During this busy holiday season, MAKERS wants shoppers to empower women with their wallets. To make it easy to do so, we’re highlighting some of our favorite female founders and the amazing products they sell. Check it all out at shopping.yahoo.com. (We may receive a share from purchases made via links on this page. Pricing and availability is subject to change.)
Sophie Kahn and Bouchra Ezzahraoui didn’t necessarily intend to start a fine jewelry company, but in 2015 that’s exactly what they did. After becoming friends while studying finance in graduate school at Princeton, the duo decided to create something they were always searching for: a line of fine jewelry that was relatively affordable, high enough quality to wear every day and modern enough to feel chic and powerful. With that, AUrate was born.
Nearly four years later, their business is booming. AUrate says their online revenue has grown 400 percent every year and their stores’ sales have been doubling annually as well. Success is attributed, in part, to understanding the modern customer, both online and off.
One service in particular, Curate by AUrate, really speaks to this. The home try-on service allows shoppers to sample jewelry before committing to a purchase. “We really wanted to be a bit rebellious in terms of what we were seeing in the market and how it didn’t speak to us,” Kahn, who designs all the company’s jewelry, tells MAKERS. “That whole traditional man buying jewelry for a woman thing? That just feels very outdated. We wanted to flip that on its head.”
Kahn spoke to MAKERS about the moment they realized their idea was worth quitting their jobs for, her design style and the number one AUrate piece to buy — but odds are you won’t stop at just one.
MAKERS: Where did the original idea for AUrate come from and why did you feel like the jewelry industry needed a change?
Sophie Kahn: The idea came about very organically, Bouchra and I met over 10 years ago in grad school and we were close friends. I was working at Marc Jacobs and she was working at Goldman Sachs and one day we were at brunch, and I had this green finger from a ring I’d just purchased. It was an expensive ring that I got at a discount from somebody I knew, but I was really disappointed! I was like this is actually crazy, why can’t we afford real gold? We have good jobs, we were earning good salaries, but even if we could afford it, what’s out there didn’t speak to us. It was kind of just the old school brands that often market to a man buying for a woman. Plus the designs weren’t that cool, and there was no transparency in terms of production processes and how prices come about — there were basically no brands for us. We thought: we can do this better.
So while I was still at Marc Jacobs and Bouchra was still at Goldman we just started on the side. I took classes at Parsons on the weekends, I learned to do jewelry design, I still design all of the pieces. We set up a little website and things really started picking up. We eventually went full-time in 2017.
When did you and Bouchra realize this idea was actually worth quitting your jobs to pursue?
There were a couple of moments. One big moment was when we had our first pop-up store. We had $20,000 in our bank account from our savings, and the rent was $1,000 a day, so we rented the space for 10 days. It was half of the money we had. We put out some Ikea tables, and the jewelry we had, and I think we did $60,000 in sales without anyone even really knowing us. That’s when we realized people really like it. I remember these girls coming in from Paris, they worked at Balmain, and they were like, ‘oh my god this is exactly the type of jewelry I’ve been looking for. It’s dainty and it’s well-priced, and it’s cool.’ Online you don’t get that real-time qualitative feedback, so that’s when we realized ‘holy s***, it’s not just us. People really like this.’ That was a big a-ha moment from a qualitative standpoint. From a quantitative standpoint it was really just the growth, we could really see we were continuing to grow a lot and fast and quickly. We basically just did it ourselves and only raised seed funding once we had a little business going on. I think that helped us raise faster and more easily, and also potentially to dilute ourselves a little less.
You worked at Marc Jacobs, Bouchra was at Goldman Sachs, what from those corporate (traditionally male-dominated) environments did you bring with you to AUrate and what did you consciously decide to change?
I don’t want to say this is something we took from ‘male-dominated’ environments but I will say that Bouchra and I are very direct. No politics, no gossip, we’re very transparent — I also think that might be because I’m Dutch and she’s Moroccan. I also think we’re very quantitatively oriented and very results driven. It’s an accessories company so you could think it’s fluffy but it’s not, it’s metrics driven. What we do differently is face time. We don’t care about face time. We both have kids, we have employees who have kids, some people have to go home at 5 p.m. but then they can finish their work at night, that’s fine. It’s just about being super flexible with your work environment and having the results speak for themselves.
I didn’t know that you were the designer for the jewelry. I’d love to hear about your process and what you think makes an AUrate piece?
It’s very minimal, but at the same it’s strong, and I’d say that’s also how we see our AUrate woman. So like with our icon ring; I designed and then cut and cut and cut until it was clean. Even our flower ring, yes it’s flowers and it could be very ostentatious but it’s not because I try to do it in a way that always feels minimal. It all has this minimal undertone. I think that comes from the fact that I’m Dutch and I’ve always appreciated Scandinavian design. The second thing is I always try to make the designs bold yet feminine — like our women. Because you can be both: you can be feminine and you can also be really f***ing strong and I think it’s the same for our designs. I don’t want them to feel girly or too dainty, but at the same time they can be very feminine.
Which pieces do you wear every day?
I switch all the time. Right now I have a new stack I came up with which is the Brooklyn bridge, and I have my wedding band in between them. I always have a bunch of diamond stackers that I stack. The other one I often wear is our opal diamond ring, which is inspired by a design I inherited from my grandmother. The final one I would say I wear a lot are our proud pearl earrings, which I came up with when I was getting married and I couldn’t find any cool minimal pearl designs, they were all more old school. Our diamond ear cuff is what I’d get if you have to get just one thing from us. You don’t need a piercing and you just put it around the middle of your ear and it sticks and it looks super cool and it doesn’t fall off. It brings a little edge without having to add an extra piercing.
How does AUrate’s pricing compare to other jewelry companies? I know it’s considered affordable but it still feels splurge-y to a lot of people — so why invest in an AUrate piece?
Everything we do is real gold. Of course you can buy jewelry that costs $5 but it’s made of crap. We have a couple of variants: we have 18k gold which is the highest quality gold which you would get for your wedding ring, say; we have 14k gold which is the most standard wearable every day; and then we have a bit of a more affordable segment which is gold vermeil, which is basically gold on top of sterling silver.
What we offer is all super high quality and the bottom line is because we are direct to consumer, we can sell it for much less than you get it for anywhere else. Like our diamond stacker ring which we sell for $250, anywhere else that ring would be $500 or $600. Of course $250 is not cheap, the ring is real gold and real diamonds, but it’s relatively cheap because of how we’re producing it and how we’re giving it to the customers. We make everything in New York City at the same craftsmen as the big fifth avenue brands. The same craftsmen, the same gold, the same diamonds; and the only reason our prices are 20 percent of what it would be somewhere else is because we aren’t selling through other distributors. At the same time because we’re in NYC, and because we’re on top of everything, we can make it all very transparent in terms of making sure everything is ethically sourced. Also labor circumstances, if you’re making something abroad, how can you be sure what those peoples’ circumstances are? But we actually know because we’re 15 minutes away.
I’d also say that AUrate pieces are an investment, they last forever. These are pieces that you can pass down through generations.
Speaking of passing down, you mentioned your grandmother’s ring that inspired a design. I wear my grandmother’s jewelry too — why was it important that these be pieces a woman can give to future generations?
I think it’s very special to be able to continue to tell your story. When I wear my grandmother’s ring I think of her. She’s not here anymore but I feel like I’m living through her in a way, or she’s still there. It’s a very special thing, she was wearing this piece on her finger and now I’m wearing it on my finger.
Were you given any advice that really helped you when you were starting AUrate that you would give to other women starting companies?
Honestly it sounds simple but just do it. So many people tell me, ‘I have this great idea’ — but ideas are really 1 percent of the solution. Ideas are great but then you have to execute and people forget how important execution is. If you have an idea and feel passionate about, it’s super scary, but just start.