Katie Bartels, of Katie Bartels Gemstone Jewelry

What is KBGJ?

My company is something I love very dearly. I am so proud of how it has developed over the years from a small side business with a few new designs a year to my full time career with 2 large collection launches and 1-2 capsule collection launches per year. I started off in one boutique in Connecticut and now I am in 7 boutiques, 6 domestic and one international, and sold on 5 online sites (6 if you count my ecommerce site). 

I am a GIA-certified Gemologist and I source mostly natural stones but I have also branched out into laser cut woods and resins so that I can do big, bold jewelry that is lightweight and comfortable to wear. I make all of the designs, one of my favorite parts of my business, in my Manhattan studio. My love of color and statement pieces is definitely reflected in designs, as is my travels abroad.

It has been quite a journey thus far and I am really excited to see how my business continues to grow.

What motivated you to start your own business?

I started making jewelry because I would have an idea for a necklace and then not be able to find anything similar when I searched online or in store. So I took a jewelry making class during a break in college and started creating my own designs. This was definitely a hobby.

One day I was in Barneys on Madison Avenue with my mom and a really chic woman came over to me and asked me where I purchased my necklace. I told her I made it. She then asked where I sold my designs and I remember looking at my mom and then saying “I don’t sell them I just made this for myself”. Then she asked for my card and asked to see more of my designs. Of course I did not have a business card (I was 22 and had just graduated from college) so my mom leant me a piece of paper and a pen and I wrote down my email. This got my wheels turning and my mom encouraged me to try selling my designs. That night we told my dad about the encounter and he was very pleased and told me I needed to form an LLC (I should note my dad is a lawyer). It would be about 7 years before I went full time with my business but this was without question the major aha moment.

Did growing up in Greenwich influence or affect your journey?

My earlier designs were very preppy and incorporated a lot of pearls, which I associate strongly with my CT upbringing (I wore plastic pearls as a toddler). I’ve transitioned to a much more bohemian aesthetic as I have traveled more but I always think about how my designs translate to every day wear in places like Greenwich. Most of my clients are in the northeast or south so I have to make sure that I am designing pieces that you can wear in these areas and not just say, a Kasbah in Marrakech.

Have any background in jewelry or fashion? What effect did this have on you and the project?

I majored in Government in college so fashion was definitely not part of my career plan. But it was an industry that always fascinated me. My dorm walls were covered in Kate Spade ad campaigns and I still vividly remember picking up Vogue magazine for the first time when I was 12. It literally changed my life. I would cut out outfits and accessories that I liked and use a glue stick to attach them to a notebook.

Fashion was always something that intrigued me but I never knew how to make the transition. Until one day I sat down at my desk at my corporate job that had become unbearably stressful and I said to myself “I literally cannot do this for one more day”. I called my boss and said I was sick and I called my parents to tell them I would be handing in my notice the next day. They thought I was nuts; it was 2009, I was 25, and I ran a department at a major law firm with 10 people under me. It was an amazing opportunity, but it is hard to work 12-15 hour days when you are utterly miserable. So, within two hours of calling in sick I enrolled in gemology school at the Gemological Institute of America and put together my game plan for how to make my side passion and full time career. I decided to attend gemology school because I knew I wanted a solid background in the materials I was working with and to begin to build a network in the industry. It was a wonderful experience and I have recently had my skill set really put to the test as I curate a diamond and gemstone exhibit at a museum.

Do you have a specific inspiration for the style?

I gain my inspiration for my patterns and colors from my world travels. My travels in Rajasthan, India, a few years ago were a major design turning point for me. I was completely enchanted by the architecture and colors of India; it was design heaven. I later traveled to Cuba, where the costumes worn by dancers at the Tropicana Club would make me fall in love with pineapples. My 2015 trip to Marrakech made me realize that tassels are magic and that orange and blue is my favorite color combination. Going back to Bali is on my radar but as business expands, it becomes increasingly hard to sneak away on a proper adventure.

Were there any big surprises?

There have been a few times where a retailer of my dreams has reached out to me to carry my designs and I’m like “who, me?” as if I am at a middle school party and a cute boy has asked me to dance. That’s the best analogy I can give because you cannot believe you have been noticed by a retailer you have admired.

Any embarrassing moments?

I used to be platinum blonde and would get mistaken for Lady Gaga once a week or more. It used to be super awkward because people would start whispering and pointing to me. Looking back, I should have said I was in fact Lady Gaga and that I had made my earrings and that they could buy them for $5,000. If I ever need to boost my business I’m going back to platinum blonde.

What's your favorite part of running the business?

I spend about a month putting together each new collection. During that month I visit with my suppliers to select gemstones, I play around with different color combinations, and I make samples of all pieces. It is total heaven for me. It’s like Christmas when the stones and other materials arrive. And nothing beats the feeling of finalizing the collection and looking at everything gathered together on my work station. And then of course I play dress up!

Worst advice you ever received?

This would fall more under the category of placing trust and confidence in someone than advice, but I hired a PR firm a few years ago and it was a huge disappointment. It was definitely my biggest business mistake to date and hopefully ever. Once I got over the emotional and financial stress of the experience I was able to think critically about what I learned and I definitely gained a lot of life lessons. They are no longer in business, enough said on that.

How has working in WeWork been?

I love WeWork so much. I’ve been a member since 2014 and was initially in the Soho West location and then moved to NoMad when it opened in 2015. There is good energy and good coffee, which is literally all I need to be productive.

Any guidance for women looking to start their own venture?

As they say in Finding Nemo, “just keep swimming”. There are so many times I thought I should quit. But I did not. It seems like every entrepreneur says this but it is because it is just so true. You will most likely go through a time in your business development where you feel like you are not going to succeed. And you will be better off if you have experience with that type of low: it will keep you humble and make you resourceful. I remember in 2014 I had a major low with my business: I had just ended things with my PR firm and my business account was drained and they did close to nothing to help my business (e.g., the only print PR they got me was in a tabloid. Not my ideal client base.). I called my parents in tears because I was about to turn 30 and felt like a tremendous failure. I remember my dad saying to me: “nothing in my life that has ever meant something to me has come easily”. And so I skeptically kept going. There were plenty of more low moments that year but as 2015 approached, things began to improve and by the end of 2015 I had a viable business that I was confident I could continue as my full time career. 

Cheers to Katie with a bottle of Vodka Mariette, Order Here.

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