Brooklyn strong for 13 years
Ever since Rony Vardi has been stacking rings, she’s also been stacking cash. Credited as the first jewelry designer to make wearing the midi-ring an everyday necessity, her story is more humble than flashy even though she’s in the business of bling. Operating out of her Williamsburg storefront, Rony’s line called Catbird, prides itself on being Brooklyn-made with recycled or fair-trade gold and all stones are conflict-free. With personalization services, cruelty-free beauty products and a slew of gifts sure to delight any recipient, Rony has aligned Catbird with special occasions and the joy of gift giving. Here we chat with the designer about OG Williamsburg, why one storefront is the way to go and the simple pleasures brought to you by “unfussy jewelry.”
COOLS: Your trajectory into the jewelry business was pretty nonlinear: how did you end up starting catbird?
Roni Vardi: I opened a store with some savings, some 0% credit cards and some paint and furniture – it was around the corner from my apartment, right here in the neighborhood. It was really cobbled together, super easy… It was planned but it was not a grand plan. It was just me and I opened a space and sold a bunch of stuff. Jewelry that I made, jewelry that I bought. Clothing, art supplies, all different random stuff. And over time, I really honed it down. It was a very abridged version of a thirteen year process.
Jewelry was something that I made from things that I had. I was not at all a trained jeweler. Even after I had bought a lot of different things and sold a lot of different things, jewelry was always the most fun to sell, the most fun to engage with because it gives people a lot of joy and not a lot of anxiety. Clothes give people a lot of anxiety sometimes or are just functional or you’re like, “ugh I’m going somewhere, I need something.” Jewelry, generally, you’re buying as a treat, or for a special occasion, so generally it’s a lot more joy. I felt that I was so much better at just choosing jewelry and knowing what to do with it than anything else. And, at the time, in Williamsburg there were a lot of people starting their lines. People that I still work with and I still carry: Yayoi Kusama, Digby & Iona, Meridith Kahn from Made Her Think, Bittersweets… I mean people that I’ve worked with now for thirteen years that either started then or even started before. It was a real community.
COOLS: You’ve created a truly female-centric brand – from your storefront to the women crafting the jewelry itself, was this your intention?
Roni Vardi: No, definitely not. When I started, I opened the store. It was a good time in my life and it was – I had a plan for myself and I kind of had an idea for a brand and the female thing sort of happened over time. Mostly women applied, and when you’re selling jewelry it is mostly a very female oriented kind of market. Over time as we grew, we really had almost all female applicants. We have one man, and I’d very much like to have more men. We keep growing and we keep hiring and I hope to [employ] more men.
COOLS: You proudly state that Catbird has been a charitable company since Day One, was this always an intrinsic part of your vision for the company?
Roni Vardi: Brand focus is such an idea that I think about now but I didn’t think about at the beginning. At the beginning, I thought ‘oh, I would love to sponsor a baseball team,’ like a local baseball team, it would be so cute. It was surprisingly hard to do. To find the contact person, and then I kept wanting to do it…. It was a lot of legwork, so it wasn’t so much about a big plan as much as it was something that felt really good. You know, there are a lot of stores and a lot of people making jewelry and a lot of people than can do stuff like that but I’ve always felt like if you’re buying something from Catbird, maybe it can be something more than that; more than just buying something that is pretty and will last and… all those things to me are a given, you have to love it, it has to bring you joy and it has to be good quality – but beyond that, if it can be something where you’re part of something bigger, that to me has a lot of weight.
COOLS: You started in Williamsburg well before it became the bustling area that it is now, how has the business changed with the neighborhood?
Roni Vardi: I lived in the neighborhood (I’ve since moved out) but we are so much entrenched in the neighborhood. We have our store here, our office here, so many people that work [here] live in the neighborhood but the neighborhood has changed so much from when I started thirteen years from now. We changed and grew with the neighborhood. We started noticing these really cool, local girls saying ‘oh, I’m going to buy this Catbird ring as a wedding ring.’ And we had never thought of that. We had this one ring, it was less than $200 and it was gold thin ring, we don’t carry it anymore but a lot of people started buying it as their wedding rings. We thought to expand on that and actually start offering more wedding options and what we saw as the neighborhood grew and these girls got married was that they would come to the store that they already trusted. It developed pretty organically.
COOLS: Minimal, delicate, simple – these have always been pillars of the catbird aesthetic but are now jewelry trend buzzwords. How have you seen the business change with your influence on trend?
Roni Vardi: For me, I really like wearing small, unfussy jewelry. And to me, wearing a lot of small jewelry, or if you have a lot of small jewelry you can pile it on or just wear one. It’s just go easy and it can add a little bit of joy and fanciness, but it’s not some gigantic commitment or gigantic purchase. It’s really just an extension of who I am and what I like. So to me, it seems really natural. I’ve never been a person who wears really big pieces of jewelry, it’s not as natural.
COOLS: So much of what you’ve built is based on ‘in-real-life’ interactions but with the advent of social media, business-owners have access to a different kind of rapport than ever before. What role has social media played in your growth as a brand?
Roni Vardi: Social media has been really awesome [for us]. We make really personal jewelry and have always been in the business of making really personal jewelry and jewelry by its nature is really personal so it’s really nice to have those avenues to communicate with people who you wouldn’t necessarily see or are far away. We joined instagram when it first started. Our first [post] had nine likes, so it was not an overnight thing. We built it over time, so it feels a lot like a community where I see frequent commenters, it’s really nice. Generally speaking, we are part of a really positive thing – weddings, or new babies, things like that. The funny thing is that now there’s a resurgence in snail mail. We get a lot of snail mail and we take pictures of it and so we get a lot more of it. We kind of went backwards in that way.
COOLS: How do you plan on expanding from here?
Roni Vardi:The model that we have now is the model that I intend on continuing to use, I don’t plan on opening up any other stores but we can do more pop ups here and there because that gives us the opportunity to meet people. This model allows me to control the quality, the customer service – opening other stores and not knowing what’s going on there seems unmanageable to me. We have a website and we work really, really hard – we constantly work hard at making sure it’s up to date, we’re adding enough pictures and enough stuff and we’re getting as close to the actual store as you can. It’s that constant unachievable thing of getting the store and the website to be as similar as possible. We are constantly working at that and I would rather put my energy into that than opening up another store in another neighborhood.