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How Catbird Came to Dominate the Cool-Girl Jewelry World

Founder and owner Rony Vardi, along with buyer Leigh Plessner, tell us about the shop and its seemingly overnight success.

Near the corner of North 5th Street and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there lies a special place that is equal parts heaven and hell, especially on Saturday afternoons. Hell, because it’s so packed you can barely move without bumping into someone, claustrophobia issues be damned. Heaven, because it’s filled top-to-toe with the prettiest, daintiest -- but not always girly -- pieces of jewelry that pull on those “need it now” heartstrings.

Founded by Rony Vardi in 2004, Catbird, which now employs over 30 people, has become the go-to place for cool girls the world over (the company also has a booming web business) for when they want that perfect special ring, pair of earrings or necklace. The store now even stocks a small beauty section, and odds and ends like cashmere beanies and cute little cards.

The store feels like everything has been curated with care and a seemingly sixth sense of what women find covetable. In addition to its in-house line, Catbird stocks gems from equally interesting designers. There are the brand’s calling cards: those first knuckle, or memory, rings that everyone has been wearing the last couple of years -- including Hannah and Jessa on season 3 of “Girls,” along with countless celebrity fans, such as Liv Tyler and Michelle Williams (Justin Timberlake is next on the team's wish list) -- but also newer, original creations. Take the gorgeous “Ballerina” collection, which features the prettiest pair of gold earrings crafted from a single bar with a dainty chain that wraps around the back, or the “You Are My Moon and Stars” stackable pendants that have a single initials engraved into them.

We sat down with the women behind the company -- Vardi, along with Leigh Plessner, buyer and general manager -- at Catbird HQ, which takes up three whopping suites in a building a few blocks south from the store (including a wonderland of a studio that produces 700 pieces a day, helmed by production manager Candice Lathrop) to talk the secrets of their success. The in-house Catbird line accounted for 9 percent of sales in 2006, jumping to 19 percent in 2010 and clocking in at close to 50 percent in 2013. Here, some business and brand lessons gleaned from the duo.

Just because something doesn’t take off immediately doesn’t mean it won’t eventually have legs.

Vardi: I was wearing my first knuckle ring around for years, since the late ’90s -- it was toe ring that I bought in the East Village. I got some compliments on it -- it seemed like such a simple thing. But, as it turns out, making simple bands is not simple at all. It’s a lot more complicated than you think to make something that’s delicate but strong that still looks good in all different sizes…. I remember talking to someone who worked in the store who knew a lot of about jewelry -- one of the floor girls, Maggie, who started to make the line. I was like, “I just want some bands -- just make some bands.” That really did not take off -- we had them for forever.

Plessner: I think it was a slow burn. I remember the first time I met Rony was at a tradeshow in 2004 -- I had a stationery line [before I worked at Catbird] and I was selling to her -- and I remember she was wearing the knuckle ring. I was transfixed and had never seen anything like that. So I think it was a slow burn of people coming in and noticing all the girls in the store were wearing them and then it just flipped to people seeking them out. I remember one time, a grandma from Ohio came in a bunch of years ago to get one because she had seen them, and that was sort of the moment for me when I was like, “OK, this is a thing.”

Sometimes not knowing the end goal can get you where you want to be.

Vardi: I was a graphic designer and seamstress before I came here [Vardi is from New Jersey], but I went to school for pre-med. I was sort of a lost soul -- a happy lost soul, but… And then a tiny shop opened up near my old apartment in Williamsburg on Metropolitan, it was sort of a downtrodden block. I sort of had this idea of having my own ongoing project. I thought a store would be a really great way to do that. I had saved a whopping $16,000 dollars and opened it with that. And someone had given me really good advice a long time ago which was, “If you want to open a store just do it and let it take its own shape.” You don’t necessarily know what it’s going to be, which was really true, because it really did change over time. The first store had a lot of clothing -- clothing and jewelry. The second store opened in 2008, and there was an overlap of about a year of when there were two stores. In 2009 I closed the shop on Metropolitan, and then I concentrated way more on the second store, which was only jewelry and lifestyle and gifts and stuff. The thought behind that one was the space was so tiny, I couldn’t possibly imagine what else you could sell in there!

Every small business has to start somewhere.

Vardi: For the first Catbird designs, Leigh or I would come up with an idea -- we were really, really limited. We had one person making stuff in her house, so we’d be like, “Can you make that?” and she’d be like, “Well, I can make three of them.”

Plessner: It sort of toggled back and forth -- we had Maggie who had worked in the shop and she was pretty much working full-time exclusively for us, producing the alphabet collection and then the classic hammered memory rings, which were our first of that kind. And then we had Claire Kinder who, in addition to working in the store and producing her own line, was also producing pieces for us and managing the little outsourcing we would do to the jewelry.

Vardi: She was sort of our next step in trying to grow the line and to have the jewelry sort of semi in-house. We had the apartment upstairs from the store for a while and we set up a studio and sort of ran the web business from up there -- it was really cobbled together. And the production was so few pieces per week. Every idea you had, you’d be like, “Well, I’ll pencil that in for later.” Then we finally got a studio, not the one in this building, and we set up offices for us guys and there was a little bench for Claire and she would work there for us, but it was so noisy. And then I hired Candice and that’s when we started building the studio -- moving from space to space until, four spaces later, we’re here.

The best ideas are often vague at first.

Vardi: The concepts for the jewelry generally come from the two of us. They usually start very vaguely.

Plessner: A lot of times, it’s such a vague idea. Like, one time, I can’t remember where Rony was -- I think she was on a boat trip or something -- and she emailed me and said, “I had a dream about a ring called the “Dark and Stormy,” and so sometimes it starts with a shape or a name or a kernel of an idea. And then we rope Candice in.

Vardi: She’s like our secret weapon. we had all these thing, delicate rings and this was Leigh’s brainstorm -- the Threadbare ring, which are probably our best-sellers -- I think they started with a name.

Plessner: I wanted them to be even skinnier than the classic hammered. I wanted the threadbare to be just a whisper, like this tiny flash of gold.

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Have a unique point of view.

Vardi: We deal pretty much exclusively with solid gold, and the idea of that is, small pieces in solid gold are accessible. You can wear them every day. You don’t have to take them off, you can sleep and shower in them. So you can really have it be this sort of informal luxury, this everyday treat that you buy yourself either to commemorate something or not -- maybe it’s just because you’re feeling great. And it’s not a throwaway piece. I have a lot of jewelry at home and I feel like it’s going to be there forever -- it’s not some mass brand thing that might be really cute but will either break or change color, and certainly not going to be handed off to my kids. And I think the idea of having something that’s really legitimately heirloom-quality, even a teeny tiny ring, but that you can wear comfortably every single day, is to me personally really appealing.

Plessner: Something about our line that’s important to me is that you can incorporate it with whatever you already own. If you’ve been handed down something that’s really beautiful, you can put a threadbare next to it. Or, if you want to start [your own collection], this is a $44 access point into this world. I have this vision of -- in a bunch of years -- a little girl opening up her mom’s jewelry box and finding those teeny knuckle rings and putting them on. That to me is really special. It has longevity to it.

Things can be “organic” and still succeed without major marketing dollars.

Plessner: I think a lot of what we’ve done has been a really organic process, like the stacking rings. I remember we did an event with Warby Parker last March, and there was this woman trying stuff on and her boyfriend or husband looked at us and was like, “Who’s the marketing mastermind behind all of this?” And we were like, “What are you talking about?” And he’s like, “Who thought of stacking rings?” And it was such an organic thing -- when you work around this stuff and you have access to it, you get a little greedy in a good way, and you just want to keep putting them on, so that’s sort of how the stacking happened.

Collaboration is key.

Plessner: I think the importance of working collaboratively and closely together cannot be underplayed. Over the time that Candice has worked here, she really understands our aesthetic and also understands our language. So there are certain key words that we’ll say to her that she just completely understands what it is that we’re talking about. We also really love to hear input from our jewelers. They’re the ones who are working intimately with these pieces all day, and we’ve gotten amazing feedback and have put stuff into production from their prompting. The “Lovecat” ring is a good example. It had been on our production list for I don't know how many years, we just couldn’t figure out the right way to make it happen. And so we put it out to our jewelers and they all came back with an amazing array of pieces. And that’s how the "Lovecat" ring was born.

Vardi: There are a lot of brains in here that you can sort of pick -- there are 30 people who work at Catbird, so we can really ask all of them. Leigh and I pretty much run everything by Correy [Law, the brand's public relations and social media guru] and just show everyone and see if they have the same emotional reaction that we had. And then you make a bunch and test them and see how people at the store react.

Be your own customer.

Plessner: We test-drive all of own pieces. We all wear them and we have rejected plenty of ideas and plenty of models because they just weren’t going to stand up.

Growth can be a slow process, and that's OK.

Vardi: When it comes to business advice, I would say two things that go hand-in-hand: Let it have legs. Let it grow organically and naturally and don’t try to create things that there’s no other need for. I always think that a good business path is a nice, easy slope. You don’t want super-crazy, jagged lines -- it’s just too hard to manage. And also you’re driven by the natural progression of things. Also, one stipulation about working here is that if you’re not happy and you don’t want to be here, then you really shouldn’t be [here]. It’s a good vibe and people work hard but are interested in growing but at that same pace where you can sort of manage it from all levels -- your customers can be happy, your employees can be happy.

Accept (and work within) your limitations.

Vardi: The times that we’ve had bigger mistakes than others are, say, when we’ve forced the studios hand like, “We need this immediately.” And we’re either not ready for the customer response and we make them and they’re not strong enough, or whatever... So now, when Candice says, “That’ll be four weeks,” we’re like, “OK, we’ll just wait.”

Plessner: It’s very hard to be patient, but it’s very important. And I think also, while we’ve used the word “organic” a lot, I think there is control -- to not let things just happen, to assess what is happening around you. And I think it's important to have a dialogue with this thing that you’ve made once it’s not longer yours. We want to make people happy. And I think social media is a really invaluable tool in gaining insight into what it is that really excites people.

Never underestimate the contributions from your customers.

Plessner: We just released our new solid perfumes that work in tandem with our candle line, and that completely grew out of people asking [for them]. Since day one we were getting requests for our Tarot Deck scent, so we finally have that. And I think the “You Are My Moon and Stars” collection is a really great example of customer requests -- we had the alphabet rings and earrings, but alphabet necklaces were the one thing that we were being repeatedly asked about. So Rony and I really struggled for a long time because there are so many people who are doing those -- and who are doing them so well -- we were like, “What is our take on it?” The moon and stars were not an instant answer but when we finally came to it, it was like, “Ahhh, that’s why we’ve been waiting all of this time.” And it was a direct response to customers.

Don’t follow traditional retail models if they’re not in line with your brand.

Vardi: We don’t do sales. We price stuff fairly and a sale is like -- talk about marketing genius -- we just price things at a totally normal, fair markup. We don’t jack it up. Sales happen when a big store has massive amounts of stuff they want to get rid of. Our stuff isn’t trend-driven. Like, we didn’t overbuy sweaters and then it didn’t snow and now we need to sell them. We make everything ourselves so we don’t overstock ourselves. Though every once in a while we’ll have a tiny promotion for a really short amount of time on some specific stuff. But we just don’t do high-pressure, not in-store -- not as a general concept -- we just don’t.