Kris Ciulla is the vice president of design and sales at CINER. CINER is a historic costume jewelry line that has been in business since 1892. A lifelong jewelry aficionado, Kris has been fortunate to find a job she loves. Learn her career advice and what it’s like to work in fashion.
Kris Ciulla, Vice President of Design and Sales at CINER
How did you end up at CINER? What was your career path?
I have always been attracted to costume jewelry starting as a young child. I would beg my mother for her rhinestone jewelry and she would allow me to play dress up with it. My mother was a beauty pageant queen during her high school years (of all things) and actually owned many tiaras and tons of rhinestone bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. Of course I ruined them! She never should have let me play with them because I would treasure them so much more now!
In my teenage years, I was very into fashion across the board. I read every single fashion magazine I could get my hands on, front to back, and I was hungry for the end of the month to come so new issues would hit the stands. There was no Internet!
Because of the fashion magazines and reading the credits for every item in each and every photograph, I became aware of CINER and became a CINER fan. This was all in the 80’s. In the 90’s, my first real job out of school in the fashion industry was for a Swarovski Crystal stone dealer on 37th between 5th and 6th avenue. Ironically enough, I find myself back on the exact same street between the exact same avenues, as this is where CINER is located. 37th street used to be all costume jewelry designers, manufactures, findings companies, platers, and other places related to the costume jewelry industry. Now CINER is one of the last to exist on this street.
I did not go to design school, but I had an eye and I was very hungry to be part of the industry. I had passion. I was determined to work my up. I worked with many famous NYC designers and jewelry designers from all over the world in the stone dealership showroom. I helped them choose and coordinate Austrian, Czech, and German stones and beads for their collections each season. We’d fill their production orders in between seasons while developing the next season.
I was exposed to all types of designers and all sorts of genres. In turn, I was developing a strong love, respect, and deep understanding for all types of design. Not only for my own personal taste, but also a respect and understanding for all the different aesthetics in the world. I learned to respect and enjoy working on them all equally. It also sharpened my own sense of style. On most days I was working on collections that were not my style. I learned and grew a broad range of respect and love for all good design. It was a really important part of my development as a designer.
Anyway, you can imagine the first time I actually met Pat Hill, the president of CINER in the early ’90. I was totally star struck and beyond thrilled to meet Pat and work on stone projects for CINER, even though it was only in a very abstract way at that time. I continued to work consistently with CINER over the course of my career, helping to develop special collections for them. I moved up through the industry, always working as the design liaison for European glass bead and stone houses servicing the design customers.
In 2007, the stars aligned and Pat called to offer me the opportunity to come and work at CINER as the vice president of design and sales. Of course, I was thrilled and honored and accepted the position.
What are your responsibilities as vice president of design and sales?
My responsibilities are vast. Every day is exciting and different! First and foremost, I work side by side with Pat on the day-to-day internal affairs of CINER.
One of my ever changing but always present responsibilities is working on the seasonal direction for CINER. I do not do any of this alone. We work as a team at CINER. Pat is always present and always working with us on whatever is the task at hand. We have a wonderful team at CINER and everyone plays important roles in our company. For example, I work daily with our design director, Danielle Blanco. Danielle is an incredible designer with a fantastic design background. She works on CINER as well as with some of our private labels.
As a team, we create new pieces to add to theC INER collection every three to four months. The goal for new styles is to create beautiful new designs, but to always stay true to the CINER aesthetic, even when creating styles for 2015 that might sit with styles from say 1930! It is always a wonderful mix of old and new.
Our president Pat Hill, our vice president Jean Hill, our design director Danielle Blanco and our general manager Diane Mc Gowan work daily on projects relating to our overall vision for CINER. We review trends each season, decide on our marketing, branding, and sales approach and so on.
I am very present in the showroom, working personally with our select group of high-end boutique customers from around the world to ensure we are meeting the needs of our CINER retailers. I help them with custom designs and colors and ordering a well-rounded CINER collection tailored specifically for their store, location, and customer.
Our new website is another exciting responsibility! It helps us maintain our longtime loyal customers and cultivate a new younger generation of customers to educate them on who and what CINER is and what we are all about. Guiding our web designer and our social media team is a new responsibility and challenge for me, and it’s one I am enjoying very much! Lastly, I do actually design for CINER, as well as for a few of our private labor accounts.
What do you like most about working at CINER?
There are three huge things I absolutely love and adore about working at CINER. The first is that I’m working for a small, family owned company that has been in existence for 123 years. The rich history of our company and the amazing CINER archives, craftsmen, and capabilities are at my disposal. As a designer this is the most amazing gift. To have such wonderful tools such as the archives to work with as creatively as my imaginations allows, is truly so special and rare in this day and age.
Second is that CINER is one of the very last fine New York City costume jewelry companies in the city that’s still able to execute every piece we produce from start to finish all in-house with no outside assistance. This truly does not exist anywhere else in the city of Manhattan. We do not have cad. We do not have any fancy new technical machines that helps design and work out the specifics for you. We work exactly like CINER did 123 years ago—with our hands! We actually produce the designs we envision in our imaginations. We cast, polish, plate, string, knot, enamel, and do all our stoning all within the walls of CINER.
It is a rare thing in today’s world, for a designer like myself to be able to have all of this at my disposal. It allows us to design and create on demand. There is no waiting around for outside help or sending things off for another company to help create the final piece. This also eliminates the possibilities of getting disappointing work from outside that does not meet our expectations. We are very picky at CINER! If the piece does not come out the way we envisioned, we do it again! It is extremely fulfilling as a designer to conceptually bring an idea to life all in one day if need be.
I am very blessed. I can’t stress to you enough how huge the gift I am describing is because places like CINER simply no longer exists in the fine costume jewelry industry. CINER is wonderfully old school. And I love it so much.
The third gift is probably the most import. It is working for someone like Pat Hill who allows us to create and design in the way I have described, as well as work with us side by side. She understands good design, has the most amazing taste, and as the leader of our team, she gives us the support and guidance we need to work and design the way we do. She also has the highest standards and expectations — nothing less will do. Without this modern woman running the company her grandfather started 123 years ago with the knowledge of fine manufacturing and the mind of the modern business woman in the world today, none of what we do at CINER would be possible. It really is the most amazing place and I am honored to be a tiny part of its history!
I never tire of speaking about CINER and how special it is. I am very proud to be at CINER and I am also so very lucky to have this incredible opportunity as a business woman and as a designer.
CINER has such a robust archive. What are some of your favorite trends you’ve seen in your research?
I personally love all of the whimsical creature-inspired pieces.
My favorites change frequently because there are so many beautiful styles at CINER and we are constantly uncovering new models! At the moment, one of my favorite trends are our amazing insect motifs. We have some of the most beautiful dragonflies, butterflies, spiders and other assorted creatures. The details in our models are so special and exquisite, they are all carved by the most gifted artisan model makers, both years ago and today. We used some of these amazing insects this year to create pins, earrings and necklaces. We also used them on hairpins, combs, rings, and cuff bracelets that were not the initial designs. Because of our fantastic design studio and the craftsman who work at CINER, we are able to reinvent old models in new ways to address today’s best trends. Speaking of bugs — CINER’s 100th anniversary was celebrated with a big party. All the guests were gifted a specially designed beautiful bee pin designed for the occasion, which remains one of our best selling pins today! I will always fall in love with all things 70’s – like a giant owl pendant I recently uncovered in the archive room and every modern piece we ever created!
CINER has developed and produced private label jewelry for J.Crew, Club Monaco, Brooks Brothers, Tory Burch, Talbots, Saks Fifth Avenue, and The Met to name a few. What is the collaboration process like?
It is a very interesting process. It’s always a challenge, but it’s always interesting and rewarding as well. Each company has its own unique aesthetic and each season they present us with mood boards. The mood boards are used to inspire a story that results in a jewelry collection that we design and create in-house at CINER. We present the collection back to the customer for their review and consideration. We specifically try to capture the feel and the essence of the individual brand we are working on and their vision for the season.
It is crucial for us to understand each brand’s DNA. Each brand has a model customer who responds to very specific looks, styling, and price points. CINER’s unique in-house design and manufacturing capabilities, our 123 years of archives spanning the eras of design, and having a full factory in-house to execute our ideas gives us a very unique edge. We are able to design and actually execute every conceptual sample in-house for our customer before we move onto the production stages and reproducing our designs for the customer overseas. We manufacture some of the private label in New York, but to meet the demands of lower price points and be competitive in today’s market we must manufacture abroad.
CINER would love nothing more than to see American manufacturing come back in a big way. That would be a dream come true! We believe in Made in the USA and are very proud that all CINER designs are made right here in NYC. Back to process, most companies that offer private label must produce all of their initial presentation samples and bulk production in China. Whereas we at CINER are able to produce our samples in the CINER studio on 37th street. This is a huge advantage and results in a better quality end product because we are making the initial samples ourselves. We have a team of gifted people who understand this old school process. So many designers today, particularly the young people graduating and moving into our industry, have no idea how to work like we work— with our hands. They learn to design on computers and with machines. What we do at CINER is sadly becoming a lost art. However, CINER is determined to keep it alive!
What has it been like to take such an old brand and bring it into the digital age? The website is beautiful! I really enjoyed reading the story in The Archive and all of the old press.
It has been a wonderful opportunity to bring CINER to the digital age so we can share the amazing CINER designs and our story with the world! It has been particularly fulfilling to share the history that goes with the CINER brand. We have so many people reach out and express their love for CINER jewelry. They share pictures and stories of the pieces they have collected, and express their appreciation for our old world craftsmanship. It’s very rewarding indeed.
What is the process of making each piece?
It is a long and what some people might call tedious process, but at CINER it is the only way to produce the fine costume jewelry we are known for in the industry and across the world.
We start by producing our own castings from poured liquid metal that is kept at 900 degrees. Then we move on to the workbenches where the highly-skilled craftsmen and women of CINER will assemble the castings. They install brass hinges and clasps or perhaps string hundreds of castings onto a fine chain with just the right amount of tension to create the body of a necklace. Next we move to the polishing room, where our polisher will work on each piece one at a time bringing the piece to a smooth and fine finish.
Now it goes to the plating room where the piece will be plated in genuine 18K gold or rhodium. We do not plate in sterling to achieve our silver jewelry, as it tarnishes. CINER plates in genuine rhodium to achieve a silver look, which is actually more expensive per ounce than gold. However, it produces a beautiful almost platinum effect that gives our pieces an unusually rich color. It is long lasting.
Next the piece goes to be hand enameled if needed. This is a twenty four hour process. Our enamels are hand mixed to create our own unique colors. We can also create the color of your dreams, if requested! And lastly they are stoned with wonderful crystals, cabochons, or assorted materials from around the world that CINER has acquired to bring pieces to life!
Each piece is critically inspected for perfection before shipping out to be worn, enjoyed, and passed down to the next generation. It takes a few days at best and many finely trained and skilled artisan craftsmen to complete one piece. It is a labor of love — that is why CINER is so special.
What advice do you have for someone else who wants to work in fashion?
Study the great designers of every era. I believe this helps you successfully find your own unique personal style and decide on a direction.
How would you define your personal style?
My favorite era is the 70’s. I love to incorporate some element of this era into a modern day look. I naturally gravitate to clothes, shoes, and accessories that give off a bit of a boho chic vibe or a Studio 54 kind of feel. YSL and Halston are my all-time favorites. For sure, I never want a costume-like look, but I love the feeling of this era! Long dresses are my thing. I love pieces that have pieces to match like a sleeveless dress and a matching coat. Or even more interesting like a bag, hat, or scarf that matches. It is definitely a vintage-like throwback kind of thing, but I just love it when I can find it.
Where do you turn for inspiration?
Vintage is always inspiring. I like old magazines and movies, for example. Not to copy because that is not fresh and new, but being inspired by an old movie star in a great dress or a glamorous setting can definitely result in something totally new and exciting for today.
I also love nature, animals, flowers, and sea life. A lot of times it is the colors of a tropical fish or an exotic bird or flower that can inspire an entire color story.
What advice do you have for other young professional women?
Work hard! Be persistent. Keep pushing. Never give in — and never give up. Hard work always pays off. There are no short cuts. You must pay your dues. It is also very important to figure out what you love so you can be truly happy in your professional life.
I never know what the time is — if you never know what time it is during your workday, it means you truly love what you do.
Thank you, Kris!
All images via Kris Ciulla and CINER.