Francine Ballard. Portrait by Jack Thompson
- October 02, 2013
Feminine and exotic, equal parts savvy entrepreneur and creative artisan, citizen of the world and jewelry designer, Emily Armenta is the living embodiment of her work. As we sit for coffee at Tiny’s No. 5, I take in a long, high pony and twinkly eyes, a slender frame in jeans and a sweater with flip-flops — the sweater because she’s always cold, she says. But her smile and embrace say something different.
Her jewelry collection is not for the faint of heart — rich, bold, crusty granulated gold with Byzantine, gothic and religious overtones. One would most likely not see Donna Reed sporting Armenta cuffs. Perhaps Rooney Mara, or ’70s jet-setting bohemian Talitha Getty and perhaps even Soviet sybarite Rudolf Nureyev. Armenta is sold in 11 countries worldwide, in the greats such as Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Harrods in London. With the addition of jeweled handbags and her first store-in-store at Neiman Marcus Houston this fall, Armenta — the mom, artist and women’s empowerment advocate — is gearing up to be a mega accessories designer, the likes of which has never transmogrified via Houston.
Having grown the company from two to nearly 100 employees, she tentatively confesses her strategy to me: “I hired the cleaning lady.” She is speaking of Lida, her first employee, who is now vice president of product development. As the enterprise has expanded, Armenta the company now runs an in-house training program for women to learn the jewelry-making trade and hires the best of them to stay on.
Armenta the person believes in the power of unseen human potential and thrives on discovering unrealized talent. She hires and fires, creates and inspires — basically lives her life by a unique philosophy adopted from her favorite Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca; it’s called duende and, in her words, means “beauty through struggle.” Armenta has had her own share of strife but is used to beating the odds. She’s been doing it all of her life.
On surmounting the odds.
When I was younger, I had a lot of difficulty with school. I had doctors tell me I would never be able to learn or go to college. I had all sorts of learning disabilities. I was taken to the Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, and they said, “You’ll never do sports and you’ll never learn another language” and this and that. And I made it my mission in life to prove them wrong. I graduated top of my class [in college] and was one of the first persons to enter grad school at Rice as a disabled student. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to prove people wrong about my abilities and [the fact that] you can’t judge a book by its cover.
What the jewelry is all about. I’m very moved by European art, architecture and poetry, so each collection tells a different story and is about a different journey. A lot of it has to do with individuality and, really, this bohemian journey through life.
Divine inspiration. A few years ago, I went to France, and there’s a cathedral there, La Madeleine. Something happened to me when I went into that church. I walked in and literally fell to my knees and just cried. I looked at the structure and the artwork and everything around me and how it was created, and it just makes you search within yourself. You go to a different place, I think. What is your voice and what do you stand for in life? It moved me like nothing else before. The stained glass and what was on the ceiling … I took all of that in. And those silhouettes definitely inspired a whole series of pieces.
Company culture. The one common thread for almost everyone at the company is that they are scrappy. Many of them come from underprivileged backgrounds, and they have had a tough go of it … But they believe in the vision of the company, and they go after it every day. They fight for it. They are the epitome of the American dream.
Armenta’s well-thought-out first sale. My first retail account was Tootsies. I went to [jewelry buyer] Robin Simon, and I said, ‘I’m a student at Rice.” And she was, like, ‘Ugh.’ But they ended up taking it. So she asked, “What’s the name of your company?’” And I didn’t have one so she said, “Well, what’s your name?” And I said, “Emily Armenta.” And she said, “Honey, that’s it.”
On slavishly following fashion. You know, I look at it a little bit, but the most important thing to me is just staying focused with our message.
On the massive research that went into the decision to launch a handbag collection. I designed one for myself about two and half years ago, and I was in Bergdorf’s doing a trunk show and put my bag on the counter, and a customer picked it up. So I said, “That’s my bag,” and she said, “No it’s my bag. I’m buying it!” I said, “Look inside — I have my stuff inside.” And she asked where she could get one. And I said, “You can’t.” And she got really mad and ran out of the store. So then we started down this path of “Let’s create it.”
This is what the bags look like. We’ve got roughly nine silhouettes in three colorways. All of the bags are handmade. They start at $700 and go up to about $5,000. The hardware on the bags is all bathed in either a 14- or 18K-gold finish and set with semiprecious gemstones. It’s actually the jewelry on the bag.
When I juggle … something always falls. I’m sad to say that a lot of times it’s my workout. But I think that I’m fortunate. And I’m able to do as much as I’ve been able to because I’ve got an amazing team at home, and I’vegot an amazing team at the company, amazing board members and mentors, so it’s been great.
Your personal style? I love all the layering. I don’t like things perfectly matched. I love it when things
can be coordinated that are different, that create your unique style where it doesn’t look planned. I love the bohemian lifestyle and look and feel.
Style is in the details. I’m an accessory girl! I’ll throw on a white T-shirt, ripped-up jeans and flip-flops, but as long as I’ve got a great bag and the jewelry and everything else, then I’m set.
Who would you like to see wearing your jewelry? I love Audrey Tautou in A Very Long Engagement. I think she’s amazing. If I could put my jewelry on one person, it would be her, because she’s so soulful and smart and beautiful.
Next? It’s funny … we have evolved into things because customers have led us in that direction. It’s not necessarily a master plan. For the last several years, we‘ve gotten orders for rings that are size 10 or 11,
and I thought, ‘Who’s wearing this?’ So we’re going to focus on a men’s collection at some point.
Right now, your manufacturing is done in Houston. Do you see yourself here permanently? The people here have been so supportive and so amazing to me. And it is my home. It’s where I want my children to grow up. I want them to experience that same connection within a city. I mean, it’s one
of the largest cities in the country, and yet it’s like a giant small town. I love that about Houston.
I’m a creature of habit. I love Tiny’s No 5. I like going to little quaint restaurants that are privately owned. I live in Southampton, so we go to Raven all the time. We’re members at the Houstonian, so we like to take our daughter there to swim.
So far, you have been able to manage both the creative and the business side. But how will you continue to do that as the company grows? In the last year, we’ve started bringing a new executive team to the company. These are people that … I mean, frankly, they have ridiculous experience in running big companies and that sort of stuff. They are changing the company to prepare it to go to the next level.
Which is? My ideal dream is to ultimately look back and recognize that we’ve created one of the most successful accessories brands in the world. I think that we are on track to be able to do that.
Where can your designs be purchased? In Houston, we’re carried at Neiman Marcus, Judith Ann Jewels, and Tootsies; in Dallas, we’re carried at Neiman Marcus and Ylang 23.