Vatche - King of the Ring
By Devorah Isenberg , Tuesday, January 25, 2011 5:04 AM
In his free time, Vatche Aghajayan likes to fly one of his four private jets, score antiques at auctions, build model airplanes, and sometimes lead overseas training for the United States Air Force. When he’s not doing any of those things, he designs engagement rings. You might think that with such a busy schedule, Vatche’s rings would be run-of-the-mill designs, but the 30-year veteran of the jewelry industry has just received a prestigious award for innovation in platinum bridal jewelry design. In addition to being king of the skies, Vatche is the undeniable king of the engagement ring.
With his black mock turtleneck, cropped hair, and knowing smile, Vatche is a little like the Steve Jobs of the bridal jewelry world. His simple but visually appealing designs have that extra touch of elegance that the Apple computer company has long made their signature, and Vatche himself has an uncanny knack for spotting the next big thing in engagement rings. He was one of the first to introduce quality, reasonably-priced platinum rings to the American market, and remains one of the foremost platinum designers in the country.
A Vatche design is characterized by intense, almost obsessive, attention to detail. “I can always differentiate a Vatche design by the details,” says Debi Wexler, CEO of Whiteflash.com, a diamond retail boutique that carries Vatche’s designs. “There is always that one extra surprise detail, the shape of the prong, a hidden stone, something pretty and totally unique.”
Vatche himself explains a little bit about his process. “There are days when I just sit and try and try to come up with something,” he says. “If I come up with ten designs, I might make models for two or three, and then finally decide on the one I really like.” Then he sits down at the bench himself and carefully crafts the first prototype by hand. Once he is satisfied with every element of the design, its aesthetics, quality and functionality, he passes it along to his small but dedicated team of bench jewelers to begin production.
It is a slow, painstaking process, and yet Vatche is determined to bring prices down. “By working quickly, by making the whole process smoother, from design to the bench jeweler to the polisher,” he explains, “I can make the prices reasonable without sacrificing quality.” . By carefully designing rings to maximize their materials, and streamlining production, Vatche keeps expenses down and brings handmade platinum jewelry to the American market at prices that real people can manage. At the same time, his commitment to long-lasting quality is unshakable. “I can make the band just a little thinner—maybe save $150 on the retail price,” he explains, but he that’s not something he’s willing to do. “A few years later, your ring will break, and you won’t be coming back to me for more jewelry.”
Your initial impression of Vatche, both the man and the company, is one of contradictions. His multimillion dollar company is housed in a cramped office on the fourteenth floor of a nondescript building on a dingy midtown Manhattan block. The CEO, Vatche himself, is a jovial guy who cracks jokes with his employees and visitors but applies intense, focused concentration to his hand-crafted engagement ring models. The biggest contradiction of all is Vatche’s dual career—Air Force pilot and engagement ring designer. “For some reason, I am attracted to both love and war,” Vatche says with a shrug and his penchant for stating facts simply and directly.
Vatche was born in Lebanon to an Armenian family, and found himself drafted into the Lebanese Army, then a United States ally, at a young age. His affable personality and English language skills earned him a prestigious position translating for the United States Marines then stationed in Lebanon. While working as a translator, Vatche noticed an application for a pilot program in the Air Force. “I wanted to fly since I was a little boy,” he says, gesturing to the model airplanes adorning his office ceiling. After working for the Air Force, Vatche was granted citizenship and moved to New York, where his love affair with jewelry design blossomed. After a few years hawking gemstone pieces on the Home Shopping Network and few high-profile partnerships with Tiffany’s and Harry Winston, Vatche began producing his own rings and selling them through a select group of boutique engagement ring retailers.
“When I walk down the street in New York,” the engagement ring guru explains, “I pay attention to what the women are wearing. Every year, the styles change—new colors, new hairstyles—and I absorb as much as I can.” Then, when he sits in his studio and brainstorms, the design elements and fashion details from the street drift into his designs in unexpected ways.
But what’s the secret? What separates the award-winning engagement ring from the so-so ring designs that crowd Vatche’s file cabinet but never see the light of day? “I just can feel it,” Vatche says simply, running his fingers over a sample ring lying on his desk, “I just know—wow, this piece is a winner.” He compared the design of a ring to the feeling you get when you look in the mirror and know that every detail of your outfit is just right and fits you perfectly. “I look at how the stone sits on the finger,” he explains, gesturing with the ring he is currently working on, “I look at the height, the angle. I know how to put diamonds together without going crazy.”
Unfortunately, though, first-time ring buyers, especially in the bridal market, tend to be a little naive and vulnerable to less-than-perfect rings in the hands of pushy salespeople. “When customers come in for bridal, they’re excited,” Vatche says, adding that this is one of the reasons he loves working in the engagement ring market himself. “They’re focused on the marriage, on the party, the whole nine yards. They don’t always know what separates a good design from a bad design.”
Although education is key, especially for an excited first-time buyer, Vatche believes that the real proof of good, quality design comes years later, when the glow of the wedding has worn off and the woman is wearing the ring day in and day out. That, explains Vatche, is when she will start to notice if the diamonds aren’t quite set right, if the ring tends to slip, or if there are visible seams on the underside of the band. “Only if the ring is perfect will she come back to that company,” he says, and judging by his list of repeat clients, which included numerous celebrities, people are happy with their Vatche rings, even years later.
From the vantage point of the majestic carved wooden throne that he uses instead of an office chair, Vatche can look back on a varied and accomplished career, and forward to a newly distinguished position as one of the most respected designers in the industry. But if there is one thing he is most proud of, it is his introduction of affordable platinum to the engagement ring market. “When I got into the industry,” he recalls, “only a handful of designers were working with platinum, and it was way too expensive for the consumer.” Having been trained in Lebanon to work with all kinds of metal, including platinum, Vatche soon realized that he could introduce quality platinum jewelry at much better prices.
Vatche, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force who still conducts training missions in his free time, credits his military background for the precision and efficiency he brings to the entire diamond ring production process. But as for the design inspiration? “You can’t learn it; you’re born with it,” he says with a satisfied smile that might border on smug if it weren’t undeniably true. “Millions of people can learn how to paint, but only a few are artists. Design is the same way.” Humility is not Vatche’s strong suit, but then again, it takes a certain cockiness to launch yourself into the engagement ring as a complete unknown and then emerge twenty-two years later as a recognized leader in that field.
The military background that helped Vatche develop his streamlined production process also gave him an appreciation for the value of good design and the importance of paying attention to the little details. As an Air Force pilot, Vatche always noticed when an airplane was designed well, and how the tiniest detail in engineering could transform the flying experience. In the years he’s been a civilian, though, Vatche has noticed that this appreciation for good design has been forgotten in many sectors of American industry, and he sees that as an underlying cause for the recent economic disaster.
“At a certain point, the American car manufacturers stopped caring about design, and that hurt the industry. The cars still performed, but they didn’t look good. Meanwhile, the Japanese manufacturers produced designs that looked better—and they took over the industry.” The same mistake happened in many American industries—even the jewelry design market. “People got greedy—always trying to get more and more, cheaper and cheaper.” The way to heal American industry, according to Vatche, is for American companies to return to good design as a central principle, along with attention to detail and quality. Vatche points to the huge antique chair that forms the focal point of his audience. The secret, he says, is to choose your possessions carefully, buying less, but choosing top-quality products when you do.