Ariana Boussard-Reifel is an entrepreneur, artist, jewelry designer and vintage and tribal jewelry dealer. Her pieces have been worn by celebrities such as Beyoncé, Solange, Jessica Alba and Zoe Kravitz, and featured in a variety of publications including Vogue, Allure and Elle.
What do you do?
I’m a multihyphenate as so many people in our generation are. I’m an artist and that’s really how I began all my other pursuits, with a sense of creativity and making and exploration. Professionally I call myself a jewelry designer and a vintage and tribal jewelry dealer.
I’m really running two separate companies. A day in the life is balancing the needs of both. It’s spending some time sketching ideas, carving new wax prototypes and researching books of ethnographic jewelry which is where a lot of my inspiration comes. I am often in the Diamond District in New York City where we do our casting. And I’ll probably spend a few hours in my studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn where I fabricate and make things. Both my designing business and my vintage business are happening simultaneously. Sometimes I’m more focused on one, and sometimes I’m more focused on the other.
My vintage business requires a lot of sourcing, so it’s talking to the traders I work with from around the world. I’m on WhatsApp chatting with some of my dealers around the world, trying to find exciting new pieces in the desert. I’m doing that virtually when I can’t travel there myself. Then, I share those pieces with my audience. I do a lot of press outreach, I’m Instagramming a lot. There are so many things I do in my day and when I first envisioned these businesses I didn’t know how entailed they would be.
You’ve worked with a lot of celebrities. Do they come to you, or do you reach out to them?
I guess it’s a little of both. I do not do direct outreach to any celebrities or editorials, magazines and the like. I create beautiful images and spend a lot of time curating my Instagram environment. I have worked with some PR people and stores who have shared my work. I think there’s an element of building a public identity that becomes a form of outreach. So many press people and stylists I talk to say they spend their evenings with a glass of wine, going down the Instagram wormhole and that’s how they find exciting new things, more so than reading the pitch emails. I’ve done cold emails as well, but I never had much success, the return hasn’t really been there. I’ve tried to focus on telling my own narrative as best as I can, showing what I have and being very willing and able to deliver if anyone shows any fraction of interest.
For example, when Beyoncé wore my pieces for the Grammys, her styling team reached out to me directly. They requested both vintage pieces and my designs. I find that the two work hand-in-hand. Beyoncé’s team was interested in talking about her culture and heritage. Our relationship began right around the time of Lemonade. We were exploring ways to access African jewelry and pieces from the African diaspora and I collect and deal in that. We also talked about the pieces I design and how they are intertwined. One thing led to another and I shipped them a huge box of jewelry to wear for the Grammys! It was very exciting.
What has been a success within your business and alternatively, a failure?
I’ll start with the failure. I don’t know that I would say failure, so much as a shortcoming. These are fairly new businesses. I launched my vintage business two years ago and I launched my own line a year and a half ago. I haven’t had a lot of time to have any kind of dramatic failures. But, there’s a lot that I don’t know. A lot of it has to do with translating my ideas into something that’s wearable. I come from a sculptor’s background, so I approach these as sculptures. The difference between art and design is the quality of function. Jewelry objects, for example, have to be an appropriate weight for an earring; they have to move beautifully, they have to reach a price point that’s realistic for what you’re selling. All of these elements, as an artist, one doesn’t think about. That has been the biggest learning curve for me. I’ve made pieces that I now think are terrible, that I’m hiding in the background and hoping nobody remembers they exist.
And in the business realm, I could have done a better job seizing the moment of Beyoncé at the Grammys. This was a bit of failure on my part. Something of that scale happens once in a lifetime. It was such an honor and so incredibly exciting but I didn’t know how to prepare for it and I didn’t know how to share that message and consequently lost some traction. I think working with celebrities is really challenging in that way. It’s both unbelievably valuable, but it’s an ephemeral sense of value. She didn’t tag me so I didn’t have all of these followers instantly. My website didn’t break, I didn’t really sell that many pieces from that. The long tail of it is that nine months later, you and I are still talking about it, which is amazing.
My biggest success, the thing I’m most proud of is being able to stay true to my own voice with my design and what I’m making. It’s a challenge at times to not look at other work and think that’s really cool or listen to trends that say that gold is really popular right now. Or think, everything is diamond pave, should I consider doing that? I’m proud of myself for quieting that noise and making collection after collection of jewelry that is identifiably mine. That feels important to me in terms of self-expression, my work as a creative, as an artist and it also feels really important to building my business. A lot of what I’m selling is not the world’s most popular jewelry. It’s not the thing that has a lot of Google SEO or that is what every single person wants to have in her closet. Some women want it and those women who understand it see a special kind of value. Because of that, the people who are investing in my jewelry are doing it for the long-haul. It’s something they love, it’s not a trend piece, it’s not going to come and go. It’s timeless jewelry that expresses something of me and hopefully something of the woman who wears it.
What path did you take to get started?
It’s really funny in hindsight; it seems so obvious to me that I’m doing what I’m doing now. In the decade and a half since I graduated from college, I’ve done a half dozen other things that led me to this point. I didn’t know that this was going to be the culmination. I went to a liberal arts school and studied sculpture and political science. Both my parents are artists, so that element of creativity has always been there. And as a sculptor, working in three dimensions and thinking about dimensionality, that’s always been there. I moved to New York to make it as an artist, as one does. I needed to find a job so I started walking the gallery districts in New York City in 2004 with my resume, asking people to hire me. I got a job at an art gallery and a jewelry store. Actually, when I walked into the jewelry store I thought it was an art gallery. Then I looked around, realized that it was a jewelry store and I still applied. This was before I had a sense of becoming a jewelry designer.
Shortly thereafter I realized I was more comfortable working for myself, that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to have my days and my time and my ideas to myself. I couldn’t quite figure out what one could do with no capital and negligible useful skills. But the one thing I did have was a sense of fashion and a particular sense of taste, so I started thrifting. I would thrift vintage designer clothes and I sold them on eBay. I did that for five years and I made a really healthy living. It gave me time to build my portfolio as an artist, to explore the city, to travel, to begin collecting, and to learn what it was to be an entrepreneur. How to build a business. What I’m doing now is not my first business, so I’ve been lucky to learn a few things along the way.
At some point in time that stopped being intellectually filling for me. The landscape of vintage clothing changed a lot. I pivoted the business into just vintage jewelry, more specifically tribal ethnographic jewelry. I’ve always loved to travel and I’ve always had a really strong passion for objects that are made from the heart, whether they’re folk objects or indigenous objects or art being made outside of the circle of commerce. I thought this was an opportunity to bring some of the things that I loved together. It was also a space in which nobody was building a fashion-forward business. I knew that I could share this passion with people. I launched Marteau in September of 2015 and it really started to grow at a surprising pace. The responsiveness I received from my audience was really astounding. Then I started thinking, I’m making sculptures, I’m selling this jewelry, I’m interested in this jewelry because of its sculptural properties. Why am I not combining these two things, why am I not making my own line?
Once that idea hit, it felt like what I was supposed to do my whole life. It blew me away, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t thought of it before. In February of 2016 I launched my own line with about 30 or 40 pieces. I now have a collection of 200 pieces. It really was and still is an amazing feeling to be able to merge these passions of mine and to receive positive feedback for it. Coming from a vintage world, I don’t think that there needs to be all that many new things out there in the world. I try to buy as little as possible. I buy almost everything used, secondhand or recycled. All of my furniture, all of my dishes, everything that I possibly can. I’m very thoughtful about what I’m making, and what I’m putting out there in the world. It is very meaningful jewelry, it’s meaningful to me and I feel incredibly fortunate that other people find it meaningful and not disposable as well.
What’s your favorite piece of jewelry?
With the vintage part, it’s really tough. I have a lot of jewelry, no surprise there. The pieces that I keep, I really, really love. I can’t quite say one over the other. In terms of my own jewelry, I have a few favorites from every collection, they’re the ones I design for myself.
The Despina Cuff was the first piece I ever designed. It was the first idea for jewelry I had in a professional sense. That’s the big cuff that Beyoncé and Solange wore, the one that Jessica Alba wore on the cover of Allure. I had an idea, I carved it and I made it. Now there’s a lot more that goes into my collections. I’m thinking about marketability, desirability and how to create a narrative. At that point in time, it was just, I want to make this, this is so cool, this shape doesn’t exist anywhere else in the jewelry market that I’ve ever seen, let’s do it. I love it, I still wear one or two of them every single day, It’s become the iconic piece of my collection. It represents a lot of what I believe in, what all of my jewelry means and what I hope for people to see in it. Because of that one idea, that once bracelet, the fact that people liked it, I felt brave enough to launch this line. That changed my life.
What resources would you recommend for others looking to do something similar?
I took classes at the 92nd Street YMCA. If anyone is based in New York City it’s an absolutely phenomenal jewelry school that’s full of world-renowned teachers and makers.
If you want to work in objects that are three-dimensional, if you want to make jewelry that speaks to the world that speaks to the world like mine does, it starts with art. It starts with history. I’m fortunate enough to live with walking distance of a dozen world-class museums. I’m in The Met all the time, looking at a piece of furniture that has an amazing joint or a piece of jewelry from the Roman era that makes me wonder what technology they used to make it. It’s inspiration and ideation. To me, it’s a way to create visual information that percolates in my mind and pops out as ideas. In terms of the ethnographic jewelry, it’s all about traveling. Seeing it firsthand, seeing how it’s made and meeting the people who made it. There’s a lot of fake jewelry or new things that are sold as old, and the only way to know that is to have seen a lot of it, to understand the world that it was made in once and the world that things are now being made in. Just get out there in the world and explore and talk to people.
The other aspect of my business is entrepreneurship. How to manage this, how to grow. There are elements of marketing, PR, money management and margins. For years I’ve been active in communities who support women entrepreneurs. Whether it’s the Women’s Jewelry Association, a women’s entrepreneurship festival at NYU, or the Lean In community, there are amazing resources for women helping women. I really do think that women run businesses differently. There are so many good podcasts about that, like the Girl Boss podcast or A Few Things. I like listening to those conversations and meeting women who are doing it. I’m a first-hand knowledge learner. I do to learn. I’m lucky that I’m in a place where there are a lot of people, things and resources. I can stick my toes in different pools and explore them.
“Be not afraid to pursue the thing you love, even if it’s so much safer to keep your 9 to 5 job.”
Do you have any tips or insight to share with someone looking to get started?
I think I could have been braver earlier. It took me until I was 35 to go out on a limb and stake my claim on a business that I really believed in enough to go all in. It’s not that the 10 years prior to that didn’t teach me so much and make it that much more possible for me to be successful now that I know what I want to do. I think I was hesitant and risk-averse and probably a little scared to try harder and fight harder for something. If I had it to do over again, I would have done the same thing, but 10 years sooner.
I think the other side of that, where I could give myself credit, is that I think that it’s important to do something you love. I don’t know that I’d found that thing yet. I think especially if you’re in a customer-facing creative people can smell it if you’re disingenuous. If you don’t believe in the thing you’re doing and you don’t sleep and breathe the air of that business, if it doesn’t mean everything to you, then it’s a lot harder for anyone else to get on board with it. It’s really important to find that thing you love. A lot of these stories of overnight success didn’t happen overnight, they happened after years and decades of trying things and then one thing works. I really think that one thing that works is the thing you love. Be not afraid to pursue the thing you love, even if it’s so much safer to keep your 9 to 5 job. We’ve only got one life and it’s to be lived passionately.
Be true to yourself.
Pursue something that you love.