In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Kimberly McDonald was born to be in the jewelry business. "When I was a kid, I was just obsessed with agates," she tells Fashionista. "I spent my summers collecting rocks up at my grandma's house up in Wisconsin."
That McDonald would grow up to be a designer known for incorporating natural stones and elements into her fine jewelry, like her signature geodes and agates, should surprise no one. Today, her pieces are sold at tony retailers around the world, including Net-a-Porter, Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Browns in London and her own flagship in Los Angeles.
McDonald actually started in the fine jewelry business helping private collectors acquire estate or vintage pieces or even loose stones. She took note of her clients' shopping habits and discovered an unfilled niche in the fine jewelry category, namely in the $5,000 to $20,000 range.
"There was just a lot of monotony and repeated things. So if you had something at a $5,000 or $10,000 price point, 400 or 4,000 people might have that same thing," she says. "I just wanted to make something that was really one of a kind." Her childhood obsession with geodes and agates fit naturally into this idea. "Even if someone has a geode pendant, it's not going to be exactly like your geode pendant," she explains.
Landing her first retailer was just as charmed of an experience. "I made a few pieces and had a meeting with WWD and that editor was friends with the designer jewelry buyer at Bergdorf Goodman at the time and one day they just gave me a call," McDonald says. "I went for my meeting and that was my first store."
In synergy with the natural aesthetic of the brand, sustainability and social responsibility are also fundamental parts of McDonald's line, which is all produced in New York. "I literally not only know that all the people making my jewelry work in good conditions and that they're using the safest methods to dispose of any waste, but I also know them personally," she says. "I feel like that all goes into the integrity of the final piece." McDonald researches each group she buys from to ensure their stones are ethically sourced, and she also works with recycled materials and reclaimed diamonds. To minimize disturbing the earth more than necessary, McDonald sometimes works with suppliers to source byproducts, such as cobalto calcite, chrysocolla druzy and uvaronite garnet, from existing mining and drilling efforts.
McDonald's aesthetic and core principles have garnered her quite a number of A-list fans. Most recently, not one but two style icons with affinities for designer fashion wore her pieces in the span of a week. (Granted one is real and the other a fictional character on TV, but still.) Michelle Obama wore McDonald's pavé encrusted geode studs to meet the Pope; meanwhile, actress Taraji P. Henson (as Cookie Lyon) made a statement in the season premiere of "Empire" in a pair of knockout agate earrings and, later, two massive cuffs from the designer. The character has also outfitted her entire living room in Kimberly McDonald home, thanks to Paolo Nieddu, the show's costume designer, who passed the home lookbook on to the show's set dressers.
Having the First Lady as a big fan is just as major. Michelle Obama first wore McDonald's black geode and ruby earrings to accessorize a Alexander McQueen gown she wore to the State Dinner honoring Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2013. "[Her people] sent me an email directly and asked for a lookbook and said she was a fan," Mcdonald tells me. "I don't really ask a lot of questions, it's not that kind of relationship. I heard that she owned a pair of my earrings and that she already liked the collection. She mentioned it to her people and they just contacted me and we facilitated a loan." Since then, the FLOTUS has worn McDonald's designs a number of times, including the second term inaugural ball to accent her Jason Wu gown.
And there was that one time McDonald was invited to the White House to meet Michelle Obama in person. "When they announced my name, she screamed, 'Babe!' and she hugged me," McDonald laughs. "About four secret service guys started walking toward me and I was like, 'Hey, hey, she grabbed me [first]!'"