A Business in Miniature

How jewelry designer Cass Lilien scaled down - and made it through the pandemic

| 24 Jun 2021 | 05:58

Start big. Dream small. That’s how Cass Lilien made it through the pandemic. The California-born jewelry designer began in 1990 by selling wholesale: mass-producing pieces to be transmitted through a chain of sales reps, distributors, and retail stores. But it wasn’t working for her, creatively or financially.

“Trade shows are expensive,” said Lilien in her Lower East Side studio. “Sales reps are expensive. You’re only getting half the money — the wholesale price — not the retail price.”

Her labor of love had become pure labor. So she tried other jobs: flipping houses, staying home with her daughters. But she kept making jewelry. Just for fun. To make gifts. And then, in 2009, she saw the shop.

“I just happened to be walking by when my landlord was there. When I saw the store and how cute and tiny it was, I was like, ‘That will provide everything that I want and none of the things I don’t want.’”

What didn’t she want?

“I didn’t want to do trade shows and I didn’t want to knock on doors of stores and get rejected.”

She would make jewelry and sell it directly to customers at 24 Harrison Street in Tribeca. The space measured just 5 ½ feet by 9 feet. There was no bathroom. But the rent was just $500 a month. And Lilien was free to think small.

The shop worked for nine years. Until it didn’t. Even 50 square feet proved to be too big for Lilien’s ambitions. She had experimented her way to profitable product lines: beaded bracelets that spelled out messages in Morse code, bejeweled robots made of golden scraps, and Edwardian lingerie pins suspended by antique chains. The pins, she says, are popular because they can go from affordable to luxuriant.

“You can get the least expensive one for $300, or you can get it in 18 karat gold for $3000. For one item there’s a big range with what I can do with it.”

Loyal Customers

Range is something she felt she never quite mastered at the store.

“I wanted a Tribeca mom to be able to go in and buy a birthday present for her daughter’s friend for $40, maybe a special gift for her daughter for $100 and something fabulous for herself for $1000. And I could never figure that out.”

But she did figure out how to make loyal customers: intimacy. Customers could see her, soldering torch in hand, through the store window. When they entered, they were invited to sit down and chat.

“Everybody would come in. I called it ‘Chair Time with Cass’ and everybody at some point had Chair Time with Cass. And in Tribeca, that’s an interesting cast of characters.”

There was tension, of course. Lilien needed time to craft her one-of-a-kind pieces. She never felt comfortable having others make her designs. And there was barely space for her and a customer in the store. A sales assistant could squeeze in (maybe) during the holiday shopping season. It came to a head in late 2017.

“I couldn’t farm enough out. And I realized at the end of Christmas, ‘I’m straight up dreading next Christmas.’ And I love sitting down here and making stuff and I wasn’t getting the joy out of the making anymore.”

Making jewelry was pure labor again. She had been in business for nine years, created successful product lines, and made loyal customers. Her enterprise had gotten too big. It was time to downsize.

She gave up the shop. She retreated into a studio in January 2019. The Morse code bracelets brought her income and committed customers would visit by appointment. Even during COVID, “Chair Time with Cass” migrated to her studio’s fire escape.

“Right now I’m just in a really sweet spot because all I have now are my real dedicated customers and they have to call me and make an appointment and come down. So I feel like I eliminated all of the frustration of the store and was left with just the nice cream on top.”

A Few Key Products

Back in her studio, Lilien is still tinkering. She shows off a miniature switchblade knife, fully functional with a diamond in the handle; a golden robot elephant head that waggles its ears; and a Morse code bracelet with a cheeky message not appropriate for print. Her newest invention is a little hatchet made of walnut and 14 karat gold.

Lilien’s small business is malleable, durable, and ultimately, valuable. Over a dozen years she has refined it down to a few key products and a few key customers. Growing larger would have made her miserable, and potentially less successful.

Though she does admit that her commitments as a parent and an artist have occasionally gotten in the way. When she was in the Tribeca storefront, she would regularly miss the after-work rush in favor of family time.

“I closed the store at 6 p.m. so I could get home and have dinner by 7 p.m. with all of us every night. Everybody would come at the store and be like, ‘you have to stay open a little later.’”

That commitment to family recently paid off. When her son and daughter moved back home during the pandemic, Lilien reinstated family dinners, with a twist. Every night she and her daughter would nibble down food to create tiny versions of their meals. Lilien added tiny spoons and knives to complete each mise-en-scène. One of these dinners was featured in The New York Times. A cracker-cum-table hovers over two chairs. It is set with placemats, napkins, and two little portions of food. Sometimes less is more.

“Right now I’m just in a really sweet spot because all I have now are my real dedicated customers and they have to call me and make an appointment and come down.” Jewelry designer Cass Lilien