Michelle Obama, Kendall Jenner, Jessica Alba, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus have all worn Kathleen Whitaker's jewelry. It's available in 80 stores in the United States, and around the world in places like Australia, France, Japan, and England, and has appeared on the pages of The Wall Street Journal, InStyle, and W Magazine.
But Whitaker, who operates out of downtown Los Angeles, was not always a jeweler to the stars. In fact, she launched her popular line in 2003 only at the insistence of her boyfriend at the time. “He built me a website because a number of people would compliment me on my jewelry, and I'd say thanks and do nothing," she said. “He helped me make it into a commercial endeavor."
Furthering her education and Knowledge
Although Whitaker had an arts background—she studied ceramics in college—her jewelry-making started out as a hobby. And, during the first few years of her business, she still worked another job in financial services.
During this time, Whitaker enrolled in jewelry-making classes at Otis College of Art and Design and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Then, in 2008, taking everything she had learned, she decided to go full-time with her company.
Coming up with a natural look
Whitaker sells objects like a porcelain ceramic egg and a malachite ring box, and also stone and gold rings, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and pins. Her 14-karat creations are mostly geometric in shape, and the objects are for utility, like storing jewelry, or simply decorative. All the merchandise is available for purchase online, or customers can make an appointment to visit her showroom in downtown Los Angeles.
Whitaker's materials are sourced from dealers who import from places like the southwestern United States and Peru. Once she receives the materials, she keeps them in their most natural form. “I have a reverence for the materials the way they are, versus something highly manipulated and designed," she said.
Establishing the legal side of her business
At the onset of her business, Whitaker established her jewelry company as a sole proprietorship. Then, after being in operation for 10 years, and at the suggestion of her accountant, she incorporated her business with the help of LegalZoom. She did this because it afforded her different legal and tax benefits.
“Being a corporation helps you to divide some of your own personal assets and liabilities from your own business, which is how it should be," she said. “Your business is a totally separate thing."
With the support of her full-time bookkeeper and her accountant, Whitaker has figured out how to make her corporation status work for her and push her business forward. “They helped me to leverage all of the benefits of the corporate status," she said. “The benefits are worth it in the end."
Growing with the help of social media and retailers
While dedicating herself completely to her jewelry line, Whitaker promoted her work on Instagram and gained a lot of followers and fans. “My business grew at a time when things happened more organically than they do now," she said.
Collaborating with retailers to place her jewelry into shops gave her an extra push as well. “It was helpful to work with retail stores," she said. “If the jewelry was a bestseller for them, they would do their own promotion of my brand. They'd put up behind-the-scenes photos of studio visits and write blog posts about it."
Through social media and her retailers, she was able to sell her jewelry to consumers around the world. “The awareness about the brand and the goods grew organically based on the distribution and the business models," she said.
From a website and social media to the covers of magazines
Whitaker was able to gain huge exposure for her company when she released a new collection at the beginning of 2016. That's when she started integrating organic gemstones into her designs. “We shot a campaign that was really beautifully done and elevated our brand," she said. “That garnered a lot of press attention and brought us out of the woodwork."
The Wall Street Journal Magazine featured Whitaker's large fan earrings, flat band ring, sequin studs, and plane studs, while Vogue included her in a story about female designers who pledged money to organizations like the Standing Rock Sioux and Planned Parenthood.
“The Stone Collection, which I launched with a beautiful campaign, caught the attention of Melissa Rubini, an editor at InStyle," said Whitaker. “Her team contacted me for the jewelry loan, which then landed on the cover." In March, Shailene Woodley wore Whitaker's earrings and ring; in July, Jessica Alba wore Whitaker's ring and earrings.
A few months later came a huge break and a surprise: First Lady Michelle Obama would be wearing her aquamarine slice earrings and oval quartz ring on the cover of the October issue.
“Since then, we've been in touch with the First Lady's stylist," said Whitaker. “She made a point of saying how much Michelle liked the jewelry. That was unprecedented and unexpected."
Meeting the ongoing challenges of being a 'solopreneur'
Up until 2013, Whitaker was a one-woman show. Then, she hired a part-time employee to help her out with operations. These days, she's working with a team of five contractors.
Still, Whitaker is a solopreneur, which has come with its fair share of challenges. “There are always obstacles when growing a business by yourself," she said. “In a partnership, there are merits, like having mindshare with someone else and dividing and conquering what work has to be done. I'm making all the decisions on my own."
Despite operating by herself for many years, and having to work a second job to achieve her goals, Whitaker never gave up. Today, her business only continues to grow, as stylists, consumers, and retailers have embraced her unique and naturalistic designs.