One of the privileges of having this blog is the opportunity to shine a spotlight on talented creatives of South Asian descent. My hope is that in sharing their stories of how they launched their businesses, overcame challenges and pursued their passions, that it will ignite a spark and awaken readers to the possibility of chasing their dreams and finding their calling.
Today, I present Anita Mawji, whose career in jewelry design began when she walked away from a successful career in finance to focus on her inner well-being. Her jewelry line, Sage & Stone, which uses gemstones and other natural stones, is reflective of her desire to focus on the meaningful rather than the material. Although, Anita never intended for her jewelry to find an audience beyond her family and friends, it is now a favorite of Hollywood’s A-list. I talked to Anita about her work, her inspirations and the lessons she’s learned as an entrepreneur.
Tell me about your background and what you were doing prior to starting your jewelry line?
I was born in Mumbai, India and lived there until I was thirteen. In 1985 I moved to New Jersey with my sister and lived with my grandfather who raised us. I went to Rutgers Business School and graduated with a degree in Finance. I did finance and banking in New York for approximately six years. I later moved to digital advertising sales and revenue strategy for online start-ups and other established media companies such as Yahoo! When September 11th happened, I was in Manhattan watching the second tower come down. It was a wake up call to do something more meaningful with my life. Until then, my work was purely about being financially independent, so it was all about being able to pay my bills and put myself through college. But after September 11th, the work that I was doing, the grueling hours that I was putting in started to seem a little meaningless and I felt the urge to find something more soul fulfilling. I started taking yoga during that time to combat stress. I started realizing that I wanted to do more yoga but I never had the time due to long work hours. A couple of years later, in fact, two years to that date, I quit my corporate job at Yahoo. And then for about six months following that, I was like, ‘what did I do? I am at the height of my career, what did I just do?’ I was married at that time and my husband supported my decision to take some time off and just pursue health. I got certified to become a yoga teacher and pretty soon after that, we moved from Brooklyn, NY to Los Angeles, CA. I’ve been teaching and practicing yoga ever since.
How did you first start designing jewelry?
Making jewelry really started as a hobby. I love gemstones and all kinds of natural stones. I used to mentor an inner city kid when I lived in Manhattan and he was really interested in rocks. So I used to take him to the Museum of Natural History and we would walk around the city and spot stones, saying okay, that’s a limestone building, that’s marble, that’s slate. Through his interest, I became fascinated with stones, gems and their formation. Later I learned that stones and gemstones have healing qualities. I started playing with the idea of making stones functional, fashionable and wearable.
What was the first piece of jewelry you designed?
The first piece I designed was a pair of little three diamond clover earrings for my daughter when she was born, not ever thinking at the time that I wanted to design jewelry.
How did you take something that started as a hobby and turn it into a legitimate business?
I was making earrings with gemstones for friends for their birthdays and had taken photos of some pieces I was playing with concept wise. One day a friend and I were shopping at Calypso St. Barths and she was looking through my concept pictures saying, “ooh, make that for me and ooh I love that!’ And the person behind the register who was ringing us up, stopped and said, ‘what are you guys talking about?’ And I got embarrassed and said, ‘oh, it’s nothing, I’m just playing with some stones.’ She asked to see the photos and kept flipping through the pictures and said, ‘You’ve got to get these in here, this is completely our style. Can you send me a lookbook?’ I had no idea what a lookbook or a line sheet was. But I figured it out and developed my first collection.
As you were building your business was there a defining moment when you knew that you were pursuing your calling?
Over a year ago, I was privately teaching yoga to an “A” list celebrity and one day she asked about my hand chain. I usually wear a few of the pieces that I’m working on for an entire day to make sure that they are functional. She loved the hand chain I was wearing and asked to see more. So our next class, I brought over some pieces and she went gaga over them. She ended up buying several hand chains, necklaces and rings and wore some of those pieces to her movie premiere and press junkets. That was when I realized that this could be something much bigger. So, I cut down on my yoga teaching hours and decided to focus and brand my line. At the time, it was called something else. So, I really had to think about what I wanted to call it, the meaning behind it, and how it was all going to come together.
Why did you name your line Sage & Stone?
There are actually a couple of layers to this answer. When I was in my very first yoga teacher training program, we did a lot of creative work to help us tune in to our creativity. One of the exercises was a free form drawing session. And in that session, I drew a store and the name of the store was Sage. That’s what came out of me and that’s what I wrote down. A while later, while I was pregnant, I was sitting at dinner with a friend and she was talking about her friend named Sejal. All of a sudden a light bulb went off inside my head and I asked her, “is Sejal an Indian name?” And she was like, “oh yeah, it’s a very Gujarati name.” My husband is Gujarati, I didn’t have a name picked out for my daughter yet, so I was like, perfect! We can name her Sagel and Sage can be her nickname. Later on, when it came to naming the line, I wanted to name it Sage and something. One night, over a cocktail, my friend said, ‘how about Sage & Stone?’ It was the perfect name because I work with stones, my husband and my daughter, Sage are my rocks, ‘sage’ means wise and we use it for cleansing and these stones take hundreds if not millions of years to form, layer upon layer. So the ancient wisdom, the cleansing properties, all of that just made perfect sense and the name Sage & Stone came together.
Once you had the name, what steps did you take to finally launch the brand?
Coming from a business school background, the first step would have been to put a business plan together. That’s the fundamentals of creating a business. But if I had done that, this business would not exist, because it would not have made sense on paper. It was not a rational decision. It was more of a heart based decision. It was really about how I felt and how my clients feel when they wear one of my pieces. Every time I get a thank you note, a phone call, an email from a customer saying how good my jewelry makes them feel, that’s my business plan. I also donate a percentage of my revenue to charities close to my heart so the feeling of “good” is really what keeps me going. So my thought behind it was not technical or intellectual, it was heart based and is fueled by passion because I love what I do.
Although your designs aren’t distinctly Indian, there’s a strong influence. How would you describe your design style?
Being Indian and having lived there until I was thirteen was enough time for some of the visuals to be imprinted in my being. I don’t necessarily draw on those images when I design a piece, but the concept or design comes a bit more intuitively. When I look at images of Indian tribal women, statues of gods or Mughal paintings, I realize they are wearing septum rings, ear cuffs, arm bands and the necklaces look like body chains, it’s everything that’s in vogue right now. So, I can’t tell you where the inspiration begins and ends because it comes from things that made an impression on me a long time ago but is reflected in my work now. I try and retain that sensual feminine quality without making them overtly Indian so that they can be wearable in everyday life. I don’t want them to be sitting in a safe, I rather you wear them every day. My style is minimalistic jewelry that has sparkle and accentuates the lines of a woman’s body, the color of her skin, and whatever it is that she admires about herself.
How do you go about creating a new piece? What’s your design process from design development to sourcing the materials, etc.?
Some pieces are commissioned by my clients as sentimental gifts for their family members, their friends or pieces they want to wear themselves. Sometimes, I see a stone and the stone itself inspires the piece. I make things I would want to wear myself. The materials come from all over the world; I’ve bought opals from Bonham & Butterfields, stones from a lapidary in New Orleans, moonstone from Croatia. I attend gem shows and have also purchased stones from individual collectors.
What’s one piece from your collection that you think every woman should have?
I think every woman should have something that makes her feel beautiful. We wear makeup for other people. Because if you were at home in your own space, would you wear makeup? When I put on a piece of jewelry, I wear it because it makes me feel beautiful and evokes that sensual, feminine part of me, which has nothing to do with anybody else. I think every woman should own a piece of jewelry that makes her feel that way, so for each woman it would be something different.
You’ve talked about the importance of yoga in your life. How has your practice influenced your work?
In many ways. Yoga and the philosophy behind yoga is a big source of inspiration for my work and it also gives me a blueprint for life. It helps me understand my ego, my wants, my disappointments, my goals and the truth behind those goals. It also helps me with my designs. One of my pieces the, “7 moons diamond necklace” symbolizes empowerment. The possibility to live the life you dream of, seven days a week. Everyday can be a fresh start, an opportunity to change, grow, connect and let go. The energetic meaning behind the full moon is the inspiration for the whole moon based collection. Virabhadrasana poses have inspired the spear based collection, especially my “Warrior Spear earrings”. So, there are metaphors from my practice in my pieces and at the same time, yogic philosophy helps me temper expectations and helps me be grateful regardless of where I am and understand that even setbacks are preparing me for what’s coming next.
When you launched this line, did you ever imagine that celebrities like Drew Barrymore, Katherine Heigl and Shakira would be wearing your jewelry?
No, never ever! I would have never thought that someone as huge as Iggy Azalea & Drew would be wearing my pieces. I never imagined growing up in India that this could be my world. I’m grateful. At the end of the day, a celebrity endorsement gives me street credibility. And all of the celebrities who’ve worn my pieces have bought them, which is rare.
What are your plans to grow the business and the brand?
There are a couple of collaborations that I’m really excited about. I’m on the advisory board for an NGO called Girl Rising. The movie, ‘Girl Rising’ voiced in Hindi by Freida Pinto, Priyanka Chopra and other bollywood stars is coming to India. Girl Rising’s mission is to change the way the world values a woman and women and education is something that is really close to my heart. So, I’m working on a collection for them. I’m also building out a showroom which will double as a yoga practice space. I’m thinking of inscribing some of my favorite yoga sutras that I keep coming back to onto the wall so that it continues to keep me grounded and remind me that all this should be joy.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
There are a few things that are important. One is that you have to learn how to take risks. I came from a finance background where you’re constantly weighing risk and reward. So, you have to know when to take risks and that comes from learning to trust your gut instincts and trust your intuition. You also have to remember that reward won’t be immediate and that failure is part of your journey. Failure can be an opportunity to refine what you’re doing and take that next step with a new mindset. If you’ve studied biology and you want to become a jewelry designer, yes there will be a transition. First, you need to pay your bills and make sure your financial obligations are taken care of. But you always have a choice in how you spend your free time and that free time can be spent on something that fuels you. Use that time to chip into that hobby or idea that really fuels your heart and your creativity. And if it’s meant for you it will become bigger. It may not happen on your timeline but you have to take that first step. A lot of people say that they don’t have the luxury or the time and I hear that from my friends. Well, what I’m doing now started way back when I didn’t have the luxury. This desire, this fire, this need for me to work with my hands, make a difference in other people’s lives started long before I started my business and had nothing to do with jewelry. The beauty of the world we live in right now is that there are so many different career paths than we never imagined when we were growing up. If you have the desire, you can really forge your own path.
Images: Sage & Stone and Couture Rani