My earliest memories are of playing in my mother’s jewelry box and accessorizing my clothing: tying a heart charm to my belt, hanging a pin off a chain draped around my neck or transforming a necklace into a belt and weaving it through the belt loops in my jeans. Some of my friends played with dolls. I accessorized.
My mother, a couturier who worked in Europe and immigrated to the United States, was my most influential teacher in life and art. She encouraged me to celebrate my individuality and to experiment in creating beautiful things. I went to Hunter College in Manhattan, then studied design at Parsons School of Design. My first job after Parsons was as an assistant jewelry buyer at the May Company under the legendary Dawn Mello, who was later to become the president of Bergdorf Goodman.
I was hungry for the experience and thoroughly loved my job. I soaked up as much business knowledge as I could. Then I took a giant leap of faith, quit my job and started making my own jewelry. For several years, I sold my jewelry out of my living room.A dear friend, Joan Solon, became my first financier when she lent me $1,000. It was that $1,000 that gave me my start.
My biggest challenge was juggling my personal “mom” responsibilities with my business responsibilities. My girlfriends were very supportive, and we rotated carpooling the children to and from after-school activities. Many a day I rushed off to New York City to make product, raced back to Long Island to make dinner, spent time with my family and then sketched all night until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Today, they call it multitasking; back then, it was simply called Wednesday.
Eventually I decided to redirect my efforts from wholesale to retail. I began my retail business operating out of a concession in a clothing store on Long Island not far from my home.
Then, after 15 years, I took the financial risk of opening my first store, in Manhasset. It was one of the scariest things I have ever done, but also one of the best.
When I started my business 34 years ago, it was hard to find a voice in an industry dominated by men. Women in jewelry were few and far between and not taken as seriously. In hindsight, it was a blessing because it caused me to work even harder
Today, I have 13 Judith Ripka retail stores across the United States. I also sell to more than 150 department stores and independent jewelers internationally, and have a QVC business designing a different collection that I started 13 years ago.
Outside of designing, my other greatest passion is art. If I had not been a jewelry designer, I would have been a sculptor. But my family is my No. 1 priority, and I spend as much time with them as possible.