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Satomi Kawakita Jewelry: Turning Passion Into Profits

Kensey Lamb
Kensey Lamb

Satomi Kawakita, jewelry designer and professional diamond setter, at her New York City studio. (photo: Siemond Chan)

Earning a living by doing what you love is an enviable achievement, and Satomi Kawakita is finding success in the jewelry world by doing just that. Working out of her studio in New York, she creates her own brand of delicately crafted jewelry, with a specialty in rings.

From glass blower to diamond setter

Growing up in Japan with her dressmaker mother, Kawakita was always creative; she loved sewing and turning paper into pop-up cards. While attending Saga Art College in Kyoto, she studied glass blowing; she worked under glass artist Takeshi Tsujino for a few years before moving on to the more-independent work of jewelry making. “Glass blowing, it’s more like sports,” she says. “You can’t really do it by yourself.”

After moving to New York and graduating from Studio Jewelers, Kawakita trained under a master diamond setter for three years in New York’s famed Diamond District. She worked in the district for a total of seven years and, in that time, she felt that something was missing. “I couldn’t find jewelry that I liked and I actually wanted to wear,” she says. “I set hundreds of stones every day on commercial pieces that I was not very fascinated with.”

Birth of a business

Kawakita slowly saved up the money to start her own line and founded Satomi Kawakita Jewelry in 2008. In the beginning she showed a few pieces to close friends — her first ring was a thin, gold band flecked with tiny diamonds — and began to receive orders, which allowed her to make more pieces. She now inhabits a studio near Union Square, but she says, “Before I got the studio I used to work from my bedroom — it was a mess!”

The biggest hurdle in starting the business was financial — she had no investors or partners. She also chose to sell her jewelry to stores around the city rather than open her own storefront. These stores (about 10 in and around New York City) sell select pieces from her collection, which accounts for 50% of sales. The other half comes from online orders off her own website.

Kawakita’s jewelry has been featured on fashion blogs, and word-of-mouth has served her well. The downturn in the economy has not affected her business, as much of her sales come from couples shopping for engagement rings and wedding bands.

Marketing and advertising were never in the budget. “I just never had money for anything…advertising or PR, so we just never did [it]. I didn’t have any sense for business,” Kawakita says. “Then, luckily, it just happened. People started contacting me.”

Diamonds and gold

Kawakita’s studio, though small, is filled with tools and equipment, from worktables overflowing with files, pliers and wax molds to large machinery. Over the din of the polishing machine, she explains, “I use very, very old-fashioned tools. Not that many people use them anymore.”

When asked about her creative process, Kawakita says, “I never learned how to design, I just always designed in my mind since I was a little kid.”

Kawakita prefers to work with gold and diamonds; she sometimes puts in 13-hour days. “Before I got married, I worked on no sleep until four in the morning,” she says.

She now has the support of two employees: an office manager and production assistant.

Creating a signature design is most important to Kawakita, so custom orders are a thing of the past. Sometimes customers will bring her a diamond to set, but she prefers not to do that either. “I have done it a couple of times but it’s too much responsibility for me to take,” she says. “Diamonds are very strong and I am a professional diamond setter and I don’t chip diamonds that often — but still, diamonds get chipped and scratched.”

'Now it’s my life'

As orders continue to flood in and Kawakita looks to the future, she has a few things in mind to grow the business.

Number one on the agenda is to hire an intern this summer. She also wants to open her own showroom.

Currently she opens her studio to the public two days a week, by appointment only. Because partner stores only sell select items, much of what she has to offer is rarely seen. An overwhelming amount of people take advantage of these studio visits, and she says it’s become “too much.” She’s now planning to open a space downtown, where appointments won’t be needed.

On top of that, she hopes to do more trunk shows and expand her line to the European market.

On a more personal level, she wants to focus solely on designing. “I don’t want to do anything besides make rings. That’s why I have people here [to handle business matters],” she explains. “I always want to make something new. It’s been three years since I made a new design. It’s been too long.”

Kawakita says the biggest reward of being a small business owner is being able to follow her passion each day. “I design, I make [jewelry] because I want to,” she says. “People realize it’s interesting and unique and they start buying. Now it’s my life. It’s not easy, you know? So many people make things but how many people can make it for a living?”