With whimsical and photogenic jewelry styles like diamond-encrusted safety-pin earrings and rainbow tennis necklaces, as well as a legion of influencers who love to wear them, it would be easy to dismiss The Last Line as just another "Instagram brand." But founder Shelley Sanders has loftier goals than building a social media following — though she's done a great job of that, too.
Along with her CEO husband, Sanders set out to disrupt the fine jewelry industry by launching a direct-to-consumer fine jewelry brand in July of 2017. The Last Line is a bit more accessibly priced than traditional fine jewelry companies, where markups tend to be unnecessarily huge — a diamond tennis bracelet might cost more than $6,000 at a traditional retailer but go for $3,750 on The Last Line — and the designs are a lot less boring. And their business model is working: They passed their first-year sales goal in under six months, and are on track to increase sales by 350 percent in their second year. But this came after years of planning and learning the industry ropes by working for other companies, ultimately falling into "this really strange niche world of celebrity jewelry design," as she puts it.
"I ended up making this career for myself for about 15 years where I designed anything from fine jewelry to QVC to every single piece of costume jewelry in between," says Sanders, who studied Fine Arts at Parsons. As is not always the case with founders of so-called "Instagram brands," Sanders paid her dues, and spent those years learning what did and didn't work, identifying what was missing from the industry, and doing market research for her own brand.
"I would ask everybody, 'What piece of jewelry do you really want that you just can't find?' And that was what I determined to be the most successful entry question into figuring out how to design a line for somebody else and also make it cool," she says. She got a lot of similar responses and realized there were niches to fill in terms of design and price point. "I started to notice, 'Why is there not a well-priced, well-designed fine jewelry brand?' I couldn't figure out why, and I still don't know why."
She also felt the fine jewelry shopping experience, which typically entailed walking into a fancy store and feeling intimidated by the salespeople, could be disrupted. "I don't like going into stores, but I love the idea of being treated luxuriously and having this luxurious, special experience," she explains. "But I prefer to do that from my own home, like Amazon, Instacart." Yes, you read that right: Amazon. ("It delivers in two days! That's pretty fucking luxurious.") Sanders also has a love for branding, and didn't see people creating full-fledged brands around jewelry.
"There were always these things that I wanted to do, and I put them in 'Shelley's File,' she recalls. "Finally, we just dug into Shelley's File."
That file must have been overflowing. The Last Line's aesthetic is fun and playful, which is atypical in the fine jewelry space. Signature pieces include the aforementioned safety pin earrings and tennis necklaces and bracelets, BFF charm necklaces, flower earrings, huggies and Zodiac-themed pieces. Though the brand has been around for just over a year, its website is a cornucopia of countless creative design ideas — with more unique styles than some brands seem capable of putting out in much longer stretches of time. Sanders says she's inspired by vintage jewelry, which is a passion of hers, as well as things she and her friends want but can't find. She releases new product in "drops," without following a traditional seasonal schedule.
The Last Line's branding is a reflection of this bright, colorful aesthetic and its disruptive business model. Its copy reads transparent and conversational, with the website declaring TLL to be "the last jewelry collection you ever need," and how it "decided to say 'screw you' to the traditional jewelry industry markups." In the years prior to launching, Sanders would make jewelry for friends and she wanted to mimic that type of relationship on a larger scale. "It was very chill. It was a friend talking to a friend." She also wanted to make the website accessible for people who don't know a lot of the technical details around fine jewelry.
"Most people aren't going to know grades of diamonds or even sizes of diamonds. What's a big size? What's a little size? What's a good size? What's a bad price? Nobody knows," she explains. "We wanted to establish a connection with our customers that made them feel comfortable communicating with us freely." She and her team always respond to comments and DMs on Instagram, for instance.
"I think it's a very antiquated idea that everything luxurious and expensive needs to be snotty and feel inaccessible," she says. "Sometimes you walk into some of these really big fine jewelry brands, and you ask to see a piece and they look at you like, 'I don't know, can you?' It's so rude." It also doesn't reflect modern jewelry-buying habits. While jewelry used to be something men or other loved ones bought for women, women are now buying it for themselves. "Fifty or 60 percent of our customers are buying jewelry for themselves all the time, and they're consulting nobody," says Sanders. "I think that they want to be spoken to in a way that they're spoken to throughout the day, and they don't need to change gears to make a certain type of purchase."
Jewelry-wearing habits are different, too. In shoots, Sanders often styles her rings, bracelets and necklaces in abundant, multi-colored stacks, with sometimes as many as eight or nine earrings in one ear. Items are priced so that shoppers can get two pieces for the price of one at a traditional retailer. Plus, she deliberately sells single earrings for that mix-and-match potential. "My favorite orders are the ones that come with nine earrings," she says. All charms are also removable in case you want to switch them to another necklace or bracelet.
Sanders made Instagram a priority from the beginning; being direct-to-consumer, it was one of the only ways to get the word out about the brand, so she and her husband (who's also a photographer) devote a lot of time and resources towards photo shoots. "The creative vision at the company is really developed, obviously, through the content that we create," she explains. She also does influencer gifting and says those relationships typically begin over DM.
While it's often the more statement-making pieces that are front-and-center on the brand's Instagram feed (which Sanders admits is more geared towards millennials), there's a solid and popular range of timeless, more understated pieces as well. That's intentional, as Sanders doesn't want to appeal to just one type of jewelry shopper. "One of the goals with the brand that I had when I started it, I wanted to create a brand that can service a customer from her first pair of earrings to her wedding band up to a seasoned collector looking for that one-of-a-kind, amazing piece," she says. "As we roll out new drops, I think that everyone will see the variety of pieces for the different customers." Already, she says, her customer base is split across a wide range of ages.
Her latest is a drop of modern classics: It's not a traditional holiday collection, but it's filled with pieces you could imagine someone gifting, and holiday is an important time for the brand in terms of business. At a preview for the collection, Sanders had arranged a pizza-and-wine party replete with fully TLL-branded pizza boxes, plates, napkins and even take-home wine bottles covered in the rainbow logo. It was a level of dedication to branding that would lend itself well to a pop-up or physical retail space. While a store isn't in the works yet, Sanders says she does plan to ramp up in-person events and piercing parties. There are also some other "top-secret, amazing plans" that should come to fruition in the next two years.
Her ultimate goal? "To create a brand that can be synonymous with perfectly designed fine jewelry."