Return of the Native
The young design team behind Ruby Kobo establishes a new field for fine jewelry
Story by Tim Yap / Photography by Adam Golfer
New York-based designers Yuvi Alpert and Danna Kobo bring modernity to fine jewelry with their earthiness, business savvy and vision. Best known for their pavé hamsa pendants, diamond-set 14K white gold cap with black rhodium Tibetan mask bracelets and irregular 16-inch black diamond necklaces with beaded silk cords, the designers, both 26, have succeeded not only in crafting quietly elegant jewelry for a younger generation but have also helped revitalize an industry seemingly in need of a reinvention.
This past spring, Ruby Kobo was one of 12 firms to enter the highly coveted Council of Fashion Designers of America’s incubator headquarters in New York’s fashion district. The CFDA headquarters teams designers with selected experts in their fields to act as mentors over a two-year period. Significantly, three of the 12 companies came from the field of fine jewelry, suggesting to some a shift in the industry’s attitude towards accessories.
As Lisa Smilor, associate executive director at the CFDA explains, “The fine jewelry designers are redefining the aesthetic and expanding the definition of what fine jewelry can be. Through mixing traditional precious stones with natural materials and pushing the design limits for fine jewelry, the brands in the CFDA Fashion Incubator like Ruby Kobo, House of Waris and Subversive Jewelry are establishing a new field for fine jewelry. Fine jewelry,” she adds, “is being reintroduced by this cool group of young designers as something [that] can be worn casually as a discrete luxury item. The emphasis is being put on the personal style of the piece as opposed to the number of carats or the size of the stone.”
Smilor also appreciates Ruby Kobo’s business model of using a diffusion line to support production of the brand. Based on Indian friendship bracelets that retail from $18 to $95, Alpert and Kobo’s Shashi line funds its fine jewelry counterpart and is distributed to mass-oriented retailers. Ruby Kobo, on the other hands, maintains distribution exclusively at fine specialty stores such as Louis Boston, Fred Segal and Bergdorf Goodman and retails from $270 to $8,000.
Alpert suggests that the brand wasn’t always so exacting, but spontaneity, according to luxury retailer The Webster in Miami (which carries the brand’s diamond West African beaded designs), has been its trump card. A finance major at college in Miami, Alpert, who grew up in California and Tel Aviv, turned to jewelry in an effort to make something for his then girlfriend; he continued to make men’s pieces throughout school which he also sold to Base, the famed lifestyle concept store. Following graduation, Alpert traveled to the Far East and South America. He met Kobo, a transplant from Hong Kong then temporarily working for Jacob the Jeweler in New York, the day after he got back. The pair would hit it off and by June 2008 had started work on their first collection in New York, beginning with rubies specially sourced from India and 14K yellow and white gold hamsa diamond pendants.
Two years later, there are playful pavé ball Indonesia glass beaded bracelets, 12-diamond 14K “stick” bracelets with Greek leather and colorful cotton cord pulls and one-of-a-kind 1-1/2 to 1/2 carat diamond antler tips, made from naturally shed real deer or elk in Colorado and Utah — all unique in the way that they marry Alpert’s bohemian-like aesthetic with Kobo’s cosmopolitan sensibility.
“We never want our pieces to be about the diamonds or the gold,” says Alpert, adding that his customers don’t really care if there are emeralds, diamonds or sapphires and that the idea has always been to create fine jewelry you could throw on, even in a fit of anger, and still look chic. “Layering is integral to Ruby Kobo. I like people to be able to choose different pieces in person and layer them as they like. This really introduces a fresh, new way of wearing fine jewelry,” he says.
Accordingly, Ruby Kobo has amassed an unexpectedly strong following among men, with everyone from bankers to Lionel Ritchie, Kanye and Russell Brand getting in line for its breezy charm. “I really believe men’s jewelry is something that’s going to grow. I think in the next 20 years you’re going to see the difference,” says Alpert.
“We love that the jewelry is as individual as the person wearing it,” says Nick Wooster, the men’s fashion director for Neiman Marcus Group, which carries Ruby Kobo in its men’s division. “Ruby Kobo speaks to many different customers. Some are more interested in the symbolic meaning behind the traditional symbols and others appreciate the artistic and understated nature of the precious stones used.”
Asked if he feels an ethical responsibility to the communities whose artistry he promotes in his designs (it’s worth noting Alpert’s assembled a team of Nepalese artisans in New York), he says, “I think it’s important to know the true meaning and beliefs behind the beads we use. Most of the beads we use from places such as Nepal all have meaning, whether its Nepali prayer beads, Tibetan masks or Tulsi wood. I feel the responsibility of sharing the message through our jewelry and introducing people to the beauty of these different cultures.”
In the meantime, Alpert is hoping shoppers will venture into stores to see his designs up close. For that reason, he keeps a tight rein on online merchants. Designer collaborations, earrings and rings are also in the works. Alpert doesn’t want to spoil the surprise, but hints that the rings, possibly launching by early Fall, will be similar in concept to the antler tips. Says Alpert, “It’s going to look like it’s not supposed to be there, almost kind of awkward but something special.”