written by Lee Wiser McIntosh
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously stated “There are no second acts in American lives.”
Coming from someone who died at 44, I’m not inclined to buy it. Who knows what he could have done next? And to those reading this, who cannot think of at least one person who jumped lanes to create another successful and unexpected career?
The idea for this story first came to me while meeting with various designers in Vegas. Once I delved into their stories, I realized that their current success was based in no small part on a previous career. Three came to mind. I asked them the same questions and the answers diverged into interesting conversations that revealed truths for all of us. For those beginning or those contemplating a “second act.,” settle in for some touching little dramas.
MEET THE CAST:
Emily Kuvin was my trade show neighbor at Metal&Smith in NYC. It was EMILY KUVIN JEWELRY’s first foray into trade shows and her collection was focused and intense.
She’s that perfectly pragmatic person who also happens to be very artistic… with words, theatre, and finally jewelry.
Gina Ferranti channels her Italian heritage through GIGI FERRANTI JEWELRY, where she captures a sense of carnivàle with her use of color and nails a modern Art Deco aesthetic through a deep appreciation of classical architecture.
Robin Labb and I met sourcing pearls. Both of us being “pearl girls,” we were immediately kindred spirits and always made a point of catching up with each other in Tucson. She established ROBIN LABB JEWELRY after a chance encounter at a beach bar in the Hamptons.
Common threads amongst them… innate curiosity, business acumen, an appreciation for quality, artistic leanings, and fearlessness…though it may not always feel that way at the time.
In and around New York City. Our cast of characters has a way of showing up in Vegas, Tucson and jewelry stores all over the country.
ACT I: THE FIRST LENS TO VIEW BUSINESS
Raised in an Italian-American family, Gina Ferranti’s strong work ethic is cultural–part of the oxygen she breathes. She was raised with expectations of knowing she had to do what needed to be done. “I’ve been a business woman all my life. I understand a balance sheet.” Indeed, she was working in the family’s disco roller rink at 16 as a skate guard. (No doubt, there has to be some good stories there.) More on point, she had decades of human interactions clientelling for her high end dress shop in Brooklyn. Hers was the go to boutique for contemporary and chic clothing. Her clients trusted her taste, authenticity, and ability to translate trends. Gina knew her customer. As her store evolved, jewelry was playing a bigger and bigger part. She became familiar with the wholesale side of the business by being a buyer at the JA shows in NY and began folding fine jewelry into her store’s offerings. This was the first sign of things to come.
Drama, real-life drama, was integral to Emily’s path. Her career began in broadcast journalism. She went from bigger to bigger markets, learning along the way. Eventually, she became a national correspondent for CourtTV and was always on a plane.
Exciting, but untenable when it came time to start a family. It was then she fully utilized her law degree, first in finance and then with a non-profit. Ask almost any attorney, particularly those who are no longer practicing, and what they truly love about law is the intellectual aspect of leaning HOW to think. For Kuvin, she was naturally adept at separating the wheat from the chaff, identifying what really matters and distilling this down intelligently for the lay person. This skill set served her as a journalist, attorney and administrator. Eventually, it would facilitate her transition into jewelry.
Objectively successful, I wondered how much temperament and personality had played into success in their chosen fields. Ferranti quickly sites drive as being part of her upbringing. Kuvin was temperamentally suited for live news: she’s good in a crisis, can think quickly on her feet, and excellent at compartmentalizing to remain calm under pressure. This mindset would serve her well in the future.
Labb defines her personality as very competitive and that she was “on a mission.” Her children were definitely her why then. Labb took over her late husband’s school uniform business in 1990. (If your kids went to a private school, chances are good that they wore her uniforms.) She was also uniquely able to translate school symbols and motifs into patches, and it was this use of her artistic skills that helped set her company apart.
Intermissions serve to allow changes to be made behind the scenes. New props and backdrops reflecting the passage of time must be put into place. Sometimes the changes are subtle, sometimes radical. Life serves up intermissions as well. These stopping points make the starting points all the more sweet. Life may be blurry, but it is good to have referenced beginnings and endings, endings and beginnings… when the curtain closes and then opens to a new act.
Kuvin’s endpoint came in 2015. She had been slowly re-imagining jewelry, which she had begun making in high school. “How did I even forget about it?” she mused. Her brain was fundamentally creative, and she was connecting the dots. It was time to take the leap and focus her energies on jewelry full-time.
For Ferranti, that point came in 2010. She closed her Sheepshead Bay store that had been her business and part of her identity for 20 years. Good decisions can still be hard ones, and she needed the time to unpack the emotions that came with the store closing. Gemstones emerged as her passion, and she enrolled full-time at GIA in 2011 after which she graded stones for DAVID YURMAN. During this time, she clearly remembers a point when she realized she was creative and had things to say via jewelry. After a relatively brief and rewarding time immersed in antique jewelry at Alice Kwartler Antiques on Park Avenue, it was time to launch…
2010 marked the endpoint for Labb when she sold the business. It was a bittersweet time for her, but Robin knew that something good was about to happen. “I’m not a golfer, not a luncher… I’m a worker.” During this brief intermission, Robin worked on restoring a hundred year old Arts & Crafts bungalow, and this process of love, patience, and vision eventually yielded ROBIN LABB JEWELRY in 2013.
ACT II: JEWELRY
“You need to get a business license. You have a business.” Those words rang in the ears of Robin Labb. Sales have a way of making themselves heard. Once again, she had sold out of her edgy pearl designs that balance a rough/soft aesthetic. Those words also provided affirmation that her artistic talent was real and appreciated. Her pieces are made to her exacting standards. Perfection that is hard to come by, but recognized by her customers. ROBIN LABB JEWELRY is available primarily in specialty shops in NYC and the Northeast. She’s been a regular at Donna Karan’s URBAN ZEN, and Covid has actually resulted in a longer selling season on Martha’s Vineyard. She’s also been featured in private events in Aspen, Florida and LA. The simplicity of her work is her hallmark. And anyone who works in design knows there’s nothing simple about simplicity! “My customers push me to be more creative. And that’s exciting!”
Emily Kuvin’s trajectory started like many others–by building a following. At the beginning, her time was split between New Hampshire and NYC. Her previous work experience prepared her for maneuvering the jewelry wholesale landscape, developing supply chains and new networks of people. But most importantly, her ability to work at her designs full-time resulted in collections that are deep and have been fully explored. They pack punch.
For Ferranti, there was always the backdrop of jewelry in her life. Growing up, her grandparents brought back jewelry for her from Italy and so no one was surprised by the gravitational pull of gemstones and jewelry. Even her inclination towards a geometric, architectural vision is in her blood. Her father worked in construction. She saw his accomplishments right in front of her through her urban upbringing in Brooklyn. There’s a poignancy there that gives her a sustaining happiness, and that’s apparent in her jewelry.
Ferranti is a quick study and is fearless about facing her mistakes. She is also methodical in her work, setting goals and achieving them. Her first collections were made too quickly, and she couldn’t get them in front of enough eyes. The eyes of her customers provide her with the best feedback she needs. This was a mistake that she wouldn’t make again. The Lucia collection is a deep dive into geometric elements that stack, and the iterations of that concept will turn the buyer attracted to it into a collector. I’ve run into people wearing these identifiable rings, and they never wear just one. Three is typical. Wisely, she has chosen to reinterpret Art Deco, the most popular of all jewelry periods, into contemporary jewels that attracts even the classicist. The lockets are an excellent example of her skills as an interpreter! She is working on a bridal collection with the goal to launch first quarter of 2022.
EPILOGUE: JEWELRY IN THE TIME OF COVID
Ferranti summed up a common sentiment: “It’s sink or swim time!” Expenses were easily cut by more than a third with the absence of trade shows, and that money is being plowed into DTC digital efforts via websites. Doubling down on social media and email is also happening. Ferranti even opened a new account that had strong holiday sales.
No one denies that there has been a loss of momentum. However, the void has been filled with what Labb calls her “research and discovery” that’s preparing her for the momentum to return. Once again, Ferranti turned to education and redeemed the time through thinking, research, reading, and attending Zoom webinars which reinforced her belief that you can’t be everything to everyone. She attributes this renewed learning process to GIGI FERRANTI JEWELRY “beating last year’s figures!”
EMILY KUVIN JEWELRY has experienced slower growth, but it’s been solid and incremental with dependable accounts. She’s a big believer in “narrowcasting” and has focused on cultivating her current key accounts. Knowing these customers well will help her to replicate them in the future.
Each generously shared some warnings: don’t get caught in the echo chamber that is social media, if you aren’t a natural sales person—learn AND practice!
Know your merchandise and know how to romance it; know how to tell a story.
And it’s really all about writing. Once that nut is cracked, you’re half way to where you want to be. Writing gives clarity to yourself and your customer. After all, those search engines are still searching for just the right words.
There are bright moments and seeing your collection merchandised creatively by a store is one of them. Interaction with the customers ranked high with each of them as important, and this looks different now, perhaps taking place on video chat. They relish making their own decisions, seeing their designs become tangible, and delighting their customers. Fundamentally, each one of them is very happy doing what they are doing.
Each of these women bring a lot to the table in an industry that is steeped in business traditions that include predictable, expected paths. Their paths have not been easy, but rather surprising, unexpected, and seemingly unrelated. Thankfully, their visions provide the industry with fresh perspectives and fresh design for a new generation of customers.
Let’s close with a few parting shots of wisdom. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t include at least one more quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald that’s more apt than ever and has everything to do with all our “second acts” with whatever form they take.
GF: “I stopped bleeding by stopping consignment. All it does is grow your inventory and put you in a worse position.”
EK: “‘NO’ is a very important word in order to keep your eye on the ball.”
GF: “Integrity is number one! People trust me, and keeping your name and reputation is everything.”
EK: “Never lose sight that it is a business.”
RL: “Business is tough. Stick with it. There are rough days. And there are rough weeks.
It takes perseverance.”
FSF: “For what it’s worth… it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start over again.”