Max Johnson never set out to be in the jewelry business — but things changed.
When he graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and affairs, he headed to Washington, D.C., to work on the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
From there, he took his marketing, social media and product management skills to other ventures, including Ro, an online telehealth company that connects patients with licensed health care professionals.
But then his mother, Jill Johnson, who had survived three rounds of breast cancer and has been in the jewelry business for decades, tapped him to help develop a spiritually inspiring collection for people looking for meaningful purchases.
The mother-and-son duo in 2018 introduced Awe Inspired, a line of bracelets, pendants, rings, earrings and other items representing female strength and empowerment.
The jewelry line based in Los Angeles is known for its Goddess collection, which creates styles with the likeness of mythical and historically significant women. Think Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra as well as Greek, Indian and Egyptian goddesses.
Awe Inspired pieces, made of mostly 14k gold and sterling silver, have been worn by Madonna (often seen with her Frida Kahlo pendant), Taylor Swift, Kristin Bell and Billie Eilish. Singer and songwriter Kesha is an early investor.
Five years into their jewelry journey, Max and his mother have seen their company grow to $15 million in revenues last year, breaking even on profit. This year, they are shooting for $20 million in revenues with a profit, Max Johnson said.
Revenue growth has led to the company opening its first retail store in early March, at 8446 Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood with plenty of ways to address spirituality and wellness.
Inside the store, there will be an area for restorative sound baths, the acupressure technique called ear seeding, breathing rituals, full-moon ceremonies and other activities that consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Zers, are craving.
“We find ourselves in a brand space called spiritual wellness or spiritual luxury,” said Johnson, the company’s chief executive. His mother leads the design side. “It is this fervent, very rapidly growing customer base of young women looking to get in touch with something deeper, to incorporate a sense of meaning and purpose.”
Meaning and purpose have been the backbone of Awe Inspired’s collections, with average pieces selling for $150.
To help customers find the perfect purchase, the company’s website lets consumers identify their inner and outer goddess with an online Myers-Briggs type personality test. So far, 6 million people have taken the test, Johnson said.
Brick-and-mortar was never at the forefront of Awe Inspired’s business plan. But with the help of investors, including True Global, a London-based company that now owns 8 percent of the jewelry venture, retail seemed the best way to grow customers beyond social media platforms.
“We’re coming to a point in the direct-to-consumer lifespan where acquiring a customer in a brick-and-mortar retail setting is cheaper than it is on Facebook,” Johnson said. “It’s been increasingly more challenging to find customers on Facebook because of all the new privacy restrictions.”
He said the company has garnered enough emails, via online social media and from the company’s inner goddess quiz, to drive traffic to its first store, which will be followed soon by an outpost in New York City. Awe Inspired is also thinking of taking up retail residence in London when the economy improves there.
“It makes more sense at some point for us to use the store as our billboard or as an advertisement than it does to use Facebook ads,” Johnson said.
As the company grows, new icons and spiritually oriented themes are being introduced. Awe Inspired is working with Alyssa Milano, the actress who joined the #MeToo movement in 2017, to design a collection around the Equal Rights Amendment, which still hasn’t been amended to the U.S. Constitution even though it was passed by Congress in 1972 and sent to state legislatures for approval.
To celebrate the store’s opening, Awe Inspired created a pendant showing an Iranian woman on the back of a lion to represent Iranian freedom. The company is channeling 100 percent of the pendant’s proceeds to the Iranian Diaspora Collective, based in Los Angeles.
Charitable contributions are part of Awe Inspired’s business plan. To date, the company has contributed more than $700,000 to a list of various charities selected by consumers or tagged by the company.