Donna Distefano (Jewelry Design ’82) recently returned to campus as a guest speaker for a class taught by her former FIT classmate and longtime friend, Frank Fraley (Jewelry Design ’82). Distefano offered students invaluable insight and advice about her career as a jewelry designer and owner of Donna Distefano LTD. We caught up with her about her FIT experience, landing in New York Magazine’s “Best of New York” piece, and much more.
Why did you choose FIT?
During high school, I took college-level courses in art history, sculpture, music appreciation, music theory, drawing, and jewelry making. When I graduated, I had no idea what my career would be. I had been accepted to Southampton College as an Art Therapy major. I even had my dorm room picked out with my best friend. At the 11th hour my mother showed me the catalog from FIT. She knew I loved creating and working with my hands. I went on an interview with the late great Mel Strump and was accepted on the spot. That September, after graduating high school, I moved into Nagler Hall – room 703.
What was most valuable to you about FIT?
The greatest takeaway was working with individuals and teachers who were professionals in the industry. They offered something from the real world of design and fashion. At the time, 1980, punk rock was very much alive in New York City. I had jet black spiky hair, pointy leather boots and a motorcycle jacket. I was not embraced by all of my professors. However, I was taken under the wing of Coty Award winner, the late Bill Smith. He taught a great design class, had a fabulous loft that I felt privileged to be invited to, and he introduced me to what life as a designer really meant. Another professor who had a big influence on me was the late Chairman Samuel Beizer. During my years as his student, Professor Beizer showed me the many avenues that were available in the world of jewelry and that anything was possible in my career. He had a notorious reputation for being standoffish. He liked me and I took this as a sign that being a misfit might be ok after all.
Speaking of professors, you’ve stayed in touch with former FIT classmate, Frank Fraley, who’s now teaching at FIT!
Yes, we’ve remained friends since school and I love him like a brother. What’s most inspiring about Frank is his generosity and enthusiasm as a teacher. He works from the heart — for the students.
Have you stayed in touch with others and how important are the relationship you make as a student?
I have stayed in touch with two or three other students from class. But none stand out more to me then Joseph Murray. We arrived at FIT practically the same day and age. He jokingly admits that he thought I was a weirdo. But we were drawn to each other and our friendship continued over the decades. Our jewelry career paths were completely different however dynamically parallel. I learned so much from him decade to decade. I am to this day in awe of his talent and achievements. Our friendship is certainly one of the most important in my life. We have supported each other with advice and critiques on common ground. The best thing about our friendship is that when we get together we still laugh uncontrollably over our own bad, juvenile jokes. — In 2013 we were featured in the same book called Jewelry’s Shining Stars. This “alignment of the stars” was a meaningful reminder of our paralleled perseverance, success and bond.
Tell us a bit about how you started out as a jewelry designer.
My first jewelry job was during college. I worked for jewelry designer Tulla Booth. She was one smart business woman. I watched her design collections, run a business, put herself into magazines and sell to department stores with grace and style. I started working as a bead stringer. One day she realized I could solder and she moved me to the bench. At 18 I was producing a great deal of her product that she was selling nationwide. Talk about a great role model! She was also very kind and offered me advice when I really needed it at such a young age.
How did working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art come about?
In 1990, I was working for a firm as a designer and production manager. One of the partners was a skilled designer and a pleasure to work for. His partner was a good businesswoman but horrible to work with. She would generally humiliate the people that worked for her. She left me alone. One day when she took a tone of disrespect toward me, I calmly thanked them for the employment opportunity and I left. The gracious partner followed me into the elevator and pleaded with me to stay but I declined. As I stepped out onto the street alone I realized I had no job, no money and plenty of bills. I walked over to FIT and looked at the Alumni Job Board. On an index card there was a post from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they were looking for a goldsmith. I applied and after a couple of interviews I got the job. I became the senior goldsmith in the reproduction studio. It was a blissful position working with extremely talented people for four years. The museum is like a small city and I met my husband there who worked in a different department. Looking back I always remember the day I quit the production manager job. I chose self preservation over allowing someone to disrespect me. Stepping out onto the street into unchartered territories made all the difference.
Tell us about the decision to start your own jewelry business.
I started two businesses. One was called Spark and it was in the early 80s. Shortly after FIT I decided to open a jewelry studio and gallery, a similar business template to what I have today. I sold jewelry to Patricia Field, Saks Fifth Avenue, and many hip boutiques in Manhattan. I was in my early 20s, on a shoestring budget and very rebellious. In 1989 after wearing too many hats and burning out, I moved into my aunt’s house in the Italian countryside. I studied at the University of Ubino, traveled Europe and put my head back on straight. When I returned to New York, I worked various jewelry jobs and then for the Metropolitan Museum until 1994 when I founded Donna Distefano LTD. I always had a business plan and followed it. There were times when I had to take jobs in order to stay afloat but I was always fixated on my vision. That vision has not changed since I was 18.
How would you describe your design aesthetic?
Long before my Metropolitan Museum job, I was designing pieces and incorporating hieroglyphics and other ancient themes into my work. I am strongly influenced by history, poetry, paintings, literature and music. All of these art forms play a part in the creation of my collections. Portrait of a Lady is a good example of that, and my ring called “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” is a completely inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. My aesthetic is beauty, rich color and antiquity.
You mentioned during your talk with students that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Explain how this applied to your business.
My grand opening in my current Flatiron location was October 1, 2008. That ominous date played a big part in the years to come. We had moved into the new space because things were looking up and the business plan was working. After the crash, I was stuck with a high rent, lenders were nonexistent and bankers were systematically sinking small businesses and homeowners. I persevered. Only one aspect of my business continued to rise during the recession: Bridal. Patrons that had seen my work in InStyle Weddings would fly across the country or drive from Boston or Baltimore with my InStyle page stuffed in their wallet. In 2009, I launched a more official bridal collection and kept the emphasis on wedding bands, engagement rings and jewelry for the bride on her wedding day. As a result of the market crash, I became a pretty well-known wedding ring designer. I have to admit it’s one of my favorite things that I do. My greatest pleasure is working with so many happy couples during the greatest time of their lives.
Publicity from magazines like InStyle have a great impact. Tell us about being listed in New York Magazine’s “Best of New York” for Best Jewelry Repair.
New York Magazine is gold. It seems to put New Yorkers under a hypnotic spell. I have been in many magazines before but once I received “Best of New York” it was a game changer. When the editor called me to interview me about best jewelry repair, I cringed and tried to sway her toward best jeweler or best designer. After many years of working so hard, I didn’t want to be labeled a repair jeweler. I quickly surmised that she wasn’t going to budge because she had heard about my successful repair work for many editors and clients. I put great care into all pieces and consider myself a guardian of every jewel that’s handed to me–whether it’s worth $5 or $50,000. When “Best of New York 2010” came out, New York came out of the woodwork. A famous playwright, a world famous composer, actors, producers, publicists, socialites all needed their treasures repaired. I created a Venus flytrap of sorts. Once they walked into my atelier I introduced them to my jewelry collection and they became collectors. Had I received Best Jeweler, I don’t think they would have walked through the door during a recession when everyone was holding on to their money so tightly. This is another example of “necessity is the mother of
invention”. These individuals are still my clients today because of Best of New York. The repair clients built up my couture collection.
Do you have any exciting future ventures?
I will continue to make crowns and tiaras in solid gold. Visions for the future: Jeweled objects such as boxes, perfume bottles, desk accessories all with ancient metalsmithing techniques with the aesthetic from antiquity. I want to give my client the feeling of slowness. Slowness is lost in a society of gadgets. When you look at a piece that is meticulously handcrafted your mind is forced to slow down and think. — Oh, I have a billboard going up in Time Square for the holiday season! The plan is to get people to slow down in Times Square!
What’s one favorite item in your workspace?
Nestled on my bookshelf is a copy of The Leopard: A historical novel about a 19th-century Sicilian nobleman that lived a grand life and desperately clung to the past. Written by a great man who never knew his success and died before his book was published, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, was the last in a line of minor princes in Sicily. Tomasi was a cousin to the great jeweler Fulco di Verdura who I am deeply inspired by. Both were from the province of Palermo where my Italian citizenship is from. The Leopard reminds me of the grandeur that life has to offer, creative genius, the unpleasantness and necessity of change, art for art sake, and the beauty of Sicily. Somehow these topics manage to weave their way through my mind every day.
What’s your most treasured possession?
My wedding band represents 21 years with the man of my dreams Sean Younger Thomas. Together we travel many countries, cook great meals, discover new things about our own hometown New York City, laugh at silly people on the street, enjoy family gatherings, and visualize our common goals and dreams. Together we built Donna Distefano Ltd with talent, sweat equity and perseverance. All of that is melted and forged into my 22 karat gold wedding band.
What advice would you like to share with peers and current students?
You are the expert of your dreams. Persevere.
When you read biographies of famous people and success stories, it may feel impossible for you to imagine yourself at the top. This is where you are wrong. It is important for you to visualize yourself already there. Use some common sense: create a business plan or career plan and follow it. You can adjust your plan every six months. That plan together with your dreams are very powerful tools.