Diana Warner fell in love with jewelry when she was a child. During frequent visits to her maternal grandmother’s house, she learned how to craft pieces on her own. “My grandmother would hand me big Ziploc freezer bags full of costume jewelry to play with,” she says. “Every day, I’d walk into the house and she’d hand me a new bag. I’m sure it was stuff that she had around the house and would mix up and I thought it was new every time! I learned to make jewelry by taking apart and putting back together the things that she gave me to play with. As I got older, I made jewelry for people as gifts and I enjoyed spoiling my family that way.”
Six years ago, she launched her company, Diana Warner Studio, in New York City, building her brand through unique, handcrafted pieces and accessories. Today, her lines are carried in over 700 stores worldwide. Last year, Styx vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Tommy Shaw and his wife, Jeanne, approached Warner about developing an exclusive line of Styx jewelry. Its launch was an immediate success with fans, who fell in love with the plated charms, dog tags, guitar picks and earrings
While making jewelry is her primary passion, Diana Warner is also passionate about using her talents to help those in need. Philanthropy is at the heart of her creations, as she explains in this interview.
How did the Styx jewelry line come about?
Callie Riggs, in their management office [Red Light Management], called and asked if it was something I’d be interested in doing. I’m a huge Styx fan, and I wanted to get more involved with rock music because it’s my first love. So far, I had mostly worked with country music. I went to Atlanta and started sketching things for Callie. She said, “Let’s run this by Jeanne [Shaw].” We started putting ideas together. We wanted something rustic and handmade-looking, but with a rock edge to go with the Styx image. Before our meeting I did a little bit of research about how their current merchandise looks, their past album covers and what’s going on in the future for them — the NFL, their tour, the talk shows they’re doing.
The pieces are tailored for their fans and that demographic. How did you ensure that the line would also appeal to other demographics and to male customers?
I try to design everything to appeal to ages 15 to 85. That comes with the way I look at jewelry and the people wearing it. We wanted to do something unisex to start with, which is why we chose the dog tags, charms and guitar picks. A lot of their fans are 40- to 55-year-old women. They’re stylish, they’re into music, they’ve got a contemporary look about them, but they’re not 19, so we wanted something with a little more body to it that felt good and felt quality and they could buy for their husbands and themselves. Callie and Jeanne told me that their fans will go to tons of shows a year, they will travel anywhere to see Styx play, and it makes me think of collectors. They’re collecting tickets and concert experiences. We wanted to design a necklace that could be the beginning of a charm necklace, and they could collect different charms from different Styx venues over time. They could collect different guitar picks and put them on their necklaces. They could collect charms that have different song lyrics. These are loyal fans and we wanted something that would be their thing. That’s the idea behind what we did and why we felt it would appeal to so many people, because they travel all over to see them. I have people from Greece following me on Twitter who are huge Styx fans. They have fans all over the world.
Did they oversee the details or leave them to you?
They left it all to me. It was really interesting; I think we were on the same page so much that we didn’t even have any edits. I think I made one change and I don’t even remember what it was. We were in line aesthetically so much that they jumped on the things I came up with. We cast the molds of the guitar picks; we had a metal pick, and down the road we can stamp it with different dates so people can collect them, and cool, rustic-looking dog tags that can have different song lyrics on them, some new charms with “Come Sail Away” on them, and the actual guitar picks they’re sending me from the shows that we’re turning into charms. They’ve been cool about embracing the look and direction that I felt this project needed to go.
How did you determine which finishes to use, and how is the crafting process different for each finish?
The pieces underneath the finishes are mostly made out of pewter, a soft metal, that is stamped if it has any personal message on it. It’s cast and polished, and from that point we take that raw metal and dip it in the color we want it finished. I went through my favorite finishes and picked those that I thought would appeal to the masses. We wanted a good variety — the gunmetal, rose, gold and silver — to make variations for the fans. After that raw metal is polished and we put the personalization on it, it’s dipped in the actual plating of the metal that you want and it’s set to dry. We assemble the pieces at our 21st Street location. Our factory is on 28th Street, seven blocks north of us, and everything is assembled in our facility, where we ship everything to the artist group that’s distributing in our 21st Street location, so a lot of steps go into it. The hardest part was coming up with the concept and carving the molds, because they’re cast in rubber molds, so you want them to be perfect, you want them to be the right weight. When you’re making an earring, you don’t want it to be too heavy. The fun part is seeing the magic happen once the mold is perfect and you can spin the liquid metal into it, take it out, polish it and plate it in the finish that you want.
How much do the pieces weigh?
We try to make everything extremely lightweight. The dog tags and charms are substantial, but you don’t even know you’re wearing them. The earrings — my test is I wear them all day before I finalize them. I want to know how they feel, if I feel them, if they get caught in my hair. The earring itself is on a sterling French hook and it hangs down on a vintage chain that we’ve refurbished. It’s got the metal dog tag, and the great part about the shape of that dog tag is it’s not going to get caught in your hair. It’s a great length. It hits right at the break in your jawbone, it’s very flattering, and I didn’t know I had it on because they’re so lightweight. That’s when I know I have a good earring design.
Are they available as clips?
They’re all pierced, but they can be special-ordered in a clip-on. Our clip-ons are very comfortable. It’s hard to find good-looking clip-on earrings.
Everything has a song lyric. Are they representative in any way?
We went with “Oh Mama” first because of football season. The Steelers fans have really embraced Styx. There’s cool footage online of that song blaring through the stadium and the fans singing it when the team gets a good play. The song means a lot to a lot of people. The next one is obviously a classic. Their management felt that “Come Sail Away” would be a great thing to add into the collection. We want to start trickling in all the classics so that people can collect their favorite songs that have different meanings to them.
What is the best way to care for the pieces?
The great part is they have an antique, rustic feel; they have a handmade look, so they will age well. As far as any kind of metal, when I talk to my clients, from gold to sterling silver, you definitely want to put it on after your hairspray and perfume because the alcohol in those things you put on your body will break down metal over time. And obviously, don’t wear it in the shower. It will last forever, and if there’s a problem, we fix it. That’s the great part about keeping our production in the United States. Sterling will tarnish over time, but these are antique sterling and don’t have to be cleaned. I clean mine sometimes with jewelry polish and a cloth, but they don’t require much maintenance. I like keeping things as low-maintenance as possible.
What types of new pieces are you creating?
The new pieces are going to be things you can add to your collection. We’re going to try to make things more gifty. Right now, these necklaces seem kind of personal, so we’re going to come up with key chains and different options where you can order certain song lyrics on pieces and develop them into more necklaces and bracelets. I think the big things are the charms that go with things that people have collected over the years.
Do you foresee pieces that represent drums and keyboards?
We’re trying to figure out what that looks like. We can’t use drumsticks in the necklace, although we’d love to, so I think we’re going to make molds of miniature sticks, maybe with signatures. We want to make sure [that Lawrence Gowan and Todd Sucherman’s fans] are taken care of and that we make what they’re doing at the shows part of this whole line.
How did you get your business off the ground?
I got my college degree in oil painting and drawing, and my professors told me time and time again to put the jewelry down because it was destroying my painting career. Out of rebellion, my paintings became all fashion-oriented, with huge pictures of jewelry, and paintings of handbags and jewelry and shoes. I thought I would fail, but they really embraced it because it was my passion. Right after school, I went back to making jewelry. One of my assistants that worked for me in my gallery when I was making my paintings said, “I really believe in you.” I remember her saying, “I think you can do this full time and I’ll work for you,” so we started making as many mistakes as possible and grew the company. I feel that growing a company is all about making mistakes and learning things. I remember my first trade show in New York when I was showing my collection — I was so nervous that my employees made me stay in the hotel room because I was so nervous the first day. We came to New York City, we broke even, which is a lot for young kids, we opened some new accounts and we went from five or six stores selling our stuff to over 700 in a matter of a few years. Now we have our flagship store in New York City and ship out of the back of it to all our retail stores that sell our things.
During the time when you made “as many mistakes as possible,” did you ever question or doubt yourself?
I think you go through that every other month as a business owner. I had to learn the hard way that there are some days when there’s tons of money in your bank account and days when there’s none and you just have to make it work. There were quite a few times in my life when I thought, I don’t think we can do that. A year and a half ago I finally told my parents, “I think I’m done. I’m burned out.” They didn’t know what I had been doing for the first half of my career. They were running their own companies and they had come and joined me. My dad said, “No. You have never seen an obstacle. You have always done anything that you believed you could do, and you’re going to keep doing this.” Now my father manages a lot of our stuff, my mom does a lot of our sales, we travel together and we have a blast. The hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in business was to keep this company alive in the recession. It was an enormous blow. A lot of my friends that owned companies my size have shut their doors — almost all of them. So to keep this company alive was really hard. I was worn out and he said, “No. When the economy is down is when you grow.” He was really wise, and I was able to hear him and get recharged. Having these new projects has been fun. It puts the joy back in what you do and takes away the day-in and day-out heartache and heartbreak of owning a business and providing for employees. It really gives it some life and some energy.
You are affiliated with several charitable organizations. Is this with specific pieces in different lines?
We have pieces in our collections that are associated with different charities and we also do quite a bit of fundraising for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. When I first opened the business, I left the country a month later and moved to Africa for two months. I’m not sure why; I just knew I was supposed to go on this trip with some of my friends. It was supposed to be for a month, but when we got there, I was getting a tour of the township where we were working and they were giving me the numbers it would cost to feed these children for the next five or ten years. There were some rings on my hand that I’d made, and I realized that what it cost me to make those rings could have fed every single one of them for the next twenty years. I realized that there was something that could be done to help and give back. I ended up staying an extra month and learning the craft and job development aspect of what’s going on there, the entrepreneurial spirit and push that’s alive in Africa now, and the demographics and dynamics of getting people out of the living situations that they’re in.
We’ve got a couple of different items. The Phindi necklace is wrapped in handmade boxes that are made out of donated magazines. They’re made in these villages. We have the Charity: Water [www.charitywater.org] that provides fresh water for people in Africa and India and other parts of Asia, and those necklaces are great because every time one’s sold it provides ten people with clean water for the next year. Lack of clean water is a huge problem, especially in the places where I was. It’s a huge health hazard. We literally went to explore and see what could be done and if we could help in any way. We worked with kids and helped with construction with a gymnasium. I was in South Africa the first time and that’s where I ended up staying, and then I helped with a job development program. I basically used my business background and knowledge with the people and their craft and helped them develop a business plan to provide for themselves through their craft. That was really where my heart was. Two summers later, I went back to the same place in South Africa, Kayamandi, which is a township of about 200,000. That’s a nice way to say it’s a squatter camp, and it’s in devastation. We saw the resources and what people could do to provide for themselves. I spent two summers there helping with that.
During the past year, I’ve been helping with something called Fashionable that’s based in Ethiopia. Fashionable is a scarf line. Since we do a lot of accessories, the whole idea behind it is that through fashion you’re making people able to do something. Right now, five women are weaving these scarves out of cotton. Each scarf comes with a handwritten tag that describes what they’re able to do, which is really interesting. I’ve been using my background in design to help them expand that scarf line, and seeing what sells in the United States. I’ve been able to hand over all my contacts and send letters to my customers, saying, “This is something I believe in; I know that you would believe in it too. Come along beside me and let’s partner with Fashionable and start changing lives.” It’s been really fun to see the response that we’ve gotten and how many of my customers have jumped onboard and decided that they were going to carry Fashionable and sell these scarves and start making a difference too.
Where does your passion for philanthropy come from?
My father’s mother was always tutoring in inner cities and I would hang out with her after school at the ages of 4 and 5. My mom was always involved in charity work, and in the summers, my brothers and my mother and I would go work with the Appalachian Service Project. We would do construction in devastated parts of Appalachia. That’s where it became a huge part. I could see first-hand what it was like making a difference. My parents and grandparents were so big about giving back. My parents owned businesses and they always said, “Never turn down someone who’s asking for a donation for a charity.” I think it was nine years ago our family business, a wholesale nursery and tree farm, burned to the ground, and the people we had been helping in the Appalachian Service Project showed up and helped us rebuild our business. It came full circle. We never expected in a million years that those people would come help us rebuild our lives. Giving back has been a huge part of our family’s existence for as long as I can remember.