LISA JENKS’S DESIGN ESTHETIC PROVES TO BE TRENDY AND TIMELESS.
Byline: Wendy Hessen
NEW YORK — Though not always intentionally, Lisa Jenks tends to go her own way.
The combination of a fascination with primitive images and her instincts has produced jewelry, watches, leather goods and decorative objects that are simultaneously of the moment and relevant for years.
Jenks, a Parsons graduate, began designing jewelry in her spare time while working as a designer for a contemporary sportswear firm here. To disciples of her sterling silver jewelry — best known for its brushed matte finish and multicultural etchings — red Lucite earrings might seem completely out of character. But those earrings, scrounged together from elements she found on Canal Street here, were worn by Brooke Shields on a 1982 cover of Vogue.
Shortly thereafter, Jenks’s bosses at the sportswear firm agreed to back her in her own jewelry firm. For a year, they were devoted to writing a business plan, finding and setting up production space and hiring a sales person, prior to opening in March 1987. The experience taught Jenks valuable skills about thinking for the long term and appreciating the organizational side of a business as well as the creative side.
At the time, there wasn’t much sterling silver on the market, but Jenks wanted her jewelry “to have a life and some intrinsic value,” not exactly a widely held tenet in the Eighties, when most women were piling on trendy costume jewelry. The metal is her personal favorite, although its brushed finish is something she still attributes to “my lack of technical expertise.” Regardless, it made the perfect backdrop for her unique mix of symbols gathered from the art and archaeology of such places as South America, Egypt and Africa. Even the company’s distinctive logo, a handprint, represents how some primitive societies signed their names.
Barneys New York — Jenks’s first major store account — continues to be a strong supporter.
“The collection has a really strong design spirit, and that came through immediately in the first collection,” said Judy Collinson, divisional merchandise manager for accessories at Barneys, which also sells Jenks’s handbags and decorative objects.
Collinson said customers are drawn to the distinctive silhouettes.
“Whether the inspiration comes from turn-of-the-century Mexico, the machine age or Art Deco periods, the collection has a specific voice. If you are familiar with Lisa Jenks, you know it immediately — it’s very much its own,” she said.
Collinson said Jenks’s ability to stay true to her own design esthetic, and constantly offer new things, account for her longevity — and the continued support from Barneys and other major retailers, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.
In 1990, Jenks separated from her backers. Her sister Molly, a management consultant, came on board to help buy the company back, and she remains a partner and co-president, overseeing the business side of the operation.
By then, Jenks had already expanded into watches, leather goods and home items. In 1991, she signed a license for flatware, barware and crystal with Sasaki.
Today, Lisa Jenks collections are sold in more than 250 specialty stores, mostly in the U.S., some in Europe and Asia. The company’s headquarters, in the Flatiron district here, employs 25 people. Industry sources estimate annual sales to be roughly $4 million wholesale.
The current jewelry collection includes fewer etchings, and in keeping with the times, has a sleeker, modern feeling. Many pieces use pale citrine or white topaz for a neutral feeling; the most luxurious have touches of 18-karat gold.
The choice of fewer etchings was deliberate, Jenks said.
“Making the gold and silver work together meant simplifying the designs and using less oxidation,” she said. “It’s a nice change. For me, they work best together when done cleanly and simply.”
In celebration of the firm’s 10th anniversary last month, a special 20-piece collection will be offered to select retail accounts for fall.
As Jenks described it, “We’re taking some of the favorites from the past 10 years and reinterpreting and freshening them a bit.”
The limited-run series will have special packaging and will highlight some of the past decade’s strongest themes, such as pearls with silver and primitive ethnic designs.
While she continues to stretch creatively in the jewelry segment, Jenks said a major focus in the next decade will be on leather goods and home, which currently account for roughly 20 percent and 10 percent of sales, respectively. Home could grow to 25 percent of the business, but she hesitated to speculate about the growth potential of leather goods.
At the March accessories market, a new handbag and small leather goods line was launched. It has more sophisticated silhouettes and uses nappa, Italian box calf or shrunken leather and nylon, singly or in combination.
“I believe we now have the right product at the right time, but we need to do more,” Jenks said. “We focused on cleanliness of design, signature hardware and functionality. It’s really important that besides looking wonderful and being ‘of the moment,’ they work well.”
And unlike owners of some multiproduct firms, Jenks said she has no interest in opening her own stores.
“I couldn’t imagine it now,” she said. “We’re not retailers, and I don’t believe we could do it well enough, given what we have on our plate.”