How a Brooklyn Boutique Turned Into a $10 Million Jewelry Juggernaut
On the third floor of an austere office building in the shadow of Brooklyn's Williamsburg Bridge, a dozen women sit at wooden workstations, cranking out new pieces of jewelry. Tools buzz under the ventilation tubes that shoot up to the ceiling and out the warehouse windows. One worker holds up a handful of whisper-thin gold rings adorned with black diamonds. They've been back-ordered for weeks following a Black Friday sale at Catbird, a jewelry shop a few blocks away.
Started almost a decade ago with a single employee making rings in her kitchen, Catbird has grown into an indie jewelry juggernaut. With only one storefront, located on Williamsburg's Bedford Avenue, Catbird is set to haul in more than $10 million in revenue this year, according to founder Rony Vardi. Catbird can largely credit its success to the rings the worker is holding up. They're made for stacking: thin enough to wear several of them on the same finger, with rings running as high as the first knuckle.
These rings have stirred a "collect-them-all" mentality among customers. "We do feel like we owe you a fair warning," wrote one Marie Claire editor. "Once you buy one of these rings, you're going to want a handful!" It can't have hurt that actresses Kristen Stewart, Olivia Wilde, Jessica Biel, and Lena Dunham are among Catbird's fans. The boutique's bestselling item is a minimalist $44 gold ring that’s a half-millimeter wide. Catbird engagement rings sell for up to $14,000.
“Everyone wants to be cool,” says Vardi, 45, seated in a makeshift conference room tucked away at the back of her company's combination headquarters, warehouse, and studio. “We strive to be nothing that’s of the moment. Cool, as opposed to trendy.” She sets down her tortoise shell Warby Parker glasses, her fingers gleaming with a selection of stacked Catbird jewelry. Pipes clank loudly every few seconds, a reminder that this is an industrial operation, not some small crafts project.
While Catbird didn't invent ring stacking, the venture has certainly helped bring it back. Only in the 1970s was the trend as popular; people would wear rings with oversize stones such as turquoise, onyx, and amber on many fingers, says Jaime Cohn-Barr, senior editor of footwear and accessories at fashion trend forecasting firm WGSN. "There's definitely been an increase in stacking rings over the past five years or so—and not just stacking, but wearing on multiple fingers," she says.
The trend has helped Catbird succeed when most independent jewelry stores are struggling to compete with major chains such as Signet, which, at $5.8 billion in annual sales, is the world's biggest jewelry seller. The Census Bureau says there are around 23,000 independent jewelry stores in the U.S., mostly small companies and mom-and-pop operations selling the same kinds of indistinguishable items and competing on cost as metals prices fluctuate. Overall U.S. jewelry sales rose just 1.4 percent in 2014, to nearly $70 billion, according to Edahn Golan Diamond Research & Data. "The industry's completely saturated," says Britanny Carter, an analyst at market research firm IBISWorld. "There's not too many exciting things going on."
Branded jewelry such as Catbird's makes up only 20 percent of global sales, largely driven by major labels that include Tiffany and Cartier, according to a 2014 report from McKinsey & Co. But branded jewelry is on the rise, and McKinsey expects that share to increase to 30 percent or 40 percent in the next four years. Attempts at creating jewelry brands such as Catbird often fizzle; it typically costs a label millions in marketing to build cachet. "The number of people who have tried branded jewelry and failed is enormous," says Ken Gassman, president of the Jewelry Industry Research Institute. "People don't understand how much time and money it takes."
Catbird never had to spend millions. Vardi credits the early customers with having spread the brand more effectively than any marketing campaign or endorsement deal could have done. The store was open for two years before Catbird started creating its own jewelry, with one employee making rings in her kitchen. She reached out to other local, budding designers who were looking for a place to sell hand-crafted jewelry. This was in 2005, before Etsy went mainstream, and Vardi set up a website on Yahoo! to sell the locally made jewelry and the Catbird-branded jewelry online.
The store soon relocated to a prime location on Bedford Avenue. In 2006, Williamsburg was still affordable for young creatives priced out of lower Manhattan. “Our customers were makeup artists, costume designers, set designers, models, actresses—all people who were searching for the next exciting thing," says Leigh Batnick Plessner, Vardi’s dainty, soft-voiced counterpart, who started working at the shop in 2006 and then became co-creative director. "We were their local shop. Those people brought our stuff out into the world."
With a "wedding annex" added near the Bedford Avenue location in 2014 and a staff of 55, Catbird has no plans for additional storefronts. More than half its sales come from the website, which underwent a huge revamp ahead of the 2015 holiday season to accommodate greater traffic. Big-ticket items such as fine jewelry have been slow to catch on online because many shoppers feel uncomfortable making major purchases without seeing an item first. But for most of Catbird's wares, notably the cheaper stackable rings, shoppers have been more than willing to order a couple online, unseen. The store has also teamed with shipping startup Wynd and hopes to ramp up international sales to countries such as the U.K., Australia, and Japan. A small part of the Catbird line is already selling overseas, wholesaling at a carefully selected group of retailers such as Harvey Nichols in London and Isetan in Tokyo.
Next up, the store is looking into selling non-jewelry items such as ring bowls, candles, and tarot cards. These will never be serious revenue drivers for Catbird, but Vardi and Plessner say it's all an exercise in branding. Keeping Catbird cool is a priority.
"If you think about it too much, or try too hard," says Plessner, "it's going to all go away,"