"I wish we had more to show you," Nicole Carosella laments as we sit down in her Brooklyn apartment to discuss Sorellina, the fine jewelry line she founded with her sister Kim Carosella.
Fortunately for them -- though unfortunate for me -- Sorellina is in high demand, meaning many of their pieces are sold or in stores. It's a great place for a young fine jewelry line to be in; Nicole and Kim launched Sorellina just over two years ago with pieces they sold to friends and family.
It's almost immediately apparent which sister is responsible for business and which handles the design: Kim has a natural love of spreadsheets and a knack for business talk; Nicole has the eye for design and the kind of free-spirit sensibility you'd expect from a creative type. "It's good because she just sees dollar signs and I just see pretty," Nicole says of the dynamic.
Yet Sorellina almost didn't happen. "Ever since I was a little girl, I loved going to jewelry stores and trying on jewelry, so my mom said I should be a jewelry designer -- which of course means it was the last thing I wanted to try, because who wants their mother to be right?" Nicole says, laughing.
So she took a detour through art and fashion school, finally trying a jewelry design course at FIT after being bored in sewing class. Nicole calls the moment she lit her first blowtorch "love at first sight." When she started bringing her pieces home, Kim -- who always wanted to own her own business -- saw the opportunity for the sisters to work together, something they had always hoped to do. "She's very organized, very ambitious -- if it wasn't for her I would just have sketches on walls," Nicole tells me.
Once the idea was in place, the name Sorellina came easily; both girls wanted something Italian to honor their family heritage, as well as something that sounded elegant. It was Kim who ultimately came up with Sorellina, Italian for little or younger sister. "She's younger, I'm shorter, so we're technically each other's Sorellina," Nicole explains.
Despite their previous concerns, there is still a great representation of Sorellina's four lines to show me. There's Axl, an edgy, rock-n-roll collection named after Axl Rose; Victoria, the snake-themed collection named after the British monarch that both Nicole and Kim are obsessed with (she apparently loved snake motifs, which symbolized eternal love and wisdom); Puccini, an ornate collection of butterfly-encrusted pieces; and Otto, which they call their most basic, everyday collection filled with repeating themes of eights and octagons.
There are plans for more: Nicole leads us into her studio, a small room in her apartment, where a work table and wall-encompassing bulletin board are covered in sketches of jewelry, many with a floral theme. One which stands out in particular is a stunner of a necklace, crusted in jeweled flowers; even on paper, it dazzles. This is more than an investment piece -- this is the stuff of Oscar night red carpet dreams.
But this particular collection won't become a reality anytime soon. "We're going to hold off for probably another two years, because some of the bigger pieces are so intricate," Kim explains, pointing at the necklace. "If we're going to do it, we want to do it right, so it's better to wait until we're in a place that we can really do it."
One piece they are able to show me is a knuckle-duster ring from the Puccini line, covered in art deco butterflies, that takes up the expanse of my hand. It's incredibly intricate, from the different sized stones on the butterflies to the expert mix of metals.
Despite having a workspace in her studio, Nicole doesn't handle any of the actual production. "The type of jewelry we make, I could never make it because things would fall apart," Nicole says frankly. "I'm not that skilled, but I have a basic understanding [of design and jewelry making]."
As such, Sorellina works with all U.S.-based manufacturers -- with one exception, all in New York -- to produce their pieces. Nicole does sometimes makes projects for friends for fun, simple pieces like Kim's husband's wedding ring which require no soldering -- what the business calls "cast and polish" pieces.
"Cast and polish, wouldn't that be nice?" Kim interrupts with a look at her sister.
"She dreams of a world where we make cast and polish pieces, but we never will!" Nicole explains to me. "I love diamonds and mixed metals way too much."
The benefit of cast and polish is that they can be made quickly and relatively cheaply, and would make for easy entry-point pieces for Sorellina to sell. "We're really trying to make it so that there's something at every price point," Kim tells me. "It's very hard for us to go under $1,000, because we are using real diamonds and gold."
There are pieces in all of the collections intended for that entry-level customer -- like the black-gold snake necklace in the Victoria collection which Kim refers to as their "everyday diamond necklace." It's small and subtle, and Kim tells me that since getting one for her birthday last June, she hasn't had one for more than a week; every time she wears it, someone buys it off her.
That's part of the struggle of running a small fine jewelry business -- the limited sample problem that keeps cropping up -- but hopefully Kim will get to hang on to one of those necklaces soon: Sorellina has started to appear on red carpets and in magazines like InStyle and Harper's Bazaar, a benchmark of success for any up and coming line.
More importantly than celebrity approval, though, they've also got business smarts. Here, Kim and Nicole tell Fashionista about the difficulties of running a small fine jewelry business, from making yourself stand out to the benefits of working with family.
Fashionista: How did you build the business from those first few pieces you designed for friends?
Kim: Our mother was very generous and let us go through her jewelry that she didn't really want anymore that was from the '70s. We melted it down and pulled out the stones, and that's how we made our original pieces. Then we sold those little by little, just to friends and family, and from that we were able to build a collection.
Nicole: It was definitely a very slow process, because we would sell one, then we could make two. That's why it took over a year to even build what was in this launch collection.
Kim: What really changed our business was getting into the couture show last year. That really helped because all of a sudden we were exposed to all these fine jewelry retailers. Even though we were brand new and no one really knew who we were, we had passer-bys see our stuff, and we went from being in one store to being in nine stores.
We're going again in May, and hopefully those nine stores will turn into 18. It's nice, because everything takes a longer amount of time in this industry -- even making a piece can take four to six weeks -- so it's nice that we're able to go from one to nine to maybe 20 retailers instead of going from one to 20, because I think that would have been a lot to handle. It's been a good growth rate.
What does the production process look like?
Nicole: I make a sketch of something, I show it to Kim, and we discuss how much we think it's going to cost, and if it feels low, medium, high. [Kim asks] "Is it Sorellina?" That's the first question, because I could design anything -- I like drawing, so we could have hundreds of sketches of things that would just never be Sorellina.
Then I make a better sketch, something that's nicer, a more technical drawing that says, this is the millimeter width, this is what the branch looks like, everything. Then I give it to the manufacturer. They build the piece in CAD, a 3D modeling program, and they send me the images of everything. I say, "This is close, can this be more curved, change the diamond size to make it a little more interesting."
They tack it together so I could see it, and I would say, [points at butterfly knuckle duster] "Can you move that butterfly down one millimeter? This body -- if it were a clock, it would be at 11:30 -- can you make it 11:45?" Finally it gets tweaked to where we like it, they polish it, rhodium it and give it to us.
Kim: That whole process takes a lot. The good thing about being super meticulous is that our manufacturers take such good notes. When we make the first one, it could take 12 weeks to produce it, but the second one takes four to six weeks because we have it down to a science at that point.
So what is Sorellina, what makes Sorellina different from other fine jewelers on the market?
Kim: There's a very heavy vintage aesthetic that we try to carry through every single piece. Everything really should have this vintage feel to it, so you could imagine wearing it 50 years ago but you'll also want to have it 50 years from now. I'd say that's the main thing that we try to have that goes through every single piece.
Nicole: It's very edgy for fine jewelry. Kim is also environmentally conscious, so for her, it had to be fine jewelry, not costume. We loved the idea of these pieces being passed down. If, in many, many, many years you no longer love it, you can melt it down, and everything can be reused and repurposed.
How do you like being in the fine jewelry market?
Kim: I think it's very difficult. The industry has changed dramatically, where most retailers are on consignment basis, which is hard because your pieces aren't bought outright. With consignment, you have to make sure that you're in the right market, that it's the best place for that specific piece. Something that's going to sell in L.A. won't sell as well in New York, so you really have to work with the retailer to understand their client.
We have great relationships with our retailers, and if [two different retailers] request something, we have to make the decision to say, "You know what, if we get another one in, we'd love to give it to you, but for now it needs to go to someone else," which I think makes it difficult.
Nicole: It's also hard with fine jewelry because people are very programmed to like certain names that have been around -- especially when a man buys something for his wife, he's like, "I know she likes blahblahblah." So he goes in there, and he just wants to see that. You're trying to convince people, hey look at me, I'm the new guy!
Your line has a very young, edgy look to it -- are those people buying fine jewelry?
Nicole: It's funny, we have some friends that will actually save to buy a piece. I find that with younger people, you do that with labels you love, bags you love -- you make the sacrifice. You put the money aside and decide to make the investment.
The other thing that's great is that we have a lot of women who are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s -- these core older women, they have amazing bodies, they have amazing clothes, they take care of themselves, they're very trendy -- and they love fine jewelry and they don't want to wear the stuff they've seen on everybody, they want to take a risk.
Do you have a dream client? Is there a Sorellina woman that you think of when you design?
Nicole: There are a few. One we were lucky enough to get, Florence Welch, I love her. I listen to her music a lot -- she's just so lovely, angelic with an amazing voice, so she's definitely someone.
It's hard to look at Cate Blanchett and not think, "You are a vision and everything you wear is perfection." Last night I was watching Blue Jasmine, and I actually paused it at one point on her ear, and I was like, "Let me look at her ear, what would I put on her ear?"
I often try to take in a woman's face when designing jewelry and think about things like if this hits higher, it will hit her on her cheekbone, which will draw the attention up and make her look brighter and prettier.
Is it not ever hard to work with family?
Nicole: There are pros and cons. I think one con that can happen, but we just learn how to deal with it, is that when it's your family you can take things a lot more personally. You can get a little more emotional.
But the other thing with family is that you trust them completely. I trust Kim with my life, I trust her aesthetic. AND she speaks Nicole, which is a difficult language to master! I never have to explain. I can show her a sketch and she understands exactly what I'm talking about.
Kim: I think the most important thing working with family is that you have to sit down at the beginning and say, okay, these are your goals and responsibilities, because then it eliminates so many fights. I handle all the sale orders from our manufacturers, Nicole handles the [quality control] of it, and it just makes things so much easier. It is nice because we have an understanding. I love working together. I think now we're a well-oiled machine. We really don't even fight that much anymore.
Where do you see, or hope, the brand will go?
Kim: I mean, honestly --
Nicole: Is it the B word? [laughs]
Kim: Oh! Well we're focusing on growing the collection right now, but I mean 10 years from now, I would love to be an established jewelry line that's in stores like Barneys [New York], where we're able to have a nice representation across the U.S., but again not everywhere so it makes it a little bit more special.
We're not looking for our pieces to be in every single store across the U.S., we're not looking to produce tens of thousands of pieces every year -- we want to make things that are special. I think 10 years from now, we probably want to be doing more one-off pieces.