On the 47th episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the intersection of consumer, retail and commerce, I talk with Vanessa Stofenmacher, the founder of Vrai & Oro, a direct to consumer jewelry company pioneering the use of sustainably grown diamonds. Vanessa started the company after seeking out more affordable and transparent fine jewelry. This quest took her on a unexpected journey, leading to a serious partnership with company at the forefront of sustainable diamonds, and now a booming online brand with a growing offline footprint.    

I really enjoyed talking with Vanessa about her journey building her company, and how strategic partners can sometimes take a product to a whole new level.  

Check out the full transcript below.

Richie: Welcome to the 47th episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy.

This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you access to forward-thinking research, events and our analysts—so you can capitalize on the new consumer economy. Learn more at LooseThreads.com/membership. We also have a newsletter called Ripcord that highlights one important development each week and helps you escape the noise. Learn more at LooseThreads.com/ripcord.

Joining me today is Vanessa Stofenmacher, the founder of Vrai & Oro, a direct to consumer jewelry company pioneering the use of sustainably grown diamonds. Vanessa started the company after seeking out more affordable and transparent fine jewelry. This quest took her on a unexpected journey, leading to a serious partnership with company at the forefront of sustainable diamonds, and now a booming online brand with a growing offline footprint.    

Here’s my talk with Vanessa Stofenmacher.

Richie: Why don’t we start. Talk a bit about your background and then we can work our way up to Vrai and Oro coming into existence.

Vanessa: My background is actually not in fine jewelry. I have a background in graphic design, communication arts. I had a small design studio where I helped create logos, brand identities, marketing materials, websites for startups and small companies. And from there I started realizing people were coming to me to put makeup on their brands, and they wanted a brand identity, but really what they wanted was logos and a set of colors that they could use. And what I found is, a brand identity goes way beyond that. So I really wanted to be involved in the day-to-day of a product, and really create a product that could be used as a way of communicating with other people.

Richie: And I assume that works our way up to this company starting. Where did the initial idea come from, and when did it all start to formulate?

Vanessa: So it kind of came from a roundabout way. I had a company prior to Vrai and Oro with my sister and we basically found a need in the market; we both realized that our husbands are terrible at buying us gifts. So we created a website that used a learning algorithm to help match men with their perfect gift for their significant other, and quickly realized that fine jewelry is the number one gift that men give women. So we became a marketplace, in a sense, refined jewelry, and worked with more mass modern jewelers across America. And not having a background in jewelry, I didn’t really know what to expect, but what I saw was a lot of companies that were going overseas and choosing designs from catalogs of pre existing designs, and basically just putting their name on it. So, the quality was not great, the designs weren’t very unique, of course these are mass-market designers and not the boutique designers, so I was just a little disheartened with what I saw in the industry, and having them sell to third party, marking it up, there are a lot of middlemen involved in the chain there. So, seeing an opportunity to sell direct-to-consumer, have a more intimately designed product that was designed for women, by women, and have it made directly in Los Angeles, it just all came together and that’s where the concept behind Vrai and Oro started.

Richie: And so when was this, and what were the first things you did to start the company?

Vanessa: I think it was being inspired by companies like Everlane and Warby Parker, who were changing how consumers were buying things online. And the idea of direct-to-consumer was actually a very new thing at the time, and it was very exciting to me, the fact that a company can go and talk directly to consumers, so it’s not this kind of big middleman in-between that has the voice—the brand is really coming through and talking with you, and I really related to those brands. So that was something that I wanted to be a part of, in some forum, and fine jewelry was a place that I saw a lot of opportunity to communicate and address that change in the marketplace because it was so outdated in a sense.

Richie: And so you’re seeing some of these other brands apply this playbook so-to-speak to other verticals, what were the very infinitesimal-almost steps? You go, “Ok, this is the general approach.” How does it start to bear out for your own company in those early days?

Vanessa: Well first I had to find a manufacturer that was willing to work with us. So, I had $8,000 to launch the company, that was an investment from my husband. He was really excited about me launching into this, so he wanted to be our first investor. So I had a constraint in finding a manufacturer that would work with that. All the manufacturers we talked to, we had to order at least $50,000 worth of supplies to even think about talking with them. So that was definitely the first barrier of entry that we saw of “How do we actually create product with $8,000?” Let alone creating packaging and all the operations that go behind it.

So I actually found a manufacturer that was willing to take a chance on us. He was very excited about getting online. He had heard a lot of jewelry companies that were going online and he had no experience with websites. So he was interested in partnering up, and took a chance and did one-offs of each of our jewelry pieces, and really walked through us with the design and concepting of it. So we’d draw sketches and he would produce and we’d say, “Oh this isn’t really right, can you change this little detail?” He would go back and change it. So it was a really collaborative process in the early days. It was definitely because of him that we were able to advance onto the next step.

Richie: And so was this the first time you actually designed jewelry?

Vanessa: Yes. Yes. I mean I designed so many other things before and this was my first step into jewelry. The idea was really to design something that I would want to wear, not trying to be trendy or come up with the newest, coolest design, but take something simple and simplify it even more so I can wear it every day.

Richie: And what was similar or different about designing jewelry, compared to everything else you had designed previously?

Vanessa: It actually is pretty similar in the fact that it’s just about simplifying something down to its core, and I found that the same design principles transfer over pretty seamlessly.

Richie: So you found a manufacturer and convinced him to work with you. What was the thinking behind, “How many products we need to start with, price point we wanted to land on,” kind of the general architecting of what would be version one of the brand?

Vanessa: I knew I always wanted to have a very curated collection, I always wanted it to feel like you could come and whatever you purchase you would be happy with it, in a sense, and you don’t feel overwhelmed. So I wanted the user experience to be forefront from day one. And price point, I always wanted to be transparent with it, so I didn’t want to have the crazy markups, that was one thing that I wanted to avoid from day one, is to sell-direct, but I knew I had to cover overhead, and it’s a business, so you have to turn a profit in the end. So it was just finding that balance of being honest and transparent about the prices, and cutting out all the middleman so you can pass on as many savings as possible to the customer.

Richie: So I think in maybe some of the other brands you were alluding to before, they pioneer this idea of cleaning out the middleman, of which there might have been one, which was generally the wholesale middleman. From my very limited understanding within jewelry, there are immensely more middlemen and immensely more markups. Talk a bit about the traditional way those are done, and then how brands like yourself have started to cut out those specific parts of which there seem to be more than in an Everlane T-shirt.

Vanessa: Yeah, jewelry is definitely an interesting trade, especially when you get into gems and diamonds and specific—there’s a lot of middlemen, and precious stones and metals transfer hands many times. So, kind of, owning your supply chain, working directly with your suppliers, and obviously cutting out that wholesale component as well.

Richie: And so, traditionally, what are average markups within traditional jewelry?

Vanessa: It’s all over the place but it’s, I would say, average of five to ten times, even more sometimes, so five to fifteen times. It can be pretty crazy.

Richie: Why?

Vanessa: Because they can.

Richie: Is it just value-based?

Vanessa: It’s value, it’s brand-based, it crosses into a lot of different industries. Clothing has a similar area, except that jewelry is precious metal, whereas clothing, you’re talking about fabric that is pretty disposable at the end of the day, whereas jewelry does hold a value of actual—the material that you’re purchasing—but from there, the higher value item, the prices just kind of skyrocket.

Richie: So you found a manufacturer, you started to simplify some of the supply chain, decided to build a curated collection. How did you work up towards the launch, and then what was the launch like?

Vanessa: I’ve never been a huge splashy-launch person, so, definitely wanted to play it a little low key, and just put it out there, see who connected with it. But we did do a very initial launch where we allowed some influencers to have early access to the site. We didn’t have product to send to them, but we had access to a site that no one had seen before, which we thought was exciting, who knows how exciting other people thought, but it was a new concept at the time. So, we reached out to some influencers that really aligned with our brand values. They weren’t the biggest influencers, but they were genuine. So, talked with them and kind of created relationships, and took them to coffee, and gave them early access, and they became invested in the brand. And so they became ambassadors on their own, without even having to convince them, or give them products, or pay them, we just formed this natural partnership with them, which is great.

Richie: So that’s a somewhat untraditional launch. For one of these brands, generally the playbook is: launch, yell about it, get press about everything. What was the effect that it had internally on the company? Was it a quieter but stronger launch? How did you rationalize, “This was the approach we wanted to take, and then how we’re going to build on this from there?”

Vanessa: I think I had seen a lot of brands launching at the same time, you know, the new startups that were launching that—they’re so centered around this splashy launch, and they get a lot of visitors to their website, and then all of sudden it’s crickets, because that’s not a sustainable model. You did all this marketing around this one launch and that happened, and then what do you do from there? So it was kind of a reaction to what I was seeing, and I definitely didn’t want to go that path. And, for me, I saw a much more sustainable path in just slowly growing and testing things out. I knew that our product and our website wasn’t going to be perfect day one, so I would rather take some time, get feedback from customers and improve our product, before putting our resources and money into announcing it to the world.

Richie: And so what was some early feedback from the initial group?

Vanessa: It was honestly so amazing. Anyone who had an issue, they were so supportive, and they understood where we were coming from. So it didn’t feel defensive at all. It was genuinely customers that were so excited about what we were doing, and they wanted to see that product improve, and they wanted to see the experience improve, so they were reaching out saying, “I love this so much, it would be so great if you could add this,” or, “It would be even better if you did this,” and they’re still one of our more loyal customers today. So, the initial feedback was definitely invaluable.

Richie: And then was the rest of that year like, in terms of, what were you focused on, what was happening?

Vanessa: So I had no idea what to expect, I didn’t put together a forecast, I didn’t want to hold myself to what the world would think of this concept. I was really just letting it take its course. And we had way more sales than I had thought we would, so we grew a lot faster than I thought, our Instagram was picking up, and we were connecting with people. So we were just playing catch-up, in a sense, for the first year, and I knew, for me, that was the right way to play it. I didn’t want to plan all of these things out and then change directions and pivot in some way and then be left with all these resources that can’t be used. So it was just kind of going with it. And whenever we needed to add resources, we would add resources, and going with the flow.

Richie: And what was the team, if any, like? Because, in this early stage, generally speaking—was it a tiny team or—?

Vanessa: It was just three of us, so we were all doing everything, from packaging and shipping, customer service, running around picking things up from the manufacturers. Three of us doing everything.

Richie: And so I’m curious, at this point, what is that process, or what was the process of basically taking a design from A to Z, in terms of, what’s the linear steps or supply chain it takes to go from a sketch to a finished ring?

Vanessa: So it starts with something that we’ve been wanting to wear, or something that we’ve seen a need for, or that customers have asked for, and then it does turn into a sketch, and then we work with our manufacturers to create a 3-D version of that sketch, so a CAD drawing. And from there we have it casted and—printed and casted in silver, so you can actually see a prototype of it. Silver is a much more affordable metal to work in, so it just makes more sense for us to prototype in silver. And then we wear it around, we like to just see how it wears. There’s been some times where we’ve loved a design, and we’ve made it and then we’ve worn it for a week and we’re like. “This is uncomfortable. We didn’t know that this would happen.” So it’s really about the wearability of it. And then once we feel really good about that, and we’re all excited about it, we move forward with the actual production.

Richie: What was the composition of these pieces, in terms of both materials to stones?

Vanessa: All of our jewelry is made from gold and diamonds, so we only use solid gold, we never use plated or vermeil—there’s a lot of words that jewelers can throw out there to confuse the consumer as to what they’re purchasing, which we want to avoid. We wanted to make it very simple and make sure that the consumer is always getting a high quality product. So, when we launched we were using only fourteen carat solid gold, which means it won’t rub off, it won’t tarnish, it’s not going to change colors, it is solid gold.

And we were using diamonds. We’re using small diamonds, they call them melee diamonds, that are under .25 carats. So they’re really small and we were sourcing them from Israel through the Kimberly Process Act, and the gold that we’re using is recycled gold from our manufacturers. You know, we didn’t know much about the supply chain of either the gold or the diamonds at the time, but it was when we were launching into engagement rings that I was doing more research on the diamonds, and realized we needed to find a more transparent and traceable source for diamonds, which is when I came across Diamond Foundry.

Richie: And so, year-wise, when did that research process start?

Vanessa:  That was about a year ago, 2016.

Richie: OK. So, launched in 2014, spent two thirds of the year just building it out, playing catch-up, all those things, into 2015. What was the summation of that year, so to speak?

Vanessa: 2015 with just about the growth of it. So, we were seeing, year over year, 400% growth and 500% growth, it was growing really quickly. So it was just about growing our operations side, and growing our manufacturers and scaling. So I’d say 2015 was really about scaling.

Richie: And what were some of the exciting and/or challenging parts of that? Because, for anyone scaling anything it’s hard, let alone for people that haven’t scaled that thing before.

Vanessa: Well scaling the team was definitely a challenge—finding the right people. You know, at first, everyone’s wearing all hats, everyone is doing a little bit of everything, and then you need to start zeroing in and finding specialties. And so, taking the people and the resources that you have and using them to their best abilities, and then finding new resources to specialize in certain areas. Our initial manufacturers, as much as we loved working with them, they just couldn’t scale to where we needed to be. So, you know, they were making ten pieces a day by hand and we needed to be making forty pieces a day, so we needed to find a manufacturer who could have that capacity, in-house. So, we were able to make those relationships.

A huge pain point that we had was switching from made-to-order to inventory. So that was an interesting process because, all of a sudden we had a lot of our cash flow tied up in inventory, when before, we didn’t have that issue. So we had to figure out how to kind of section-off our budget and figure out what we could put into marketing, what we could allocate to inventory, and what we could allocate to everything else in the company.

Richie: Was it just that the demand was making made-to-order slow, unpredictable?

Vanessa: We had way too many orders to be handling day-to-day order placing, basically. So, what we were doing in the past was placing orders in the morning, and we would be able to pick up from our manufacturers in two to three days, we would quality inspect there, we would package there, and we would run to the USPS store before they closed, and it was a very very manual process. So we needed automation for sure.

Richie: So as you were growing hundreds of percent year over year, which is always incredibly exciting, do you have a sense of where that was coming from? Was it coming from channels like Instagram, was it coming from word-of-mouth, what were some of the growth drivers in those first few years?

Vanessa: Yeah I think there are a few main growth drivers, one definitely being Instagram. I feel like we were right/place right time with Instagram. We didn’t hit Instagram right when it launched, but I think we tapped into it right when brands were starting to explore Instagram and connect with influencers, when “influencers” wasn’t even a word that people were using. So, utilizing Instagram at the right time, growing our following organically from there. And then also having a product that is so gift-worthy. It was just a natural sharing product. So people were purchasing for gifts for their sisters, their girlfriends, or whoever, and then they knew about the brand. So it was an organic and social growth.

Richie: And so we can work our way up to 2016 now. So talk about the beginning of that year, and then we can work our way back to the engagement research process, and on into the future or the present.

Vanessa: Yes. The beginning of the year, again, we were just experiencing a lot of growth. We had grown our collection a bit, we had really figured out were a target market is, so we felt a little more established with who we were, and who our brand was, and who our market was.

Richie: Which was who?

Vanessa: Definitely a conscious consumer. So, someone that cares about the products that they’re buying, and wants to know a story behind it, and is interested in value, but also quality. You know, we do look at demographics, such as, we cater more to women purchasers than men, which is actually a bit different in the fine jewelry industry, and they’re typically in their 20s and early 30s. But more so, it’s a mindset for us, it’s about, “How are they relating? Are they buying organic? Are they taking these steps to really care about the pieces and the brands that they’re purchasing from?” So that’s kind of how we define our market.

Richie: Talk about what was the product mix or breadth going into that, and then the decision, “We need to expand into the engagement, and more of those rings.”

Vanessa: Yes, we had established ourselves with our essential collection, and we felt like we had a really core collection. We felt good about—our customers responded well to it, so we felt we had a kind of steady foot there, and we started realizing that a lot of our customers were asking us about custom engagement rings, and they were purchasing some of our smaller diamond pieces for engagement rings and promise rings, which I thought was really amazing.

But everyone wanted bigger diamonds, and they were asking for larger stones, and it didn’t really fit into our existing line. So I started researching engagement rings, and I really thought it was a next natural step for us. And then the more I looked into it, the more I realized how outdated that industry is. It really caters to a way more traditional approach, which is, you know, “Guy makes all the decisions and he chooses when to propose, he chooses the ring,” and the poor guy has all this pressure on him to find the right ring, choose the time, make the decision, and then the girl receives the ring and she’s like, “Uh, this isn’t really exactly what I wanted.” So it just seems kind of backwards in this more modern world that we live in, where—I love when it’s a more collaborative approach, and the couple can talk about it beforehand, and open up the conversation. This is a huge step that people are taking in their lives, to join two lives together. So, for me, an engagement ring is a symbol of that joining, and it’s really cool if it can be a joint decision.

So, I wanted to play on that, and create an experience that turns the traditional engagement experience on its head a bit. And get people to question why we’re doing things the way that we are doing them. So all of that was going through my head, and also designing a collection that was more wearable. So the affordable rings that I saw on the market were very generic designs, they were designed by elder men who have been in the jewelry industry for decades, and they were chunky, and they’re big, and they just are not wearable. As a woman you just can’t go to yoga and wear one of those rings, you have to take it off and it gets caught on things, and it’s just a nuisance. So, combining the user experience of it with the modern approach, that’s really what I wanted to create.

And so I started doing a lot of research on the diamond industry and wanted to get to the source of where diamonds were coming from. Since we’re founded through transparency, it was really important from day one to have complete traceability with our diamonds. And I knew our customers would be demanding that as well. Which is amazing. So, did some research, ask our manufacturers, “Where do you purchase your large stones from?” They would put us in touch with someone, we talked to someone else, and, five people later, we’re talking to the same person again, back at the beginning. So, it just felt like a roundabout, and I could not find the source of where diamonds were coming from, which was an eye-opening moment for me, to realize that there is such a lack of traceability and transparency in the traditional diamond industry. So, I felt very disheartened by that, and stuck, at a certain point. So I contemplated doing designs that didn’t even have diamonds or choosing a stone that wasn’t a diamond, and none of those felt exactly right either. Diamond is such a symbol for engagement that I felt really strongly about using a diamond, but I knew I had to get to the bottom of that traceability aspect of it.

And that’s when I came across Diamond Foundry, and I saw that they were growing real diamonds in California through solar energy, which I was like, “What? Mind blown.” So it was one of those light bulb moments that kind of connected all the dots for me. I knew I had to get in touch with them, so I reached out to them and asked if we could set up a meeting, and finally got through to them, and we quickly realized that we were both on a mission together to change mindsets and bring sustainability to an industry that’s traditionally pretty outdated. So, quickly realized that we would be better suited doing this together, and decided to join forces.

Richie: So before we dive into that, why was it so roundabout and opaque—that you were talking to one person and then five people later, the same person? How do you think it got to that point?

Vanessa: How I believe it got to that point is that there’s so many middlemen in the process of mining a diamond, and then selling it to a cutter, who then cuts it and sells it to a diamond sales person, who then sells it in bulk, who then sells it in smaller parcels to someone else in the trade, who breaks that up into smaller parcels, and then finally sells it as an individual to either a retailer or a person or broker. But there’s all of these—you know it starts with this large amount and then gets broken down and sectioned off, and there’s no tracking system in that process, so it’s not like a product that has a skew, where you can check that skew. There’s really no skew when you’re taking it out of the earth. There’s no way to place a number on that or to understand where that is coming from. Once it’s cut and polished it could be from anywhere.

Richie: And so, you came across Diamond Foundry. What was your first reaction to reading that it existed, or they were doing something that allegedly existed?

Vanessa: I had never heard of grown diamonds before. So it was a really exciting moment for me, especially knowing that their background is in solar energy. It was just excitement that we could take something that has been so destructive to both nature and human life—so having an option that has zero conflict involved in it was really exciting to me. You know, the engineers that were able to take a background in solar energy and use that to create sustainable change in an industry that desperately needs it.

Richie: From the moment you learned about them to the moment you said “Yes let’s do this like.” Was that obvious to you or…?

Vanessa: It was super obvious. A lot of people were asking,'”Was I scared?” You know, “How did you make the decision?” It was pretty clear to me. It just seemed like it made a lot of sense to both of us. And so in less than a month we had, from starting to talk about it to finalizing in the paperwork, we had everything signed.

Richie: That’s really quick.

Vanessa: Yeah, it was crazy.

Richie: So what did the acquisition do that allowed you to pour gasoline on what you were doing, or fill in the holes that you had yet filled?

Vanessa: Yeah. I mean, for us it’s shared resources across-the-board. So, how Diamond Foundry functions is exactly how we like to function. It’s very startup mentality, very open minded, very progressive thinking. So, it’s not about hitting revenue goals, as much as it is about “How can we create more change? How can we grow faster and more sustainably, and how can we do that together with our shared resources?” So it’s been really exciting just to tap into their network and their expertise and have them utilize our expertise and really work together as a team.

Richie: And so, as you were building out the engagement ring side, did you complete the collection after the acquisition, because that allowed you to do it, or had you actually started using some of their stuff before?

Vanessa: We were just in talks with using their diamonds before, so we hadn’t launched our engagement collection yet. We had all the designs finalized, but we hadn’t actually found our diamond partner or created any actual engagement rings. It really came at a great time because we were planning to launch in late December/early January, and the acquisition happened in November. So, as always, we’re pretty last minute with launching the collection, so we just made it all happen at once.

Richie: The plan then was basically, “We’re going to use their products in the launch of this entire new collection.”

Vanessa: Yeah 100%. As soon as I really heard of Diamond Foundry I was set on using only Diamond Foundry diamonds.

Richie: And so, how did that launch go? Was that the second biggest launch of the company?

Vanessa: Yeah. So, we had our Essential Collection for the past two and a half years, at that point. And this was definitely our next big step. We had a launch event, which was amazing. We’ve built up more of a following and we have a PR team now so we’re able to make a bigger launch event around this one. And it was really exciting.

Richie: It sounds like a lot of it came from customer demand to begin with, so what was the reception like, that it was now being fulfilled, in some form?

Vanessa: It was great. Everyone was really excited about it. One of the best features that we have is that we offer customers the chance to try on the rings at home, so they can choose up to three designs from our website and we’ll send a mock version for free. It gives you a chance to try it on, and see it in person, and, again, create that collaboration in the process. And so, we were just seeing immediately people trying on the rings and giving feedback and we were able to learn instantly what people were relating to, what they wanted to see change, so it’s pretty awesome.

Richie: An interesting thing to me throughout this evolution was, you’ve almost gone through two price perception adjustments or flips, so the first one was obviously going direct-to-consumer, cutting out middlemen from the process, which created a much more accessible price, but I assume there’s a lot of signaling that price has within the category. And then the second one was going from direct-to-consumer to grown diamonds. Talk a bit about what each of those shifts was like, and did you figure that puzzle out?

Vanessa: So when we launched it was really about being attainable and creating fine jewelry that people could afford. And it was a pain point that I saw myself, so I wasn’t going to buy jewelry from Tiffany’s, it was too expensive and it seemed unattainable and out-of-reach for me. But I also wasn’t going to buy trendy fashion jewelry that was going to fall apart and change colors and I was going to throw away in a few months. So it’s kind of finding that middle missing gap of a product that didn’t exist at a quality that didn’t exist, at a price that didn’t exist, and bringing those three things together. That’s been our value statement since day one, and it continues to be throughout our engagement ring line. So it’s really just about transparent pricing. It’s not about being the best price possible, because then we would have to sacrifice on quality and design. But we want to bring the best value for the quality and design that we have.

Richie: And then as you launched, was it the first engagement ring collection made of lab-grown diamonds ever? Or one of the first?

Vanessa: There’s been lab-grown diamond engagement rings before. One of the exciting things about Diamond Foundry is definitely the quality of grown diamonds. So, our quality is just superior to anything that you would see on the market. And you can tell that just by comparing them next to each other with the naked eye. But it was one of the first Diamond Foundry collections. They had worked with other jewelers before, but this was more of their Signature Collection that they had.

Richie: And what messaging adjustments or evolutions were there around the fact these were not untraceable mined diamonds, but ethically-created creations?

Vanessa: We did a lot of work just figuring out how that makes sense to people. It’s a very complex subject matter, so how do we simplify it and be as transparent as possible? We would never try and pass our diamonds as mined diamonds. I would never want to. I want people to be excited about the fact that they are grown in California and they’re completely sustainable, and you know exactly that it came from Diamond Foundry, to us, to you. And simplifying the message as much as possible so people understand exactly what they’re getting and they’re excited about that.

Richie: And were you finding that the younger customers that are gravitating towards this anyway were most open minded to these new applications and ways?

Vanessa: Completely, yeah. I saw that people in their early twenties just, no questions asked, they understood immediately that, “This is what I want, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for, I’ve been searching for something sustainable like this, and just sign me up.” And other generations have a few more questions, which is great too, because then I’m learning how other people are thinking about it. You know, they want to know how the diamonds are made and just dig in a little deeper around that subject. And then even the older generations past that, some are just convinced this is not for them, and that’s totally fine too. You know, they grew up thinking the rarer a diamond is, the better, and that’s their thing and I’m not going to change that mindset.

Richie: Let them do their thing.

Vanessa: Right.

Richie: Awesome. And so that collection launched in winter of this year, basically?

Vanessa: Yeah.

Richie: And then what’s happened since then, up to the present?

Vanessa: So we launched in June. We launched our latest collection, which is our Black Collection, and that’s our formal fine jewelry collection, so it uses one carat diamonds and it’s definitely more substantial pieces, and we like to think of it as evening wear, formal wear. But really, the idea is that it can be any time of day, wearing these pieces, it’s just a much more elevated step. So we would like to introduce people to fine jewelry with our Essentials Collection. Our Black Collection is really to mark those milestones, so if you graduate or you have a job promotion, you don’t have to wait for someone to buy you jewelry, you can buy it yourself. And it’s for these really exciting milestones that happen in your life.

Richie: And then you mentioned before that you recently opened up a retail store, which I guess is the first for the company?

Vanessa: Yes we opened on Friday.

Richie: So talk a bit about that, I know you’ve done events before, talk a bit about the offline piece, up to today, and also how that built up into opening a physical, permanent space.

Vanessa: So we’ve done pop ups in the past, where we’ve had one-to-five day events, where people can shop in person, which have been really successful because customers have been able to see the pieces in person, and we can connect from them, and just learn on a different level, you know, if they’re picking up this piece or they’re interested in this, or they have questions around this piece—those are tangible things that we don’t get necessarily online. And we had done some collaboration with brands where we’d kind of pop into their spaces, so we’re testing the waters a bit there. And we knew we really wanted to have a space that we could continue that learning and continue those conversations with customers to really get their feedback and have that in-person experience, and launching into engagement rings was a big factor in that we realized a lot of people still want to see the diamonds in person, they still want to bring their guy or girl along with them to do that process together. So we wanted to have a space where we could take in-person appointments and really walk through that whole process and show different diamond shapes and options and have that in-person experience.

Richie: That’s great. Experience-wise, how would you compare and contrast it to traditional jewelry stores of the past? And the experience that you wanted to provide?

Vanessa: I definitely wanted to have a much more experiential vibe to it. We’re centering it around both education and approachability. So, approachability in the sense that we’re removing the glass cases and we want people to come and see things, and pick it up, and try it on, and not feel awkward. I feel like there’s just been some distance in traditional jewelry stores, where you just—it’s not approachable, you feel like you have to ask everyone to pull something out and—

Richie: Get the keys.

Vanessa: Right. So we want to get away from that, while still having the most secure process so we can, of course, so we’ve put a lot of thought into that. And then also having education, so we have kind of like a gallery style wall, where we actually show the process, the growing process of the diamonds. So you can see how they grow and each step of the process, which has been really educational for people.

Richie: What’s been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned over the years of the company?

Vanessa: For most expensive, it would be most expensive back in the day, but wouldn’t necessarily be most expensive now.

Richie: I’ll take it.

Vanessa: Had a crazy bad experience when we started out. I allocated about a third of our funds to packaging and trusted a supplier overseas to create our packaging without seeing samples—genius idea—and received this crazy amount of packaging from them about six months later than we were supposed to. So we were already in a very stressful situation and it was terrible, I opened the box and just started crying immediately. It was so—I don’t even know how they messed up so badly, but that was a third of our funds, sunken, gone forever. And it was hard to recoup from that one.

Richie: What kind of importance did you place on packaging?

Vanessa: Coming from a design background, I put a lot of importance on packaging. Presentation and the security of the jewelry was very important to me, and I wanted it to reflect the quality of the products that we had. So I spent a lot of time designing the tiny details around it, like the exact paper weight that we used, and how thick the emboss would be on the logo, and an exact size of it, and I had done so much work in fine tuning of these exact details, and it was so off.

Richie: Gotcha.

Vanessa: One of the cheapest lessons I learned was to ensure packages and not put our branding on our packages. That was another genius idea of putting Vrai and Oro, which Oro actually means gold, on the return label of our packages, so they’re getting left at people’s doorsteps and easily stolen from there, so quickly had to change that, make that correction and have very bland, unbranded boxes for shipping.

Richie: Did that happen a few times early on?

Vanessa: Yeah.

Richie: I’m always surprised, or I guess interested in how Apple ships their products, which is they use these crazy code name shipping distributor things, and you realize it’s because they don’t want people to know they’re shipping iPhones.

Vanessa: Exactly. Yeah I learned that early on. I’d never even thought of that before, and then I was like, “Oh I guess that makes sense.” People understand this is jewelry so it’s valuable.

Richie: Just being like, “This is money in gold.”

Vanessa: Right, “Gold is in here.”

Richie: What other security things have you learned? Did you know any of this coming into it, or how crucial this was? What was the learning curve on that front?

Vanessa: No idea. Luckily it kind of grew over time, so when we started we weren’t really holding inventory, so we had no issues with that. And then we started holding inventory so we got a small safe, and then we had to get a larger safe, and then we realized we needed to have cameras for security of the people on the team, and then we realized we needed to have alarm systems to go with that, and then we need to have a double locking door system, so it just kind of, one after the other, grew into this more robust security system, which is what we have today.

Richie: And where do you learn about that stuff? From other people, or mistakes, or both?

Vanessa: Both. But a lot of it is talking with people that have been in the industries, so our manufacturers, we learn so much from them, and just different suppliers in the industry.

Richie: Yea I guess it’s like a whole other world.

Vanessa: Whole other world, it really is.

Richie: And so did you look forward into the next one to three years? What’s on the horizon and what are you most excited about?

Vanessa: I still have my mentality of keeping it pretty open. So I just want to see where it takes us. We’re really excited about this first retail experience, definitely want to see how that goes. Excited to create pop ins and pop ups in other cities and create that connection, and just solidify our connection with our community and grow from there.

Richie: And then where’s the name from?

Vanessa: Vrai means “truth” in French and Oro means “gold” in Spanish. So together it’s truth and gold. I’ve always been inspired by French culture and design, and their lightness and romanticism for things, and living in Los Angeles, being so inspired by Spanish culture, I thought it was a great marriage of the two.

Richie: Awesome. Well thanks so much for talking.

Vanessa: Thank you, appreciate it.

Richie: Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast, sign up for Ripcord at LooseThreads.com and feel free to leave a review on iTunes, we always appreciate it. Thanks to George Drake Jr for editing this episode. I really enjoyed talking with Vanessa about her journey building her company, and how strategic partners can sometimes take a product to a whole new level. We have a great roster of upcoming guests including, Jonathan Shokrian of MeUndies, Jodie Fox of Shoes of Prey and Charlie Giannetti of Giannetti Factory. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.