From Investment Banker to Jewelry Innovator: The Story Behind Évocateur with Founder, Barbara Ross Innamorati
What you’ll learn in this episode:
- How Barbara discovered she could combine gold leaf and enamel for jewelry that withstands daily wear
- What types of custom work has proven popular for Évocateur
- Why it was important for Évocateur jewelry to be made in the U.S. and sold at an affordable price point
- How Barbara moved from corporate finance to jewelry, even with no formal schooling or industry connections
About Barbara Ross-Innamorati
For ÉVOCATEUR Founder and Designer Barbara Ross-Innamorati, the love of fashion, art and design has always been hardwired into her creative DNA. Many years ago, Barbara became fascinated with and passionate about gold leaf, particularly the way it can transform even the most ordinary objects into something extraordinary and magical. As someone who always loved jewelry, Barbara went on a mission to adapt 22K gold leaf to jewelry design. After years of research and trial and error, she perfected the proprietary technique for which ÉVOCATEUR is now known. Today, these opulent designs are infused with inspiration from Barbara’s extensive travels throughout the U.S., Europe, Africa and Asia. All of the designs have a sophisticated and unique spirit.
From their Connecticut studio, Barbara and a team of skilled artisans design and individually craft each piece, wrapping them in 22K gold leaf and sterling silver leaf. Using an intricate process, the jewelry is gilded and burnished by hand and is fabricated over a period of five days, resulting in an exquisite work of art, each piece finished to a rich patina. With only the finest materials used and impeccable attention to detail, ÉVOCATEUR celebrates the compelling relationship between art and fashion.
The line, which includes cuffs, bangles, pendants, and earrings, can be found in premier jewelry retail stores throughout the United States and the rest of the world.
For most of her life, Barbara Ross-Innamorati didn’t think jewelry would ever be more than a hobby to her. Little did she know that she would later invent an entirely new category of jewelry. Her company, Évocateur, specializes in gilded jewelry covered in gold and silver leaf and artistic motifs. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how she developed her innovative technique, where she hopes her company will go next, and why she wants everyone to know that it’s possible to start a second chapter in life. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Barbara Ross-Innamorati, designer and founder of the jewelry company Évocateur. Her jewelry features 22-carat gold leaf and sterling silver leaf. Her line is sold around the world, and we’ll hear about her jewelry journey today. Barbara, welcome to the podcast.
Barbara: Thank you, it’s very good to be here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. It sounds like you invented—it’s not the right word, but we’ll talk more about it.
Barbara: No, that is close to the right word, Sharon. We’re an 11 ½-year-old company. We were established in 2009, but my jewelry journey probably began decades ago. I trace it back to when I was a student in London. I went to an art exhibit, and it was a retrospective of Gustave Klimt, the famous expressionist artist. I saw the painting “The Kiss” there, and even being 20-something, I was struck by something I saw in the painting, and that was gold leaf. I didn’t know what gold leaf was; I was just mesmerized by it and it stuck with me. I went on to finish college and got married, started work and had kids, and then I’d say about 12 or 13 years ago, the gold leaf came back to me, because I’d always loved jewelry. I had a wonderful collection of my own jewelry, and I got it in my mind, thinking, “Why can’t we make jewelry that features gold leaf?” We have less expensive plated fashion jewelry, and then you have fine jewelry. There’s got to be something in between, and there’s got to be something we can use gold leaf on. Gold leaf is different than plating; it’s actual sheets of gold. So, I went on in this fashion, to try and adapt 18-carat or 22-carat gold leaf to jewelry. It was a long process. I had no background in jewelry. I had never taken a jewelry class, not even an art class, although I loved art and I had a vision of what I wanted this to look like. 18 months later, through trial and error, I finally had a product, and I have to trace it back to that day at the National Gallery in London when I saw that painting.
We have, in the process, continued to evolve over the last 11 ½ years. It was something we couldn’t read in a book; I couldn’t read in a book. No one was doing it the way I was doing it, or at least getting the look I wanted. People had used gold leaf as accents on beads, but no one was wrapping it the way we had come up with through this process. I say “we” because over the years, even though I invented this process, my incredible team—and we’re 100 percent woman owned and operated—has continued to progress and evolve and innovate to make this a much better process and product in the meantime. Even our signature flecking, which is little bits of gold, that was kind of an accident. The first time I was trying to get gold leaf on a cuff base, the little pieces of gold—gold leaf is as thin as a butterfly’s wing—would break off and end up all over the image. That was an accident, but I looked at it and said, “That gives it a unique vintage, one-a-kind look.”
It’s been a very interesting journey. We have brought together two materials that heretofore haven’t been brought together, and that’s gold leaf and enamel. In fact, when we have a product issue—and we’ve had many over the years, because we are blazing a trail in this process and product—I couldn’t talk to my gold leaf guy in Florence, Italy, and I couldn’t talk to my enamel guy in Rhode Island, because their materials had never been married together, so to speak. We had to solve things here, not in the tools that we use, but the entire process. So, that’s how it began. I’m proud to say we’ve created this entire newly category of gilded jewelry, and it’s been a long process.
Sharon: It’s an amazing story. Do you have metalsmithing or chemistry experience? Did you have any kind of background?
Barbara: I have an MBA in corporate finance. I was an investment banker and corporate finance person before I did this, so no. I hope that’s inspirational to people who think they can’t do something. You just keep at it. I wasn’t intimidated by not being from the industry.
Sharon: Is that just your personality? It’s intimidating. So many people grew up in jewelry families or they were chemists or something. Is that just you, you’re not intimidated?
Barbara: I think it was passion; I can’t even tell you. I remember being up until 2, 3, 4 in the morning experimenting. The hardest part of this was not just getting the very thin gold leaf or silver leaf on a base, but how to seal it, because gold leaf heretofore has been used in the decorative arts. You see it on domes or churches. In New York, we have several buildings that have gold domes as well as gold statues. Those statues are covered with gold leaf, and when you put it on an object or even furniture, it’s not sitting against someone’s skin. It’s gold; you don’t have to seal it. Silver leaf, you have to seal because it will tarnish, so I had to find the right sealant that would protect it but not destroy it. It’s sitting against a woman’s wrist or her neck where there might be oils and sweat, and I had to find a way to protect that. I was passionate about gold leaf and loved art, and now we have a product that combines original art and gold leaf that’s all made in the U.S. It’s all made right here in Connecticut.
Sharon: Wow! That’s very unusual. Did you find people who knew how to seal it?
Barbara: No, I tried many different materials, and I would wear it and stress test it. I remember finally the third material, which is a type of enamel, was the one that worked. It was hard because not only was I unschooled in this, but there was no school where I could learn this.
Sharon: You do the design of the jewelry. You’re the designer, right?
Barbara: Yes, we design everything here. We work with graphic artists and we have different types of designs. We also work with contemporary artists to put their artwork on our jewelry. You can go to our website and see Monet’s Water Lilies or Van Gogh’s Starry Night. These are all in the public domain, so we can use them without paying any type of royalty or rights. However, we also work with contemporary artists. We take their artwork and pay them a royalty to use their art on our jewelry. We also work with Erté, who was a famous—he did many things: costume designer, sculptor, artist. We work with a company that owns all of his artwork, and we have an entire line devoted to his art.
Sharon: Yes, that was surprising. I always think of the female statue—I don’t know if it’s in crystal, but that’s what I think of when I think of him. He was a him, right?
Barbara: Yeah, his actual name was Romain de Tirtoff. He was Russian-born, but when you said his initials, which are R and T, in French, it’s pronounced Erté.
Sharon: In today’s world that’s also unusual. You’re looking at antiques like that, but not contemporary so much. They’re beautiful. Tell us how you describe your jewelry to people when they ask what you do. What do you say to them?
Barbara: We’re obviously very art-driven jewelry, but I think we’re colorful, whimsical, attainable. Everything retails for under $400. These are handmade pieces that take six to seven days to process. It is made, as in mentioned, in Norwalk, Connecticut, and it features 22-carat gold leaf. It’s very artistic, but it’s also travel jewelry in a way. That’s another thing I point out; you get a lot of bang for the buck. It’s bold, although we do have different widths. We go down to as narrow as a ¾-inch cuff. Earring silhouettes go from the smallest studs to the largest 2-inch tear drops. The same thing with our necklaces, but we do have that bold, gold look
Sharon: It’s beautiful. I happen to love cuff bracelets. You have some fabulous cuff bracelets.
Barbara: Thank you. It’s fun jewelry; whimsical, art-driven and unique. The other thing is that each piece is like a snowflake because it’s handmade. The gilding will go on differently each time, especially the flecking, the little bits of gold or silver, so that each piece is really, truly like a snowflake. We can’t replicate it. The image can be replicated, but the application of the gold leaf can’t.
Sharon: That’s amazing. Did you target that specific price point?
Barbara: We launched our business in the middle of a recession, the 2008-2009 recession, and there was a lot of price resistance and price sensitivity. I tried hard to keep it under a certain price. There is a target, I guess. That’s correct, that we try to be conscious of the price level.
Sharon: It sounds like you had to go through so many iterations to develop the prototypes and find the one where you said, “O.K., we’re ready to go.” How did you feel? Did you know when you saw it?
Barbara: Yeah, everything has to speak to me. I have to feel it.
Sharon: How did you feel then? Did you know when you saw it? Like, “I’ve done 400 prototypes, but this is it”?
Barbara: The biggest challenge for me was finding the right enamel. It’s what is called a cold enamel. It has to air cure. We can’t fire it because of the gold leaf. When I got up the next morning and felt it and touched it after it had cured, I felt like, “Yeah, this is it.” Then, of course, I had to wear it. I would wear it for three or four weeks every day to stress test it because, as I said, we blazed a new trail here. There was no way for us to know if this was going to work.
Sharon: I’m amazed that you’ve been so successful with it. It’s so far afield from what you did before and what your education was in. l understand that you didn’t study as an artist. You didn’t study as a chemist or a metalsmith.
Barbara: I had to learn a lot about chemistry while working with the enamels. We had problems, all kinds of issues that would—like if your studio is too humid, we’ve had issues with that. If the enamel doesn’t cure correctly, then we have to file it off and start again. It’s a laborious process. We’ve tried to short circuit it over the years, but the look is not the same.
Sharon: No, it sounds like a laborious process.
Barbara: But it’s very rewarding. Being relatively new to this industry, obviously there are a lot of challenges, but there’s so much joy that we can be part of something happy and positive for the most part. I hear from customers and from our retailers what their customers are saying, especially when we do a custom cuff. I’m sure most jewelers and designers know what I’m talking about when you feel that “wow.” You made a difference. You’re part of an important milestone. Maybe you’re just part of someone’s everyday life, but they get so much joy out of wearing something. That’s something I never take for granted, because I never had a job like that, frankly, never. This is the first time.
Sharon: What kind of custom work are people asking you for? To mark an anniversary or a trip?
Barbara: We do so many different types of custom. This is probably our largest-growing segment right now. We can take any digital image—of course, we have to make sure it looks good—but we can take any digital image that any customer has and create a piece of jewelry from it that’s embedded into the gold leaf or silver leaf. We do a lot of dogs. We do a lot of horses. Kids are a distant third behind pets. We’ve done cats. We’ve done a lot of map cups, mostly for our retailers. We’ll find beautiful maps and we’ll put it on a cup or a necklace, and then it becomes our retailer’s signature piece. We’ve done Charlotte, North Carolina, Charleston—you name the city, we have a map cup or earring or necklace to go with it.
We’ve done those types of customs, but then we’ve done very personal pieces for the retail customer as opposed to the retailer. It really is all over the place. We actually put somebody’s car on one. She had a Ferrari, and she wanted a picture of her in her Ferrari on a cuff, so she sent this photo. She loved that. For a mother’s day gift, one was a picture of somebody’s childhood home. That was through one of our retailers. It was given to her mother. It was their home, and apparently the mother just wept when she got this cup. It’s fun. It’s very personal. If you can digitize it, we can generally create a beautiful piece of jewelry from it.
Sharon: Wow! It’s endless what you can do in terms of custom work. It’s not surprising to me that pets are first. The first thing that flew into my mind was maybe a family picture, but when I think about things that make me smile—it sounds horrible—it’s my dogs.
Barbara: We’ve done a lot of dogs that have passed. When they pass, the owner really wants to commemorate them on a necklace or a cuff. There’s always a story. That’s the other thing; with all kinds of jewelry, there’s always a story, and that’s what I love. I like to think our jewelry has a strong narrative. In fact our name, “Évocateur,” means evocative. That’s because when I started wearing my jewelry, when it was still just a hobby and I was trying to figure things out, people would ask me questions. They’d say, “That’s really unique,” or “Why is there a butterfly on that cuff?” It would evoke conversations and connections, and for me it would evoke nice memories of a trip, for example. That’s what I mean.
Sharon: The Kiss is at the Neue Galerie right now, isn’t it? Do you go visit that because it’s so much closer than London right now?
Barbara: Yeah, I’ve been to Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side of New York. It’s a beautiful museum.
Sharon: Oh, it’s great.
Barbara: Very inspirational. We also have the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which is another famous painting of his. We put that on a cuff as well.
Sharon: Beautiful! The price point is approachable, not off-putting, and you can customize so many things. What’s one thing we haven’t talked about? What’s one thing I haven’t covered that you think people should know?
Barbara: This is definitely a second chapter for me. As I mentioned, my background was very different. Had I not lost my job—I had a really nice job and was downsized—this would have never happened. I think it’s important for people to realize that sometimes great things come in not-so-nice packages. There’s always a second chapter, no matter where you are or how old you are. Things can happen that may not look so great at the time, as I said, but I can guarantee you—because I had a great job, and there was no reason for me to leave that job—I can guarantee you that if my hand hadn’t been forced and I hadn’t started playing around with my hobby, that Évocateur would have never happened. I’d still be in that job, or maybe another job that’s similar. That is an important message for anyone who finds himself in a less than desirable position or in something they didn’t plan.
The other thing that’s interesting is that the event that launched us was the lineup at Open See at Henri Bendel. Unfortunately Henri Bendel no longer exists in New York, but this was a semiannual audition, if you will, where any designer could line up, preferably between 5 and 6 a.m. if you wanted to be seen. The lines were long. Anyone could line up in certain categories, and the buyers at Henri Bendel would see them. It was called the Open See; it was very famous, and I decided I was going to go and present our collections. It was successful for us because they accepted us in, and that’s really how we were launched. It gave me the commercial validation that I needed to turn this from a hobby into something more. That’s the other interesting Évocateur historical info.
Sharon: That’s quite a launch. It’s inspirational. I can see so many people saying, “Oh, they wouldn’t be interested,” or they’re not willing to be rejected.
Barbara: Whenever you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve got to realize that you’re going to get rejections. It’s par for the course, and you need a lot of internal fortitude. So much of what I’ve done is hard. There’s no question. It’s hard owning a business and creating something from nothing, which is what we did. Even when you start a business—maybe you have a product that does exist, but you still have to start it. Anytime you start something from nothing, you don’t inherit it; you don’t buy into it; but you’re starting with zero, you’re going to have rejection. You need a lot of passion for what you’re doing and a lot of, like I said, internal fortitude to keep going. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding. There are lots of highs, lots of lows.
Sharon: It sounds very rewarding. It’s the risk of living, but it sounds very rewarding. Thank you so much. It was a very inspirational story. I wish you continued success and growth, and it sounds like you’ll have it in the future. It’s coming; how can it not?
Barbara: It’s been an interesting ride. My biggest achievement to date, I think, is that we survived 2020. I’m serious.
Sharon: I’m laughing, but I know—
Barbara: My team is still here and we’re still working away. Trade shows are coming back, and I’m optimistic for this year and the following year.
Sharon: The fact that you’re still here is quite an accomplishment. Thank you so much, Barbara, for talking with us today, and much luck as you move forward.
Barbara: Thank you so much, Sharon. It’s been a pleasure.
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