Compliments on a pair of pearl earrings Diana re-envisioned would lead her to embrace a new creative career and eventually begin her own jewelry company focused on unique, elegant, wearable designs.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a large town about ten miles west of Manhattan. Surrounded by a loving family (there were about 50 of us in the immediate family including multi-generational aunts, uncles, and cousins) I had a strong sense of belonging. Both sets of grandparents lived around the corner. Visits were frequent, nourishing, and fun. I only mention this because I think it was formative in giving me a basis to trust myself and stay grounded.
My grandfather was one of the first grocers in the United States, and, according to family lore, the first to have all the departments under one roof. Thus, my father was very involved in “the store” from early in his life, and although he didn’t stay at the store for a career (he went to Harvard Business School as one of their first token Jews), Dad instilled business sense, courage, and customer service ethics into his little daughter who loved to ride the belt to the cash register.
At New York University, I majored in Journalism and minored in Art History. New York was and still is the best place for a fledgling journalist, and it was there that I developed my love of story-telling. Soon after graduation, I became a copyeditor at the Dow Jones News Service, taking stories in from Wall Street Journal reporters, editing them for grammar and content, and sending them out over the “wire.” This was pre-Google.
When I moved to Chicago as a newlywed, I was offered a job at The Chicago Tribune, but they were going to start me on the graveyard shift, so instead did technical writing for an accounting firm and, later, for The Chicago Board of Trade. Years later, when I became a single mother, I worked for a pharmaceutical research company as a technical editor, researcher, and writer. Funny, but all this technical writing came from a girl who loved to write poetry!
A few years after our move to Chicago, my son was born, so I freelanced for a few years, until the birth of my daughter. At that point, my first next act was full-time motherhood. That gave me plenty of time to think about next acts.
When did you start to think about making a change?
A dozen years later, I got divorced, then I remarried five years later. We now had four children between us, who required a lot of attention. I stopped working again and began to learn printmaking and bookbinding, which, in retrospect, rekindled my love of storytelling. I was working with printers’ tools, color, technical necessities, sequence, and spontaneity. It was an incredibly happy refuge after navigating the difficulties pre-and post-divorce; I was content.
I bumbled into jewelry. One day, I was thinking about my jewelry collection and how I had a lot of things I never wore. In particular, I had two pairs of pearl studs that were too small and plain. I decided to draw a design using both pairs and sent them to a jewelry manufacturer in New York City a friend had recommended. Those new pearl earrings were the beginning of my unwitting next act because when I started wearing them, people kept asking where I had gotten them. I had the manufacturer make a pair for a few friends and it was strangely satisfying. Shortly thereafter, friends asked me to design and produce pieces for them. It was as though the Universe gently pushed me in this new direction. I soon found myself dreaming designs and studying everything I could about gemstones.
What is your next act?
I am the owner of Diana Widman Design, a jewelry company I launched in 1999 at age 44. My design stance is “Elegance for Every Day,” which means my clients can wear their pieces all the time. Many of my clients are professionals and don’t have the time to switch accessories between day and evening, so my work can fill that niche.
The work is produced in gold and silver, with sporadic forays into platinum, my favorite metal. The price points begin at $150 and go up from there, depending on what metals and stones are used. My Gold and Silver Linen™ collection features silky, subtle textures and offers a range of styles that appeal to both tailored women and those who love art jewelry. A sprinkle of diamonds and gorgeous, colored gems make this group flexible and fun to wear from day into evening.
Metropolitan, my newest collection, is based on architectural ornamentation and urban landscapes. It joins classic motifs with contemporary desires for distinctive, large-scale, yet lightweight pieces. This collection is featured in gold, silver, and, cobalt steel (black) and cobalt chromium (white). These newer metals allow a lower price point without sacrificing any of the beauty or durability that are so crucial to my philosophy.
I do a huge amount of custom work for people who want one-of-a-kind. Many people have things they do not wear anymore, much as I did when I started this adventure. We redo them, perhaps just using the stones and scrapping the gold. Sometimes an heirloom needs restyling. I make engagement and wedding rings, too. I make house calls to review jewelry collections and help people pull theirs together or fill in any gaps. I give short talks on gemstones. There is so much to do and I love it all.
I love creating things that people will have forever and love to wear. It’s a form of storytelling using natural materials.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My friends and family first thought, “Oh, here she goes again, doing something completely different from what she’s always done,” but my intense delight and the happy “customers” with the pearl earrings and the tanzanite ring gave me all the courage I needed. It was so much easier selling jewelry than prints. My jewelry was also more refined than my printing, so it seemed completely natural to follow the path.
How did you learn the trade? What challenges did you encounter?
I began by learning everything I could about gems, metal, and jewelry design. I got the Colored Stone certification from the Gemological Institute of America (a great resource for everything jewelry-related) and, soon thereafter, began studying metalsmithing. I believe in credentials.
I love tools and missed them from my days as a printmaker. I also thought it necessary to learn firsthand what makes a successful jewelry design. I later apprenticed with a metals teacher so I could learn how to make metal look like paper and fabric. This continued the thread of the printmaking because I missed the papers we use in a printing press. I wanted to be an expert, someone people could trust with their gems and desires.
I had no idea how expensive it is to start a jewelry business. There is so much more than just the gems, metals, and design. Shows, booths, advertising, accountants, lawyers, insurance, gemological equipment, displays, gems for inventory, tools, drills, books, training, traveling… The list goes on. One must constantly be marketing, trying to rise above the noise in a field that has gotten more and more crowded. Designer jewelry is a special category and not easy to break into or maintain. The creativity is the best part but most of the work centers around business and most of the expense is non-jewelry related. That is something I didn’t know and couldn’t have known.
When I first started, it was on a very small scale. I just sold things to people around me, so the idea of trade shows and art shows was far-off to non-existent. One soon realizes that to grow a business takes money, guts, passion, and a little “ignorance is bliss.” Selling can be very stressful until you get comfortable and marketing yourself in a large industry is daunting.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned to believe in myself and take calculated risks where financing, trade shows, and design concepts are concerned. Entrepreneurship requires the discipline to work hard every day and follow up on myriad details. Sometimes, I can’t believe how many details there are in running a jewelry business, from checking millimeter sizes on stones (sometimes a tenth of a millimeter makes a difference!) to managing multiple projects simultaneously, to keeping current on new gem treatments. I’ve learned to mark my own design path and trust that others will see the beauty. Fortunately, they have so I’m still here. I’ve learned to listen carefully when someone tells their story so that I can make the piece match their desires.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Sometimes I wonder if I would have ventured into fine jewelry if I’d known how costly it is to maintain. Occasionally, when I’m at a show and watching people sell pieces for $40-$60, I wistfully think how simple and “low-risk” that seems. But I know that each price category has its own plusses and minuses and I am happy with where I am.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Midlife career changes usually stem from a combination of life events including layoffs, firing, disenchantment, and life circumstances like health or exhaustion. The people I know who have changed careers in midlife are usually responding to one of these events by embracing earlier interests, passions, and talents that were set aside or never fully developed. For most people I know, a new career path becomes a natural fork in the road.
For those seeking a midlife career change, I say “there’s no time like the present.” Follow your gut and plan for the initial investment in both time and money. It may feel strange to disconnect from an entity where you know a lot of people and share a common goal, but working for yourself is the best company you can keep.
What advice do you have for those interested in starting their own jewelry business? What resources do you recommend?
Get training in design, construction, gemology, industry standards and ethics, CAD (computer-assisted design). There are many places to study but two of the best that I know of are Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City and the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in Carlsbad, CA. GIA also has offices in New York and offers traveling labs across the country. There is also a group called Metalwerx in Waltham, MA and the New Approach School in Franklin, Tennessee.
Join industry associations such as the American Gem Trade Association, Jewelers of America, Manufacturing Jewelers and Suppliers of America. You can read what they do and eventually join once you have some credentials.
Social media and websites require expertise, so I’d advise hiring someone who knows what they are doing. We can’t be good at everything!
Any book by Antoinette Matlins will give you a great deal of information on gemstones, such as:
Gem Identification Made Easy: A Hands-On Guide to More Confident Buying & Selling
Jewelry & Gems―The Buying Guide: How to Buy Diamonds, Pearls, Colored Gemstones, Gold & Jewelry with Confidence and Knowledge
Colored Gemstones: The Antoinette Matlins Buying Guide–How to Select, Buy, Care for & Enjoy Sapphires, Emeralds, Rubies and Other Colored Gems with Confidence and Knowledge
What’s next for you?
I am studying now to finish my graduate gemologist certification from GIA. And I am working on some new ideas that will add value for customers, which is always my main goal.
Connect with Diana Weiss Widman
Website: Diana Widman Design