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.”

PLAYLIST

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.

 

QUICK FACTS
 

Location: New York, NY
URL: catherineangiel.com
Owners: Catherine Angiel
Founded: 1993
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
ONLINE PRESENCE:
Alexa Traffic Rank: 4,016,015
Facebook: 322 Likes
City Search Rating: 5 Stars

 

 
   
   
     
     
   
 

Angiel has garnered a high level of editorial placement for her jewelry, with most of it driven by word of mouth.

 
     

Small Cool No.5 Catherine Angiel

FIVE COOL THINGS

1. COMMITMENT RINGS - Angiel says she coined the term “commitment ring” and helped introduce the idea to the wider public while being involved in publicity work for the 1993 Newsweek issue on lesbians. Ironically, since New York passed its same-sex marriage law last year she doesn’t have a need for the phrase anymore when selling bands to lesbian and gay couples. She sells them “wedding bands.” “Now it’s straight couples coming in asking for a commitment band,” as a symbol of the vows they make to each other, she says.

2. EDGY STORE, TRADITIONAL SALES - While its GLBT credentials and rock ’n’ roll edginess are central to the store’s image, Catherine Angiel derives most of its revenue from a much more traditional source: bridal customers, who account for 70 percent of sales. “No matter how the economy is doing, people are still going to get engaged,” Angiel says.

3. UNDERGROUND A-LIST - During its 19 years in business, the store has built up a solid following among what Angiel calls the “underground A-list.” Lindsay Lohan, Christian Slater and Ethan Hawke are among the celebrity clients who are fans of her avante-garde designs. And yes, Lindsay paid for the pieces she took.

4. ROCK ’N’ ROLL - Given her punk rock background, the choice of music is “loud, awesome rock ’n’ roll all day.” Says staff member Cid Scantlebury. “We sing while we’re setting up and breaking down the cases!”

5. STORE BLOG - Catherine Angiel’s blog makes no effort to hide its political leanings. In a recent posting, Angiel wrote: “President Obama’s announcement on gay and lesbian civil rights brought tears of joy to our family, and millions like us. Thank you, President Obama, for having the guts to take a stand for us, and for making positive change for generations to come.”

WHAT THE JUDGES SAY

Maeve Gillies: This store really fits its neighborhood. Mysterious, dark, downtown and cool — it’s the store equivalent of a celebrity rock star’s sunglasses! Everything comes directly from Catherine’s character and her story, which keeps it unique, easy to relate to and desirable.

Stephanie Maxey: From the background rock music to the elegant, aubergine color scheme, you know you’ve entered someplace tantalizing. The dark interior scheme accentuates the very cool stainless display cases. Nice, fluid, ephemeral logo and good attention to detail.

Ellen Hertz: I love it that Catherine has incorporated her “rocker chic” personality into not only her jewelry, but her retail space. It points to a real commitment to stand behind herself as a brand. The look of the store reflects the look of the jewelry — all very cool. If I were walking down the street in NYC, I would be pulled into this store.

Larry Johnson: Dramatic use of light and imagery makes this a very cool store.

Jim Ackerman: The motif and logo are well matched to the rest of the store. Her online presence, especially the website is excellent. Wonderful mix of fashion, her jewelry, video and media, although it lacked an e-commerce element.