Nine years ago, a middle-aged tourist from Ohio walked into Catbird, a jewelry store in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, to buy one of the store’s signature items, a thin, gold first knuckle ring. According to Co-Creative Director Leigh Batnick Plessner, that “felt like a real watershed moment,” when the store became a brand.
“Up until that point, we were like, it’s a store and people buy online, but they think of it as a store,” said founder Rony Vardi, who opened Catbird in 2004. “There was a shift.” The Ohio woman didn’t fit the profile of the usual Catbird customer, who up until that time, was a Brooklyn It-girl type, like a model, stylist, or makeup artist. And the Ohio woman didn’t just wander in, Batnick Plessner explained, “she came here for this thing we specialized in.”
Lately, there’s been much discussion in the fashion industry about sustainability and ethics, but since the launch of its private label jewelry line over a decade ago, Catbird has been quietly setting a new gold standard when it comes to jewelry manufacturing practices.
Vardi and Batnick Plessner spoke to Fortune at their company headquarters. On one wall of their conference room hung a mood board loaded with images of swans and snow, stars both celestial and Old Hollywood, and delicate florals. It looked like the design team was trying to squeeze the entire universe into a tiny space.
The trip to becoming a brand started with Brooklyn-based fashion insiders wearing Catbird’s fashionably understated jewelry abroad. Soon enough, their European colleagues came calling. During 2010’s New York Fashion Week, a steady stream of fashion industry types made the pilgrimage to the Brooklyn shop. “People would be in town from Paris and come right to the store, so that dialogue and Instagram were two enormous tools,” Vardi said.
Flash forward to today, and the original store on Bedford Avenue now sells home goods and stationery, along with the company’s jewelry line, and an annex on Metropolitan Avenue sells engagement rings and permanent bracelets. The company’s e-commerce platform is booming too. Catbird sells 2,000 pieces of private label jewelry weekly across online and brick-and-mortar channels. Though the company does not disclose sales statistics, WWD reported in 2018 that it brings in $20 million annually. And Catbird’s first Manhattan outpost, a 1,400 square foot “winter market and welding annex” opens downtown on November 6th.
Vardi attributes much of Catbird’s success to her “retail-first” approach, maintaining strict policies on sourcing materials, and running an in-house manufacturing studio at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The jewelry studio is on the same floor as corporate HQ and the distribution center, making it easy for Vardi and Batnick Plessner to work hands-on with the bench jewelers, designers, and shipping team.
Named for the catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), a songbird native to the New York region, the store mostly stocked other designers’ wares when it first opened. Vardi started making jewelry in her apartment, and one of her sales associates was a jeweler who also made pieces in her own home. Soon after opening, they rented the apartment above the store, hired another jeweler, and built two jewelry-making work benches. “That is how the line started, humbly and in a small way,” Vardi said of the collection. The team would produce pieces based on demand in the store, which allowed them to manage their finances and keep the studio lean, a stark contrast to brands that outsource large wholesale orders abroad.
Vardi developed her “retail-first” approach through applying the skills she learned while working at a “total hippie futon place” when she was in her twenties.
“We made everything by hand, and that was where I learned about this idea that if you’re making stuff yourself, you can control your quantities and your margins, and you’re not artificially marking stuff up and then having sales,” Vardi said. (Storewide sales are rare at Catbird.)
Where the jewelers can breathe easy
Today the Catbird studio employs about 40 full-time jewelers—mostly Brooklyn-based women—who produce roughly 500 pieces per week. Each morning, the jewelers arrive in the office to their daily assignment list, and pick up the materials the prep department has already set aside for them. They spend the day creating their pieces from start to finish, a rarity in an industry driven by assembly lines. After they turn in their pieces, the quality control department approves the items before they can be moved to the distribution center in the other room, or shipped to the store for sale.
All of the jewelers receive salaries and benefits, and the studio is clean, well-lit, and well-ventilated. “One time, someone who is very entrenched in the jewelry world—a fifth-generation diamond dealer—came in and saw our studio, and said, ‘wow there is nothing like this,'” Vardi said. “I didn’t know that until someone said it.”
Genne Laakso, senior product manager, said the individual ventilation systems at every bench make a difference day to day. At her last job as a bench jeweler, she did not have ventilation at her bench. “There was ventilation within the room, and ventilation at the polishing stations, which is the norm,” she said. Individual ventilation is “a luxury, but it’s also a necessity,” she added. “You’re somebody who’s using lots of abrasives at the bench and there’s lots of debris, and you breathe that in, and over time, it can affect you.”
The vast majority of jewelry companies employ jewelers who focus on one step in the manufacturing process assembly line-style, as opposed to making entire pieces from start to finish. “Making a piece from beginning to end is really satisfying,” Laakso said.
Because the jewelers spend so much time working alongside each other, they’ve gotten to know one another on a personal level, and often celebrate birthdays, host bowling nights, and go on outings together. Over the summer, for example, there was a company-sponsored tie-dye party in Fort Greene park.
Once a week, the company opens the studio after hours so jewelers can teach each other new skills and use the equipment to produce their own designs.
“To find this professional home with this really ragtag, badass group of creative women has been really fulfilling in my life, and walking in and getting a job as a bench jeweler, and then six years later it turning into a full-fledged career, for me has been really fulfilling,” said Rebecca Porcelli, a quality and development manager.
The jewelers even get to interact with customers on one of the company’s signature products, the permanent 14K gold bracelet. After a customer purchases one, they head to the welding annex to have the bracelet fastened by a jeweler.
Some Catbird jewelers have gone on to develop their own lines. Laura Powers, who started as a holiday temp in the store, learned how to make jewelry in the studio, and now works as a production lead and designs her own line, Bruce, when she’s off the clock. “So many of the jewelers have been able to establish careers here,” Vardi said. “It’s not like a waypoint for some other job.”
What’s old is new
Working locally in New York means overseeing all aspects of the supply chain, too. Because the city’s historic jewelry district is located in midtown, Vardi and Batnick Plessner can hop on the subway to visit the vendors who supply their recycled diamonds, pearls, metals, and opals. As a result, they can be choosy when it comes to selecting materials and working with new vendors. “When we were looking for pearls, it was a long search to find the right vendor,” Batnick Plessner said. “If we can’t find the right person, we’re not going to work with those materials. Our stone palette is pretty limited because we need to vouch for it.”
Diamonds proved the most challenging. In the jewelry industry, it’s nearly impossible to verify that a mined diamond is conflict-free, because diamonds often change hands so many times between the mines and the jewelers. So, Catbird cut out the mining component altogether. In 2018, the company switched to using recycled diamonds—antique and estate stones they re-set—in the majority of their Catbird collection jewelry, with the exception of rose-cut stones, which are “impossible to find recycled, so we go beyond standards to make sure those are conflict-free,” Vardi said. Her recycled stones come from a diamond dealer who works exclusively with estate jewelry. “That’s something that helps me sleep at night, that I’m not contributing to the mining industry,” Vardi said. All of the gold is recycled, too, which Vardi says is pretty common these days: “Everyone touts that, but that’s industry standard. Everybody does that.”
But no matter how much ethical and sustainable work practices and resources have driven Vardi, they aren’t the focal point of Catbird’s marketing copy. The word “sustainable” doesn’t even appear in their promotional language. “I remember the first time I saw an ad for Everlane and they were talking about transparency and markups,” Vardi said, “I thought, ‘oh, we’ve always done that, but I never thought to talk about it to anybody.'”
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