For some people, sustaining a healthy marriage for more than 25 years is challenge enough. Imagine sustaining that marriage while running a successful business and working together every day for all of that time.
That’s exactly what David and Sybil Yurman have managed to do. Over the last quarter of a century, the couple has built a $500 million family-owned and operated jewelry company. They did for jewelry what the American design houses did for the sportswear market in the Eighties: made it easy, elegant and affordable.
Along the way, they’ve also maintained a solid relationship.
“With all the agreements and disagreements and differences of opinion, it really comes down to tenderness between us,” Sybil said, sitting in a conference room in the company’s TriBeCa headquarters.
“Tenderness and kindness,” David added. “Definitely, it’s good will.”
The couple met during the “Summer of Love” in 1969, when they were both living as bohemian artists in New York.
“I was working on a project with Hans Van de Bovenkamp and Sybil came in,” David said. “She was on a job interview. I was maybe 75 feet from the elevator and she walks in with black hair like Cher, taking these enormously long steps. She’s got black boots with red laces and these little Indian bells on the laces, and we all stopped, all seven of us guys welding.”
The visual image is a little hard to believe, with Sybil sitting now in a classy beige cashmere wrap sweater and skirt, her hair more the color of Hillary Clinton’s than Cher’s. Nevertheless, Sybil insisted it’s all true and that she noticed David just as quickly.
“I met all the guys as I was walked through this long studio for my interview,” she said. “I asked my girlfriend who got me the interview, ‘What’s the story with David?’ I said, ‘Is he married?’ She said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Oh great, is he gay?’ And she said, ‘No.’
“It was the Village, it was the Sixties,” David added.
Sybil got the job and soon took a characteristically maternal approach with the rest of the staff.
“They were all single guys,” she said, “and I made lunch for everyone every day so that we all ate together. We would all tell each other what was going on in each other’s lives, and we became friends and all very intimate. It was a nice environment.”
Despite their immediate attraction, the two waited 10 years before marrying, in 1979, and soon decided to start their own business. They borrowed $500 from the Jewish Free Loan Society and got through the first rocky years with more loans from Sybil’s father, Murray Kleinrock, a poet and a writer.
But the challenges didn’t stop with financing. David and Sybil carried strong beliefs about how they wanted their product sold and presented to consumers. Starting out — and some say even now — it created problems.
“The biggest challenges were in the beginning, when people did not really believe in the philosophy we had of how jewelry should be shown as collections with designers’ names,” Sybil said. “I was really definite. They could not buy a ring, they had to buy a collection.”
That direction aggravated some retailers, who felt the Yurmans were telling them how to do their job.
“I would say, ‘Why don’t you put all of our pieces together?’” David said. “‘Why don’t you put our name there so they can identify it? Why don’t we not have adjacencies that are conflicting?’ We had an artistic point of view of classic jewelry with a touch of fun in the fashion world. The stones and settings were real, so it was fine jewelry, but it was also fashion and it was art, and it had a name. Some retailers said, ‘Fine, I don’t want to buy your work.’ And I said ‘OK.’”
For the retailers who complied, though, the results have been remarkable. Over the last 25 years, David Yurman jewelry has become a bestseller for many specialty and independent stores.
Nor has time softened the Yurmans’ conviction. Sybil never questioned that they would be in business this long, but she admitted she’s rather astonished at how far they’ve come.
“I am amazed by what we’ve accomplished,” she said, “by what we’ve done, and the level of how successful it is.”
“It’s worked because they’re complementary creative people,” said Bill McTighe, a friend of the couple since they met at the Baselworld trade show in Switzerland 22 years ago, who also has been a consultant at the company since 2002. “Sybil’s always playing with color and David’s designing away. They always ask each other’s opinions. It’s a real yin and yang.”
It’s well known that, although she has her own office, Sybil can most often be found in David’s, sitting at a partners desk they share. They both are involved in design, but it’s usually after David has drawn an initial sketch that Sybil shares her input about colors or metals. Her department is much more the marketing of the brand.
Both of them, however, pay close attention to the end consumer.
“I think personal appearances are very valuable for me,” David said, even though he doesn’t particularly like to do them.
His staff knows the best way retailers can persuade Yurman, an active equestrian, to come to their stores for trunk shows is to tell him there is a stable nearby. But David is well aware of how important trunk shows can be, both for the business and for his artistic direction.
“You’re close to the customer,” he said, “and at the end of the day, we’re making it for our customer. We’re making it because it excites us, but we’re not devoid of being responsive to our audience.”
“I think for me, it’s not so much about the audience,” Sybil interjected.
“I disagree,” David said. “Sybil, you are the one who says, ‘Who’s the gal who’s going to wear this?’ You become very personal. I think of millimeters, and where the material supply is and how’s it’s engineered and say, ‘This is a great look, I love this.’ And you say, ‘Fine, David. But who’s the gal who’s going to step up and buy this?’ You are the most connected.”
Though they pay close attention to what sells and evokes the strongest customer reaction, the couple said they haven’t navigated their business with a master plan. Instead, like most other designers, they work by intuition.
They also have depended on the counsel from close friends and partners over the years. Kleinrock, Sybil’s father, who died last year, was one of them.
“My father was really a very important mentor,” Sybil said. “He was very much about integrity and the spirit of family.”
“He loved what we made, too,” David added. “He would pick up a ring and say, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing,’ and just go on like that.”
For business advice, the Yurmans turned to Ralph Glasso, a partner and head of the real estate department at Pavia & Harcourt, who also was the couple’s close friend and lawyer. He also sat on the firm’s board. Glasso passed away in March of complications from cancer.
These days, with both of their key mentors absent, the Yurmans are looking to bring in new executives to handle various aspects of the firm.
“We’re trying to do less and less in the company,” Sybil said. “We’re looking for new people to join us to handle the different categories.”
One of them is global distribution, since David Yurman is not carried in Europe or Asia. The lack of international distribution of the brand shows both its phenomenal success in the U.S. and its long-term potential.
There can be little doubt that the Yurmans’ business is a partnership, yet Sybil contended that she doesn’t feel slighted by not having her name on the product.
“Originally, it was David and Sybil Yurman, but I took it off because I was painting and it wasn’t appropriate for my name to be on fine jewelry when I was doing fine arts,” she said. “There have been times in the past [when I wished my name was on it], but I don’t regret my name not being there because we do it together and David’s been so gracious to always say we’re doing this together. And I am the president of the company.”
David and Sybil wear a number of executive hats, but their passion lies in the design. They hold weekly meetings with the design team on Tuesday evenings that last until 9 p.m. There, ideas from strategy to millimeter measurements are hashed out. But David insisted that, “first of all, it’s food and it’s fun.” Indeed, after an interview, he held an impromptu session with a handful of designers and there were two boxes of baked goods from Crumbs Bakery on the table.
After designing thousands of pieces a year for more than two decades, the Yurmans admitted that they repeat themselves from time to time. But for their particular customer, it works.
“People ask us why the jewelry can all be worn together, why are pieces from 25 years ago still some of the most popular things that we do now and why do those pieces fit with what we’re doing now,” Sybil said. “It’s because David simply is the living designer and he has a point of view. It may always be evolving, but it’s always coming from the same aesthetic river. You’re always dipping into the same resource.”
David, acting as the face and vision of the brand, has contributed to the firm’s success. But what’s to happen 20 or 30 years from now when David, 63, is unable to run the business in the same capacity he has been?
“As for the legacy of the company, there are people now we’re starting to train,” Sybil said. “A lot of them have been with us for 10 to 17 years, so there’s a very solid core group who is part of this company.”
One obvious candidate would be Evan, the Yurmans’ 23-year-old son. He joined his parents’ business in 2002 and is now heading up the men’s jewelry division. The Yurmans insist Evan independently chose to work at the company. Whether he’s up for taking over for his father, it’s too early to say.
“He’s young,” Sybil said. “I hope he doesn’t know if he wants to do it.”
What is remarkable for someone as young as Evan, though, is his commitment to his family and his job.
“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” he said. “It’s what I know.”
Still, given the opportunity, some young people would spend a few years bumming around Europe or surfing in Costa Rica before settling down.
“I’ve been to a lot of different places and I’ve come back, so I guess that’s a sign,” Evan said.
“I did a wilderness program and hiked around the desert for 95 days and at the end, I had a choice. I could go back to school and eventually work for my parents or do my own thing, which would be just taking off. But we’re a small family and I need more structure.”
Later, outside of Evan’s earshot, Sybil jokingly questioned her son’s enthusiasm.
“I don’t always believe him,” she said. “I think he’s patronizing us sometimes.”
Should Evan decide not to take over the reins from his father, there is a chance the Yurmans would sell their business.
“We’re at the point where we’re looking,” David said. “It is a question we’re wrestling with. Should we sell a part of the business to a company who can help bring in the top talent? I’m not going to go public, I don’t need that nonsense. But getting someone who knows how to build a global company…” he trailed off, indicating it could be a possibility down the road.
The Yurmans have met with investors, but no deals have been made. The closest they’ve ever come to selling was on their wedding day in 1979.
The sale was meant to be David’s wedding gift to Sybil, and the two met with a potential investor immediately after their morning ceremony. After some discussion, the investor decided the business would not succeed and offered a low bid. Not surprisingly, David and Sybil disagreed with him and walked out.