David Yurman, one of the first designer names for fine jewelry, would have sold his company for almost $ 30,000 as a wedding gift to his wife Sybil. But she refused to let him sell, and the two, now 77, built a multi-million dollar brand.
As Dinah Eng says
David Yurman: I grew up in the Bronx and my dad owned a trimming company. My mother was a housewife. I was dyslexic and had ADD, but I didn't know it until 1975 or so.
Sybil Yurman: I grew up 10 blocks away from David but didn't know him. My father was a poet and writer and made furniture and curtains. My mother ran the family insurance. I also had ADD and my language was visual.
David: When I was 16 I learned to weld and solder. I made little animals and shaped the sign language alphabet that deaf people use. I sold them at school for $ 5-15.
Sybil: I left school at 15½ because the headmaster told my father that I was a poor student and that I would never graduate. I ran away from home and made enough money to move to California. I lived and worked at Hyphen House in San Francisco where I was exposed to people like Jack Kerouac and Philip Whalen. My life was about being in the moment, painting, zen, doing everything that interested me.
David: In 1964 I learned from the [Cubist sculptor] Jacques Lipchitz, who knew Picasso and Modigliani, and earned $ 150 a week. It was the height of the beatnik era. Then I opened my own studio in Greenwich Village while working for [abstract sculptor] Hans Van de Bovenkamp.
Sybil: I moved back to New York and met David at Hans where I worked. We liked each other immediately. One day he made a necklace for me and I carried it to a gallery. One woman admired it and said she could sell it. David said no. I said yes. I left the necklace with her and when we got home she had sold four of them. That was the beginning of his making of sculptural jewelry.
David: We started the company so that we don't have to work for someone else. In 1972 we moved to Putnam Valley, New York, where I had a studio in a former mill. I made jewelry that we would sell at craft fairs …
Sybil: … and sold in galleries. As it got bigger, we went to a retail jewelry fair in New York. When the Bloomingdale buyer showed up, I said, "Someone else placed an order first so we couldn't make jewelry unless you pay for it first." He asked, "Who placed the order?" It was Saks Fifth Avenue.
David: I told him he could pay half in advance and half on delivery. He looked at me like we were out of the woods.
Mixed metal bracelets and a starburst pendant necklace with garnet and
Diamonds. All are in the latest David Yurman collection. Courtesy David Yurman; Jeroo Harris – Getty Images for David Yurman
Sybil: But he agreed. Then life got more complicated. No bank would lend us money for the materials or pay our suppliers. Getting into the mainstream was extremely difficult so we decided to sell the business.
David: In 1979 we married, had lunch with friends, and then visited a man in the jewelry district. I said, "The sale of the business is my wedding present to my wife so we can just go back to our art." He gave a number and before I could say anything …
Sybil: I said, "That's too low." He offered $ 30,000.
David: I've done so much at a good craft fair.
Sybil: So we went and started the business in 1980. Back then, the business was an incredible amount of power. A major retailer once canceled an order two days prior to delivery, which is close to bankruptcy. A doctor's friend gave us $ 50,000 to keep us in business. That's why we've created guidelines that retailers need to sign so we don't get back into that position.
David: The hard part was that we wanted to use our name in the stores.
Sybil: At that time, amethyst rings, gold necklaces, or watches were sold together by category. We wanted the stores to buy our collections – the earrings, necklaces and rings – together.
David: They told them, "We are American artisans, we are designers. This is our art form and it has a personality."
Sybil: They wanted what we did, so they agreed.
David: There were times when the economy was in a slump and we couldn't pay the people. We call them and say, "We'll pay you 20% this month and more next month." It made all the difference.
Sybil: One time a man at a drug store gave me 50 ¢ when he saw that I didn't have enough to buy diapers for our son.
David: But we continued to expand the company.
Sybil: In the 1990s we were one of the most important suppliers at Neiman Marcus. We opened our first boutique in New York in November 1999.
David: We were very profitable in the US but then we went to Paris and my ego got the best of me. I thought, if we can sell an American jewelry brand to Parisians, it would be like selling ice cream to Eskimos. And we did it. Within two to three years of selling in Printemps, we won their most loyal customer group.
Sybil: Our success is based on trust and building relationships with the people who have helped us. It's about taking a risk and being ready to work for it all night.
David: In our 50 years of being together, I've learned that it's better to be kind than right. Starting a business is like starting a family. The jewelry is just the by-product.
The best advice from David and Sybil
Imagine possibilities together.
“We both grew up as existentialists in the Beatnik era. Whenever we asked a business about something, we would say, "How do we make this possible? If we work together, we can meet your needs in the market and create our needs."
A version of this article appears in the August / September 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Family Jewels”.
More stories from capital’S Print output::
- The 2020 Global 500: Fortune Ranking of the Largest Companies Worldwide
- Is the oil giant BP finally ready to “think outside the box”?
- America's Black Brain Drain: Why African American Professionals Move Abroad – And Stay There
- An electric revolution for American trucking is coming
- Semiconductors are a weapon in the US-China trade war. Can this chip manufacturer serve both sides?