In 1977, Steven Lagos opened a jewelry repair business in Philadelphia’s jeweler’s Row neighborhood. Not long after he created the Lagos, making him a pioneer as a branded jewelry designer.
Forty-five years and 15,000 original designs later he and his brand are bigger than ever. In fact, 2021 has been one of the best years for the company, selling nearly 250,000 pieces. He says he expects to exceed that number in 2022.
Steven has been able to grow the brand in recent years by becoming more business savvy and adjusting to changes in consumer behavior. However, most importantly, he stuck with Caviar, the beaded design that is the foundation of every product the company produces.
An example of how he continues to meet constantly changing consumer demand, in 2018 Lagos launched a jewelry bracelet for the Apple Watch called Smart Caviar. Four years later this single product is now available in 20 styles and has sold more than 35,000 units. In addition, it has been a significant driver in client acquisition as 78% of Smart Caviar sales represent new customers.
Below is an interview with Steven Lagos where he discusses the past, present and future of Lagos.
Anthony DeMarco: Do you consider yourself a designer or a manufacturer?
Steven Lagos: Definitely a designer, although I don’t think you can be in this business unless you’re a manufacturer. Some things are designed with manufacturing in mind and some things are designed as a single piece with a special stone or in very limited quantities. We’re not artists. Art doesn’t have to function. Jewelry must function. The jewelry business is definitely a craft business.
AD: Five years ago, you said you had the infrastructure to increase growth and penetration in the US jewelry market. Has this happened?
SL: Absolutely, we’ve had such success over the past five years. We have a pick-and-pack operation that’s going to be fully automated when its completely set up. We were shipping between 1,200 and 1,500 packages at the height of the (holiday) season. Right now we’re doing about 200 a day, which is more than we normally do this time of year. We’ve continued to build our team as well. We have a new chief financial officer and vice president of operations. In the end it’s a business and as it gets bigger there’s more liability, more operational issues. We send out 1,000 jewels a day. Each jewel could be made of 50 different components. That’s 50,000 parts we must deal with.
AD: What is Caviar and what would Lagos be without it?
SL: It’s our signature collection based on the appearance of caviar that’s been a core component of the business since 1984. It’s the trademark of the brand. Everything we do involves Caviar.
AD: What are its design signifiers?
SL: It’s a small beading pattern, a distinct pattern because of the way we style it. Beading is nothing new. It’s the way they’re arranged. The pattern we create is distinctive. And it’s a creative marketing name. If you placed our collection alongside others without names and tell the person that one is named caviar, I think that person would be able to pick it out.
Without Caviar I think Lagos wouldn’t be as distinct. Our brand needs a code. I study brands. The great ones all have a code. If it wasn’t Caviar, it would have to be something else. After almost 40 years it still provides a foundation for the brand. It’s fun to be prolific but it takes a lot of discipline to go back to a design element and reinvent it.
AD: What has been your most important and popular product in the last five years?
SL: By far, although not our biggest seller, our most important product is the Smart Caviar fine jewelry watch bracelet for the Apple Watch. Apple’s marketing and brand power took something that was well known and made it iconic. What I recognized early on is people couldn’t take it off because of all its functions, which are important. Women wear the watch in the evening and didn’t want to take it off. I wanted to turn it into a piece of jewelry that can be worn day and night. They made a perfect sports and casual watch, and I made it into a fine jewelry piece. It has become known to more people than any other single product we’ve created.
AD: What are the most important changes in the jewelry industry since you began?
SL: When I entered the jewelry business it was an unbranded business. There was Tiffany, Bulgari and the historic French brands. There was really no designer branded business. We happened to be in the right place at the time when brands became more important, and we were very fortunate to ride that wave for 45 years. Materials have changed. When I got into the business silver wasn’t popular, neither were lab-grown diamonds, which I’m not going near.
However, the jewelry business hasn’t changed in 4,500 years. We create something that makes people feel good, or is a status symbol, or adornment. It’s part of the human condition. You go anywhere in the world, there may be no marketing but people are wearing jewelry. There’s a human need that makes being in this industry super interesting.
AD: How did you manage the company through the COVID pandemic and were there any lessons you learned from that experience?
SL: We were very aggressive at furloughing people at first because it was such an unknown. Ninety-five percent of people we asked to come back did return. Because of our web business we were able to stay open the entire time. We were working on a web strategy for 2020 and it accelerated quickly. Covid was more of an accelerant rather than a catalyst. Our customers (retailers) were also scrappy. They were dealing with their customers by providing jewelry online and even going to their homes. Jewelry was a real boon during the pandemic. People were sending gifts instead of meeting on the holidays and we saw that as a huge and pleasant surprise.
AD: Your daughter, Kate, is now involved in the business. What are her responsibilities and is she being groomed to take over the business some day?
SL: It’s fun. She went to school for fashion, merchandising and marketing, but it never occurred to me that she would do this and there was no pressure for her to do it. She came into the company six years ago and hit the ground running. She has a strong point-of-view, and great instincts and ideas. She’s learning all the time and I’m learning from her.
She’s being groomed to be herself. There’s a lot going on here. It’s a complicated business but she’s made a career out of it. She says she’s able to do this because she watched me all her life. I was so consumed in the business that I didn’t realize it.
AD: What is your plan for the next five years?
SL: I’m still having so much fun with what I’m doing. A lot of the pressure is off. I know I worked hard but it never felt like work. I turned 65 last week and this is what I want to do. They’re going to have to drag me out of here. I’ve been very fortunate. I have my daughter around and my team is very passionate about what I’m doing. It’s a fun business. Jewelry is for joyous occasions. It’s a meaningful and very satisfying business.
AD: What is your plan for Lagos in the next five years?
SL: The company is in a growth trajectory. Our distribution is focused between 350 to 400 doors. I think 400 doors is the limit for a brand like ours. We are introducing higher price points, more gold, and gold and diamond jewelry. We have Caviar basics at an accessible price point. We’re building out our portfolio. We have these discussions about getting better at what we’re doing. Focus is the key. We’re not making fragrances or sunglasses. We stick with what we know and what we’re good at it. People seem to like it. We’ve advanced into a different league in that we are supplying a lot of people (retail clients) with plenty of business and we’re important to them. We take that seriously. We want to be a good supplier and a good partner.
AD: What is the secret of success?
SL: They say its 10% creativity and 90% consistency—even if you’re consistently erratic. Authenticity is super important today. It’s so easy to get a big following on social media but I think being consistent is the secret to success.