Vrai and Oro
It was through a friend that I met LA-based designer Vanessa Stofenmacher one stormy night in Tokyo. Over sashimi and sake, we chatted about the future of fashion and what sustainability should mean in today’s world. Vanessa would know – her brand, the chic Vrai and Oro (“truth and gold”) is a direct-to-consumer fine jewelry company whose ethos is transparency: Cutting out middlemen to make the prices fair to the consumer, supporting local manufacturers in DTLA, and using only cultivated diamonds that carry zero carbon footprint.
It begs the question, what are “cultivated diamonds?” In a nutshell, they’re diamonds grown in a lab. The Leonardo DiCaprio-backed Diamond Foundry is a Silicon Valley company growing diamonds aboveground using solar power. With the earth’s rough diamond supply set to diminish by the year 2030, Diamond Foundry’s grown diamonds are the most ethical, sustainable option today. “Atomically, it’s identical to a diamond from a mine,” Vanessa says. What does make it different is that its verifiable origin predicates no human impact – it is conflict-free in the absolute, purest sense.
Vanessa is soft-spoken yet driven, and the young female founder already has admirers – Forbes put her on their list of “30 under 30” earlier this year. She’s also currently planning her global expansion with Japan in her sights. My fascination for her innovative brand turned our chance encounter into an interview. Here, my conversation with the entrepreneur during her visit in Tokyo.
Hi, Vanessa! Tell us about yourself.
I’m from upstate New York originally and I’ve been in Los Angeles for 11 years now since I came out for school. I went to OTIS College of Art and Design.
I had a graphic design studio where I was working with small startups doing their branding and website and just realized that there were a lot of companies coming to me to put “makeup” on their brand, their creative brand identity, but really I was just giving their brand a logo, some colors, and a brand guideline. I didn’t really feel like I was adding true value to their company. So I always had that urge to add real value to a product and create a real brand identity.
“Knowing what I knew about the jewelry industry and after soul-searching wondering why I don’t wear fine jewelry, I realized it’s because there’s nothing that connects with me. It’s either this high-end unattainable jewelry or this disposable costume jewelry – there’s nothing that I wanted to wear personally. So I just decided to launch Vrai and Oro to solve that.”
How did Vrai and Oro start?
After the graphic design company, I started a company with my sister. She has a background in business and she was up in Silicon Valley area. It was right after startups were a “thing” in Silicon Valley and with her background in business and my background in design so we decided to start a company together. And we realized – a pain point that we both had – that both of our husbands were not so great at buying us gifts and so other women must have that same issue with guys not understanding what girls like. Both of us were really interested in technology so with the help of engineers, we created a running algorithm that helped match men find the perfect gift for their significant other. And quickly the website became focused on fine jewelry because it’s the number one gift that men give women.
What I learned during that time was the jewelry companies we were working with were kind of these mass American jewelry companies that were buying jewelry from overseas like China and buying premade jewelry from books and getting them shipped over here, putting their name on it, marking it up, selling it to retailers and they’re marking it up before selling it to the end consumer. And they were sending [products] to us to photograph and everything. Touching and handling all the jewelry [led me to think] this is not good quality, it’s not original, it’s marked up ten times – who would ever buy this if they knew the reality of this? Once it’s packaged up nicely it looks suitable but the reality of it was very eye-opening for me.
So the business with my sister didn’t work out. After that, knowing what I knew about the jewelry industry and after soul-searching wondering why I don’t wear fine jewelry, I realized it’s because there’s nothing that connects with me. It’s either this high-end unattainable jewelry or this disposable costume jewelry – there’s nothing that I wanted to wear personally. So I just decided to launch Vrai and Oro to solve that pain point and turns out other people felt the same pain point.
What led you from using mined diamonds to sustainable, grown diamonds?
We started out using traditionally mined diamonds and I didn’t know much about the diamond industry so we made a point to work with our manufacturers in downtown LA. They were sourcing our diamonds directly from Israel. When we’re buying our diamonds, everyone tells us that we’re buying ethical diamonds and it’s Kimberley Process so I felt OK about it because they were ethical diamonds and Kimberley Process, I didn’t really question it. When I came around to launching engagement rings and using larger diamonds – the diamond is really the focus of the piece – I started doing a lot of research.
I realized the Kimberley Process is just kind of this façade that the diamond industry has to make people feel good and it made me feel good to buy those diamonds but really, it doesn’t do anything. That’s when I came across Diamond Foundry and that’s when immediately – we needed to switch everything over. So yeah, at the beginning it was just a lack of awareness. I didn’t know that Diamond Foundry existed and now that I know, I would never think of the alternative.
“I realized the Kimberley Process is just kind of this façade that the diamond industry has to make people feel good and it made me feel good to buy those diamonds but really, it doesn’t do anything. That’s when I came across Diamond Foundry and that’s when immediately – we needed to switch everything over… I didn’t know that Diamond Foundry existed and now that I know, I would never think of the alternative.”
Since there is no difference at all between a mined diamond and a cultivated diamond in terms of product composition, is the real ethical choice to go for grown diamonds then?
Yes. Completely more ethical because it’s exactly the same product, it’s just how it’s grown is different.
Where do you find inspiration for your collections?
Our collection is so simple that it’s not about coming up with something artistic. I like to say we’re kind of a design company [as opposed to an] art company. An artist is very centered around self-expression and finding inspiration in unique places whereas a designer is kind of inspired by creating things for humans. Our jewelry is more human-centered than inspired by something artistic.
How would you describe your approach to design?
It’s very functional, essential, and detail-oriented. It’s about how it lays on your neck and how it doesn’t disrupt your daily life. It’s less decorative and more personal.
Tell us about your different approach to the engagement ring tradition.
When we were launching into the engagement ring collection, I really wanted to question the traditions of the engagement and wedding ring world. There really wasn’t anyone doing anything different in that space and it just seems backwards that today we’re not opening up the conversation. I mean, a lot of couples are living together before getting married and people are getting married older. It’s not so much the guy working and the woman staying home like a housewife thing. You know, we’re equals now! And it’s no one’s fault. It’s just the way it has always been and no one has really questioned it.
It just doesn’t make sense for a guy to get all this pressure on him and the girl gets a ring she doesn’t like so I just wanted to think about opening that up and allowing for a more collaborative process so we created a Mock Box which allows someone to come to our website and choose 3 designs that they like and we send them for free in the mail. They’re not the real rings, it’s just so you can see the designs and try them on, see how it fits on you, feel comfortable in that ring in the privacy of your home and not have to deal with pushy salesmen.
You know, it’s very off-putting to go into a store especially if you’re not engaged or something and its awkward. And what we realized is men really care about the diamond and women really care about the ring. Men do all this research on the specs of the diamond like a car engine and women are just like, “I want a beautiful ring with a nice diamond.” So having that Mock Box really focuses around the ring and that’s a forgotten part of the process because it’s been centered around the diamond for so long people kind of forgot the setting side of it.
“I really wanted to question the traditions of the engagement and wedding ring world. There really wasn’t anyone doing anything different in that space and it just seems backwards that today we’re not opening up the conversation… A lot of couples are living together before getting married and people are getting married older. It’s not so much the guy working and the woman staying home like a housewife thing. You know, we’re equals now!”
What are the challenges or benefits of being a female founder?
I honestly I think it’s more beneficial than challenging. I think people have less expectations so you can exceed expectations a lot more. People don’t really look at you as much as a threat in a weird way and so they don’t have that wall up against you and it opens doors, in my opinion. I think today in our culture, people want to help women to succeed and they want to see women succeed.
How do you unwind after a long day?
Red wine! After work, I come home and husband cooks dinner, which is nice! We kind of just sit on the couch and don’t even talk and drink red wine and eat dinner and be comfortable at home.
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