Martin Katz maybe famous for having so many of his creations worn on the red carpet, but despite the glitz and glamour much of the jewelers business philosophy comes from his Indiana roots.
Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan went “off-Rodeo” to visit Katz at his Brighton Way salon as he gets ready to celebrate 25 years.
ET: Tell us about your history
Martin Katz: I started selling silver jewelry to sorority girls while at Indiana University. It was really just a way to tap into the student wealth. I was writing a lot of checks to the University for books and health and bus passes and classes and I thought “this university has a racket, all these kids come from home with a lot of money and they can’t be the only ones benefiting.” I tried to figure out what I could sell to the student body and a roommate of mine said “my brother sells silver, turquoise, and ivory out of Denver. Maybe we could buy some of his pieces and start selling”, so we got him on the phone. I borrowed a couple hundred dollars from my little brother who still had his paper route money and I bought into this business that turned out to be successful for a number of years.
ET: And so you continued after college?
Martin Katz: When I graduated with a degree in psychology and a minor in business I didn’t know what I going to do. I thought “well, I used to sell jewelry, maybe I should try something like that.” So I came out to California and I looked up a jeweler my aunt knew from Chicago, who worked at I.Magnin department stores. So that’s where I got my formal, high-end jewelry training. They had a lot of vintage and contemporary jewelry so I learned the business there and then in 1988, thanks to the stock market crash of 1987; I lost everything but a couple thousand dollars. It wasn’t the best time to start a new business, but I did. I borrowed a couple pieces of vintage jewelry from a few dealers I knew and I started selling from a table in my one bedroom apartment on Doheney Drive. I’d keep track of my sales and clients on an index card and figured if I could makes as much as I did when I was still employed then I would come out ahead of the game because I would have all this time that was my own.
ET: How did it go?
Martin Katz: In the first year I was able to do about 2 million dollars of sales off my kitchen table and that led to growth and before I knew it I had referrals and a safe and employees and so on. So I moved to a penthouse on Wilshire, which became our office for many years. We were private jewelers with an unlisted phone number, a private address and a referral-only policy, but one day Sharon Stone came to borrow jewelry and it changed the way the world perceived me.
ET: Tell us about it
Martin Katz: We started getting so much press—the phone was ringing off the hook, people were calling the studio and the magazines asking how to find me—and from that point through the early-mid 90s we owned the red carpet. Most award shows had a minimum of at least 25-35 celebrities dressed in our jewelry; it was always Martin Katz, Winston and the occasional Van Cleef and Bulgari piece. We helped break that game open for the rest of the world. It wasn’t anything I would have considered doing if it weren’t brought to me through the side door by accident. I originally refused to loan Sharon jewelry because you take all the risk and get none of the reward seeing as back then they didn’t ask what you were wearing on the red carpet.
ET: So why did you do it?
Martin Katz: The president of Paramount asked me, as a favor, to loan Sharon the jewelry because she was going to be their biggest star and I agreed on the terms that they would use me on the magazine covers and photo shoots in promotion of the movie because at least then I would get a byline. It turned out I was correct and soon enough we were decorating everyone and the biggest stars were coming to that condo—this was before the stylists were involved—and helping to bring my brand to national and international attention.
Since 1992 we have not missed a red carpet, so other than that other nice house down the street, no one else has been on the red carpet longer than us. It’s something we are a part of but it’s not something I define us by. The media tries to call everything a “something to the stars”, which is a moniker I don’t care for because as soon as you work with one minor celebrity all of a sudden you are the “hairdresser to the stars”, “the shoe salesman to the stars” and so on. I enjoy my celebrity clientele and I certainly recognize what they have done for my brand because, at the time, celebrities were like America’s royalty—you would never see them on the cover of W or Town & Country. These red carpet events, and the media and magazine coverage I arranged, helped bring print media to the celebrity world, which in turn created the digital media we have now.
With that said, however, I don’t want to be validated by virtue of who I associate with. I want to be validated by the work I do; the quality, the design integrity and the business reputation. The fact that the right people come to me is something I feel I’ve earned and I don’t want to get a reputation by virtue of those associations.
ET: What happened next?
Martin Katz: From here the business got very strong and we could no longer run the company from the apartment, working from our “jewel bar” where you would reach into a drawer for a ring a pull out a wine opener. Around 2000 I started looking for retail space and I knew I always wanted Brighton Way because it was a little quieter than Madison Avenue or Rodeo Drive and I wanted to fly a little bit further under the radar. I waited a couple of years for the space I wanted to open and, in 2002, we launched our salon. In a few months we will be celebrating 25 years in business. I’m creating a retrospective of work, borrowing back from clients, and we will be throwing a party to celebrate.
ET: Tell us about your jewelry
Martin Katz: We started out selling a lot of vintage jewelry because that is what I’m passionate about—I have a lot in my personal collection—but when that started to get hard to find we began to create our own designs which really took off and became what we were known for. Though inspired by vintage jewelry, our contemporary designs have become 95% of our business. I believe in creating diamond jewelry with a young, fresh look—I call them young diamonds—to appeal to a younger eye who don’t have a problem with price tags but instead the relatability of style. In the early 2000s “bling” was very popular, but since the 2008 collapse, subtle, chic sophistication has come back into style. As the wind comes back into the sails for everyone post-recession, however, the appetite—though the money was always there—for this kind of jewelry has come back. With that, as with any business, it gets a little more exciting and we can get a little more creative. We had a good holiday season and we hope this year will continue on that path.
ET: Where would you like Martin Katz expand in the near future?
Martin Katz: We have a satellite in Moscow and we have been working a lot there. We are also in Bergdorf Goodman in New York. I would also like to add a Chicago location, as the economy keeps healing. I’m too far along in the game to start thinking about a lot of stores, though. It’s very costly to fill a store. The build-outs are simple but, unlike a shoe store where the most you can jam into is a million dollars of inventory, the amount of money you can pour into a jewelry store is infinite. I don’t have an infinite amount of money so I would have rather have a couple of beautiful quality salons that I can service properly. Even if someone came to me tomorrow with 500 million dollars and said “let’s rocket this thing” I don’t think it would be what I want to do. I would rather have a personal touch and be more creative. All my pieces are signed and numbered. They are couture and very hard to duplicate. In fact only 5-8% our pieces are repeatable, the other 90% of our creations are one-of-a-kind. We don’t remake the exact same piece twice.
ET: I get the sense you know most of your customers. Is that accurate?
Martin Katz: Of course I do. I’ll know their names and I’ll know what was sold, though I may not meet each of them. I try to know the significant customers as well those who come in for a simple Microband and while we really want to cater to the discerning eye, leave your attitude at the door. This is a fun thing; obviously have respect for the product and the store, but this is not about making someone feel little because they can’t afford something or goading them into a purchase by playing on their insecurities. Come in, touch it, feel it. Does it rock your world? Does it speak to you? It’s a more simple, open and loving approach. I don’t care about making a sale. I care about building a relationship.
ET: Do you think that philosophy comes from your Midwestern roots?
Martin Katz: It probably does. My father was like that. He always believed your name and reputation were all you had and that you should build them slowly and carefully. Like anything in life, once it’s built you can live on it together. Most importantly, I like the relationships. The sales will come with the relationships.
ET: When you’re not working are there any hobbies or passions you like to pursue?
Martin Katz: Well, I’m always working a little. I almost never travel anywhere without seeing a client, or searching for a stone, or meeting with my designers—as I did in Paris recently. There’s always a little bit of work mixed in with the fun. That said, I am a golfer and we have a home in the mountains where we like to hike and ride bikes on the bike trails which is very invigorating. I’m also a collector myself; a collector of watches, a collector of art, a collector of cars and so on.
ET: Tell us about your watch collection. What are the next watches you want to add to it?
Martin Katz: I just launched a collaboration with F.P. Journe, who is certainly regarded as the premier watchmaker of our day. It was the only watch brand I wanted to carry when we opened our store. I met him one day in Switzerland and told him I wasn’t carrying watches but wanted to carry his line and I did that because I personally wanted his watch and you couldn’t get them anywhere else at the time. The toubillon is the first one I collected from him in 1999. It’s one of his originals and one of my pride and joys. I have collected Patek for years. My most recent acquisition is an older one that they stopped making about ten years ago. I’m looking to add another F.P. Journe to the collection, though. The chronograph on it counts a 100th of a second and he was able to create a gearing mechanism unlike any other, which stops exactly on the 100th of a second every time. We are also opening a store together on Sunset Plaza in May or June, at which point we won’t carry them here anymore. I will be partners at the FP Journe boutique.
ET: When you’re traveling do you have any favorite hotels, resorts or destinations?
Martin Katz: We love Bali, all of Asia really, as well as Africa. We are in Paris quite a bit. We love the Park Hyatt there, it’s a wonderful hotel. They treat you so well and have absolutely no attitude. One time I called the hotel looking for my wife and next thing I know she answers the phone and says “How did you find me? I’m at Chanel.” She obviously asked for directions and they remembered and patched me through to her. That’s service. Another time she lost her Blackberry. The concierge called the restaurant we were at and they said they couldn’t find it. The concierge calls again and again, pleading with the hostess to get on her hands and knees and move the sofa. Finally she did and sure enough they found it. We didn’t ask him to insist, he just did. That’s also why we love Asia, the service is amazing.
One time we were at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok and we were headed out to the islands for a few days and didn’t want to bring all our luggage, even though we needed to leave for Hong Kong as soon as we got back. I called the concierge and thought “how am I going to explain this? I want to separate the suitcases, and have the hotel hold them, and then meet me at the airport with them so I don’t have to come all the way back into town for them” and before I had even opened my mouth before he said “no problem, we will keep the bags here in storage and meet you at the airport with them.” Sure enough when we got off the plane they were waiting for us.