The designer’s namesake brand, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, seeks to make comfortable jewels that fully harness gemstones’ energy.
At first glance, the rock ’n’ roll aesthetics of Ara Vartanian’s jewelry — bold volumes, sharp contrasts, aggressively spiky black diamonds, and dazzling neon-blue Paraiba tourmalines — suggest a rebellious soul. One could imagine that the Brazilian designer lives by the cocky-tech-entrepreneur motto of “Move fast and break things.” In reality, however, his creative process is an almost meditative one that honors the natural beauty of gemstones and the wearer’s comfort and well-being.
His entry into the jewelry world 20 years ago was a spiritual journey for him, a way of finding his calling. Two decades later, he says, he feels “profound gratitude” for the experience.
Turning tradition upside-down
Born into a family that traded precious stones and produced jewels for other brands, Vartanian tried to carve his path in finance. However, his latent love affair with gems lured him back to jewelry, and he joined the family business. Handling beautiful gemstones, he began to get a sense of their energy — and eventually, a sense of frustration when they disappeared into unimaginative designs that eclipsed their vitality.
His creative brain began whirring with ideas, and in 2002, he created his first jewelry pieces. “I set diamonds upside-down because I thought they were beautiful that way, too,” he says. An inverted setting can better secure the diamonds and let wearers feel more of the stones’ energy against their skin. “But I also thought it was fun — and in Brazil, kind of useful, as nobody would think that you are wearing diamonds, so you can safely be below the radar,” he adds wryly.
The same counterintuitive thinking process led Vartanian to create his famous three-finger ring. He had a 10-carat, fancy-yellow diamond to play with, and when he set it in a classic ring, he found it dull and lacking harmony. He realized that the diamond needed a larger base spreading across three fingers in order to sit properly and be comfortable.
“Are you crazy?” his artisans responded when he suggested dismantling the ring and creating a different one. But at the same time, they were excited — especially when the result resembled a wearable sculpture.
“My jewelry has volume, but I want the wearer to feel comfortable,” Vartanian says. “It’s like a pair of shoes; there’s no point having beautiful shoes if you can’t walk in them.”
His father, however, was unimpressed with his designs, telling him, “Son, this does not sell.” So Vartanian packed his jewels and flew to New York, where luxury retailers such as Kirna Zabête and Takashimaya were of a different opinion.
A number of gratifying high-profile sales helped validate his choice and kickstart his business. Fictional bombshell publicist Samantha Jones in Sex and the City bolstered her powerful persona with some Ara Vartanian jewelry, and the actress who played her, Kim Cattrall, sent the designer a handwritten thank-you note. Music legend Celine Dion purchased six of Vartanian’s creations, and on the other side of the ocean, supermodel Kate Moss was enthralled by his work.
The brand has since grown organically across the US and Brazil, and has established a solid presence in Asia thanks to a partnership with retailer Chow Tai Fook.
Old wisdom would have suggested that he invest his money in a plush flagship store, but that didn’t seem right to Vartanian. Instead, he expanded his Sao Paulo atelier into an idiosyncratic design studio, showroom and workshop all in one, overlooking the lush park of Praça Coronel Pires de Andrade. His Batman-esque, bunker-style studio is an elegantly organized chaos in which tall plants stand next to his beloved motorbike and voluminous wooden furniture with metallic details. For clients, it’s an experience no store can replicate.
“Just like an early 20th-century perfumer surrounded by his little bottles, I needed a space to create,” he explains. “I needed to have all the gems that inspire me next to me.”
Grounded in sustainability
These gems are increasingly coming from small-scale Brazilian mines that Vartanian has personally visited as part of his commitment to giving back to society. He’s chosen mines that operate under environmentally respectful criteria and support the economic development of
The cherry-like rubellites he uses in his jewelry come from the Cruzeiro mine. For deep-green emeralds, he works with the Belmont mine in Minas Gerais, and his signature neon-blue tourmalines come from the Brazil Paraiba deposit.
These collaborations are part of his mission to make his company healthier and set an example for other businesses.
“I think that it is people in my generation who can change the way we can do business,” says Vartanian. “And when I say ‘we,’ I mean mostly independent people, independent companies, because we don’t have shareholders who constantly ask for more profit. It’s not about profit today. It’s about doing a clean business. There are challenges, but we have to face them and make a positive impact.”
Image: An image from Ara Vartanian’s “The Dinner Party” campaign. (Ara Vartanian)