How Jewelry Designer Pamela Love Turned a Childhood Hobby into a Fast-Growing Business

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image: Pamela Love

When Pamela Love was in middle school, she used to make bracelets out of toothbrushes. She’d heat up a pot of water, submerge the brushes in the boiling liquid, then use pliers to bend the softened plastic into a cuff-like shape. “I had a turquoise one, a purple glitter one. This was before toothbrushes looked like spaceships, you know?” says the designer, who turned 30 this year.

Love’s taste in accessories has evolved considerably since she was a kid. Now she’s fond of talons, crosses, and ornate geometric shapes cast in gold, silver, brass, and bronze. She’s made bracelets shaped like cobwebs and earrings that look like spiders. But one thing hasn’t changed: “I still have an obsession with jewelry,” she says.

The day we meet in her Manhattan studio, she’s wearing three chunky necklaces, an assortment of bracelets, and more rings than I can count—including one with an enormous black obsidian stone that’s shaped like an arrowhead and set in silver. And she designed everything herself. “Pamela personifies her brand. That is incredibly important,” says J. Crew Creative Director Jenna Lyons.

But Love’s success isn’t all about her eye-catching designs. It has just as much to do with her frugal spending habits and ability to turn her personal style into a brand that sells. “A lot of people get exposure, but can’t funnel that into business,” adds Lyons.

Love doesn’t have that problem. A finalist at last year’s Council of Fashion Design Awards — the “Oscars” of fashion — she went on to create limited-edition clothing and shoes for J. Crew and Nine West this year and has won the following of trendsetting celebs like Rihanna and Miley Cyrus. She sells her jewelry at 150 retailers across the U.S. and Europe and says sales have doubled every year since 2009.

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That’s no easy feat. Love got her start just as the U.S. jewelry manufacturing industry was shrinking. Revenue fell 2.9% to $8.9 billion over the last five years as jobs head overseas, according to research firm IBIS World. While soaring materials costs and limited cash-flow have been constant worries, her business has flourished in a notoriously difficult industry. Although she has no outside investors or even a line of credit with a bank, she says she sells “tens of thousands” of rings, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings a year at prices typically ranging from $200 to $800 apiece.

Love declined to disclose annual revenue at her privately-owned firm, but based on her stated volume and pricing, estimates that she brings in at least a million dollars per year, and more likely several times that figure. In six years, she’s gone from making a few bracelets and necklaces in her Brooklyn home to heading a team of fourteen people, including seven bench jewelers who weld, solder, polish, and finish every piece at her 3,300-sq.-ft. studio in midtown Manhattan. Love’s work is sold everywhere from upscale brick-and-mortar chains like Barney’s and Jeffrey to fashion-forward e-tailers like Net-a-Porter and Shopbop. She also sells direct to consumers on her website.

Her best-known piece is a sterling silver wrist cuff that’s shaped like an eagle’s talon and retails for around $1,200. But her designs draw from a wide range of inspirations, including medical skeletons, Art Deco architecture, Louise Bourgeois sculpture, Southwestern motifs, and traditional Moroccan tilework. “She infuses something romantic and whimsical, but she is also edgy and dark,” says Tomoko Ogura, fashion director for the upscale department store Barneys, which carries a large selection of Love’s designs.

The daughter of an orthopedic surgeon and a psychologist, Love thought she wanted to be a physicist as a child. But her creative bent led her to film school in New York instead. After college, she worked as a buyer for a vintage clothing store in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, moonlit as a drummer for a rock band called Scorpio Rising, and did freelance styling for niche fashion glossies like Dossier and Purple. Unable to find jewelry she liked in stores, Love began making her own in 2006 while holding down a day job as a studio assistant to the painter Francesco Clemente.

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With no formal training in jewelry making, she says, “I had been buying books and learning on my own. I had bought myself a torch and a tank, but I was kind of terrified that I was going to burn the house down.” To make her pieces, she would start by drawing a sketch, then carve the shape she wanted into a piece of wax. Then she’d bring the wax model to a metal caster who would create the mold and pour the liquid metal into the cast. She did all the finishing and soldering on her own back at home. To learn more about her craft, Love got an unpaid internship with a jewelry maker in Chinatown who taught her basic techniques like ring sizing.

She made her first sale in 2007, when her boyfriend at the time introduced her to a friend who ran the Canadian clothing boutique Jonathan+Olivia. By 2008, Love had sold more than $20,000 worth of jewelry and was ready to set up shop in a 1,050-sq.-ft. studio that she shared with three other small businesses. She kept her day job and used money she inherited after her father passed away to cover the $800 monthly rent and materials costs. “I started with a very small amount of money, and I managed to make it support itself,” she says.

During those first few years, Love’s designs began getting attention from fashion editors she mingled with at parties—one of her studio mates was the daughter of Carine Roitfeld, editor of Vogue Paris at the time—and her sales started to grow. “I knew people. I was meeting people. I think that’s one of the legs up of running a jewelry line in New York City. You’re always making these relationships that would be much harder elsewhere.” She’d be at a party, and someone would compliment her jewelry. “I’d be like, ‘Thanks, I made it.’ And they’d be, like, ‘Oh, actually I’m an editor for so and so, can I borrow it for a photo shoot?’ And that’s how stuff would happen.” That exposure led to other clients like Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Colette in Paris, and Liberty’s in London.

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In 2008, Love hired her first employee, an office manager, and took on several interns. She’d go on to hire several bench jewelers, a development director to help design the collection, and a technical director to ensure quality. While she still outsources metal casting, stone setting, and laser cutting to local vendors, every item passes through Love’s office before it’s sent out to retailers.

For all the glamour of the fashion world, “running a business is hard,” says Love, who claims never to read business books. “I read books about jewelry pretty much exclusively,” she says. In addition to learning how to be a boss, she has had to adapt to the soaring costs of gold and silver by using less expensive metals. “We’re working mostly in brass,” says Love. “I didn’t make everything in gold, because we couldn’t afford it.” More recently, Love has switched from 14-karat to 10-karat gold for some of her pieces.

“I think being really frugal helped me along the way. We only spent money on the product. There were no frills outside of that. I think a lot of brands form their company and invest tons of money on packaging and stationery and branding and website. I didn’t do any of that,” she says.

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Thanks to Love’s growing notoriety—her pieces are featured regularly in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, and Lucky—sales of her jewelry are likely to keep growing. But while she says she is committed to creating jobs, she’s also open to outside investors or even an acquisition, as long as she can retain creative control of her line. That would free her up to focus on what she loves most: making the unforgettable jewelry that got her noticed in the first place.