Going on a few centuries now, the masterminds behind the Big Diamond industry have been hard at work, indoctrinating us with the following beliefs: 1.) diamonds are you’re best friend (never mind that they never laugh at your jokes), and 2.) bigger is better. But tucked away on a bustling block of Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, there lies a counterpoint that’s been quietly, delicately subverting the mainstream jewelry market for over a decade.
Rewind to 2004: Israel-born and Jersey-raised Rony Vardi started Catbird in the midst of a busy freelance graphic-design career for companies like Bliss and Sephora, just before having her first child. In the years since, what started as a tiny, struggling storefront peddling casual luxury goods has turned into a 50-plus employee jewelry brand that hit $10 million in sales last year, with a dedicated customer based that includes the likes of Olivia Wilde, Kristen Stewart and Lena Dunham.
One of Catbird’s most popular rings perhaps best illustrates what makes the jewelry company stand out: At $44, the yellow gold “threadbare ring” draws you in by speaking softly. While it can be complimented with other stackable pieces (a look that is widely associated with the brand), there is a sense of quality and care in each piece of the Catbird line that suggests dearness. Their wedding rings hum rather than shout, offering brides-to-be the opportunity to go with rubies, sapphires and black diamonds in lieu of more traditional styles.
We chatted with Rony recently to talk about the story behind Catbird’s success, how working at a handmade futon shop was the best preparation she could’ve had, and what inspires her as she continues to shape her vision.
So you didn’t end up directly using that pre-med degree from Rutgers. What were the jobs and experiences that paved the way for Catbird?
I started working when I was 14. I was a lifeguard every summer, I worked at bookstores all through high school, and then once I was in college, I was started working at a futon shop. It was this kind of hippie store where we handmade these futons–way ahead of its time! [laughs] But I started there as a seamstress and went on to manage it. In a way, even though I had a bunch of jobs after that, it was the most important job I had, because I kind of ran the show. I hired, I fired, I ordered everything, I made all the decisions. I had a very autonomous role for being so young.
After that, I became a graphic designer in the city. I learned a lot about different businesses and different structures without knowing I was learning it. I worked for Bliss [Spa] right when it was purchased by LVMH, so it was this transformative time when I could really see different peoples’ jobs changing, and this whole going-from-small-to-big situation.
At what point did you make the move to do Catbird full time?
Ah. Good question. So, my father died a few months after I opened the first store in 2004. He did not support the business, so that was kind of jarring, you know? I never got a chance to prove myself. And then shortly after that, I got pregnant with my long-term boyfriend and had a kid. So I was freelancing at Sephora, I had the store, my father died, and I got pregnant. There was a lot going on.
But once I had the baby, I mentioned to a friend of mine, like, “Oh, you know, once the baby is a few months old, I’ll go back to freelancing.” And my friend, who also owns a store—she was like “You know, you really shouldn’t. You’re using it as a crutch. Stop treating your business like a hobby.” She really laid into me! And it was such good advice. I was thinking that I couldn’t afford it, and I certainly wasn’t making any money from it at that point, but she forced me to really take a good hard look at it. It was a real financial decision: Do I pay someone to watch the store and take care of my kid while I go freelance? So, it was exactly then. I started doing it kind of full time.
And then: I had another baby! Pretty close to the first one. So I was running my business on my Blackberry from home. It was really hard for me to get to the store; I had two babies and I had two stores, and it was so, so hard.
What changed from that point to put you where you are now?
About three-and-a-half years after I opened the first store, I opened a second one. I was really in no position to open a second store—I truly wasn’t. I’d just had my second child, just moved out of the neighborhood. But a perfect spot opened up in the perfect location. And it was my same landlord from my first store, which was a complete coincidence! That was really fortuitous, because I couldn’t afford the security deposit, but they knew me, so it was OK.
And then four years ago, my husband quit his job. We switched roles; he picked the kids up and was able to take care of all the home stuff. I was able to focus my energy full time and not work remotely anymore, and that was an enormous turning point in the business. Because the business was moving along, but it was really hard to propel that growth from home on my Blackberry [laughs].
When my lease was up on my first spot after five years, I closed it. Because I just could not. They were too close and too far at the same time. It was one of the happiest days of my life when I closed the first store [laughs]. At that point, I could really, fully concentrate on the other store. And I’d rather do one thing really well than two things less well.
And the second store was much more focused on jewelry over clothing. What prompted that move?
Well, I pretty quickly realized that shopping for jewelry is a much more joyous and joy-filled experience for both the buyer and the seller. Everything about it was so great. No one’s in a bad mood when they’re buying a piece of jewelry for themselves. It’s not like, “Aw, my jeans ripped. I need new jeans,” and you go out and you hate how they all fit or whatever it is. So in the new store I concentrated on jewelry. By that point I’d also developed a lot of relationships with jewelers in Williamsburg; there’s such a great community here.
And now the company is up to 51 employees. With one guy.
Yeah [laughs]. I know it’s really hard to believe, but it was not deliberate! We just have way more women applying than men. And then, I don’t know, maybe once you’re known as a company where there are so many women, fewer men apply. I truly never think about it; everybody works hard and is smart and thoughtful. But I guess it does make it really comfortable.
You’ve experienced pretty incredible growth for an independent jewelry line, and I think part of what makes shopping at Catbird such a charming experience is the sense of intimacy you’ve managed to maintain. How do you strike that balance between needing to grow and hanging onto to the philosophy that defined Catbird in the first place?
I keep the long game in mind at all times. I really don’t pay attention to trends. There have been things that we’ve designed and it’s like “Oh, wow. People would love that. We’d sell tons of it,” but it feels too of-the-moment, or it feels too much like another brand, so we don’t do it. We try to keep really close to what we believe in, which is that you can buy something for a reasonable price that is going to be super high quality and has an intrinsic value. You’ll wear it today walking out of the store and you’ll wear it in a year, and in two years, and you can hand it down, even if it’s a small and casual piece of jewelry. It still has a feeling of luxury. And I personally, as a shopper, that’s what I want.
We are highly considerate and selective of what we put out and we don’t work on a fashion calendar. We design new pieces as we get the inspiration and then develop them into something we can stand behind, both the price and the quality, and make sure we make enough to support the demand. All that criteria has to be met before we release it into the world. That’s what helps maintain that intimate, highly considered quality without it behind over the top.
You’ve since branched out into Catbird perfumes and candles and other goods. How did that come about?
Those are often my ideas! I’ll just…have an idea and go with it [laughs]. Like, the candle idea was so long ago. I had an idea for scents, and because I had the store, I had contacts. And eventually you get to a level where you understand more. You make a mistake and order the wrong boxes one too many times and you never make that mistake again.
The idea is to make things that we love, that will really enhance the Catbird story. Because we have a brick and mortar store, we get to listen to our customers and hear what they love, and we make informed decisions based on that.
I’m pretty in love with the idea of these cashmere boy shorts.
Oh, good! Those were just an idea I had that I thought would be so sexy and beautiful, and that it would really fit the aesthetic. And who doesn’t want that?! We don’t sell things you need, we sell things you want. It’s a luxury for sure, but a lot of it is affordable luxury.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in building Catbird?
The hardest part is that it never turns off. It’s 24/7. There are a few days when the store is closed or when I’m on vacation, and there’s a little part of my brain that relaxes, but for the most part, you’re never ever off. I have the most incredible team, and terrible things don’t often happen, but I’m always ready [laughs]. It’s very much like having a child and I really consider this to be my first kid.
And now that the business is bigger, I feel a huge responsibility to my staff, and whether it’s something like our air conditioner not being strong enough at the store or a law just went through that changes how we pay people, in the end, I feel responsible for their happiness. And I can’t always make everyone happy, which is also one of the biggest challenges. That’s true with customers as well—you can’t always make everybody happy.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own business?
First off, I wouldn’t start a business if you’re planning on paying yourself any time soon [laughs]. You should really go into it with some sort of cushion of not having to take money home for as long as you can stretch it, because being able to support a business and pay yourself at the beginning—most people can’t do that.
Also, cut corners where you can and take risks where the payoff is going to be the greatest. Like if you’re opening an office and you want it to be really beautiful, well, maybe get the cheap rug in the beginning, or no rug! Maybe paint the walls yourself. And then if you need killer software to really run your business, then you spend that money there, where it’s really going to help you. It’s not that you shouldn’t spend money, but you have to think really hard about what you’re spending money on. Like that chandelier that you’ve always imagined in your office? Maybe that waits until you break your first $10,000. That was advice I got at the beginning, which was great advice for me, because when I fall in love with something, that’s all I can envision doing. Like with the first store, I built it all myself and there was a lot of Ikea. We bought our floors at Costco. We did everything on the cheap. And it was fine! Was I totally in love with it? Meh, not really. But I could make those changes gradually as I could afford them and it felt much better to do it then than to take humongous risk right on day one.
And any advice for people looking to go into jewelry specifically?
Do a lot of research and make sure your voice is unique. Because of the internet, there are so many people making and selling jewelry. There are a lot of knockoffs. It’s kind of tough to find someone doing something unique. If you don’t have a voice then it doesn’t matter if your photography is beautiful or your prices are great or your quality is great or you use recycled gold. That’s what everybody does now. That’s where the bar is set. You have to have those ethics in place. So your point of view, your voice, your aesthetic. That’s what has to stand out.