Jewelry designer Mimi So wasnâ€™t an overnight success but she certainly got off to an auspicious beginning. She scored an early coup when she was tapped to design wedding jewelry for David Bowie and Imanâ€”the first A-listers among a celebrity following that includes Reese Witherspoon, Courtney Cox and Anne Hathawayâ€”and followed that feat by becoming the first (and only) female jewelry designer ever to have an eponymous boutique in New Yorkâ€™s Diamond District. Elite Traveler Style Editor Tanya Dukes met with So in the minimalist penthouse that now houses her atelier to get insight into the trailblazing vision behind her chic, fashionable fine jewelry collection.
ET: Your family had a jewelry business when you were growing up. Why did you decide to start your own brand?
Mimi So: I’m a third-generation jeweler. But by the time I was 21 I was ready to go out on my own. And I think I was probably feeling a little rebellious at the time. It’s like when you’re a little kid and you decide one day that you’re going to run away from home: You grab your piggy bank, you walk out of the door and then you say: â€śWait. Where am I going?!â€ť
My family’s company manufactured really major, major stuffâ€”all in 24-karat gold and encrusted in rubies and jade and sapphireâ€”and they were amazing things but I had other ideas. And when I said I wanted to start my own companyâ€”that was it. On my own meant on my own. My parents just said: â€śOk, off you go.â€ť They didn’t give me anything. I really started from scratch. I saved, I saved, and I saved.
I had the advantage of knowing the business and I knew some suppliers who would give me materials on memo and give me extra time to pay and a lot of encouragement. That really allowed me to open my first store and create and design. At the beginning, I didn’t even have enough product to put in the windows and display cases. I would just put sketches of my designs in the window! But that brought people in because it was so different from anything else on 47th Street [in New York's Diamond District]. I wasn’t trying to do something different but that’s how it turned out. And I think my customers saw that I put my heart and soul into everything. To this day, I’m still putting my heart and soul into everything. I can’t do it any other way.
ET: How long have you had your our brand and how has the company evolved since the beginning?
Mimi So: Well, the very, very beginning when I just had two nickels in my pocket was about 15 years ago. But I’ve been â€śofficialâ€ť and incorporated for about ten years. I just saw a long-time customerâ€”someone who was there when I was just startingâ€”and she was just saying that even though the company has grown a lot I haven’t changed. No matter what, the fundamental principles of what I do haven’t changed at all. There’s still 120% attention given to every detail. I still give as much care to everything that I did on day one.
ET: How would you describe your design style? Has it changed over the years?
Mimi So: Itâ€™s funny. You can read stories from my life in my designs. Looking back is like watching Mimi grow up. My first collection, Anzia, was very sweet and romantic and very youthful. It was all flowers. I love flowers and my mother would always plant many, many roses, so her influence found its way in there. As I became more established, I came out with the Sesi collection. It had a starfish motifâ€”some of them would spin. That was a really free-spirited time for me. Then came the Piece collection, which was become my signature. It has three concentric doors representing the past, present and future. Piece really represented coming into my own philosophy: contemporary design made classic. Gate B9 came from sketches I made while I was stuck at Malpensa airport. I travel so much, and the jagged lines were a way to articulate how I felt at that time in my lifeâ€”the feeling of being bound to that place. Jackson developed from time spent detoxing in Jackson Hole. The different angles of the design are like a puzzle. Itâ€™s like lifeâ€”it doesnâ€™t have to be perfect to work! That was also the design that got me into the CFDA. I make fine jewelry thatâ€™s still fashion forward. My jewelry is my canvas. Itâ€™s a way to express myself. Jewelry is supposed to be authentic. Iâ€™m not about just selling the biggest rock. Thatâ€™s a no-brainer.
ET: Luxury brand group Richemont invested in your brand a few years back, right?
Mimi So: Yes! It was amazing. It’s like a designer’s golden dream to get that kind of investment! You feel like you’ve been blessed by the pope! To get that sort of creative, artistic validation from the biggest luxury conglomerate there is is the best feeling in the world. I was the first American brand that they invested inâ€”they usually stick with European brands. Being a part of that group and having a partner like that to support you is a whole other notch. When an entity like that invests in you there’s a huge â€śwowâ€ť factor.
ET: Why did you decide to buy back Richemont’s stake in the company?
Mimi So: Being a part of Richemont is an experience that I will always cherish. It really gave me a better understanding of how I want my company to grow. I bought it back when they wanted a majority stake. Sometimes the best thing is take that road and sometimes it’s better to wait. I’d rather get there too slowly than too fast. I still wanted some time to grow in the business and I wouldn’t be the designer I am today if I had gone in that direction. When you work with a different set of tools and push the envelope you develop a certain creativity. Eventually, I want to develop my brand to include eyewear, handbags, fragrance, home dĂ©corâ€¦ It’s all on the horizon, eventually. A security blanket is sweet but I think you do things differently when you have it. You can be more daring on your own.
ET: What comes to mind when you think of the highlight of your career so far?
Mimi So: It’s so exciting to have my jewelry in the very best doors. I see my jewelry at Neiman Marcus and Saks and Lane Crawford, and when my work is getting a stamp of approval from names like that it’s a big â€śwowâ€ť moment. No matter what, if you have staying power, that’s a â€śwow.â€ť Having so many loyal clients is the critical thing for me, and working with them inspires me to be more creative.
ET: Tell us about the process of creating a bespoke jewelry design here in your atelier.
Mimi So: Itâ€™s done by appointment. Whenever someone comes here to design a piece of jewelry it’s my job to get them to confide what their desire is. I ask â€śWhat are we celebrating today?â€ť because, really, that’s when someone is coming to me. There’s a happy event: they’re looking for an engagement ring, a birthday present, they’re celebrating a big anniversary… I get to know the personâ€”who they are, what they do, likes, dislikes. It’s not about moi. It’s all about you and finding out how I can participate to make something even more beautiful than what you imagined. That process of building a piece together and creating something beyond your expectationsâ€”that’s an experience of pure luxury. Itâ€™s a relationship Itâ€™s very dear.
ET: How do you make the most of your free time?
Mimi So: Well, there’s not a lot of it! I just want to unwind and have fun. I love to eat. I love to be with my family and friends and just travel and exploreâ€”watch a funny movie, have a simple meal. Wherever I can do that is the place to be.