Jewelry designer Stephanie Gottlieb started her own business at 26. Here’s how.

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Stephanie wears The Xavier Dress

Married by 25, business owner by 26, apartment on the Upper East Side… If you were one to make assumptions, you might assume that Stephanie Gottlieb carefully plotted out every last detail of her life, down to the round, rose gold engagement ring on her left hand. Husband? Check. Business? Check.

But you’d be wrong.

The 30-year-old jewelry designer didn’t have a plan; she didn’t even know what she wanted to be when she grew up. While studying Communications and Spanish at the University of Michigan, Stephanie spent her summers interning in an effort to find her calling–but when graduation rolled around, she still hadn’t found a job. “I took an internship through a family friend at a diamond company, and thought I would just be there for two months while I looked for other jobs,” she says. “But I ended up loving it.”

Don’t call it luck, though–Stephanie discovered her passion through pure hustle. In the years since that internship, she’s risen through the ranks of the fine jewelry world to establish Stephanie Gottlieb Fine Jewelry, an NYC-based company best known for its ultra-feminine engagement rings.

Read on to learn why she credits Instagram for her success, what business decision came back to bite her in the ass, and how she remains a strong feminist while working in the wedding industry. (Oh, and swoon over her envy-inducing jewelry collection.)

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The Juniper Dress

FAME: How did your obsession with jewelry–personally and professionally–begin?
Stephanie: It actually happened by accident. I’d had a lot of internships throughout college–I’d been in editorial at different magazines [ELLE, ELLE Decor, Hamptons Magazine], all fashion-related. When I graduated college, I hadn’t found a job yet–so I took an internship through a family friend at a diamond company. I thought I would just be there for two months while I looked for other jobs, but I ended up loving it and went on to study at the GIA to get my Diamond Certificate. It ended up working out really well.

I do have family history in the business–my grandfather was an apprentice with Harry Winston many years ago, and my mom has definitely always been a jewelry fanatic, but it was never something I saw myself doing until I was kind of in it.

FAME: How old were you when you started Stephanie Gottlieb Fine Jewelry? What was that process like?
Stephanie: I was 26. I had gotten married earlier that year and came back from my honeymoon and [the company I worked for] sent me to a trade show right away –I was back for like a day!–and I just got tired of working for somebody else.

I always had the intention of starting my own business at some point–I had no idea it would be so early in my career. But I sort of reached the peak of where I was going to grow at the last company I was at, and when I started looking for new jobs, everything seemed like it was going to be more of the same–just working for a new boss. Everything was leading me back to starting my own business. I had no idea if I was going to have enough customers or if there was enough business to do what I wanted to do, but my family was super supportive and told me to just go for it.

I would say the hardest part was figuring out what to call the business. I spent days and days writing down a million different name options, looking at a million different logo options, and trying to figure out what my brand was going to be. I think that was the hardest part: putting what your business is all about into a logo. My logo has changed like four times since then, just because the business has evolved and I’ve evolved. My website look has totally changed, too, so I guess the moral of the story there is you have to start somewhere. Start, get going, and evolve over time. Even with my packaging, the colors have totally changed since I first started. You live and learn, but you have to start somewhere.

FAME: How big is your team now, and how did you grow the company? Who was your first hire?
Stephanie: I always, always intended it to be a one-woman show, I wasn’t going to need anyone’s help–I was doing the sales, the bookkeeping, the website, literally everything by myself. Then it just started growing and I couldn’t handle it anymore. The little things like bookkeeping were getting over my head, so I first hired a bookkeeper and I hired someone to do my taxes–that was the obvious first hire.

I realized I needed more help on a daily basis. I would be getting to my office at 9:30am and not getting home until 8pm, and would go home and answer the emails that I’d missed all day. I actually hired my sister, who still works with me, and it just happened to kind of be good timing for both of us. In jewelry, the biggest thing is security, because I’m dealing with high-value pieces everyday. So to hire someone I didn’t know was a little daunting. Now she handles all of the fashion jewelry and I do all of the bridal and custom, so we have very split responsibilities–which is good because we don’t kill each other! We actually recently just hired someone else to assist in the bridal category, so now we have three full-time people in the company.

FAME: In the early days, how did you find customers and promote your business?
Stephanie: So initially, I thought it would be all word-of-mouth–every private jeweler I had known beforehand was all word-of-mouth, so I figured that would be the way that I would build my business, too. I happened to start around the same time that Instagram was really picking up, and I totally think it was a factor of the timing being right. I started to promote myself on Instagram–and if you look at the beginning posts, my style was very different–but that was really how I gained these organic strangers following me and then buying from me. Word-of-mouth only gets you so far–especially when you live in New York, where everybody has access to a family jeweler, or their cousin’s friend’s jeweler, or whatever it is. New Yorkers are so well-connected, they all have their own people. Certainly growing beyond the New York market helped my business grow, and I would attribute Instagram 100% to the success of my company.

FAME: Your site is pretty innovative and personal, with features like being about to virtually try on a ring and also being able to shop your closet – can you talk a little bit about the importance of expanding beyond your core product and creating a true lifestyle for your customers to connect with?
Stephanie: All of that happened really organically. People were asking, “Where’s your shirt from? What’s your nail polish?” I’m still figuring out a way to grow that aspect of the business–I do feel like there’s a lot of opportunity in the lifestyle space. That’s partially why I hired someone new to focus on bridal, so I’ll have more time to be creative and delve into the lifestyle world.

I think one of the reasons my Instagram has been successful is that I give people a little bit of a taste into my own personal life. I mean, there’s a sense of knowing the person who’s in the pictures versus a corporate company Instagram where you know it’s a paid model, and it’s a different person every time they take a picture. I felt like using myself as the model made things feel more intimate. I wanted to let people know more about me and what my style is…that I have three dogs and that I live on the Upper East Side. I wanted all my customers to feel like they knew me better–it gives a level of comfort when you’re shopping.

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The Juniper Dress

FAME: You left hints for your now-husband about what kind of ring you wanted–
Stephanie: This was well before Instagram–now you just tag your boyfriend, it’s not so subtle! My boyfriend and I shared a computer in our apartment, so I would just save pictures on my desktop of my favorite rings–which made sense, it wasn’t super obvious to him because I was working in diamonds at the time, anyway. Every few months or so, I would trash the last image and put up a new one until I found my favorite design. He proposed out of the blue, I didn’t know it was happening–so [the ring] just happened to be the last design I had saved on my desktop.

FAME: Do you think couples should talk about the ring beforehand? What do you tell a man who wants to surprise his girlfriend?
Stephanie: I do think they should talk about it. There’s so much for guys to learn when they’re picking a diamond. Forget about what style of ring and what shape, they have to learn about color and clarity. There’s a lot of scientific information that they need to digest. So I think if the girl can eliminate the question mark of what shape does she want, and what ring style does she want, that way he knows he’s on the right track, he’s going to get her something that she loves. I don’t think she necessarily needs to be involved in picking the exact stone, but I do think that giving him guidance is helpful–particularly on my end. It’s very difficult to work with a client who has no idea what their girlfriend wants.

We see the full gamut–we have the girlfriends who come in alone to try on rings, and we keep a profile of what they like so that when the boyfriend comes in, we’re all ready to show him what she wants. We have girls come in with their friends and then the friends are the third party that whispers in the boyfriend’s ear. We really do see it all.

FAME: Can you talk a little bit about being a strong woman but still loving the “fairytale” of love, weddings, marriage? Did you change your name when you got married?
Stephanie: I mean, I’m a romantic–it was never a question for me of whether I would have an engagement ring, and wear it on my left finger, and change my last name. So I’m coming from that end of the spectrum–none of that was a question in my head. I take feminist stances in some aspects of my life, but that wasn’t really one of them!

I think being proactive and telling your guy what you want is where you can have a strong hold. At some point, you have to take a step back and realize that it is a partnership. You’re the one who gets to wear the ring, but let him make some decisions. I don’t know, for me, once you’re getting married, you’re sharing finances–you’re sharing your life together. I don’t look at it like, “Oh, my husband or my fiance paid for the ring.” I look at it as, this is shared property, this is a shared investment as a couple. However much is spent is however much less is left in our bank account. This is the first commitment you’re making as a couple financially, it’s a big joint commitment towards the rest of your life together.

FAME: How do you balance being a wife, daughter, and sister and being a business owner?
Stephanie: That’s definitely the hardest part. In the first few years of your business, you need to grow, and every second that’s taken away from your business is a sale that’s not made. But now that I have employees, I feel less of a responsibility to be on email all the time.

I think that in this world, there’s such a rush to get everything done–people want a response immediately, and if they don’t get a reply from you they’re going to somebody else. That was always weighing on me–If I don’t reply right now, I’m gonna lose the sale. We all want to make money, we all want our companies to be successful–but life and friends and family is really what matters at the end of the day. Those are the people that pick you up when things don’t go well, and those will be the people who cheer you on when they do.

Getting my sister involved was one way to bring my family life into the business, now we spend time together because of that. My husband loves when I am successful. He is my biggest supporter, so if I have an important meeting on the weekend, sometimes he comes with me and hangs out. He likes to participate in the business, too. Allowing your personal life into the business helps–I think that’s the best way to do it. That doesn’t apply to everybody, but in my case it really works.

FAME: What’s the best business advice you have for our readers?
Stephanie: Two things. One, you can’t be everything to everyone. You need to pick your battles–and I did learn that the hard way. When I first started, a $50 sale was huge to me. I wanted to be able to have introductory price points so that more people would spend. And my friends were younger, so they weren’t about to spend $500 on a whim, but they would spend $50. So I dabbled in costume jewelry–which I told myself I would never do–but I did it because I wanted to be making sales. All of that came back to bite me in the butt, because you can’t control the quality in costume jewelry, and it wasn’t speaking to my brand. So for me, that was a fail and I learned my lesson. The lesson there is focus on what you are good at and don’t water down your brand.

The other advice is know your strengths. In the beginning I was doing everything because I didn’t want to be paying someone else to do anything if I thought I could do it myself. I wound up with my books being a total mess because I kept my own bookkeeping for two years! If that’s something you’re not good at, hire someone to do it. Otherwise, you’ll spend more money and more time fixing it later on.

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The Bisset Jumpsuit

FAME: How would you describe your personal style?
Stephanie: My style has always been super girly, flirty, feminine. I naturally just gravitate towards anything with pom poms or fur or feathers…anything that’s over the top is what I go for. It ends up being super hard to get dressed in the mornings before work, because everything is so extravagant! But that’s always been my style–a little bit costume, but trying to keep it on trend.

FAME: What three pieces of jewelry should every woman have in her collection?
Stephanie: A good everyday diamond stud, some sort of gold bangle, and some sort of fun ring stack–it doesn’t have to be expensive, it can mix diamond and costume. But something you can play with and wear on different fingers.

FAME: What’s been your proudest moment as an entrepreneur?
Stephanie: Being able to hire employees and teach them and watch them grow and take over parts of the business.

It has always been my intention to work with brands that are up-and-coming and not necessarily brands that you would find in every department store or every website, and lot of them have been run by other women. For me, working with like-minded women who are working super hard to grow their own businesses alongside mine, growing a community of empowered women, I think that’s been an amazing part of my journey.

Cheers,
FAME

SHOP STEPHANIE’S LOOKS

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The Xavier Dress, The Juniper Dress, The Bisset Jumpsuit

All photos: Lily Cummings