Ten Years of Cecile Raley Designs, who would have thought?

So you’ve heard us talk this up for a few weeks now, our ten year anniversary on Etsy, which was actually in August (so we are fashionably late).  We’re having our cocktail party bash on the 3rd of October at an art deco themed place in the diamond district, with our staff, former and present, makers, vendors and clients. 

But let’s dial it back by, oh, say a decade, and look back at how this all began.

I have to say, myself, that this entire jewelry and gem selling thing was a complete accident!

2007: I took a trip to Montreal and Quebec City with my mom, and that’s where I saw the necklace I wanted to make in a museum store.  It was made of cubed glass beads, very colorful.  My taste has always been colorful I guess.

After the trip, I told my friend Diana about the necklace.  Diana, in turn, took out her bead box and said, “let me show you how you can make that yourself.”  Then we went online, found cubed glass beads, and, in my usual overdrive, I made about a dozen necklaces.  Diana still does beading for us today, and helps out with odds and ends as her time permits.  Many of you have bought her designs. 

One of Diana's Beaded Necklaces

After that I went into a beading frenzy and all my colleagues at Felician University had to buy beaded necklaces from me at cost because I had them coming out of my ears.  By then I had discovered that in Manhattan you could buy beads made from real gemstones instead of glass and I loved those way more.  At the time, you couldn’t get those online, really, so I spent any free afternoon and some weekends on 6th Avenue and 47th Street.

In 2008, I joined the Jersey City Craft Mafia.  (Yes, that was the name, and it still exists in a morphed version).  For a few years, the Craft Mafia did a lot of craft shows together, and my friendships with Johanna from Metal Cloth and Wood, and Joanne from Silver Sculptor, have lasted ever since.  Both of them have in fact worked for me from time to time.  Johanna does our social media now, and Joanne did many of the photos as well as my runs in NYC.

Now, one of the requirements of the Craft Mafia was that we all had to have an Etsy store. “What is an Etsy store?,” I asked.  Back then, Etsy was a much smaller outfit, and I think not much known outside of New York City.

So in August of 2009, I opened an Etsy store.  I made a few listings, and I sold… nothing.  Well, I sold one piece between August and December. 

Enter Patty, who became a real fan in January of 2010, and had me make at least half a dozen necklaces for her and I felt encouraged.  A friend asked me to have a jewelry party at her house, and a local shop asked for my Jersey City Twig line. 

Another craft show friend, Annick from Annick Designs, told me that to be successful on Etsy I needed at least 100 listings.  A great challenge for someone who knows only two speeds: “overdrive,” and “off.”  I created 100 listings in no time. 

Of course, to make all those pieces, I needed parts, which are easily bought in, you guessed it: the New York Diamond District.

So, in fall of 2009, I started buying silver, pearls, and beads on 47th Street.  I also went to the Whole Bead Show, which is still a great bead resource for New Yorkers.  I went to the JA Show at the New York Javitt’s Center, in the fall of 2009, and bought even more beads.  And yes, I incurred a bit of a credit card debt.  I know you’ve all been there!

The JA show is where, for the first time, I saw vendors with unset gems and started to ask myself how one gets those into jewelry.  My curiosity was peaked.

The NY Diamond District

I also made my first notable purchasing mistake, without which I wouldn’t be where I am today.  I got a ruby strand with gorgeous ruby beads to be used for earrings.  After the show, I did some research online and became concerned that they weren’t real.  I asked my silver vendor who could help me find out and she pointed to a guy in one of the booths at the 25 West Exchange (which is closed now), and said, that’s “Dino”, he would know. 

And I went to Dino, a short, quirky and laid back Indian guy who patiently explained to me that the beads were ruby material but glass filled and what that meant, showing me the indicative bubbles under a microscope.  I bought a tiny sapphire to show my appreciation. 

Dino, typical pose

The next time I bought silver, I stopped by Dino’s booth.  And I did that again and again.  And again.  I kept looking at all his gorgeous gems I couldn’t stop thinking that I really wanted to use them.

Dino also had a large tray full of very old unsorted emeralds (I imagine about 2000 carats), which, he said, he was too lazy to grade.  They were his father’s he said, and bought in the 70s.  I asked if I could grade the pile.  “That’s a lot of work,” he said.  “Ok,” I said.  And I brought a tray full of gem jars the following week to get started.  And from there on, each Friday afternoon, I brought a tray. I sorted the emeralds, then the aquas, then the rubies, and all the rest, 60 trays all in all, until the entire booth was revamped.  I got paid in emeralds.

The entire process lasted about 6 months, and these months were absolutely invaluable to me.  As Dino commented on my efforts and observations, I got to listen to dealers and buyers come to his booth, buy and sell wares, haggle, ask advice, or just discuss business.  And in the evenings, we went up to Jeffrey’s, a diamond cutter, had beers and watched them repair diamonds.

In that time I also sat with Avo, a setter that Dino recommended, and met Arman, a polisher.  Through Arman, I met Vasken, and I sat and observed, and learned basic soldering, not so much to make jewelry (because as it turned out, that was really hard) but because I wanted to understand the process.  I made bezels and set cabochons (the latter was not a success).  Johanna ended up making the bezels for a while, she was much better than I was.  I dabbled in wax, too, and made a series of “melted rings”.  They sold pieces at a moderate pace. 


Avo, my first setter

Arman, my first polisher, and my friend Cea's Dog Cornuts

But it seemed that what really attracted my clients was the gems, however.  In particular, the fact that they were real, and untreated.  As Dino explained when we met, there were so many enhancements, and nobody understood them, so people bought pieces at too high a price.  I.e. glass filled rubies.  And at the time there were no real rules that required disclosure.  All that happened just after.

So I was kind of a first.  I was on Etsy, I was selling gems, some loose, some set, and sourcing them for clients.  I was explaining treatment to clients, location of origin, and value.  I learned how to get stuff checked in the lab, with Josh, around 2011.  I met more gem dealers and drilled them about treatments, trying to learn more.  Most knew their stuff very well but weren’t yet used to those questions.  The AGTA started imposing rules a couple years after the Glass Filled ruby scandal with Macys, and since then there’s been considerably more disclosure.  What a difference a nice little scandal makes.

2011. Another JA show comes around, and there’s a (very) young Indian guy all the way in the back, a proper looking and polite kid (from my perspective) with a beautiful booth, and beautiful gems. His name? Jaimeen Shah, owner of newly minted Prima Gems. We talked and talked, mostly sharing the same concerns: people didn’t understand, or sufficiently appreciate, untreated gems.  It wasn’t their fault either, but simply a lack of public education, and that was our job, not theirs. 

Jaimeen also introduced me to several lots of bright pink gems that nobody seemed to know much about.  Spinels, he explained, from Mahenge, Tanzania.  I bought a few (and then a few more later, and more and more and more over the years…).  What started as a gem show friendship led to another but shorter sorting enterprise as I helped Jaimeen prepare for his first Tucson in 2013 at his house in Jersey City, and then to just about weekly visits since he’s opened his office on 48th Street.

Jaimeen Shah in 2015

Early Mahenge spinels

2012. Enter Brandy, another Jersey City local who I was introduced to at our park by the Craft Mafia organizer Luca. Brandy had worked in the diamond district for a high end manufacturer for five years, until the latter relocated and she decided to go on her own with CAD designs. She introduced me to our current polisher, Nautilus, Ethan the setter, and many others.

brandy belenky

Brandy Belenky

Brandy also introduced me to CAD, of course, and she’s since designed almost every one of my pieces.  Together, we created my line for colored gems, and solved the challenges that came with it: wonky deeper cuts need longer prongs, heavier gems need sturdier designs, and on the other hand, our desire to make things affordable presented the challenge of creating light weight yet wearable pieces that don’t fall apart within a year. 

Oh dear, it seems I have run out of space (twice, given the suggested length of a regular blog entry).  So let me stop here, and tell the rest next week or the week after, about meeting Debbie and Karen and Jochen, my first Tucson, Las Vegas, my trips to Africa, South America, and then I can also tell the tale of the event!

Toby in 2004 (Mostly, Toby's Ears in 2004). We all have to start somewhere!