In 1993, two life-changing things happened to Catherine Angiel. First, she appeared with her then partner on the cover of Newsweek under a headline that said: “Lesbians Coming Out Strong.”
Second, she opened her first jewelry retail store in New York’s West Village.
As unrelated as they may seem, the two events stemmed from the same source: Angiel’s frustration with the status quo, and a desire to be truer to herself by acknowledging the importance of her design work and her personal life.
“It was scary. I didn’t know what the backlash was going to be,” she says of the Newsweek cover shot, which was intended to show that lesbians were more often than not just regular, loving couples. “But I felt I had to do it.”
The move to the West Village from New York’s Diamond District was less dramatic, but equally the right choice.
“The District was all hustle and bustle and cutting throats to make a buck. It was an uncreative atmosphere,” says Angiel, who had operated a design business out of a tiny booth on 47th Street. “I needed a space where I could express myself. I found that in the Village.”
The famously bohemian New York neighborhood had more head shops than luxury brands at the time, and the store Angiel built quickly found a following among the district’s liberal-minded population of artists, writers, activists and what she calls just all-around “cool people.” “I didn’t want mainstream or mundane. I wanted to create an atmosphere that was more like a nightclub instead of an uptight, snobby environment. I wanted something totally unpretentious, a place where everyone could come and be comfortable.”
The store that Angiel designed was inspired, she says, by “the street” and her experiences as a teen running with the underground music scene (she played drums with a number of punk bands): The floors are black, the walls eggplant purple, and the display cases are made of steel. Even the chandeliers are black.
“It’s a renegade store. It’s what I stand for,” she says.
For the customer, the Catherine Angiel experience is a bit like entering a speakeasy. The window case lights are low, the door heavy and wooden, and admission requires being buzzed in (although don’t bother showing up before noon — this is a late-opening crowd). Once inside though, thumping rock ’n’ roll music and a casual air dispel any feelings of intimidation.
“People can’t really even tell we’re open. We’re still a bit of a secret destination,” Angiel says.
The edgy ambience extends to Angiel’s typically Gothic jewelry, which features tattoo- and graffiti-inspired designs and a range of unconventional materials such as gray, brick and burnt-orange diamonds, often raw, in unusual shapes like briolette and rose cuts. Angiel says she began using black diamonds in her commitment bands 10 years ago, long before they became mainstream (at least in alternative circles). In one of the deeper ironies surrounding her story, Angiel’s street-inspired designs have become so popular they are now available at Neiman Marcus in San Francisco and Beverly Hills as well as the ultra-posh Montaigne Market in Paris.
Angiel says she got the design bug while working part-time in a jewelry store in her mid-teens, although she found little support for her early enthusiasm. Enamored with the idea of bringing precious metals and gems to life, she asked the store owner if he would teach her design. He refused telling her, “Girls aren’t strong enough to be jewelers.”
“The industry back then was a man’s world. Women were just salespeople,” she says. Undeterred, she took a series of minimum-wage jobs at small factory shops to learn how to solder, cast, engrave, set gems and pick diamonds.
In 1987, aged 25 and confident she at last had the skills to create her own line, Angiel set up a bench in her mother’s living room and not long after made her first sale to a boutique near the Bloomingdale’s branch in Fresh Meadows (a buyer at the department store actually offered to take her goods, but Angiel couldn’t wait the 90 days to get paid.)
“It was very difficult,’ she says of her road to success. “I didn’t have the family background — I’m a Catholic American-Italian woman with no history in jewelry. But when someone says you can’t do it, I have to prove them wrong,” she says. “I did it because I believed in it. To see it pay off is pretty exciting.”
Core rotation includes The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black, Billy Idol’s White Wedding, Talking Heads’ Home, George Michael’s Careless Whisper, Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, Guns ’n’ Roses’ November Rain, Sly & The Family Stone’s M’Lady and George Harrison’s Got My Mind Set on You.
New York, NY
Opened featured location: 1993
Last renovated: 2010
Area: 800 square feet
Employees: 5 full-time
Brands: Angiel’s own: Dangerous, Raw, Glam, Delicate Bridal, and Renegade, a men’s line
Alexa Traffic Rank: 4,016,015
Facebook: 322 Likes
City Search Rating: 5 Stars