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NYCJW Special. Beyond Aesthetics: The Jewelry Industry

Michele Varian in conversation with K/LLER COLLECTION’s Katie deGuzman

Katie deGuzman is a tour de force to be reckoned with, a designer who sticks true to her guns (or quills!) and has lived to tell the successful tale that comes of that level of dedication to brand ethos.  She discusses here how, even when others in the industry think you’re crazy, you have to follow your gut in order to grow your brand in the right direction — and within the right network — in the long term.

Could you share a short bio, and give a quick description of our relationship?

I began the business in 2010 with a business partner. I had designed for Alexis Bittar in the past, as well as other jewelers. After being in the jewelry industry for about ten years, we started K/LLER COLLECTION. We separated last year, so I am now the sole owner and designer.

 

The majority of the line is cast in brass, and all made in the USA. We also have a sterling and a fine jewelry collection (petite versions of our classic styles). As for Michele Varian and her amazing store, I’ve been a huge fan for forever! I believe you picked us up within at least the first year or two of K/LLER COLLECTION. I was so honored to have our designs in the MV cases.

How did you become a jeweler?

I studied furniture design at Parsons School of Design in NYC. I always knew, though, that I was interested in jewelry – but Parsons didn’t have a jewelry design major anymore; they’d, unfortunately,  just closed an amazing program. So my junior year I went abroad to The Glasgow School of Art in Scotland to study jewelry. (That’s the school that keeps burning down, sadly!)

 

Right out of school I started working as a bench jeweler for other designers. My first job was with a company at the time called Exhibitionist. He was a designer who had a shop on Orchard Street in the Lower East SIde of NYC. Now the brand is just his name, Michael Spirito. He’s an amazing designer. In those early days, I messed up so many pieces of his (so sorry Michael!) ! I was still learning the craft.  

 

After that I worked for a woman as her assistant creating her fine jewelry line. I really honed my “jeweler” skills at this job. I learned how to do everything from start to finish. That made me really understand the making of jewelry. I already had the design background, but this was getting to know the ins and outs of creating something in gold. I went on to design private label jewelry for larger, mass market, companies. For these companies, everything was made overseas – it felt very soulless to me. I knew I wanted to get back into working with small production run, U.S.-made designers.

 

After leaving that line of work I started working for a few smaller designers again. After understanding sales orders, press pulls, trade shows etc (things other than design and making), I felt like I had enough behind me to start my own line.

 

What inspires your designs?

 

The way I look at the collection iis that it’s always a juxtaposition. The brass line is always black and gold; it’s sweet but vicious, feminine but masculine, natural but structural. It’s that yin and yang. I love softer pieces in nature, but then I like hard  sharp lines and the skeleton of things, as well—the ‘insides’ of more complex structures.

 

What K/LLER is most known for is a piece that is cast from a porcupine quill. It’s a super sleek, pointy, a sexy natural element. The shape resonates with people. Some people who own the quill pieces described them as their power piece! When you hear that people have strong feelings about the jewelry I design, it fills me up. Maybe I am doing something for humanity!

Tell me about the evolution of your manufacturing processes or the ways you use materials.

From the onset, the most important thing for us was to be manufacturing in the USA. We’ve gone back and forth between manufacturers in New York, and we make some styles in Rhode Island; it’s a challenge, though. We’re dealing with it right now: the largest part of my business is casting, so finding that right relationship is important. There’s a learning curve to it. It can be trying.

 

My interest is really in the materials: What are the interesting materials we can use to pair with the metals? I use recycled metals whenever I can. We’ve tried with brass but it’s been a little harder to get the quality right because of issues with porosity. The sterling silver and gold, are all recycled.  

 

The porcupine quills I use are a byproducts of the farming industry out of South Africa. We’ve also done some horn pieces out of Uganda, which were all sustainably source and manufactured. We don’t use many stones, except for some sprinkles of black diamonds. White diamonds just aren’t what brighten my life! I love gold, I love metal. My own engagement ring is cast completely in gold. It resonates more with me than stones. (Though I do think there are stones that are beautiful!)

 

I’m also very hands-on as a designer and as a person. We don’t do any computer-aided design. Everything is initially carved/created from waxes; we’re casting from natural pieces and manipulating them to create our own sculptures. It’s very tactile. And obviously very wearable.

How has your sales representation evolved over time?

My first store was Sucre in New York. At the time, she had a store on Bleecker Street, but it’s now on Christopher. She picked up the line right when it launched. The same week Eva Gentry on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn brought it in. From working with Eva—she has a really high-end clientele, and carried amazing clothing designers as well—K/LLER got picked up by Totokaelo, and from there Helmut Lang which eventually led to Barneys. Our first year really exploded for us. Unfortunately we were so new to having our own line that I didn’t know how to make those “bigger” relationships work. I’m really good with our small boutiques, but didn’t realize how to deal with these department stores! Looking back, it’s been something I’ve learned how to nurture over time.

 

We still keep all sales in house and do a few trade shows a year, and we still get many of our customers by word of mouth. But because now the retail climate is really changing—or has changed—it can be a struggle to find those right sales partnerships. But stores like Michele Varian, and other independently owned businesses, have been better for K/LLER in the long run than the larger companies who don’t know you and the brand as well. The bigger ones just look at the numbers. There’s so much value in dealing with people directly; the small boutiques have people that can sell the brand, they can talk about the product. And those are the places where I like to shop!

Can you share a personal story from an encounter within the jewelry ecosystem that has stuck with you over the years?

The first thing that does come to mind is at our first trade show in Las Vegas, in 2011, we had a big brand come to us. Our first line was all porcupine quills and they were really interested in the collection. But they weren’t the best fit for us—I won’t say the name of the brand—and we had the CEO coming down to meet us! At the time we’d barely gotten enough money together to make the trip to Vegas. This could’ve been a really big order for us. When they asked us to send samples we ended up declining. People thought we were crazy!

 

After that, though, I feel like it really set the brand for where we wanted it to be. From there it was just sticking to our guns. If you don’t feel strongly about who you’re partnering with, it’s probably not the right partner. If I suddenly pop up at a big box chain store, it hurts the sales of our boutique partners. I always try to think about my tried-and-true customers; we’re all working together to be happy.

K/LLER COLLECTION

 

Michele Varian is a NYC-based designer and retailer, carrying home goods and over 70 jewelry brands in her SoHo shop (including K/LLER COLLECTION!). Visit the shop on Instagram here, and Michele’s curation of fine jewelry here!

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