When I decided to cover a retail gallery in my Influencers Blog, I instantly knew it would be Ladyfingers Jewelry in Carmel, California owned by Steve and Elaine Kaufman. Ladyfingers has been around since 1977 and has always carried and promoted designers who were ahead of their time. Their story, in many ways, mirrored what was happening in the jewelry industry at the time.
As Steve tells it, the story of Ladyfingers began much as one of the iconic scenes in The Graduate plays out. A businessman says one word to a young, just-out-of- college Dustin Hoffman: “Plastics.” For Steve, it was identical except the word was “Packaging.”
“Everything in the world needs a package, including yourself,” he says. He enrolled in graduate school at Michigan State University, where they have a renowned program in packaging, and after a year of studying, he headed for New York City and started landing work with major companies. The year was 1965. He lived in the East Village and worked for companies such as Revlon coordinating product development.
It was during his time in New York that Steve started making rings out of spoons for fun. When he later traveled to Europe, he discovered bracelets made by forming forks. Upon returning to the U.S., he began making bracelets and rings and selling them to the people he met while working in the packaging industry.
He was making great money and having a great time. It was the late ‘60s, he had a VW van, and he sold his work to prestigious venues such a Fortunoff’s and Bendel’s, as well as to boutiques and hippie shops. Jewelry was a powerful statement of the times, and he was right in the middle of it.
In 1971 Steve went to Los Angeles in the middle of winter and realized he loved being where it was warm instead of enduring the cold Northeast winters. After a short stay, he returned to New York, packed up his stuff and moved to the West Coast permanently. He was selling his spoon and fork jewelry to antique stores, movie studios, flea markets, anywhere he could find a buyer. And his business grew.
From Los Angeles, he moved to the Bay Area and eventually ended up in Monterey California on famous Cannery Row. At this time Steve was living with Elaine, who would become his wife and eventually run their business. From Cannery Row they moved a few more times and eventually ended up in their current Carmel location, where they have been for the last 30 years.
When Steve and Elaine first started their gallery they were doing both wholesale and retail. They sold antique jewelry, which is still a part of the Ladyfingers mix, but soon discovered there were wonderful designers whose work explored cutting-edge metalsmithing techniques and materials. These were the people and this was the jewelry they wanted for their store.
It was at this time that they realized anything they liked, they could sell. “We went on our hunches and by the seat of our pants,” Steve says. They were passionate about what they were doing, and it showed in the work they were carrying.
One of the major changes in their business happened about 25 years ago when they went to the Basel, Switzerland show and discovered the German jewelry designer Michael Zobel and stone-cutter extraordinaire Bernd Munsteiner. These designers were only carried in a handful of U.S. stores at the time, and Steve and Elaine were beyond excited about having their work. It was another smart move on their part because the jewelry was literally flying out of the store. It was a heady time.
In their life together they have traveled extensively throughout the world looking for jewelry and items they feel reflect their vision.
Since the gallery opened in the late ’70s, things have changed markedly in the jewelry industry. Lifestyles have become more casual. The internet has dramatically altered the way people do business. Millennials are more cautious about investing in cutting-edge jewelry. Steve and Elaine have looked on these changes as opportunities to make exciting adjustments. They continue showcasing cutting-edge work, as well as catering to an ever-changing customer base to keep Ladyfingers a success story.
One of the things they are currently working on is resurrecting some of the 500 molds of original Art Deco pins Steve made in New York back in the ‘60s. He is using the molds to create a whole new body of work, and it has been really well received.
When I asked Steve who was an important influencer in his life, he responded without hesitation, “Elaine! She is such a focused person. She is very organized and a savvy business woman. Elaine makes things happen that need to happen. Without her there would be no Ladyfingers.”
Steve’s one word of advice is, “You have to set yourself apart just like we try to do with our store. Get people’s attention. If that means designing outrageous things which might help you get noticed, so be it. Try to do something with a new and different technique, size and look; make it special.”
When I finished the interview I realized Steve and Elaine have created a store, business and lifestyle/marriage founded on their mutual passion for fabulous jewelry, making a difference in the retail world, promoting cutting-edge designs to their clients and just plain having a fabulous and fun time. And isn’t that the definition of success?
Marlene Richey started a jewelry design firm with no prior business experience. During the 35 years since, Marlene has run a wholesale business and a retail gallery, participated in hundreds of craft and trade shows, and traveled across America selling the pair’s jewelry. She has served on the boards of SNAG, CJDG, Maine Craft Association, Metalwerx and WJA. Marlene consults with artists, teaches workshops and was professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Maine College of Art. She is also a contributor to various jewelry and craft publications and wrote an award-winning book on running a jewelry business, Profiting by Design. Have a business question for Marlene? Leave it in the comments section below and she’ll get back to you.