A Brazilian jeweler spices up the New York gem scene
Story by Christopher T. Spargo / Photography by Seth Smoot
The luxury goods market is allegedly on the skids. But stroll down New York’s gilded Madison Avenue and one can’t help but think the jewelry industry has failed to lose its luster in tough times. Every day seems to bring a new store out to lay claim as the latest and greatest in an already crowded marketplace. Of the new arrivals on this iconic retail lane, Brazilian jeweler Jack Vartanian may be the most interesting. While others attempt to lure in buyers on the promise of giant diamonds and oversized gems, Vartanian relies on a more classic approach: simple, refined artisanship.
Born into a family of craftsman, Vartanian developed an appreciation of metals and stones at an early age. As a child he would accompany family members as they went to buy gems around the country, getting a first-hand look at the jewelry industry. He then spent years perfecting his design skills before opening his first store, based in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1999. Less than 10 years later, his empire had expanded to include five stores across Brazil and the admiration of his nation’s greatest fashion ambassador, Gisele Bundchen. Add to that stateside fans Cameron Diaz, Anne Hathaway, Demi Moore, and Kate Hudson, and it’s little wonder he decided to finally set up shop in New York late last year.
Vartanian’s New York store is just the beginning of his brand expansion, with new shops in Europe, Asia, and Los Angeles scheduled for later this year. Though the designer’s wares have been sold at Barneys in New York and Boston’s Louis Boston for some time, his Madison Avenue shop is his first freestanding store outside Brazil. While he is quick to admit the going has been somewhat slow in these difficult financial times, he notes that the past two months have shown a steady increase in sales and new customers.
In creating the look for his eponymous New York store, Vartanian looked to famed architect and countryman Arthur de Mattos Casas. The resulting look, with its heavy usage of raw and chocolate brown woods (a nod to the topography of his homeland), is distinctively Brazilian. This, along with glass boxes that feature individual pieces, help the shop achieve an almost museum-like feel.
This gallery invoking setting is ideal for showcasing Vartanian’s baubles. There is certainly no lack of exotic stones and precious metals in his pieces, but unlike other jewelers, these gems never overpower his designs. “The American market is very much focused on wedding rings and diamond studs,” he says. “In Brazil we are more focused on statement or fashion jewelry. My clients in Brazil have jewelry that complements their entire outfit.”
Vartanian brings up this notion of jewelry as a “complement” a few times during the interview. This, he says, is the most important thing to him when creating his pieces. His preferred gems (black and white diamonds, sapphires, and emeralds) seem to speak to this concept. “I want to create a nice accessory for a woman’s outfit,” he says.
As for the widely held belief that a woman’s jewelry should change with age, Vartanian scoffs. “I do not think a woman should or should not wear pieces according to their age,” he says. “Diane von Furstenberg is not 30, but she has the energy. The jewelry a woman wears should reflect her attitude.”
Unfortunately, most women are not privy to the same funds as von Furstenberg these days, and jewelry remains a big-ticket item for many. But Vartanian says a woman’s collection can comprise just four key pieces: a nice cocktail ring, a fun pendant, a pair of studs, and statement earrings for parties. What is more important is how they wear their jewels. “I do not recommend for a woman to wear a matching necklace, ring, and earrings,” he says. “If you are going to wear big earrings, do not wear a big necklace. The same goes for bracelets and rings.”
With his Madison Avenue store still barely a year old, Vartanian is far away from laying claim to being a true New Yorker, but that has not stopped him from sharing the same dream and aspiration of every American designer working today: to get his wares on Michelle Obama.