Konstantinos Leoussis is the founder of KIL N.Y.C., a thoroughly modern jewelry brand that looks to historical jewelry designs for inspiration. As the sole designer for the brand, Konstantinos combines designs from the Stuart and Georgian eras with a contemporary wearability. KIL N.Y.C. also sells and restores antique jewelry. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how he balances his jewelry brand with his work as a microbiology instructor, how he selects pieces for his collection, and how he hopes to grow his brand in the future. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today my guest is Konstantinos Leoussis, the founder of the jewelry line KIL N.Y.C. He’s passionate about antique jewelry, especially that of the Stuart and Georgian periods. We’ll hear all about that today as well as his entire jewelry journey. Konstantinos, welcome to the program.
Konstantinos: Thank you so much for having me, Sharon. It’s really a pleasure to be on here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. First, tell us about your jewelry journey. It’s so unusual that somebody in your position, a professor—I think you’re in biotech, not related to jewelry. Tell us how you came to this.
Konstantinos: Absolutely. It’s a pretty long story, and I’ll summarize it to the best of my ability. I was exposed to jewelry at a very young age. My aunt, actually, was a jeweler and got me into it initially. It wasn’t until I was 11 or 12—it’s been quite a long time now. One of my grandmother’s friends, but I called her my aunt, was a painter by the name of Irene Zevon. She helped me get into classical painting courses at Parsons The New School at that age, and I took jewelry classes. I was really interested in that, and that’s how my initial exposure to the jewelry industry happened.
It wasn’t until my 20s when I rediscovered it, because you know how teenagers are. They do things that don’t always makes sense, or they get distracted with trying to get good SAT scores. Anyway, my passion was rekindled in my early 20s, at 21, when I stumbled into an antique store and started looking at more and more old jewelry. Eventually, from there I got an apprenticeship with someone in the trade, actually multiple people in the trade. I also started an apprenticeship with a goldsmith, and that’s where I was able to gather more skills. I learned a lot of ancient techniques. I learned to how to wax cast and how to work with CAD and early printing and design.
It wasn’t until 2016 that I started my company, which was just under a DBA. I would travel and buy jewelry and sell wholesale. I incorporated in 2019, and things just took off. We do kind of everything. I had lots of passions in jewelry with regard to education, but I do everything. We sell antique jewelry. We do restorations. I have my own line that I produce here in New York City that I design myself. I do design for other companies. I do customs for individuals. Recently, I got into education with a lecture series, of course that not being my full-time job. I do lots of things.
Sharon: It sounds like it.
Konstantinos: Yeah, it’s so many things. On my personal Instagram, I have myself listed as jack of all trades. I laugh at it, but I can do so much because I’ve had the opportunity to be educated and to learn different things. I actually went to school for psych and music initially. Right now, I teach microbiology and virology. It evolved from a research position I held. I was hired by one of the professors when I was in school for micro, but because of the pandemic, it’s evolved to be online. These are my current responsibilities, because I’m not able to do research at this point. It’s a weird balance. I’m taking the week to get caught up with jewelry stuff. I do everything. I’m also a musician and I love to cook, but jewelry is really my passion. I’m very blessed to have gotten to this point, where I can work with it and help it grow, and foster my appreciation of those skills.
Sharon: Tell us about KIL N.Y.C. Who are your clients? Tell us anything you want us to know about.
Konstantinos: Absolutely. First and foremost—I’m smiling; you can’t always see it, but I think it’s funny—a lot of people get confused by the name. I have to tell everybody that “KIL,” those are my initials. Sometimes people get a little nervous and say, “You’re killing NYC.” That’s not the premise. It’s meant to be a little edgy, but it is my name. KIL are my initials, and of course NYC for New York City where I live. We kind of do everything. What I want people to know is, first and foremost, I try to do things a little bit differently than everybody else. I balance a modern jewelry line that’s inspired by things like Greek mythology and history. Then I have antiques, which are, of course, very old pieces of jewelry. I love being able to handle all of those things. We operate very differently. I noticed your question. You want to know more about what we do and what we stand for, correct?
Sharon: Why did you establish it? Who are you attracting with your company, or did you just want to formalize things?
Konstantinos: The reason why I incorporated, mainly, was because I wanted to grow rather than only deal wholesale. I wanted to start selling myself. When you incorporate a business, you have a lot more opportunities to pursue various things, like business loans. I took out a very meager one to help me start and paid it back almost immediately, within four months. It just gives us a lot of opportunities to sell, to get a business license and to have all these other things that help me get money during the pandemic, like paycheck protection. You have to know the kind of people we deal with.
The beauty of it is that I have people now that follow me exclusively for the antique line, for all the antique jewelry, and then I have people that follow me and only know me for the jewelry line. Some people fit in the middle, like clients who buy old jewelry and also buy from the jewelry line. It’s really interesting to see these worlds mix. I do have celebrity clients. I have people that wear my jewelry that are pretty well-known, which has been a big boost for my company. We have been given shout-outs and they’ve shared with their friends, which has been amazing. That’s helped me grow a lot. We attract a lot of different people. My demographic is everybody. I have groups of clients who are men. I have clients who are older. I have clients who are younger than me or around my age; I’m in my early 30s. It’s really eclectic and interesting, the type of people that shop and become a part of this.
Sharon: Who do you have in mind when you’re designing things for your line? Do you do what you want and then say, “Oh, somebody will buy it,” or do you have a certain customer in mind?
Konstantinos: That’s a good question. I’m very headstrong. It must have taken years to hone this, but I’ve learned to beat to my own drum. I always have; I’ve always been that weird kid who does whatever it is that comes up in my brain. When I’m designing jewelry, I don’t really consider the trends or what’s going on right now. I design things I would wear because I think my taste, especially with the jewelry line I’m working on right now, my first collection, I’m thinking about what appeals to me and, in turn, what will appeal to other people. I don’t read a lot of jewelry or fashion magazines. I draw everything out because I’m also an illustrator and painter. I have a board where I sit down and draw everything out and I’m like, “How would this look on my body?” As we’ve become bigger, I’ve started to think about how I translate that, because I’m making these gigantic bracelets for myself, but I felt I needed to keep other proportions in mind, because a lot of my clients have smaller wrists.
I just beat my own drum a lot of the time. I see things in my dreams and I get these ideas. I’m so into history, so Greek mythology, for instance, is one of my inspirations as well as nature and a little bit of science. I’m trying to incorporate all of that and do something very different with the jewelry line. We produce everything here in New York, and while it’s a blessing and a curse, I truly believe it is a blessing. I’m the sole designer. I’m the one sitting there doing all the carvings and renderings, but the curse is that I produce things a lot slower than the average jewelry company because I have so many other things going on. I don’t have someone helping me do this and if I did, I probably would be able to produce a lot more efficiently. It’s also Covid and I live in New York City; everything takes forever. The castings and all those other things take forever to finish. I try to stick to what I know and evolve a little bit, but also stay avant garde. I want everything to make a statement with the public.
Sharon: You mentioned antiquity. It’s unusual to me to see a man who’s so attracted to antiques, such old, antique jewelry, and Victorian. How did that come about?
Konstantinos: Absolutely. I love telling the story, because other people say that as well. They’re very shocked to find out that I’m an antiques dealer. When I do shows, I sometimes get customers who think I’m an assistant just watching the booth or something, and I say, “No, I’m the CEO. This is my company. This is what I do.” I think it stems from my love for history. I have always loved history, because I feel that’s how we learn. We learn a lot from what happened, of course, and some things we try not to repeat, but antique jewelry piques my interest because I’ve always been a collector. As a child, I loved collecting shells. I loved collecting Disney pins, and I loved collecting magic cards and all those other things that kids really liked. I think that mentality stuck with me even now. I love having things that are found in museums. I have things that would be in museums if I had not acquired them, and I like being able to help hold them.
There’s a style and fashion that attracts me to it as well. I love being able to tell a story. I have portrait miniatures that I have provenance in; I know who these people are and the people that are alive now, their great, great, great, great grandchildren. That starts a conversation, and that’s how I know how to relate. I’ve met interesting people from the jewelry I’ve worn, whether it’s modern or antique, and it strikes up a conversation. Some of it is aesthetic, but I got into it because I wanted more jewelry experience in my early 20s, and I absorbed everything like a sponge. I eventually started doing restorations only three or four years ago; probably not even that long. I’ve really tried to hone all of my skills and knowledge in regard to antique jewelry.
Sharon: Doing restorations, do you think it takes a different skill than me just bringing an antique piece to my jeweler and saying I need it fixed?
Konstantinos: Well, that’s a good question. The thing with antique jewelry is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Just like with contemporary jewelry, there are a lot of things you have to be wary about when you’re taking things apart because of the way they’re constructed. One example is—I had initially passed this on to someone else, actually—there was a miniature piece, and we didn’t know until the case was opened, but there were screws inside. If we had opened it the normal way, the screws would have come out and completed shattered the bone it was painted on. It’s these things that the average jeweler probably doesn’t have a lot of experience working with, and sometimes when you work on these things, it’s trial and error. You just don’t know what’s going to happen with things like that.
I talked a little about Stuart crystals in my presentation you heard a few weeks ago. Taking them apart, they’re air-tight, and there are a lot of things that could potentially happen when you’re undoing a setting or releasing a collet or doing something like that. Sometimes the glass breaks. It’s a little bit different in that sense. You just have to be more careful, work slower. I got some tutelage from people to get to this point. I did start taking things apart, cheaper things, to understand how they work. I always recommend taking it to someone who knows what they’re doing. I used to do restorations and use other complex skills and fabrications on antique jewelry. It’s very time-consuming, and you have to be careful because it’s very easy to make a mistake. On the same note, it’s also usually quite easy to fix that mistake, unless it’s something extreme, something that has been exposed to weather damage or heat damage or something like that. That does happen sometimes in a studio.
Sharon: I can imagine that it would be delicate and that there could be a lot of different land mines. You said you were a collector. It’s not an easy question; it’s one I’ve mulled over a lot, but what do you think makes a collector? Just having a lot of sea shells? What do you think makes a collector?
Konstantinos: I think, more than anything, what makes a good collector is one’s eye. Going back to the question you asked me before, about my strong affinity for Stuart and Georgian era jewelry, before that—of course, I was in my early 20s and I didn’t have a lot of money—I used to collect a lot of Victorian. Since I’ve been working in the trade, by the time I was about 25, I had probably 150 or 200 pieces of antique jewelry. Most of it was Victorian and not very expensive, but—coming back to your question—I was going through it one year and I decided to liquidate most of what I had. I realized I was starting to learn that quality is much more important than quantity. Some people want a lot of things; they’ll collect a million baseball cards or a million sea shells, but what makes a collection, and what makes a very seasoned collector, is someone who has an eye and looks for things of a higher caliber. Being in this industry, to be honest with you, it’s given me more access to have those nice and rare things. I have things that—one of them will never be seen again, ever.
Sharon: What about for the people who don’t know what Stuart crystal is?
Konstantinos: A Stuart crystal was a type of slide or cipher from the late 1600s to the early 1800s. These crystals were political jewelry that were worn in support of the Stuart king. They have ciphers, initials or symbols inside of them, usually on ivory or some other material. Then there’d be a rock crystal, a kind of faceted top, to air-seal it, and the setting would keep it away from the elements. They’re very collected and very hard to find now because they’re several hundred years old or more. They’re very tiny, very special pieces of jewelry because they’ve survived so long. I collect ones with skulls, which are really hard to find. Those are typically either a symbol of mourning or a memento mori, which is the idea that you have to live your life every day like it’s your last; remember you must die.
Sharon: Do you collect jewelry that represents skulls of all periods or only older ones?
Konstantinos: All periods except for contemporary. I do skulls in my jewelry line, so of course I wear those. My logo is also a skull. Actually, my logo was inspired by a Stuart crystal that’s in my possession. But yeah, I do collect skull jewelry. I’m inspired by the idea of memento mori, because for years I lived in fear of starting this company. It really got to me, my insecurities. I’m very honest about it with my clients and with my friends. So, I thought using a skull as a symbol of memento mori for my company was very appropriate. It’s a reminder to take chances because life is only as long as it is. I could wake up or not wake up tomorrow; you never know. You have to seize the day and make something. That’s what my company stands for, and that’s why we’ve been so successful; it’s because we put all our passion and time into what we do. I love what I do, and I wish I would have done it sooner, to be honest; probably two or three years sooner, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Sharon: I always love to hear when people have taken the risk, because it is scary. It’s a lot easier to go off and work at McDonald’s every day. There’s nothing wrong with working at McDonald’s, but it’s more par for the course, let’s say.
Sharon: When you’re searching for pieces for your own collection, what are you looking for? When you talked about your collection, what you are really talking about is the connoisseurship. It’s having seen enough and saying, “O.K., the Victorian hairy jewelry is a dime a dozen. I’m moving onto something else.”
Konstantinos: Yeah, absolutely. I think for collectors it’s like a stepping stone. You start collecting what you can afford and what you are used to and what you like, and it graduates and gets better from there. I collect lots of things. I could tell you for days the things I collect that have nothing to do with jewelry. For me, with jewelry, I collect what I like but I have a particular affinity—for my own personal collection that’s outside of my business—I’m very fond of Georgian mourning and sentimental jewelry, jewelry from the early 1700s to the mid or early 1800s, about 1830. I, of course, love Stuart jewelry. I do have Renaissance jewelry, which is actually not that hard to find. It’s hard to find good quality stuff. I do have Victorian jewelry. I love archaeological revivals, things that are inspired by the ancient Etruscans, the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks. I also collect things like that, and I have some Art Nouveau. It’s about what appeals to me, but I also think I’m fortunate to have a good eye. I collect things that are harder to find. It makes it a little more special. Also, obviously, when I’m collecting, I always make sure I’m going to wear it. I don’t just collect it for it to be in a box. It has to be wearable. I have to actively wear it. If it doesn’t fit me or something doesn’t work out, then it has to be passed along to someone who will treasure and love it.
Sharon: That’s interesting. For you own personal collection, you say you collect what you like. Will you buy something that’s totally contemporary just because you like it?
Konstantinos: Yeah, I do buy contemporary things, but I’m particular about who I buy it from. With contemporary stuff, working in the jewelry trade or jewelry fabrication, I know a lot of people who make jewelry, so I usually support my friends with modern jewelry. I don’t buy fashion jewelry. I used to collect Alexander McQueen jewelry years and years ago, but I’ve since moved on from that.
Sharon: I’m sorry, did you say Alexander McQueen jewelry?
Konstantinos: Yeah, I did.
Sharon: He did some interesting things.
Konstantinos: It was really interesting. I had that collection before I was even 22. I collected heavily for about two or three years, again with the skulls. Shaun Leane was a very honored jeweler. He collaborated with Alexander to bring the jewelry line into fruition, and I’ve always been inspired by that work. Anyway, I do collect modern, but I’m really particular as it is. The modern people I buy it from are usually my friends who are extremely talented and very lovely people.
Sharon: So, you use the same sense. You use your eye no matter what you’re buying. Where do you want to take your business from here? What would you like?
Konstantinos: My idea is to grow, but I can never give a quantitative amount of growth or where I project to be. I’m dealing with growing pains right now. It’s not the worst thing that could happen; the hermit crab is growing in its shell, but it’s a little stressful. We launched a collaboration with a very well-known sculptor, and we are being inundated with orders on a daily basis, on a weekly basis. It’s been very hard because I do everything in-house here in New York City, and I pay fair wages and do all these things and use recycled metal. I keep all my production in New York because I don’t trust anybody else to do it.
I would like to grow my business. I would like to hire more people, and that’s what’s going to happen in the next month or two, an amazing blessing. I hired people even during the pandemic. To be able to grow during such a chaotic and quite horrible period in history, I’m very grateful; I’m very blessed, and I try to pay good karma back. My hope is to hire more people so we can grow the jewelry line. I am thinking of hiring someone to co-design with me, to do production, the initial design. It’s so much work, and to have someone to bounce an idea off of would be really helpful. I’m learning that the big problem is—in my real life, I’m very hands off; I’m very laissez-faire. But in my company—and my employees will say this—I’m not mean at all. In fact, I’m very fair, and we’ve never had a fight or any problem, but I micro-manage everybody, including my second-in-command, my operations and sales director in India.
I’m learning how to let go. I’m learning how to let the system roll and put my trust in other people to make sure everything gets done, because in the end it’s my name. If things don’t get sent out, it falls on me. I think that’s my anxiety behind it, but I’m learning. I’m learning to ask for help and to allow organic growth and to let people in on the conversation process. I want to hire more people and expand my jewelry line, which is what I’m doing right. It’s been very popular, and I’m collaborating more and learning how to breathe. I know it’s not something we talk about a lot in business because we’re all always on the go, but that’s another thing I struggle with, learning when to take a break. I get burnt out and I’m like, “No, there are so many orders.” I get burnt out very easily, so my goal to grow my company is to learn how to breathe and take a break, to learn when to say, “O.K., this is not working at this moment. I need a break before we can progress any further.” Again, more of a humanistic way of trying to run a company.
Sharon: It sounds like a great combination. It’s one that’s not easy to put into play, your being the jeweler and being the business; that’s a challenging combination. Konstantinos, thank you so much for being with us today. This was very interesting and I look forward to talking with you again
Konstantinos: It was such a pleasure. I’m so honored. When you asked me to join and do this with you, I was over the moon. Sharon, I really, really want to thank you. On behalf of everybody here at KIL N.Y.C., I want to thank you for interviewing me and giving us this exposure and having this conversation. Because of the pandemic, I miss these kinds of things. We don’t get to have a lot of these talks. It’s nice to have a podcast that highlights so many different people throughout the world who work in the jewelry industry. I think it’s amazing.
Sharon: It’s great to hear everybody’s story. I learn from everybody. It’s very inspirational. Thank you again for being with us.
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