John Michael Richardson Jewelry:
The Invention ofa Timeless Brand
By Joan Lefkowitz, of ACCESSORY BRAINSTORMS, NYC
The term invention often brings to mind a useful device, yet the origin of the word invent comes from the Latin word, invenire, which means “to discover”. Among its definitions, Dictionary.com defines invention as “the act or instance of creating or producing by exercise of the imagination”. I have spent decades bridging these functional and creative perceptions by representing both inventors and fashion accessory designers. Perhaps jewelry designers should be considered inventors of their own kind. This interview is about the striking and enduring success of one such jewelry designer.As a licensing agent and sales representative, many people have asked me how to make their product succeed and sustain its success—what does it take for an invention or a brand to maintain relevance in an ever-changing landscape of trends and tastes? What innate qualities must a line possess to acquire such longevity? I think the answer is a combination of the endurance of the maker and a universality of the product.
A powerful example of this resiliency is the John Michael Richardson Jewelry brand (JMRJ). Where others have come and gone, John Michael Richardson (JMR) has stayed on the scene and remained pertinent. In periods when people were not accessorizing (namely minimalist and grunge-style fashion), he still managed to stay in business. So, I thought I would go to the source and interview John Michael Richardson, the inventor of John Michael Richardson Jewelry, to investigate what creates appeal beyond trends? Perhaps simple, well-crafted jewelry, like good furniture (i.e. Stickley) or classic clothing (i.e. Ralph Lauren), never goes out of style.
JMRJ conveys history, refinement, and connection with others (with each piece of jewelry comes a map showing the original international location of the materials). This type of longevity is not just a matter of practicing good business; the classic nature of his products stands the test of time. The earthbound quality of his materials is a homespun thread between the product and its wearers. As this quality captured others, so it captured him too. JMR began his 35-year old line as a second career, but once he settled into the design of his jewelry line, he never looked back.
JL: When did you invent your jewelry line? How long did it take from the time that you started for your sales to be thriving?
JMR: I started in 1984 at a flea market on Columbus Avenue; with very low prices and a lot of foot traffic, but only on Sundays. My work looked very different from everyone else—not better, just different. Next Henry Bendel’s buyer picked up the line. I was also asked to do accessories for “One Life to Live”. Television exposure helped a great deal. Elizabeth Taylor found the line through that soap opera. Then I was asked by a major rep with showrooms in Atlanta and Miami to show my line there. I was the only jewelry in that show room. Fashion designers there were: Willy Wear and Calvin Klein. I picked up my first 50 boutique stores there at market week. The first store I landed there is still buying from me today (Jami’s in Naples).
These first three occurrences took place in the first year.
JL: It was about that time that you first came to Accessory Resource Gallery to see if we would rep the line in our New York showroom. I remember you walking into our office with a few fishing tackle boxes and pulling out the jewelry on those unique cards. It was love at first sight!
JMR: It was mostly about really jumping in and getting your line seen at the right places. A lot of foot traffic, a lot of viewers, all helped to really get the line (which at that time was pretty rough) out there. NYC Shows also helped to build interest. I started those a year later.
JL: What were the peak early years?
JMR: Best-selling period early on was 1986 – 1990. I started finding reps in other territories. Lots of boutiques came on board. Nordstrom was a major factor in the growth that period. I had lots of magazine coverage and articles, especially in Accessories Magazine.
JL: I remember this period very well. People were spending money on fashion accessories. Your jewelry was flying off the shelves and the stores were begging us for more. It was a heady time. We celebrated your success alongside your other salesreps on boats and restaurants and sales meetings in different cities. We thought that it would always be this way…
JMR: Looking back, I think at first you are the new product that looks fresh and original to people; you are brand new to the business and word of mouth between buyers gets a lot of people interested. It is the timing that is key. You only have a short window to jump on the trends and get the buzz from people before they move on. You have that time to establish yourself—your name , your product—and most important: the stores that buy your product want to see it sell through and continue to evolve artistically as well as the sales being consistent. If this happens, they will stay with you. Also, if they sell it for a few years, people will start coming back to their store specifically looking for your product. They have built a following for your products and that can often keep you there.
Here’s a major problem: too many designers in the first few years throw out their whole look to follow a new trend. This can spell disaster because then buyers don’t recognize any of the line they originally fell in love with. You need the look to evolve as a statement of your own, not just anyone else’s look or trend. Yes, colors change, silhouettes change, but keeping something they always recognize is key.
JL: Can you describe your best-selling products during that peak early period?
JMR: Any style in hammered brass with coconut wood beads. A natural, native look. Beads with woven banana leaf. Animal motifs. Bright-colored shells. Natural woods. This was a time when anything ethnic was in—very different from now. At that time women would wear these accessories out or to the office. Today jewelry has become more tailored, more refined. Women are looking for styles more suited to everyday that can be dressed up for evening also. I would say original images that have a refined look—bright crystal with plated metals.
JL: What year did the high-volume sales ease off?
JMR: We only developed earrings at first. Then in 1988 we designed belts and purses (a major disaster for us). We spread ourselves out too thin without the capital to move into leather goods. This created a huge cash flow problem. Our move from New York to San Francisco alienated us from a lot of our suppliers, the stylists for the magazines, and a work force that knew how to make jewelry. We grew too fast. Also we tried to drastically change the line. By 1991 we were almost bankrupt.
JL: In what year did you start to then see a resurgence of sales?
JMR: In 1991, we brought in advisors, and moved to Providence where we had a work force and plenty of suppliers, platers, etc. We closed the belt and bag division. Still held onto Nordstrom, with other major department stores beginning to order: Lord and Taylor, Rich’s, Dillard’s, Parisian, Marshall Fields, etc. This helped to get us back together from 1992 until about 1999, then, the company imploded again. We began to lose all our majors. They began doing their own designs in China. We were dropped along with a lot of other smaller companies that were doing so well with them. It became a numbers game for them and nothing else (well, that is just a little harsh)—I mean, they began looking at selling reports instead of the actual product. (Also, only companies who could afford to share on advertising costs and do markdowns continued with them UNLESS you were the hot new trend which we were not anymore!)
My brother wanted to close the company. We kept three employees and focused again on our original business with boutiques. We grew it slowly over the next ten years until we had about the same number of stores as we had with the majors. And, they were a lot easier to deal with. In the end being smaller was actually a relief—less headaches and worries. Success was not as important as peace of mind. But with boutiques we remain very successful (we have about 800 that order from year to year).
JL: The resilience of your line has always been remarkable. It is a testament to the fact that people will always buy something that is of great beauty and craftsmanship. Your personal perseverance through the ebbs and flows of fashion trends displays what it takes to stay relevant in this business!
Have you seen this cycle - peaks and valleys over time – repeated? What reasoning, if any, would you attribute to those cycles?
JMR: Looking back, it is weathering the valleys, or the lows, not the peaks. They take care of themselves. But you really have to work hard to make it through the low periods to survive. Focus in on stretching the money and become as creative as you can to reawaken peoples’ interest. Do whatever you can do to get them to really look at the product. Our cards helped, and the merchandising always kept us top of counter and getting noticed by people who walked by. That was key to the long term success of the line.
We made the line much more refined. I learned a lot about design because I never studied, so I learned the business the hard way. I always looked for components that were unique but kept my signature style.
JL: Your branding is brilliant. The origin maps marry the jewelry and its story to the cards. This relationship of the cards to the jewelry has been your hallmark from your first products to the present.
A few ‘origin’ questions:
You were a professional actor. Why and how did you get into jewelry design?
What were your creative influences? How did you brainstorm your concepts and why did you choose the materials you used?
JMR: I left A Chorus Line after being with them for 3½ years (1 year in the national company in Chicago then 2½ years on Broadway in NYC). I could have stayed on—I had that option as the show would continue to run for 8 more years—but I was getting restless and wanted to travel. I had the money so I left on a two-year trip. I pretty much circled the globe starting in the Middle East then Europe, then on to India, Nepal, and for a long period through Asia. Along the way I discovered the tribes in Northern Thailand and started working with the metal makers there. I also bought components from the Philippines and when I got home began putting things together. I decided to try them at a flea market, not really knowing if anyone would even buy them. The idea was to supplement my income while going to auditions in NY until I got cast in another show. The sales started happening so quickly I had to start ordering more and spending all my time constructing new pieces. I was working alone at that time.
I really only used materials I had found and supplemented with some components found in the garment district. I had no idea what I was doing. People hate to hear that. I really think everyone should study for their profession but I had no intention of making it mine in the first place. But, somehow it felt right. And I really enjoyed it. I finally came to the decision that I had to live without doing theatre for a while until the dust settled. I realized I could pretty much do theatre anywhere and at any time in my life should I choose to. Then the business really took off and I had no choice but to pursue it and learn as much as I could as fast as possible.
I always had an eye for finding unusual materials that seemed to conjure up the idea that they had been found in Asia. The whole travel aspect was incorporated into the card with the world map. People always fantasize about travel and this seemed like a way to appeal to a woman’s sense of adventure (with the earrings of course to go with her!).
JL: So, what is the look you are trying to capture for women nowadays?
JMR: We still use shell on the line but mostly a black lip which is a kind of grey mother of pearl. It has a richer look than other types of shell. Whenever we use shell in colors, we use a darker shade of the suggested colors for the season. It is a much richer tone on shell and can move easily into evening.
Next season we are evolving in a new direction with plated open geometric metals with blown glass beads from China and some wood inlay (natural or black) from the Philippines. It is a very modern looking line and a fresh change for us.
The success of John Michael Richardson and his inventive jewelry line is one of both ingenuity and determination. As fashion trends and tastes wax and wane, he remains loyal to his brand. This, alongside his business savvy and adaptability, has generated a long, prosperous, and ongoing career. The JMRJ brand was and is timeless. It withstands because of its inherently universal nature—we never tire of products that ground us in the world around us and connect us to other people and places. The trajectory of John Michael Richardson and his jewelry line—starting from “nowhere”, following a curiosity that lands one on a meaningful concept, embracing the unexpected, weathering highs and lows, and ultimately succeeding—is a metaphor for living a successful, productive, and meaningful life. There is much to be learned from his life story.
Copyright © Joan Lefkowitz. All Rights Reserved
Joan Lefkowitz is president of ACCESSORY BRAINSTORMS, NYC, a licensing agency and consultancy for Fashion/Beauty Accessory and Lifestyle Inventions. ACCESSORIES Magazine awarded Joan for “Most Inventive Products” and cited her as one of the 100 most important accessories industry “Movers and Shakers”. She was an original marketer of TopsyTail™, the first hair accessory ever to appear on DRTV, which sold over $100 million.