Christina Grasso and Ruthie Friedlander co-founded the non-profit organization The Chain in 2017 as a support network for women working in fashion media and entertainment and struggling with or recovering from eating disorders. Since its inception, the group has partnered with several designers and brands to bring its community together for monthly events. After holding many of these gatherings, though, Grasso and Friedlander realized they were facing a merch issue.
"We really wanted to come up with a way that people could, number one, represent being part of this community, but also I know that I personally have found so much therapeutic value in touching things when I'm feeling anxious — whether it's twisting my earring or holding onto my bracelet or turning my necklace," explains Friedlander over the phone. "So, Christina and I were like, 'Wouldn't it be awesome for us to launch a jewelry line?'"
Of course the idea was great, but both Grasso and Friedlander have full-time jobs, and The Chain is a non-profit funded solely on donations, which go into putting on events. They didn't have extra money lying around to start a jewelry line.
This is where the online marketplace Pietra came in: Launched last August, it's a fine jewelry platform that connects jewelers directly to customers. It's the first of its kind, where customers can work with a global network of jewelers to custom-create the designs of their dreams. For The Chain, that meant a line of semi-fine jewelry inspired by its namesake.
"We came to Pietra and said to them, 'We want to create a line of chains, really simple designs, but something that we can sell to our community and our supporters. All of the proceeds will go to our organization, but we don't know where to start. All we have is our brand logo and a community of people we know will buy,'" Friedlander says.
Ronak Trivedi, Pietra's co-founder and CEO, describes the company as an "enabling platform" that gives creatives like Grasso and Friedlander, without startup capital or the time to develop manufacturing and sourcing relationships, the tools to bring their businesses to life in a matter of weeks, in the most cost-efficient way.
"We can take an idea — that's literally something that's in your head or on a scratch pad — and get you right to a full e-commerce set-up," Trivedi says. "We work at the pace of the creator. It takes about 14 days of production time to get samples. So, we like to say, 'In a month, you can be up and running.' But if you want to work on a purely digital scale, you can launch in 10 to 12 days; if you want to wait for samples, then it might take closer to 21 to 25 days."
The system is super flexible, depending on the creator, but the capability to launch a company in 30 days or less is a powerful concept — especially now, when small businesses need as much help as they can possibly get.
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Grasso and Friedlander started working on their jewelry collection for The Chain in late January, and had products available for purchase on Pietra by the first week of March.
"We had a very clear vision, and that made it simpler, but I have to say that every roadblock that Christina and I have had in trying to start something for The Chain — whether it's finding an event space or creating a sweatshirt or redesigning our website — was stripped away by being able to use this platform," says Friedlander. "Not only was it really fun for us to be able to design jewelry, but because all the proceeds are going to The Chain, selling $5,000 worth of jewelry in one week is a significant amount of money for us, since it costs us about $1,500 to put on an event."
Cumulatively, Friedlander and Grasso have two decade's worth of experience in fashion, working for various publications and brands, so it didn't take long for them to land on their jewelry designs. They made sketches, which Friedlander jokingly refers to as "doodles," that Pietra then sent to a manufacturer to create at their desired price points.
"There were some things that were really important to us," explains Friedlander. "We wanted to make sure that we were going to be able to use recycled material. We wanted to be able to make sure that we could have things that were going to be under $100 dollars."
The final product line is nine pieces total, and ranges from $49 for a single chain-link earring to $4,449 for a solid 14K gold necklace. Each item comes in four different metal options.
It took Grasso and Friedlander about 35 days from when they sent in their sketches to when they received their samples. They then uploaded iPhone-captured images of the samples to the site and immediately started pre-selling. They sold over $5,000 worth of jewelry in their first week, Friedlander says, which also happened to be the week before the world effectively shut down in response to the spread of Covid-19.
"People want to get their ideas out," says Trivedi. "The biggest roadblock is having the meetings, traveling overseas, making the partnerships and people just don't have that time. Now, with everything that's happening in the world, they definitely can't go out and take these meetings."
The collection is made-to-order, so Grasso and Friedlander don't have to hold onto any inventory. And while it does take two to three weeks for their customers to get their pieces, this workflow allows the co-founders to ideate and create more products.
"We've found that launching more frequently is huge and the ability to have newness is so important," Friedlander says excitedly, noting that they're currently working on their next collection, which will expand on different types of chains.
According to the newly-minted jewelry designers, nothing has been slowed down due to the pandemic. Things are certainly speeding up for Pietra: The site has expanded categories and launched candles and fragrances this month.
Trivedi believes there's an abundance of creativity, and he's determined to help people bring their visions to life, like he did for Grasso and Friedlander.
About a month after its official launch, The Chain did just over $8,000 worth of revenue, Friedlander said, with all of the profits going towards the group's programming. The pair have also discussed allocating funds towards helping members of their community get proper medical support, as eating disorder treatment is extremely expensive and oftentimes is not covered by insurance, unless you meet very specific guidelines.
Trivedi — who calls Grasso and Friedlander "rockstars" — hopes creators of all different types come out because of what these women have been brave enough to do.
"What they are doing, especially now, is something that's worth being highlighted and shouted from mountaintops," he says. "The word I would use to describe what we're seeing with The Chain is just inspirational."