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Forget buyer’s remorse: with the price of gold rising year-on-year, the customers of fine jewelry brand Menē have nothing to regret. And if they do, they can always sell it back — at market price.
“We launched as an idea on a napkin,” quipped cofounder Roy Sebag, an Israeli-Canadian entrepreneur who previously launched precious metal savings and payments platform GoldMoney.
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Prior to meeting chief artistic director Diana Widmaier Picasso, he’d been mulling the idea that “jewelry had lost this position as a store of enduring value.”
“For most of human history, jewelry had some kind of intrinsic value, be it the jewelry passed on by a grandmother or the artifacts in all the great museums. But over the last couple of years, the brands I felt were tasked with the responsibility of [making such jewels] were stretching that relationship and seeing whether jewelry was more a seasonal form of expression or a discretionary item,” he said.
Cue the brand’s name, the first written word for money recorded over 4,000 years ago in the Aramaic language, which reflected a standard weight in precious metal.
While purchasing jewelry for its weight in precious metals is already a practice in a number of cultures, they felt “the opportunity is to disrupt the Western jewelry market,” which amounts to around $160 billion out of the $300 billion global jewelry industry, Sebag said.
For him and Widmaier Picasso, that meant selling 24-karat gold and platinum jewelry exclusively online as transparently as possible, by gram weight, with 20 percent added for design and other costs, with value tracked in real-time and the option to sell items back to the brand, at the metal’s market price minus a 10 percent fee, which launched in 2018.
He also said they had looked at adding 10 percent, but that had been a bit of a stretch, and that being digital-only was a decision stemming from the high costs of physical infrastructure.
“It requires a brand to make something like 60 or 70 percent margins, which would negate the model. If we had to basically sell someone a $500 ring, where they were only getting $200 worth of gold instead of $400,” it would be the antithesis of investment jewelry, in their opinion.
“Our goal is to make the same net profit as the luxury jewelry brands — about 11 percent free cash flow — but to get there in a different way. Our philosophy is trying to have as many people in the world access this, this high level of craftsmanship, these enduring elements and then also the beautiful design that goes behind [them],” he continued, pointing out that Menē’s costs came primarily from manufacturing and design, since they didn’t have physical shops and shied away from marketing.
For nearly two decades, Widmaier Picasso had an office on Place Vendôme — for her publishing company — much to the amusement of friends in the jewelry business.
Overcoming her longstanding reluctance to associate her weighty family name to a brand as a “matter of paying respect to [grandfather Pablo Picasso’s] work and not creating confusion” came down to a “story of friendship.”
Hence why she enlisted longtime friend Sunjoo Moon, a Los Angeles-based and Studio Berçot-trained designer who worked for the likes of Missoni and Kenzo and is now the creative director of Menē, to imagine the 600-odd designs sold exclusively on their own e-commerce.
Courtesy of Mené
Much of the brand’s aesthetic plays on the dichotomy between graphic geometric shapes and designs nodding toward Antiquity, ranging from open bracelets and chunky chains, to intricate designs on medallions and rings. There are also objects, like golden eggs, spinning tops and even a chessboard in platinum and gold. Special orders have also been added recently, following strong consumer demand.
“A classic side grew organically, design-wise and aesthetically, from how we just wanted to build something that has eternal value,” Moon said. Symbols play an important part, owing to Sebag’s interest in theology and Widmaier Picasso’s fondness for talismans, which the art historian connected to her grandfather’s superstitious nature.
Within a year of launching its first pieces in 2018, the brand had sold around 7 million Canadian dollars worth of jewelry, Sebag said. Its sales grew to C$30 million (around $25 million U.S.) in 2021, amounting to an average of 30,000 items sold per year. The executive declined to share projections for 2022 but hoped the company, which is publicly traded on the Toronto stock exchange, would continue its double-digit growth.
Asked what they went for, Sebag and Widmaier Picasso said chains were the largest category by far, with increasing market shares going to bands, reflecting the image of gold as a symbol of purity and sentiment.
While consumers have the option to sell their jewelry back to the company, Sebag said this was only about 5 percent of the current revenue, even in the face of gold prices that have surged over 50 percent in five years. He observed that almost 60 percent of Menē’s customers came back for a second purchase within the first 16 months.
For now, North America accounts for 80 percent of the business, owing to import taxes for other destinations, but a 20-percent-and-growing share comes from some 60 countries. Plans for a European distribution center are already underway and Sebag expects it to launch in the coming year, along with a fully localized experience from the e-commerce to customer service.
Selling wholesale is out of the question for now, owing to the business model and transparency built into the project, but Widmaier Picasso wouldn’t be adverse to a physical presence, although the format remains to be defined.
“The moment people see the gold, they have a different relationship [to the pieces], understanding they are something that you want to keep [and] pass on to next generation,” she said.
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