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It's All in the Family


There’s something special about the jewelry industry.  Jewelry somehow combines the best of old-world traditions with a necessary--albeit sometimes slow--embrace of modern business.  Many deals are still concluded with a handshake or a hug, and vendors are likely to know the names of your children or ask about your parents.  It feels like…family.  One big, complicated, messy, imperfect-but-still-beautiful family.

Perhaps this is an extension of the fact that many jewelry businesses are scrappy entrepreneurial endeavors with principals who are also partners in life, or related to each other by actual blood.  I’m not sure which came first, but the industry that feels like family actually often IS family.

Several CJDG members shared what it’s like to work in this rarified world, balancing work and family, and the always-interesting dynamics that result.  I was struck by the fact that, universally, each partner thought that the others bring unique gifts or skills that are intrinsic to the business and extremely valuable.  There are certainly challenges, from stealing tweezers to differences in artistic vision, but there is definitely never a dull moment when you work with family.  The overriding theme I heard was really about love: love for what these families do and create, and love for each other.  

Jack and Elizabeth Gualtieri, Zaffiro Jewelry

I had a chance to ask Jack and Elizabeth Gualtieri about the roles they occupy in their company, Zaffiro Jewelry.  In their Portland studio, which is close to their home, both Elizabeth and Jack design and make the jewelry that defines Zaffiro: intricate layering of metals using old-world granulation techniques with a modern element. 

Elizabeth: On the creative side, both Jack and I are the designers, goldsmiths and stone setters.  We consult or sometimes collaborate on the design, but we make our own pieces from start to finish.  On the business side, the tasks are divided: I'm the bookkeeper and webmaster (mistress??) while Jack is the great communicator with our galleries, private clients, suppliers, etc.

Jack: I make sure everything runs smoothly in the studio.  I make the granules, mill most of of the gold/silver material, and make sure we are well supplied with bits/burrs/etc.

How has your business benefitted from having both of you involved?

Elizabeth: We have always had a similar vision for what we want Zaffiro to be and it has taken an enormous amount of focus and dedication to make it what it is today.  I don't know if that would have been possible if we were just business partners, not life partners.

Jack: It takes a lot to run a business and we both have similar goals for Zaffiro.  There are rare occasions when we see things differently, but then we just sit down and present our ideas to each other.  Eventually things get worked out.  Communication is definitely the key when spending 24/7 with each other.

What is the biggest (or funniest, or craziest) challenge in working together?

Elizabeth: Keeping Jack from stealing my tweezers.  I'm not good at sharing tools.  Also, he's not allowed to ask me bookkeeping questions in bed.

Jack:  There really is no challenge working together.  It just seems natural (we have worked together for over 23 years).  Actually it is Elizabeth hoarding tools and not remembering where her tweezers are (she has engraved hers with an 'L').  My tweezer tips are ground to a point and polished. Why would I want to use hers?  I have started to double up on various tools when funds allow so I don't have to go 'hunting' for them.  

What unique perspective or skill does your partner bring to the business?

Elizabeth: Jack keeps me grounded and is a great trouble-shooter both on the business and the studio side of things.  It's his industrial-design training in action.

Jack: Elizabeth is the ultimate organizer.  She keeps the business end of the business running smoothly (something I am sure would drive me crazy). In the studio, she definitely adds her own personal touch.  Elizabeth's attention to design and detail is incredible.  Working together, I think definitely benefits both of us.

To sum it up, Jack stated that he thinks they "are very lucky to be doing what we love to do and make a living at it.  I have worked for other jewelers in the past, but nothing beats working beside your spouse everyday.  They know exactly what your day was like and completely understand when you have a bad day.  I would not trade that for anything!"  Elizabeth added, "our life is less compartmentalized between work and home than most couples, but I don't really consider what we do as strictly work.  It's more of a calling than a job: I can't imagine not designing and creating jewelry."

Vicente Agor and Michael Pfeffer, Vicente Agor Precious

Vicente Agor and Michael Pfeffer are partners in life and business with Vicente Agor Precious.  Their collections of 18k gold jewelry in supple shapes with luminous gemstones consistently garner media attention.  So I wondered, how do they divide up the work and keep communication moving fluidly?

Vicente said, "as in every relationship, communication is key. Every morning we have a beginning meeting. The meeting is held while we walk our dog, Patu. We talk about the past day, the upcoming day or week, and our accomplishments and to-dos. Even though we work side-by-side, and live side-by-side, each of us can get involved in our own projects. If we didn't touch base daily, soon enough the company could end up going in an unintended direction.

"Michael and I divide up the work based on our strengths and likes. Luckily, as a team, we have each have strengths that complement each other. In other words, you can't have two people that are visionary and big picture; you'd never get anything accomplished. Conversely, if you have a team made up of only detail oriented people, the organization would never move forward.  When our personal relationship first began, we happened to take a test - similar to Myers Briggs - that helped us understand each other. It helped us understand why and how each of us approach a situation or problem. Additionally it gave us a vocabulary to work with, so that if problems arose, we could always refer to the test results and help understand why the other person was reacting in that manner. It helps us our relationship professionally and personally. Sure it may be frustrating at times, but whose relationship isn't? And at least we each understand why it's frustrating! =)"

Since both Vicente and Michael do the design work, they often get asked the question of who designed a particular piece.   So when people ask, Michael responds, "do you like this piece? If you like it, then I designed it," with his Southern twinkle in his eye.

Dharmesh and Namrata Kothari, Syna Jewels

Dharmesh and Namrata run Syna together: design, manufacturing, communicating with clients, trunk shows and everything else.  They are also married, and the parents of two young children.  When I talk to them, I get a sense of their deep committment to each other and the business.

When I asked about their roles, Dharmesh said, "she’s the voice of the company."  Namrata answered, "and he's the vision."

Dharmesh added, "we have really not distributed our work in any way. We both do everything. All we know is if we need to pick up the phone & speak to anyone, it’s Namrata.  It is rare for me to speak to anyone on the phone. I like emails and she loves talking on the phone.

Namrata said "he analyzes everything, from every showcase to every account, to every link in every piece. If it’s not right, it just not right!  Everything is in an Excel sheet and he makes sure we all know how we are doing on paper at all times."

How has your business benefitted from having both of you involved?

Namrata: We complement each other at all times. There are so many things that only he would know what to do.

Dharmesh:  And likewise, a lot of things are just right if she decides, especially on “functional” issues with earrings.  We just cannot go ahead without her feeling right with how the earrings fit.

Namrata: Dharmesh comes up with a lot of forms and has new concepts all the time.

Dharmesh: …till she bangs them down to become more practical and more sellable.  It really helps that we work together, and trust me, we’re working 24/7 on everything.

When I asked what is the biggest (or funniest, or craziest) challenge in working together...

Dharmesh: It’s the craziest when she wants to do everything together, all at the same time. I need to focus on one thing and complete it till I get to the other.

Namrata: We argue the most when he misses the turn on our road trips.

Dharmesh: Ya, I need a chauffeur!

Namrata:  But, overall, we’re fine.  Especially on three-hour road trips when the road is all smooth, with no turns, no signals and no traffic.

What unique perspective or skill does your partner bring to the business?

Namrata:  He always says 'Let’s build our brand with honesty'. If they are successful, we will be successful.  So, the best we can do is to tell them honestly what they should do.

Dharmesh:  That’s most important to us. She’s a nice person and it reflects in everything she says.

Mary Kay Mohs and Patrick Nelson, Patrick Mohs Jewelry

Mary Kay and Patrick design imaginative jewelry for their company Patrick Mohs Jewelry that is inspired by their surroundings of beauty and nature.  Their jewelry is all numbered--many pieces are one-of-a-kind--and each piece reflects both of their substantial input. 

What roles do each of you perform within your business? 

Patrick and Mary Kay:  We really complement one another.  We design our jewelry together, and we both have to be in love with a design for it to become one of our creations.  Patrick does all of our manufacturing and bench work.  Mary Kay does all of the CAD and CAM and photography of our jewelry as well as accounting, marketing, and other business details.

How has your business benefitted from having both of you involved?

Patrick and Mary Kay:  This is a passion that we share together.  Making jewelry is not only a creative release for each of us, but an exploration together as a couple.  We know how to play off of each other’s strengths, and value what the other adds to our collaboration.

What is the biggest challenge in working together?

Patrick and Mary Kay:  One word sums it up: communication!  We have really learned over the course of time in working together how to communicate and express our individual ideas to each other in working towards a common goal.  In working together we have each learned enough about each other’s areas of expertise to make it “sound good” when discussing something in the other’s realm.  For instance, Patrick is slowly learning what an STL file is used for in CAD/CAM and which ISO or F-stop should be used for a particular photo, and Mary Kay is starting to understand which graver to use for bead setting and what grain structure is in metal.  We each have our own micro-languages within our jewelry worlds and we are slowly learning and teaching each other while still trying to stay ahead of each other at the same time!

What unique perspective or skill does your partner bring to the business?

Mary Kay:  Patrick brings a practical jewelry-making perspective to Patrick Mohs Jewelry.  He grew up in the industry and first learned bench work from his mother, so he really knows the ins and outs of metal, gems, and manufacturing.  He pushes me to think about the practicality of each design –  how much metal to use, what will it end up looking like, and how will the customer see the finished piece of jewelry.  Each day I learn something new from Patrick!  I really enjoy collaborating together with him – we make a great team!

Patrick:   Mary Kay brings a sense of fun and looking at an overall picture as I get wrapped up in the perfection and the details.  She grounds me while supporting me and we are able to share in the design and creation of jewelry.   CAD is not my forte, but I can ask in a way…. “I want another .5mm and move the stone over there while you are at it.”  Then am told “it’s not magic Patrick, that means remaking the whole model!”  It’s fun, sometimes just asking for the reaction, it would be like her asking me to add another bead on the diamond, no one would notice, but it would be there!  Every piece is an adventure, exploration and fun we share together!

Vahe Ghazarian, Esin Guler and Mihran Guler, G & G Creations

The design trio behind G & G Creations, including sister Esin and brother Mihran, embody what it means to work and live as a family.  Each partner in the business builds upon the foundations of each piece of jewelry they create, resulting in layers and layers of beauty in each design.  It turns out for this team, three partners equals triple the love.

What roles do each of you perform within your business? 

The team:  Esin and Vahe are responsible for the overall design of each of our creations. The placement of the fine gems is coordinated by Master Gem Setter Mihran Guler with each of us adding our suggestions and ideas along the way.

How has your business benefitted from having all of you involved?

Mihran:  We all have different experiences in life and each of us has a unique point of view. When we create, we discuss designs elements and business strategies and solutions together, as a team, and as a family.

Esin:  The team understands each other, our hands and minds work together as one. This is the FUN aspect that I believe is a crucial element of how we stay inspired and continue to each strive to bring our personal best into the creative process and execution.

Vahe:  We all share the same dream of having our designs enjoyed by customers. We knew we stumbled onto something great when the team first came together. We won the Future of Design contest in 2013 as well as Honorable mention at the New Talent Competition from the AJDC. We hope to continue to keep this momentum going and share our passion with our customers and buyers.

What is the biggest (or funniest, or craziest) challenge in working together?

Mihran:  The funniest times are when the three of us come together for a new design concept and end up having the same idea when we share our ideas with each other.  At that point there are no words needed to explain and we all start laughing.

Esin:  Working on the Future of Design competition application was the biggest challenge. We know the jewelry business well but when we sat down to analyze our business and what steps we needed to take to grow our business, it was difficult, but worthwhile.  When we heard Cindy Edelstein, Andrea Hill and the panel of judges announce that we won the Future of Designer Competition this past March we were very proud! As a team we know we accomplished our goal.

What unique perspective or skill does your family member bring to the business?

Mihran:  Vahe is a sculptor and painter and brings his life experiences and passion for art to the G & G team. My sister, Esin, brings a strong eye for unique and intricate designs and also her passion for art to the team. We combine our energies and passions together when discussing design concepts to create complete designs. We discuss the design aesthetic, what size gems we should use as well as the softness/hardness of the metal.

Esin:  My design partner, Vahe Ghazarian, is an award winning designer who gives shape to the G & G Creations business with his artistic eye and vision. Vahe's craftsmanship, his sculptures of gold, wax carving, and design make him an architect extraordinaire. My brother, Mihran Guler, brings his masterful gem setting skillset to the team. He brings passion and professionalism with his meticulous attention to detail when setting diamonds and colored stones. Mihran & Vahe, and myself bring a combined 70+ years of jewelry experience to the G & G Creations team.

Vahe:  Esin brings her award winning carvings and designs to the G & G Creations team. Esin also brings a very important feminine touch to the entire collection.  Mihran is not only a master at the art of gem setting, he has an incredible eye for color and really helps Esin and I bring the design elements to life.

Esin added, "Vahe, Mihran and I have sacrificed a lot to together to achieve our goal of the American Dream and we collaborate together in perfect harmony."

And Vahe concluded "our team shares the same dream that has kept us together from the very beginning.  We want to share our passion with the world and are working diligently to ensure our dream becomes a reality. Slowly but surely we are getting there."

Etienne, Connie, and Michael Perret, Etienne Perret 

Etienne Perret has been making jewelry for many years, and his family has joined him over time.  His wife, Connie, has been involved since their son Michael was born, and now Michael himself is involved with the company.  Etienne shared his thoughts about forty years of an evolving family business.

Etienne:  "It struck me the other day that I have been designing, making and selling jewelry for forty years. How time flies.

"Thirty three years ago I met my wonderful wife Connie when she came into my store to have her wedding and engagement ring remodeling after her divorce. I knew I had to discuss this job over a cup of coffee. Three years later our son Michael was born. Connie came to work in the store where she could help with the day to day activities and take care of Michael too.

"Connie learned the jewelry business and became the store manager while I focused on work at the jeweler's bench making jewelry. After 10 years of working together Connie decided she either needed a new boss or a new husband. For the next 15 years she managed other businesses in town. When we finally finished paying the college education for the children, Connie retired and started working with me again on a part-time basis. Of course as the wholesale collection continued to grow so did the work that needed to get done. We now work from our home, in the same comfortable office together--24/7--designing, making and shipping orders all over the world.

"When our son Michael graduated with a Marine Biology degree in 2006 he followed his passion to work with wild animals at an eco-zoo on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines. Unfortunately after a couple years the zoo went bankrupt. This was a big problem since Michael had met Klaisa, the love of his life, a local Philippine fisherman's daughter and they already had a couple children together.

"Being 30 years younger than his parents, Michael naturally has an instinctive feel for the internet. He is very familiar with the world wide web and social media. Luckily the village of Puerto Galera has decent internet service allowing Michael to work on much of the business that can be done on the internet for the family business. Michael writes the business blog, sends press packages to digital magazines, print magazines and other media. Michael has become the media, advertising and public relations arm of the business.

"An important aspect of our business through the years has been getting out of the office to visit stores around the country. Trunk shows and personal visits allow us to meet the sales people in the stores. Seeing how they work with their clientele helps us design new pieces for the collection. Lately Michael has been leaving Paradise for a few weeks at a time to call on stores around the world. In February it is Germany, June it is California, October takes him to Australia.

"Connie and I are getting to the point where we are thinking that we will not be doing this forever. There is an opportunity for Michael to take over the business. We will have to see if he will stay on his splendid island in the Philippines with his wife's family or move to the United States to run the business. To this point, we have not figured out how to live in Paradise and operate a jewelry business."

A big thank you (and good luck?) to all the designers who are making family and work look so unbelievably beautiful. 

Monica Stephenson, an Editor at CJDGjewelers.org, admires those who can live and work together, and is the founder of idazzle.com, a jewelry blog that profiles artisan jewelry designers and explores the jewelry industry from an insider's perspective.