Episode 220 Part 1: Secrets from a Jewelry Brand Strategist: How Lionel Geneste Gets Jewelry Brands on the Map

Episode 220

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • Why working with jewelry designers is part business, part therapy.
  • Why the jewelry industry is picking up its pace to match the fashion industry, and why this trend might backfire.
  • Why customer feedback on comfort and wearability is essential for jewelry brands.
  • How Lionel defines success for his jewelry clients.
  • What caused so many fashion houses to develop fine jewelry lines in the last few years, and what this trend means for the industry.

About Lionel Geneste

Lionel Geneste is a fashion and luxury industry veteran, having worked for John Hardy, Givenchy, Catherine Malandrino and Randolph Duke in various capacities, from global marketing to communications and merchandising. He is also the founder of the gift-giving service b.Sophisticated.

Born in Tehran to French parents, Geneste grew up as a modern nomad: Cairo, Istanbul, Lagos, Beirut, Paris are just a few places he once called home. And so he acquired an eclectic eye, at an early age, for the refined and urbane—only further encouraged by his clotheshorse mother and her like-minded friends.

Additional Resources



How does an independent jewelry brand get noticed? For some lucky jewelers, the secret is Lionel Geneste. Lionel is a jewelry strategist and advisor who has launched iconic brands, shown new collections at Paris couture week, and gotten small jewelry artists into top stores. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how the jewelry industry compares to the fashion industry; the trends, opportunities and challenges jewelers are facing today; and how he chooses his clients (and why he has to believe in their work). Read the episode transcript here.

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. This is the first part of a two-part episode. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it’s released later this week.

Today, I’m talking with Lionel Geneste. He’s an independent strategist in the jewelry industry. He does this after 15 years in fashion, so he knows fashion and jewelry. He’s multi-lingual, and he represents many people abroad in the U.S., which is very, very unusual.

In fact, I met him through an independent jeweler, and I thought he had such an interesting background I wanted to talk to him more. Lionel, welcome to the program.

Lionel: Sharon, good morning. Thank you for having me.

Sharon: I’m really glad to have you. How did you come into this business?

Lionel: Well, I was in the fashion industry, then a friend of mine was taking over John Hardy. We’re talking about 2006 or 2007. They were launching a one-of-a-kind collection, and they brought me on board to launch that collection and to develop it and then basically to do all the PR for John Hardy in general.

Sharon: I’m not familiar with John Hardy. Is it fashion? Go ahead.

Lionel: John Hardy is this company that does mostly silver. They’re based in Bali. All their ateliers are in Bali and they have a big office in New York. John Hardy himself wanted to do a collection for his wife, which would be only one of a kind. That’s when we started that collection called Cinta, which means love in Balinese. People were noticing these rings, and the people from Neiman Marcus noticed them and asked if we could develop them into a full collection, which we did. I’d been more in fashion, in the couture world, and I thought I could do something. Basically, the ladies that were willing to wait for four months for a dress are also willing to have one-of-a-kind jewelry or even preorder them.

Sharon: You know, when you tell me who it is, I remember who John Hardy is, but I haven’t seen his jewelry for a while. It’s around. So, those are your clients? Are they mostly women? Do you represent any men?

Lionel: Yeah. These were the clients. The idea at the beginning, when I developed it, is I would do dinners in Paris during the couture shows, and we would present the jewelry. That was pretty much how it all started. If you look at it now, all the jewelry houses are doing presentations during the couture shows. A couple of weeks ago it was in Paris and everybody from Boucheron, Dior etc., presented their collection.  It’s on the same calendar.

From then on, when I left John Hardy, I started a company with a business partner. The idea was that we were giving our clients not only the PR aspect and marketing, but also the business, because I was well versed in the business side as well. It was a kind of a one stop shop.

Sharon: I’m not familiar with the couture shows. Does the jewelry have a separate presentation?

Lionel: Yeah. The couture shows, it’s like when the houses like Valentino, Dior, Chanel, it’s all their shows that are only one of a kind. There are very strict rules that are enacted by the Chambre de Commerce in Paris. You have to have a number of atelier, you have to have a number of people working in the atelier, it’s all handmade, etc.

There was a parallel with the ladies buying those clothes that are much more expensive than ready to wear and the jewelry industry, and I think everybody made the same link between those. Now, these shows are every year in January and July. The houses like Boucheron, Chanel, Chaumet, all of them hold presentations and invite the press, but also invite clients at the same time.

Sharon: So, they show their most expensive jewelry.

Lionel: Yes. It’s really the high jewelry collections that are shown there.

Sharon: Is there somebody showing them, presenting them, or is it just come and look and see?

Lionel: No, they are usually elaborate with more and more, actually. Everything is an experience. More and more they’re doing elaborate dinners. For example, Boucheron at the Place Vendôme has dedicated the last floor to a big dining room, and there’s also a suite. The best clients can come stay at Boucheron and stay in the building. The view on Place Vendôme is beautiful. So, now it’s more a presentation with the designer himself or herself inviting their best customer, or hoping to get the best customer.

Sharon: Do you invite these customers?

Lionel: I used to do that a lot. I haven’t done it in a year. Usually, I work with younger designers or independent and smaller designers, so I don’t have the same budget. But usually what I do is I find a new, typical French bistro. I used to do it the night before the shows to make it something very informal, but still presenting the collection in a different format.

Sharon: Is that how people found you? They come to these dinners?

Lionel: When we talk about clients, there are two different kinds of clients. There are my clients who are the jewelers that I represent, and then I’m talking about clients who are the people who buy the jewelry. Basically, it’s word of mouth. When I work with jewelers, some stores recommend me to other brands. Some clients know about someone who’s launching a new brand and they refer me. That’s really where I enter the competition. I make a proposal, and it’s more about that and referrals.

Sharon: Do you advise the high-end buyers of jewelry? Do you advise them? You say you have two kinds of clients.

Lionel: Yeah, I have some clients that are collectors. Not everyone is always looking for newness or paying attention to that. So, yes, I do advise them on what I think is a young designer that’s upcoming, and if they’re serious about their collection, I think they should have a piece of that person in their collection. I launched Emmanuel Tarpin, for example, and at the time everybody wanted his earrings to be part of their collection.

Sharon: Who did you say?

Lionel: Emmanuel Tarpin. He’s been having a lot of press lately. He’s launched a collection of orchids. I don’t work with them anymore, but I launched him at the beginning.

Sharon: Do you have to like the people that you work with?

Lionel: Absolutely. I do have to like the product. I couldn’t sell something that I don’t believe in.

Sharon: Do you ever work with men? Do they come to you for advice?

Lionel: They do. However, I find most men—no, I do, actually. I have some men that come, or they are strongly recommended by their wives. A lot of my clients are women who buy for themselves.

Sharon: Okay, so they find out about you through word of mouth, or do you advertise?

Lionel: But also, I do work with stores. Some of my jewelers are in stores such as Just One Eye in Los Angeles, Cayen in Carmel, Mayfair Rocks in East Hampton. I choose strategically the partnerships and in places where I know we’re going to find the right client.

Sharon: I bet your clients, they’re abroad and you represent them in the states.

Lionel: Yes. Some of them I represent worldwide. I represent them also in Europe, in London and Paris.  At the moment for my clients, I work with Sylvie Corbelin. That’s how we met, you and I. Sylvie is based in Paris. I work with a brand that’s new-ish called Mike Joseph, and it was a big success at couture last year. He is based in Bangkok. Then I represent Vishal Anil Kothari, who is based in Mumbai. It’s kind of a take on traditional Indian jewelry but with a much lighter frame. They use portrait-cut diamonds, emeralds.

Sharon: Do people find out about you? It seems like everybody is not finding out about you through shows or their friends.

Lionel: You know, friends, clients, stores, owners. They see how I work with them and recommend me to other people. I have younger friends in the industry that just started their business and ask me for advice. They recommend me or hire me.

Sharon: You travel a lot because you have addresses in New York, L.A., Paris.

Lionel: I was based in New York for 20 years. I moved to L.A. six years ago. I still go to New York quite often.

Sharon: But you were born in Paris or in France?

Lionel: I’m French. My parents traveled a lot, so I was born a bit by accident in Tehran, in Iran. But I’m French. I studied in France.

Sharon: Do you feel stretched? When I try and get hold of you, I wonder where in the world you’re going to be reading this or calling from.

Lionel: No, I like traveling. I think it’s interesting. I find it very interesting to meet the clients. You were asking me earlier about feedback and if I give the designer I work with advice. I don’t give them advice. I think they all have a strong point of view and they are not influenced by trends. However, I do give them feedback from clients. I think it’s always interesting to see. Do they find the jewelry comfortable? Are the earrings too heavy? It’s always interesting to see.

When you work for a designer, for a woman like Sylvie, Sylvie wears her own jewelry, so she knows if it’s comfortable or not. That’s always interesting. Mike Joseph tells me that he always has his sister try jewelry on and even live in it for a few days before he puts it in production.

Sharon: Do they tell you if it’s too heavy?

Lionel: Sometimes they do. They do give feedback. Yesterday we were presenting some new sketches to a store, and some stones were kind of sticking out. The first question the store manager asked was, “Is it going to snag clothes?” The answer is they had to remake that and polish the edges so it would not catch on clothes.

Sharon: You were presenting sketches of the jewelry?

Lionel: Yes. I was showing jewelry to a store, showing the new collection. Kind of a preview of what we’re going to do for couture. I wanted to get a sense. It’s always interesting. You were asking me when I take on the client, do I have to like it? I do have to like it, but I also usually show it to one or two editors that I trust or a few store owners to see what their reaction is to it as well. It can’t be only my personal things, so it’s always interesting to hear what other people have said.

Sharon: Do magazine fashion editors come to you to find jewelry?

Lionel: Yes, they do. They’ll ask me what I have, if I have anything new and interesting. I do like to work with more individuals. I always try to bring something interesting. You were asking how I choose the designers I work with. It’s difficult today to find people who really bring something new, so I’m always looking for that. Someone who has already come up with a new invention or brings something to the world of jewelry.

Sharon: Do you work with them to expand? They’re independent and they grow. Do you help them when they launch a chain? Do they outgrow you, let’s say?

Lionel: No, and I actually, I do like that. I like to be at the beginning, helping them find everything from their voice, how to place themselves, where to place them within the market, price point. What exists already on the market? After I work with them for five or six years, and if they really grow, I like to push them out and hire a real agent.

In general, the brands I work with, we try to keep it exclusive, to not have it in every store. It’s very organic. We’re not pushing. With strategy, I prefer to go within stores where you’re going in what we call deep, like bringing 15 to 20 pieces to really show the depth of the work of the designer, rather than just five or six pieces just to have a presence, which to me doesn’t really serve the purpose.

Sharon: Do you advise the jewelry stores you’re bringing jewelry to on how to display it or things like that?

Lionel: Yeah. Some stores have a strong vision about how to do it, but yes, I will. I would ask them to take on some pieces that I find are really representative of the work, and if the pieces are not there I think it doesn’t give the right image of the designer. I would try to push, even if they could be slightly reluctant in the beginning. I think some key pieces are important. Going back to Sylvie, snakes are an important part of her design. If I go into a store, I need to have some of these pieces because they’re an important symbol of hers.

Sharon: So, you would advise the store owner how to show it off, how to get it right.

Lionel: Yes. Right.

Sharon: What skills do you think you need to be successful? If somebody wants to do what you do, how would they be successful?

Lionel: When you work with designers, it’s part business, part therapy. I think you really have to listen to them. That’s the important part, because you can’t be totally at odds with what they’re feeling and pushing for something they don’t believe in. It’s a dance, and it’s about listening to each other. I think the relationship with the designer is really what makes it successful. Mike Joseph, Vishal, Sylvie, we’ve been working together for eight years, so we know each other really well now. I think that’s important.

Sharon: When you said therapist, what does the therapy involve?

Lionel: Designers, or the good designers, are really artists. You have to listen to what they’re saying, what they feel. You have to be careful about bringing the commercial part in. You also have to respect what they’re designing. So, it’s a dance. Sometimes a feeling of rejection can exist, so you have to work with that as well.

Sharon: You were in fashion first. What kind of experience does someone in fashion have to have to go into jewelry?

Lionel: It’s little bit the same world, I think. You have to have a sense of aesthetics, and you have to like it as well. You don’t go into jewelry if you don’t like jewelry. But the transition from fashion to jewelry is pretty seamless.

Sharon: Do you see a difference in the fashion world and the jewelry world?

Lionel: I think there used to be a bigger difference in the sense that fashion was very fast-paced and jewelry was not. But I think jewelry is getting into that pace as well, where the designer wants to present two collections a year. So, we’re getting a bit on the fashion calendar in that sense.

Sharon: The jewelers, if they have a presentation, I have a visual picture of them lugging their cases and setting up.

Lionel: Right. I think now people are presenting two collections a year. That used to be a fashion thing. I’m not sure it’s the way to go. I don’t think you sell jewelry in the same way you sell clothes. It takes more time. I’ve witnessed clients being disappointed because there was a collection they liked, and then the collection is gone. I think that doesn’t leave enough time for people to act upon something they don’t necessarily want to buy within a month or two.

We will have photos posted on the website. Please head to TheJewelryJourney.com to check them out.

Thank you again for listening. Please leave us a rating and review so we can help others start their own jewelry journey.

Sharon Berman