Hit label Ian Charms started with founder making necklace for boyfriend

Ms Lisa Sahakian started the company with little more than a US$600 investment in beads. PHOTOS: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - When Ms Lisa Sahakian and her partner upgraded to a new apartment in Los Angeles in 2021, it was not because the couple wanted a dishwasher or central air-conditioning. They desperately needed a spare room to store their ceramic beads and charms.

"It's really an entire wall of beads," Ms Sahakian, 27, said of the makeshift studio. "It's crazy."

On display are hundreds and hundreds of eccentric, off-kilter gems. The charms, which resemble the cartoonish style of emojis, cover the full spectrum of irreverent camp. There are teensy-tiny ceramics of hamburgers and miniature dachshunds and frozen margaritas strung together.

But these are not the charm bracelets and necklaces of elementary school. The necklaces fetch from US$160 (S$220) to US$250.

From this colour-soaked space, Ms Sahakian and her partner and co-founder Max Riddle, 27, run Ian Charms, an if-you-know-you-know accessories label that has been worn by celebrities, including singers Dua Lipa, Justin Bieber and The Kid Laroi.

The arrival of Ian Charms, which was introduced in August 2020, was perfectly timed. That is because what younger shoppers want to wear around their necks and wrists changed over the course of the pandemic.

The minimalist, dainty jewellery popularised by millennials a few years ago fell out of favour and statement pieces were in. Necklace-beading tutorials, a practice once reserved for summer camps and crafting classes, became popular on TikTok.

And Ian Charms capitalised on the trend.

Until late last year, multiple designs were released on a weekly basis and never restocked, ensuring that each piece felt unique and tied to the dizzying carousel called Internet culture. A chain could feature a charm that pulled inspiration from hit K-drama Squid Game (2021) one week and a viral Real Housewives reality-television franchise moment the next.

The company now releases new charms about every two weeks.

Ms Sahakian, who has no previous design experience, started the company with little more than a US$600 investment in beads.

Only two years in, and with no major outside funding, Ian Charms' designs can now be found in Dover Street Market Beijing and Selfridges.

How does a 20-something start a jewellery label with little to no experience? "I wanted to get my boyfriend a chain," Ms Sahakian said on a video call, speaking from the apartment that doubles as the Ian Charms headquarters.

Ms Lisa Sahakian works in her office in Los Angeles on April 4, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Searching for the perfect gift for Mr Riddle, she came across necklaces that were either "really expensive if they were super cool" or "boring". So, she decided to make one herself.

The necklace was a hit, winning praise not only from Mr Riddle, but also from her friends. Requests flooded in from friends and strangers who had heard of the brand through the grapevine. She obliged and made more.

Money was a motivating factor: Ms Sahakian, who was working as an assistant for a reality-television development company, had recently received a "really fat pay cut".

She bought beads from Peruvian factories - a "very specific style", she said - and deadstock resellers. She came up with designs and paid her mother to make copies of the necklaces. Mr Riddle helped to steer the company.

Word spread quickly online and among fashion insiders.

Soon, Ms Sahakian found herself connected with Catherine Hahn, the stylist for musician Post Malone, who wanted a beaded necklace for the performer to wear to that year's Billboard Music Awards. Ms Sahakian quickly made three one-of-a-kind pieces and gave them to Ms Hahn.

"He didn't end up wearing one," Mr Riddle said. "But it was okay because it opened our eyes to the stylist world. We realised that's the way to get stuff to a lot of these celebrities."

So, who is on Ms Sahakian's wish list? "Anyone Armenian is iconic," said Ms Sahakian, who is of Armenian heritage. "If I had, like, Kim Kardashian in Ian Charms, that'd be sick."

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