First Person | Philip Crangi says jewellery design was his perfect business opportunity

NEW YORK, United States — “I want to own this whole thing,” Philip Crangi says of his popular jewellery brand. “I’d rather own 100 percent of something small that 10 percent of something huge.” The 2008 CFDA Swarovski Award for Accessories winner — whose jewellery is both intensely popular with editors and intensely personal to those who wear it — takes as much pride in forging his business as he does each golden amulet. “It’s more than a job,” he says. “It’s my baby. I want control over it. I believe in control.”

Growing up in Boca Raton, Florida, Crangi developed a fascination with the talismanic nature of jewellery, charms and trinkets. “I wanted to find the buried treasure in flea markets or in the attic,” he says. “I never did, so I have to make it myself.”

At the Rhode Island School of Design where he studied gold- and silversmithing, he hit his groove. “I had this kind of personal success with my senior thesis,” he says, “which was kind of groundbreaking for me personally … [but] when I came down to New York all high from the experience I remember meeting with prominent stylists and they all said, ‘it’s so interesting, but we don’t really use jewellery much in photo shoots,’ which was staggering to me. That was 1993 and I can’t imagine editorial now that isn’t almost totally based on accessories. The jewellery market wasn’t what it is today.”

But rather than force the issue in an industry that wasn’t ready for him, Crangi put his unique know-how to work for him in other arenas, doing restoration work, building custom lighting for interior designers, designing homewards and collaborating with Japanese artist Mariko Mori. “Basically I got further and further away from jewellery in the 90s. But I didn’t want to compromise. I wanted to do it my way.”

In 1998, Crangi’s sister Courtney moved to New York and began running his business. In 2000, Crangi’s long-time friend the clothing designer Steven Alan and Aurora Lopez opened Borealis and invited Crangi to make a line of jewellery to sell in the Nolita shop. “Within months,” Crangi says, “it was the top selling thing in the store. We had the perfect thing at the perfect time — the perfect opportunity. And we decided a couple months later that we would just go for it, and we just dropped everything and ran whole-hog into jewellery.”

In 2001, Crangi properly launched Philip Crangi fine jewellery and discovered a truth about the business of fashion. “Having a great debut collection is not nearly as hard as having a great sophomore collection,” he says. “It’s one thing to get in the door and get everyone’s attention, but then everyone’s like, ‘OK, what’s next?’”

Then, Crangi noticed another hard reality: a wave of copy cat pieces were popping up in stores and, with a lower price point, were well outselling his hand-forged gold and silver pieces. He responded with an entry level label of his own, Giles & Brother, which employed less precious alloys to make costume pieces in the same mold as the signature line.

“It was immediately a huge success,” Crangi says. “We were thinking we would be like a version of Tiffany. There is so much missing in the world. There is so much I have to make! Giles is such a great opportunity for it. I’ve always kept the Philip Crangi brand very special. I have Giles so that I get to do what I want to do with Philip Crangi, or not do anything until I feel it.”

His sister Courtney has an instinctive feel for business that Crangi trusts. “She is able to make the most radical decisions, from the heart, and every time she does it has been amazing for us,” Crangi says. “Like the decision to leave Barneys for Bergdorf’s. That was kind of a radical move and she just refused to be bullied. She’s a real brinksman.”

The siblings complement each other and make important decisions as a team, whether on internet sales or opening a shop in New York’s Meatpacking District. Joking about the “hokie, mystic” sound to his approach, he says, “We wanted to open a store but the opportunity never showed itself, until one day it did. And I really believe in that, if things are meant to be they’ll be. There is a balance between that and being assertive.”

Ten years on Crangi has rigorously maintained the integrity of his brand and the quality of the product. He continues to enjoy collaborating with other designers — including Phillip Lim, Vera Wang and, most recently, Jason Wu. “There’s a lot to learn from collaborations depending on how you do them,” he says. “Collaborations can be done for a lot of reasons — creatively they are amazing of course, they can be PR driven, they can be for financial gain obviously. For me, it is really interesting to go into these other companies to see people who know what they are doing run a business…comparing and contrasting. There is always something to learn.”

Explaining the secret to his growing success, he says, “We set a very, very high bar… we’ve been really lucky. Courtney and I have no business background at all, but we have good instincts, I’ve realized, over time. Especially with knowing what not to do. That’s what I discovered after winning the fashion fund and winning the Swarovski award — you are in a shark tank, and there are tons of people swimming around you trying to get a piece of you — and you look at it, and think, what am I going to get out of it. I was happy the success came a little bit later for me, so I had a little bit more experience under my belt about being taken advantage of.”

Looking forward, Crangi says, “I want to make things people want because they want it, not because they are told they want it. That’s what I want to be doing when I am 75.”

Chris Wallace is an editor and writer based in New York. His work has appeared in Dossier Journal, i-D, Interview, and T.