Bangle Billionaire: How Carolyn Rafaelian Built A Billion Dollar Jewelry Empire

When Alex and Ani founder and CEO Carolyn Rafaelian walks into a room, you hear her before you see her. On the day she first meets Forbes, she clinks and jangles her way into her office under layers of bracelets, necklaces, cuffs and rings in both precious metals and coated brass, 12 of which she designed herself.

The biggest noise emanates from her celestial-chic jewelry brand’s bestselling products: charm bangles, of which it has released thousands of iterations, to commemorate lifetime milestones or show off zodiac signs, sports team allegiances, favorite charities and religious totems. Peace, love and big bucks, since these stackable bangles, made from recycled scrap metal, cost customers about $33 apiece — and Rafaelian is moving over 10 million a year.

“It’s not the money that’s the driving force behind this,” Rafaelian says in her Rhode Island accent, which rhymes “force” with “boss,” unable to distract from the math that belies that claim.

From its headquarters in unassuming Cranston, Rhode Island, Alex and Ani’s revenues have skyrocketed from $5 million in 2010 to over $500 million in 2016, insiders say, with a net profit margin, according to private equity database Pitchbook, that was recently 23 percent.

Rafaelian in a Cranston, R.I. Alex and Ani store.

Rafaelian says she believes each piece is imbued with energy that can have a positive effect on its wearer (she has a priest and a shaman bless her inventory), but her markups on 7.5 inches of contorted wire show her to be a master marketer.

“They don’t really sell jewelry,” says Brent Cleaveland, executive director of the Fashion Jewelry & Accessories Trade Association. “They sell positive energy. The bracelet is just a vehicle.”

Every Alex and Ani bangle comes with a “meaning card.” A Buddhist Om symbol, for example, “signifies God, higher power and the oneness of all beings in life’s cycle.” A simple sailboat charm “bestows peace to its wearer in times of change.” And this universe of good vibes encourages fans of the brand to collect them all.

That’s how Rafaelian surged from a one-woman band run out of her father’s Rhode Island factory basement into America’s only jewelry billionaire — and the number 18 spot on the Forbes list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women — owning 80 percent of a company worth at least $1.2 billion.

Alex and Ani’s bangles and bracelets account for 80 percent of sales.

She’s enjoying the trappings — fixing up a 56,000-square-foot mansion in Newport that she will open as a museum and testing out new grape varietals at her Sakonnet Vineyards in nearby Little Compton. An IPO awaits. “If I wanted to do that, we’re primed, we’re ready,” she says. “We can pull the switch at any time.”

It’s rare that the public markets ever encounter a CEO like this 50-year-old free spirit, who has been known to consult planetary charts during decision making. Rafaelian says she was the sort of kid who had an imaginary friend. And while she was raised in the Christian Armenian Apostolic faith, Rafaelian borrows bits and pieces from other religions and traditions. She keeps dried bundles of sage in her office drawer to burn when she needs to smoke out negative energy and a healing quartz crystal on a file cabinet behind her desk.

Not quite everyone’s cup of herbal tea. But Rafaelian’s products let a generation that craves authenticity wear their affinities on their sleeve. “There’s no ambiguity that jewelry like Alex and Ani has become something the consumer covets now,” says retail investor Christopher Burch, who backed his former wife Tory as well as Alex and Ani competitor BaubleBar. “It’s no longer an afterthought. It’s part of her wardrobe.”

Little-known fact: The world’s costume jewelry capital was, for generations, America’s smallest state. Just 30 years ago, roughly 80% of that product was made in Rhode Island. Like much of American manufacturing, it’s mostly gone overseas, but Rafaelian traces her roots to this business and this state.

Her father married into the industry, working for his brother-in-law manufacturing brooches and earrings for big names of the age like Trifari and Monet. In 1966, the year Rafaelian was born, he founded his own company, Cinerama Jewelry, based in Cranston, just outside of Providence. He made costume jewelry of all kinds, but this son of Armenian immigrants was best known for American-flag lapel pins he sold wholesale. You can still find Ralph Rafaelian’s badges, with their tiny Swarovski stars and stripes, on eBay.

She and her four siblings were sent to the factory basement as punishment for misbehaving; strong-willed Carolyn remembers hours attaching little paper cards to the backs of ostentatious 1980s earrings. “It was torture,” she says with a laugh. She escaped to the University of Rhode Island, then to the now-defunct for-profit American College for the Applied Arts, before moving to New York City at age 22. She worked on her first jewelry line from a Tribeca apartment above a bookstore, scoring small deals with the likes of Bloomingdale’s. Her designs couldn’t have been further from her father’s faux pearls and floral brooches.

“I created what I wanted to wear,” Rafaelian says. “I wanted cocktail rings. I wanted sterling silver.”

At 23, Rafaelian got married. At 25, she had her first daughter, Alex. By the time her second daughter, Ani, came along less than two years later, she had returned to Rhode Island and the stable-if-unsexy costume jewelry sector, designing private-label earrings and necklaces for mall stalwarts like Bebe, Express and Victoria’s Secret.

She took up residence in a corner of Cinerama, her father’s factory. As she was filling $150,000 orders faxed in from New York, Ralph Rafaelian was trying to stay afloat, unable to compete with cheaper Asian manufacturing. “I remember the day that I looked back and I realized that every single person in the factory was working on the orders that I was bringing in,” Carolyn Rafaelian recalls. “In a split second I realized, Oh, my god — they’re counting on me.”

On the side, she continued to dabble with her own label, named after her two eldest daughters. “I was calling out to them, getting their attention — Alex was in her high chair, Ani was probably in a bouncer,” she says. “It was, like, that’s it.”

For over a decade, she kept the family business’ lights on through those unglamorous private-label orders, making six-piece earring sets for $3 that would then sell for $16. Meanwhile, Alex and Ani slowly picked up steam: Rafaelian bought up vintage stones as local companies shuttered, turning them into crystal-adorned bracelets and butterfly hair accessories that cool young things on both coasts sought at Henri Bendel and Fred Segal.

Among her bestsellers: seamless “endless hoop” earrings, constructed from one piece of wire and able to carry the weight of beads. During one of her many long drives between Manhattan and Rhode Island in the early 2000s, not long after her third daughter was born, she had a career-defining realization: that design could be applied to a bracelet if she just increased the diameter. “It was after midnight, and I went straight to the factory,” she says.

Rafaelian patented the Alex and Ani 14-gauge expandable wire bangle in 2004; it’s one of about 30 patents the company now holds and the one she most regularly defends in court. “There’s a million sneakers out there, but there’s only one Nike,” she says.

An early sample sale at Cinerama was so overrun with shoppers that she called the police for protection. One woman set up a lawn chair four hours before the doors opened. Rafaelian ran into the factory to start putting together charm bracelets herself.

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