At age 5, she cut the charms off her mother’s bracelet, fastened them on a baker string and called it her new necklace. The mischievous move by the bauble-obsessed bairn foretold her future as an iconic jewelry designer.
“I think it was my calling,” says Judith Ripka, whose bold brand of bling celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
Ripka remembers exploring her friend’s mother’s jewelry box as well, trying on every necklace, pair of earrings and ring inside it. The young girl who grew up on Long Island, New York, was fascinated by jewels.
“I guess it was just part of my DNA,” Ripka says.
She studied art at Hunter College in Manhattan but left school early to take a job as an assistant buyer at May Department Stores Company. She worked for Dawn Mello, a legendary figure in the retail industry and the eventual president of Bergdorf Goodman.
“Things are serendipitous, and I think I’ve had a few serendipities in my career to help me out,” Ripka says.
At 20-something, she started a cottage industry in the living room of her home and crafted handmade pieces for paying customers and personal friends. The popularity and success of the enterprise led to the opening of her first official Judith Ripka store in Manhasset, New York.
“That’s how it began,” Ripka says.
At 30-something, she debuted an advertising campaign in The New York Times. The rest is history.
“Give your pearls a little culture,” the full-page ad reads. “Simply bring in your pearls and see them transformed into a beautiful new necklace.”
Droves of women toting their mothers’ beads arrived at 673 Madison Ave., the address of Ripka’s first freestanding store in the Big Apple, and returned with a set of pearls magically modernized for everyday wear.
“I didn’t want my jewelry to be vault jewelry,” Ripka says.
She had not developed style numbers for her necklaces at the time, so she settled on a basic naming convention for them—PN 1, PN 2, etc. The acronym stands for “pearl necklace” and remains in use today.
“I still get requests for the PN,” says Ripka, now a Palm Beach resident, wife and mother of three.
Other, more sophisticated names grace her collections, which have been worn by Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and other public figures. The Lafayette collection is edgy and elegant, as with its triple-baguette dangling earrings, while the Laguna collection is beachy and breezy, as with its 24-inch open-link necklace. The Lola collection consists of classically cut crystal in canary yellow. A resurrection of the 25-year-old Petite Bell collection will launch in the fall to honor four decades of fashionable finery. It will feature gold-enhanced gemstones in delicate, feminine styles.
“My design philosophy is I want my jewelry to fit into their lives,” Ripka says of her customers, who have enabled the company—part of the QVC network and the Xcel Brands portfolio—to reach $2 billion in sales. “Anytime, anyplace, anywhere, I want them to enjoy it—from black tie to blue jeans and everything in between.”