Canadian Business Spotlight: Armed Jewelry
Several summers ago, driven by my love for statement jewelry pieces, I had the idea that I could start making my own metal bracelets. I went to a specialty store in downtown Toronto to source materials and picked up a dremel from Home Depot (my first powertool purchase!). Despite many efforts, it quickly became clear that I was not naturally gifted in jewelry making. I ended up brutally scratching all of the metal supplies that I had carefully sourced, and so I gave my dremel to my tool-loving dad and retired from my short stint in jewelry making.
Although Desiree Girlato, the founder of Armed Jewelry, started off similarly to how I did, she did not have my same fate. Desiree has been making jewellery for over a decade, established Armed Jewellery in 2011, and is a clear master of her craft. She explained, “I’ve always had a passion for design. I’m a pretty creative individual and I started off in fashion design but it didn’t click like jewelry did for me. And so, I naturally progressed out of clothing and into jewelry.” In 2011, she found some jewelry materials lying around at her house and decided to begin making necklaces again. “I began accumulating these pieces that I had been making over the course of the summer and one day, my friend came over and he was just like, ‘you make jewelry now?’. And I responded, ‘I guess so’. I didn’t really think about it as a thing that I was doing as more than just a past time.”
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The First Sales
Desiree has always been drawn to sales and has been honing in on the skill since her childhood. When she was younger, Desiree would always beg her mom to host garage sales and later, she even started a swim school. “The heart of me is truly a business person. I love the act of selling things to people; I love to enhance their life with whatever my service or product is offering.”
So naturally, Desiree brought her products to a charity fundraiser and managed to make some sales. “It was thrilling because I made something I loved, and people were receiving it with the same excitement that I was making it. And it was the perfect marriage of two experiences – the creative side of me and the entrepreneur in me.”
From there, she decided to casually pursue a jewelry making business, “If it failed, there would be no harm done.” However, the concept of “casually” running her business was quickly expedited when she found herself moving apartments.
it was thrilling because I made something I loved, and people were receiving it with the same excitement that i was making it.
In September of the same year, Desiree moved into a new apartment that happened to have a vacant retail store connected to it. “Because [the retail store] had been vacant for so long and because Dundas was in a refresh stage, 10 years ago rent on Dundas in a 100 square foot store was doable.” Desiree noted, “That’s the least classic thing about my business – most people start a brand and do it online or do pop-ups, but I went brick-and-mortar from day one.”
Desiree noted that if she were to list the top five things that she loves about running her business, running a retail store wouldn’t even make that list. Despite that, a few years later, she still went on to open a larger store. Desiree highlighted how she values connecting with people and how “a retail space facilitates genuine human interaction. And for me, I really do try to offer an experience. When you come into my store, I truly feel like you’re coming into my house – it’s all my love, all my passion, and so much an extension of who I am. It’s only natural for me to really welcome you”.
Having a brick-and-mortar presence has helped Desiree set her brand apart for the last 10 years – people really get to know the jewelry but also the maker behind the brand. “Although I don’t love being in a retail space, it’s something I excel at. I’ve done many large-scale popups: I had a full blown store at Sherway Gardens for a few months. So it’s kind of been this thing that keeps pulling me back.”
Currently, she leverages a portion of her shop as a pop-up space for other brands to showcase their work. Desiree was also in the midst of creating a beauty space in the back of her store, including a nail & brow bar, with the intention of building an all encompassing space for people to feel good on the inside and the outside. Unfortunately, the pandemic has slowed down the execution but you can expect many great things to come!
Advice For Young Entrepreneurs
when you’re a bit naive, it fuels this undeniable passion that cannot be blocked by anything.
I asked Desiree how she navigated finding the right vendors and materials when she decided she wanted to scale Armed Jewelry. She humbly admitted that, “As much as you can plan for something, at the end of the day, you’re never going to know as much as you need to know. Personally, I didn’t assess all of the risk factors or try to evaluate all of the things I didn’t know. And when you’re a bit naive, it fuels this undeniable passion that cannot be blocked by anything. You’re not really thinking straight. When you are that gung-go and you have a kind of focus that doesn’t get distracted, you find a way. It’s crazy when you really immerse yourself in something 125%; like every fibre of your being is committed to your end goal. The saying ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ is so true. There have been no roadblocks that I’ve ever come to where I’m like, ‘I guess this is it’.”
Desiree demonstrated true grit and determination, fuelled perhaps by this blinding presence of an end goal. She highlighted a core skill that helped her navigate launching a business – digging. “I am really good at digging. You know when you get onto a page and there are 50 subsequent pages to go through to see it all? I never quit – I am on page 49 and still have energy in me. I will go all the way to page 50.”
In her reflection, she noted that it was valuable to have a clear vision at the outset: “I was really committed and knew what my goal was at the beginning – I wanted to provide jewelry to people that was really great quality at a price point that was still acceptable. Merging those two concepts was my main agenda. So when I was looking for vendors or materials, I never really strayed. I think that’s a big part of really honing in on your craft, and finding what it takes to facilitate bringing it to fruition.” Ultimately, Desiree summarized, “I was never confused about what I was going to do in the marketplace.”
Having an underlying level of patience was also hugely valuable. She explained, “You need to realize that it takes a long time. It never really ends and I’ve never felt ‘this is it’, that I’ve mastered it or that there’s nothing else to do. I think I’m always still searching for the best possible way to do what I set out to do a decade ago. I genuinely think that you just need to have a focus that allows you to sort through all of it.” For example, Desiree originally tried to find supplier in Toronto, but didn’t feel like they were able to produce the quality that she was looking for. “So I said, ‘where else?’ And I went to New York and found great suppliers there.”
Finally, she emphasized the importance of building a team and surrounding yourself with people who can contribute fresh ideas. “I’ve worked with so many different people with regards to my team and everybody has a different skill set. It’s so important to be open minded with thinking, ‘everybody has something to offer’.” She summarized her advice with: “Really listen and really cultivate a team that allows both you and them to grow.”
A Note On Materials
There are so many jewelry brands out there, that it can sometimes be overwhelming as a consumer to know what materials are good quality and what price points make sense. Desiree emphasized, “I don’t think all shoppers are well-versed in buying jewelry. Some see a $150 chain and assume that it must be good.” But that isn’t always the case, especially, as she taught me, with the prevalence of plated jewelry in the market today.
Desiree explained that some people are looking to buy gold jewelry at a price-point lower than fine-jewelry, but the only way to do that “is to plate it. And when you plate something, you literally take away the longevity.” She went on to explain that plating is readily available and easy for manufacturers to do, but the downside is that when you buy something plated and wear it every day or wear it in the water a few times, it won’t look the same. Simply put, “If you buy plated jewelry, it’s changing colour”.
If you’re looking to avoid this when shopping online or in person, look for the words: plated, vermeil or dipped. These are all different ways to say that there is a metal that has been covered by another material. “At the very least, if you are selling plated jewelry, you need to be very vocal about how people can wear the pieces. I have nothing wrong with plated items, I even sell them in my store, but I am just very clear about how to wear it. Don’t wear it in the water and avoid wearing it when you are sweaty – and what kind of parameters are those on someone’s life? People are more spontaneous than that!”
Around the time when Desiree first started Armed Jewelry, everyone was looking for jewelry made from raw metals and stones. Afterwards, the aesthetic shifted to shiny gold and silver. Given its popularity, Desiree began including plated items in her product line. However, after hearing customer feedback on how the colour changed over time, she quickly transitioned away from it. She didn’t feel comfortable selling pieces at a hugely high price point (i.e. real gold) but also didn’t want to create something that was going to tarnish over time (i.e. plated jewelry). This drove her crusade to find a better material.
Desiree spent time working with manufacturers to find a better way to produce affordable in-demand jewelry with a material other than plated. That’s when she and her manufacturers came across gold stainless steel. While it’s still a coated material, the adherence of the coating provides for improved longevity as it doesn’t wear the same way as gold plated. “We started the stainless steel production with mens rings because typically men will buy a piece that they wear forever. They’re a bit more reckless with their jewelry.” After testing the wearability and having it prove successful, Desiree began to utilize the material in new pieces – chains, womens rings, earings. “It was a hurrah moment, where we finally found the ability to create pieces that were still affordable, yet had longevity that outlasted plated one hundred times over.”
If you can’t tell by now, Desiree cares immensely about product quality and longevity. “You buy something from me and I can guarantee that it will last you if not forever, a very very long time. I want people sitting at brunch with their best friend 5 or 10 years from now, wearing a necklace or ring they bought today, and have it still look just as good. That’s why people come to my brand.”
Ultimately, Desiree recommends that if people are really set on gold or silver, they should commit to real gold or silver. And if they aren’t willing to commit to that price-point yet, then they should be open to different materials rather than going plated.
I want people sitting at brunch with their best friend 5 or 10 years from now, wearing a necklace or ring they bought today, and have it still look just as good. that’s why people come to my brand.
The Armed Jewelry Experience
So what kind of jewelry will you find at Armed? Desiree explains, “I would group myself in with costume jewelry brands. I do fine jewelry but my focus is costume.” Currently, her design aesthetic is focused on making pieces that provide people the ability to create a personal look that is unique to them (think: layered necklace stacks). “People are looking for essentials that are more plain. I try to err on the side of timelessness”. Desiree wants people to be able to wear their pieces now, and then again in a few seasons from now. That’s one reason why the longevity of the material is so important. She also notes, “I don’t want to provide people with jewelry that is heavily seasonal or a trend throwaway.”
If you pop into Armed Jewelry at 1380 Queen St. West, Desiree will help ensure you walk out with a customized stack: “I can help you create the perfect stack because I am all about customization. We will assess what you’re looking to achieve, we’ll cut the chain together and we’ll build the stack. People really want their own vibe now.”
10 Rapid-Fire Questions with the Founder
Should People Clean Their Jewelry?
DG: I think giving it a wipe-down with a wet cloth or a dry-soft cloth now and again is probably a good call, unless you’re already wearing it in the shower. Hagerty’s jewelry cleaner is amazing for silver jewelry; you drop your silver jewelry into it and it comes out like brand new.
Favourite Piece That You're Currently Selling?
DG: I am obsessed with the tennis necklace.
What's Your Most Popular Piece Right Now?
DG: Snake chain, by far. I literally sell a few units a day of the snake chain.
Trend of the Moment?
DG: Creating a personal, layered look.
Favourite between: Ring, Bracelet or Necklace?
DG: I have been working on creating something to bridge the gap between ArmedFine, which is our fine jewellery collection, and our essential collection, which is stainless steel based. I am really excited to launch those pieces on a personal level, because I lost a solid-gold dome ring on my way to work today which, if I didn’t get my new bangs, would be crushing! So, I am excited to bring in a ring that people can afford to lose without having their day, week or month ruined. Its jewelry that you can live your life in.
How Long Would It Take You To Make A Necklace?
DG: Oh girl, I am so fast now! I make necklaces for people in front of them, in the store. You can come in and I can create something unique while you are here. That’s what’s great about the trend now, since it’s very simple.
What's The Story Behind The Name?
DG: My whole brand development is the idea that every day is an occasion, so be armed for it. The idea of being armed is being prepared. I love the idea of being prepared for life – you never know what is going to happen. A big part of preparation is going out in your best, because you never know who you are going to meet and you never know what is going to happen that day. I think a big part of success is dressing for who you want to be; the idea that you’re harnessing your style to get to the places you want to go.
Where Can People Buy Your Products?
DG: Online and in-store! (Store location is 1380 Queen St W., Toronto)
Inspiring You to Explore the Middle of Somewhere…
A neighbourhood in the city that you love? Any favourite spots in those neighbourhoods?
DG: I love the west-end, but it would be hard to pick a particular neighbourhood. I love Parkdale, Trinity-Bellwoods, Roncy, High Park. I am so west end! As for favourite spots – Foxley on Ossington, but before Ossington was the most hype street in the world. Foxley is an amazing family-restaurant and there are three servers that have been there forever. You’ll never get bad service.
Favourite Canadian Brand or Other Small Business
DG: Fortnight Lingerie – I love their aesthetic. They also had a store for a hot minute and I thought it was a total vibe. They did a really nice job of creating an experience.
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73 Questions with the Founder of Middle of Somewhere
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