The go-to purveyor of beautifully crafted iconic furnishings and gorgeous luxe gifts, US designer Jay Strongwater is famed for his opulent figurines, candlesticks, vintage-style boxes, jewelry and crystal-studded frames. Indeed, he’s so enamored of gemstones that in 2003 his first boutique in Las Vegas featured bespoke wrought-iron doors encrusted with dazzling Swarovski crystals.
A lucky break
As a young designer, Jay was the embodiment of entrepreneurial spirit. “During the summer of 1980, while I was studying at Rhode Island School of Design I made handpainted beaded necklaces for my mother, Penny.” She herself possessed enormous style and creativity, so, encouraged by her enthusiastism, Jay stood in line at New York’s famous Bergdorf Goodman store to take advantage of their initiative to link up fledgling designers with buyers. “I met the buyer and received my first order. Soon after that I added Henri Bendel, and within months Saks Fifth Avenue joined the list.” It marked a tipping-point in the career of the ambitious artisan. “I decided to leave college and start my own business!”
Sources of inspiration
He says he’s attracted to ornate, layered, intricate designs, and finds historical artifacts from various cultures endlessly inspiring. Almost all of Jay’s bold and beautiful creations sparkle with Swarovski stones, a relationship that spans some 35 years. “I learned about hand-setting Swarovski crystals in the early Eighties. Talk about a kid in a candy store! The clarity of Swarovski stones with their incredible sheen, sparkle and luster enchanted me.” Nothing has changed—the first design decision, he says, is always how to incorporate Swarovski crystals: “The variety of colors and hues can bring anything from an opulent quality to old-time Hollywood glamour—they are the finishing touch of beauty and perfection.”
Tips on getting to the top
Ever since those early designs for his mother, the business has been a family affair. “My parents joined the company at the start, and worked with me for ten years. Penny liaised with buyers and editors, while my father Marty oversaw finance, production and shipping. I couldn't have done it without them.”
So, having amassed years of experience in how to start and run a business, what advice does he have for aspiring young designers? “Times have changed, and I'm not sure that stores have ‘open designer days’ like in 1981, when you could just line up and show your goods to the buyer, as I did at Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel in 1981! But I am a believer in cold calling—that’s how I met Oscar de la Renta: I made an appointment with one of his assistant designers and showed them some early jewelry designs, which led to a wonderful decade of working with Oscar and his team, learning about the fashion industry and having my jewelry featured on models in his runway shows. Of course, it also helps to be able to tell a buyer you’re cold calling about the other stores you’re selling to.”
Celebrating the business’s twentieth anniversary this year, Jay’s hands-on approach, tireless enthusiasm, and determination to remain true to the founding ethics of the business and the brand’s DNA, has paid dividends. HIs energy and single-minded focus have played an important part in the enduring success of Jay Strongwater.