage, where “jewelry is central and part of our cultural DNA,” she said.
In 2006, Sammi left her law firm “where I had a secretary and car service” to launch her eponymous jewelry brand, which she worked on from her apartment and the New York Public Library, creating necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. which are handmade in India. Eventually, her wares ended up at luxury stores such as Saks Fifth Ave and Neiman Marcus and on the pages of publications such as Fashion and Harper’s Bazaar. Celebrities like Rihanna and Blake Lively have worn her designs.
But even as the brand was making wins, the designer couldn’t ignore the fact that “I was a young woman of color in a very white, male-dominated industry,” she said.
“I’ve never met people of color in terms of buyers in department stores,” Sammi added. “I was very much in an ‘ethnic jewelry’ box… I was often just a piece of jewelry under a box or in a drop-down list on a website. And nobody really knew my story.”
By the time she began winding down the brand in 2018, she had created private label jewelry for major department stores and chains, where it was all about “getting things done as quickly and as cheaply as possible,” shifting her focus to philanthropy and social responsibility. (In 2016, for example, she launched the “Who’s Sari Now” collection of bracelets, necklaces, earrings and bags, made — using upcycled saris — by Indian women rescued from human trafficking.)
Her vision for The Jewelry Edit began to take shape soon after and by the time it launched in September 2020, the social justice protests that summer had brought conversations about diversity, justice and inclusion to the forefront in many industries, including fashion. and beauty. A handful of direct-to-consumer jewelry brands created new competition for heritage houses.
But even as more people talked about DEI — for example, the Natural Diamond Council provided $1 million in funding that year to help up-and-coming designers buy diamonds — Sammi believed jewelry still lagged behind in its approach to everything from inclusiveness to social inclusion. responsibility.
It was clear to Sammi that The Jewelry Edit needed to serve as a platform for storytelling – to help emerging designers build meaningful, long-lasting relationships with clients – as well as a mentoring program where she exchanges industry contacts and other tips with new designers. (On its website, The Jewelry Edit features biographies and photos of the designers alongside their pieces for sale.)
“Just the fact that she goes to great lengths to give her clients…an understanding that things like this even exist is [impressive]” says Victoria Golemsky, editor-in-chief of the jewelry publication JCK and a contributor to The New York Times and Robb report. “It takes lawyers like Rosena to get that out.”
Educating consumers about how and where their jewelery comes from and about the industry’s exclusive history was also critical if the site were to deliver on its promise of storytelling. At the pop-up, Sammi has done a mix of exclusive edits such as “The India Edit,” featuring five jewelry lines from designers largely unknown in the US.
“She’s really shaking up an industry that’s behind the times,” says Nyakio Grieco, founder of skincare brand Relevant: Your Skin Seen and co-founder of beauty e-commerce site Thirteen Lune. “She goes beyond optics and addresses the fundamental challenge of helping these brands build righteous businesses.”