On the Trail with Eva and Ava Bai
Wine and jewelry aren't all that different in many ways. Both make life a bit more colorful and enjoyable, many people consider them to be necessities to happiness, and stylistically they leave much up to personal taste. If you work in the wine industry, much of your time is spent developing a palate, a sense of what constitutes quality, and how your own understanding of these factors fits into a strategy for the general market. As I've come to learn during my discussions with the Bai sisters—Eva and Ava—becoming a successful jeweler requires the same set up skills, you just need the right eye rather than the right set of taste buds. My wife and I came to meet the two thriving designers during one of our annual shopping trips to New York; my spouse having spent countless hours drooling over the Vale Instagram page, plotting her exploits in advance. We had spotted their elegant designs on A-listers like Kelly Ripa and Sarah Jessica Parker, and my wife had become quite enamored with their stackable, multifaceted rings. After receiving some incorrect information about what we thought was a Vale retail location, we stumbled into Eva and Ava's workshop like a couple of clumsy tourists and to our extreme embarrassment. While not technically a den for potential clients, the two sisters greeted us with huge smiles, welcomed us into their design space like old friends, and set to helping us pick out a few selections. After an hour of friendly and open conversation, numerous emails, and several shipments of fine booze and previous stones between San Francisco and Manhattan, I've come to adore both what the Bai sisters have accomplished and what they stand for as artists. Their goals and desires for the designer jewelry industry are closely linked with what we believe in here at K&L: that fine products of quality and integrity should be delivered to customers with care and precision, free of snobbery or pretension.
Not only do Eva and Ava create graceful and elegant pieces for their clients, they also source their stones from ethical and responsibly-mined sources, bringing into focus another connection between our businesses: the curation of a global experience for our customers. Within ten minutes of meeting them I was already deep into a dialogue with both sisters, comparing and contrasting the aspects of our work and finding a number of incredible similarities. When I learned how much they liked to drink, I knew it was time for an On the Trail interview. I tracked the girls down this past weekend for a quick chat over the phone. Our conversation is below:
David: How did you both learn how to make jewelry and how did the idea come about?
Ava: After Eva and I graduated from college we both worked jobs we were interested in, but weren’t necessarily excited about. We also happened to work about eight blocks away from each other in New York, so we decided that after a long day of work we wanted to get together and do something fun. On a whim we thought: why not take a jewelry class over at this local city school? We did one class together and we both fell in love with it, so we started taking more. After a while we decided it was something we could possibly turn into a job—our passion. It’s worked out pretty well, I think.
David: It absolutely has! Especially considering you need more than just talent to start a business. You need to learn the fundamentals of your industry as well. How did you first start selling your pieces?
Eva: For this day and age our experience was probably a little backward because we opened up a shop early on. Because we didn’t have a background in the jewelry business and we were doing something so different from our previous jobs, we just started cold calling right off the bat. We got out there and began talking to the stores we liked and eventually the stores who liked our things bought some of them. Then we started to meet other designers at events in New York and a bunch of us got together and decided to open up a store together on the lower east side. We had that for about a year, I think?
Ava: Yeah, about a year and a half. This was around 2000 when there wasn’t much going on in terms of commerce on the lower east side. There were a bunch of clubs and bars, of course, and if you wanted to get Turkish food at 2 AM you could get it there. I remember having to stay open until 11 PM on some nights just to get some of that post-drinking business.
David: You’ve gotta know your clientele!
Ava: That’s right! A little bit of alcohol, a little shopping. It’s a great combination.
David: I think we should be teaming up. I’ll get them drunk and send them to you. So you’re staying open late and selling jewelry…
Eva: Right, and remember this was back when things were still a bit gritty, less gentrified. We’d be there hanging out with friends, opening a bottle of wine, getting to know the local neighborhood very well.
Ava: It was a fun time, even though we were barely breaking even every month. I look back on that era with a lot of fondness.
David: Ah…when things were so simple! But then you started growing. How does that happen? I know how it works with wine and spirits in that you began making more connections and you start sourcing more products, but how do you source precious gems and stones? How did you learn how to navigate that market?
Eva: It was a lot of trial and error, actually. To give you a bit of background, many of the people in this business have family in the trade, whether it’s the stone trade, or the metal trade, or what have you. Because we jumped into the jewelry business without any of that experience or those connections, we made a lot of mistakes, but we also learned quickly from those mistakes.
Ava: It was mostly trial by fire and we didn’t have a lot of room for error. We were self-funded, we didn’t have any money from family, and we weren’t taking money from investors. We wanted to do this on our own. Working our junior corporate jobs we tried to piece together whatever savings we could, so whatever money we had to spend was precious. We couldn’t buy anything in bulk, so we just muddled our way through. We learned as much as we could about stones from reading, but also by handling them and working with them.
Eva: We also tried to get as much information as we could from every vendor, but a lot of them didn’t want to part with that information because this business is still a bit secretive. The industry is shrouded in some ways. People are protective about the knowledge they have and their sources. They want to be proprietary about where they source their stones from, but that’s changing today because there’s more push back from the consumer end. Customers are concerned about ethical sourcing and people working in the stone trade have had to learn to be more open. Over time, however, you learn who to talk to, who to trust, who has good materials, and that’s how we progressed.
David: That sounds very much like the whiskey industry right now. There are a number of brands who don’t want to divulge where from they’re sourcing their whiskey, but consumers are more demanding than ever about these details. It’s completely changed the industry. You have to provide a certain level of transparency now, not just because of ethical sourcing like with blood diamonds, but simply because customers are interested in learning more about each producer. People want to have a deeper level of knowledge about everything today, about almost all of their hobbies or interests.
Ava: Transactions today are as much about the experience as they are about the purchase. People want to be engaged and to feel like they’re a part of the story. At the very least, they want to relate to the story and they want to be able to retell it to others.
David: Right! That’s exactly what’s happening with wine and whiskey today. We’re almost curating these special moments for people, not merely selling them something to drink or wear. I have to be able to answer so many more questions beyond what’s simply in the bottle. I need to know the history of the brand, and the name of the winemaker, and possibly be able to set up appointments for people should they want to visit the winery. We’re almost like travel agents at this point. Speaking of travel, didn’t you both go to Italy recently and do some wine tasting?
Eva: Yes, we started in Milan and then we decided to head to south and visit Naples.
Ava: Then shortly after we went to Sardinia, too.
Eva: We didn’t make it up to as many wine regions as we wanted to, but we did drink a lot of Italian sparkling wine!
David: What is it about Italy and Italian wine that interests you? I know that’s what you both like to drink as that’s what you’ve asked me for in the past.
Ava: I like that Italian wine is steeped in history and tradition, but it’s not necessarily as serious or at least taken as seriously as French wine. It’s just a seamless part of the lifestyle there. Going back to what we were talking about with curating experiences, there’s something wonderful about sitting on a small terrace in Italy and sipping on a glass of sparkling wine. It’s beyond the pure quality of the wine itself at that point; it’s just an enjoyable experience as a whole.
Eva: I don’t know if this is what people in the wine industry think, but it seems to me like Italian wine is less pretentious of a subject. It’s simply woven into the fabric of daily life there—eating and drinking with friends and family. You can just drink table wine in Italy and it’s great. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, but you’re still drinking really well. Don’t get me wrong: I love French wine too, but I’ve always felt there was just a little more pretentiousness involved. Am I right in thinking that Italian wine is on the whole a bit more rustic and down to earth?
David: I think you’re 100% right. I think snobbery as it pertains to wine has to do with reputation and one’s ability to brag about what they’ve drank or where they’ve been. When you say the names Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne, everyone knows what you’re talking about, so those wines carry a certain amount of prestige and pretense because people use them as social currency. However, I rarely meet people who brag about having drunk nero d’avola in Sicily or having visited the Abruzzo region, but that’s because there’s no one to impress that information upon. If people cared more about Barolo and Brunello, I think there would be more pretense, but because Italian wines and varietals are so specific to Italy itself, the wines are more functional and food-oriented. Do you look for less pretentious bars at home, too? Where do you like to go in New York when you go out drinking?
Ava: We’ve gotten to know some of the people at The Smith where they have a wide range of wine and whiskey, but honestly we go there because of how nice everyone is. Enjoying a drink has so much to do with the environment you’re in. Like we just said about Italy where you’ve got your beautiful cafe terrace and your delicious table wine, it’s the same thing here in New York. When you know the staff and you feel comfortable, almost like you’re with family, it enhances the experience. We go to the one in the Lincoln Square area. They have a good selection, but the wine isn’t necessarily the star of the evening there; it’s the people for sure.
Eva: There’s a great place on 53rd we like to go to called Tomi Jazz. It’s the cutest little bar. They have jazz every night, but it’s a Japanese jazz bar, so a lot of the artists who come through aren’t known by many people. It’s very small and intimate, and the entire staff is so friendly and knowledgable. You can get little Japanese bites like ramen or pork belly, and they have a really good selection of wine, but their focus is more on cocktails. It’s very cute and subdued.
David: Kind of like your jewelry, right? Your pieces aren’t necessarily meant to jump out, grab the attention, or be the star of the show—to dominate the conversation. They’re more cute, elegant, and atmospheric, in my opinion. They’re functional and understated.
Eva: We’re like the Italian wine of jewelry (laughs). You’re absolutely right. One of the terms we use for our work is “personal jewelry.” It’s something that may not necessarily stand out—it’s not ostentatious—but it still brings a little bit of sparkle to your outfit. It’s something you add to your life with personal feeling and sentiment. In that case it’s a lot like wine. Wearing it may cause you to think of a special event, a setting, or a moment that you associate really good feelings with. It conjures up those memories.
Ava: We tried to create a line that was very personal and without pretense, pieces that you can wear and enjoy on your own, but also that are special enough to be sentimental. Drinking wine always makes me sentimental, so I can see the similarity!
Eva: A customer of ours actually coined the term “low-key luxe” when describing our jewelry. I think wine can be like that, where you enjoy a really nice bottle, but it’s not necessarily big or bold, nor does it have a fancy name associated with it.
David: That’s the natural progression of most people I’ve worked with in this industry. We start by drinking really big, rich, sweet, or intensely-flavored wines and whiskies that grab your attention. I think when you’re young and you go to Barney’s or Saks, you immediately look for the biggest diamonds because they’re so impressive. Eventually, however, you learn about restraint, nuance, and grace. You learn that bigger isn’t better.
Ava: There’s something to be said for maturing into a style or finding yourself. You end up knowing what you actually love, rather than simply reacting to all the things that are placed in front of you. We try to make jewelry that feels very personal, that allows people to express who they are without trying to pretend like they’re someone else. You don’t have to pair a specific outfit with it, or tailor it to a certain occasion, you can wear it on its own.
Eva: When it comes to maturing, I think it takes a certain amount of experience and confidence to actually get there—to where you don’t depend on labels or name brands. You get to a point where you’re reacting to the piece and not the label, to where you know who you are and what you’re about. That can happen with both wine or jewelry, I think.