It’s not all champagne and caviar being an LA-based fine jeweler from Beverly Hills, no matter how fabulous it sounds. According to Anita Ko—who founded her eponymous brand there 16 years ago—being an indie jeweler on the playing field where fabled jewelry houses reign on the red carpet, the struggle is real. The designer, beloved both for her edgy cool designs and effervescent personality, has plenty to celebrate this year with her first GEM Award nomination. Ko sat down with Only Natural Diamonds and shared her experience with awards season, her nomination, and why she sticks with natural diamonds.
“Fine jewelry is a really hard business,” said Ko over breakfast at her go-to LA spot, the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “People see I live this LA lifestyle, so they don’t realize it was pretty hard and gnarly to build this business.” Reflecting on her career journey during this interview at times had Ko overcome with emotion. “That is why I try to be friends with fellow jewelers; only they understand our challenges.”
At present, Ko and her team have been deep in preparations for the Hollywood awards season, which is already in high gear with ceremonies such as the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, and the Grammy’s with PGA, SAG, and of course, the Oscars’ Academy Awards ceremony among others yet to come, its high season for jewelry plucking.
“A lot of celebs are contracted for the red carpet. I don’t know if the world knows this, but celebrities are paid by big fashion and jewelry houses to wear their pieces,” Ko explained.
For example, the recent ceremonies showed Cartier dressing Austin Butler; Louis Vuitton High Jewelry dressing Cate Blanchette and Ana de Armas; Bulgari dressing Anne Hathaway; Gucci High Jewelry dressing Jessica Chastain, and Tiffany dressing Anya Taylor-Joy. “I don’t pay as an independent jeweler,” confirmed Ko. That’s because even successful smaller jewelry brands usually can’t afford the high fees celebrities command for such contracts.
“Forget the red carpet. It’s tough for my team to get posts of celebrities wearing my jewelry on Instagram as they can regulate those posts. They can wear my pieces daily, but sometimes contracts stipulate they can’t wear another brand in public photographs.
It’s understandable because they are getting paid,” Ko said.
So, it was all the sweeter when double nominee Scarlett Johansson chose Anita Ko jewelry to wear at the 2020 Academy Awards. The actress, nominated for Best Actress for her role in “Marriage Story” and Best Supporting Actress in “Jojo Rabbit,” donned a special pair of Ko’s Olivia style earrings made with finest D- flawless supersized diamonds.
The designer was approached by Forevermark diamonds to commission three pieces for red carpet consideration about three weeks before the ceremony. Ko couldn’t confirm if Forevermark had contracted Johansson or who would wear the pieces. It was a nail-biting experience as she wasn’t informed her piece was chosen until the stylist Molly Dickson called when Johansson arrived at the ceremony and got out of the car.
“The influence was sun and sparkle. I’ve been watching the red carpet at the Oscars since I was a little girl and knew if it were a sunny day, the flashing lights of the photography would be even brighter,” she continued.
Created for movement, Ko described the earrings as a modern design and something that could be worn with a simple dress out to dinner too. “It wasn’t your grandmother’s jewelry,” she quipped, noting that in some cases, she notices actresses wearing jewelry not suited to their style.
“Without knowing the dress, I wanted whoever wore these pieces to be the coolest girl in the room, which is how I design every piece I make. It’s young, fun, and very LA,” she said. Johansson delivered on that front and more, making the journey to that moment even more sublime. “Everyone wanted to dress Scarlett because not only is she gorgeous, but she was also a double nominee,” she added.
Ko mobilized her team and put her best craftsmen on hold. “The competition to get any celebrity in clothes or jewelry has heated up. I know the game, and being asked is alone an honor,” she continued. “It was a lot of work behind the scenes with no guarantee; I kept an attitude of gratitude about it,” she said.
The moment also paid off for Ko’s business. “It helped me to do business in Paris, grow my overall European market, and expand the Middle East,” Ko confirmed, adding that the Oscar celebrity isn’t elusive to the small jeweler. “I want other indie brands to know this could happen to them too.”
The industry has noticed Ko’s efforts and achievements. The GEM Awards this March include Anita Ko as a first-time nominee for Jewelry Design, an honor Ko takes with humility and stride.
“I will be shocked if I win. The nominees are Ten Thousand Things, a beloved 30-year-plus industry brand, and buzzy newer brand Retrouvai. The nomination has already brought attention to my brand founded on one piece and dream,” Ko said humbly. That first piece was a diamond-encrusted circle necklace which she stacked on a single chain. “It was super cool, and I knew I was onto something because my friends bought them off my neck!” she recalled
Personally, the award has Ko reflecting on the past three years’ struggle as much as the last 16 since her brand launched. During the pandemic, Ko “turned everyone on her team into models” and pivoted hard to selling her wares via her thriving social media presence on Instagram. “I haven’t had an interview in a while, so I’m thinking about the hustle, faith, hope, strength, and prayers that took a lot of work to keep it going,” said Ko overwhelmed with emotion. She noted that having female business owners as mentors was critical to her success.
“For instance, I know Anastasia of Beverly Hills. She turned her eyebrow business into a billion-dollar enterprise. I would ask for advice; she told me that no matter how hard it was to get up and keep going every day.”
Right now, that means working with twenty-odd stylists pulling for the shows and related events. According to Ko, it’s not just awards season but all year long that she builds relationships with stylists such as Petra Flannery, Karla Welch, Samantha McMillen, Rebecca Corbin-Murray, Erin Walsh, Ryan Hastings, and Andrew Mukamal.
Among them were Adele wearing the jewelry during her Vegas residency performances; Kristen Wiig stunned in a silver dress and Anita Ko jewelry at the Carol Burnett birthday celebration in LA, Sydney Sweeney wore it at the Berlinale and Michelle Yeoh sported the jewelry on her People Magazine cover.
The jewelry pulls for celebrity photo ops are just one of the collaborative relationships that have helped build the Anita Ko brand. “When I got rejected by Barneys, I thought my life was over, but man’s rejection is god’s protection,” she said, adding, “My path has been Bergdorf Goodman and retailers like Neiman Marcus. The support from the retailers, the editors, and others have been immeasurable and kept me going.”