It takes a lot of chutzpah to close a thriving company, with esteemed brand recognition, and launch something totally new. But that’s what Kara Ross did when she closed Kara Ross New York, which was sold in all the best stores and counted the first lady Michelle Obama as a fan, and started Diamonds Unleashed. The line features jewelry at more affordable price points and gives back a portion of funds to aid women in need around the world.
Ross merely sees it as a challenge and another path down the jewelry route that she has been on since she graduated from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). But that wasn’t the first degree she earned. Ross grew up the oldest of five children in suburban Philadelphia and graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. with an English major and art history minor. Upon graduating she moved immediately to the Big Apple, where after a year of searching for her calling, she entered the GIA. “It helps to be a certified gemologist. I can drill a pearl, and I know refractive index, specific gravity and why sapphires are different than rubies. It helps to have this knowledge because there are so many synthetics on the markets, color-treated stones that if you don’t really know what you’re doing in this business, you could get ripped off in two seconds,” notes Ross.
Once certified, she began to sell jewelry independently, making inroads in the close-knit, tough-to-crack Diamond District. She built trusted relationships with the best Diamond District cutters and eventually became the go-to gal for Wall Street types to get engagement rings. “You know how it is on the trading floor,” says Ross. “Joe would tell Sam, and Sam would tell Bob, and so on. I wound up selling whole trading desks from one bank to another.” Her popularity with the finance set allowed her to build her own inventory, create her own designs and lay the groundwork for Kara Ross New York. “The first collections were primarily sterling silver and gold with diamond accents. I sold it to Neimans, but Bergdorf’s really launched the collection,” she explains.
“I accomplished all I had set out to do with that brand,” says Ross. “I wanted to be in the best stores, and I was. I used the best materials, did things for the White House and even got pieces into museums. I was very lucky, but… I think this new endeavor is so much bigger than what I was doing before. I need to focus on it.”
Unlike her exclusive Kara Ross New York, Diamonds Unleashed offers up three different jewelry collections across a range of prices, so they are accessible to a wider audience. Diamonds Unleashed will donate all net profits to girls’ educational charities. The first beneficiary will be the high school technology organization called Girls Who Code, a group that aims to educate high school girls across the United States in the fields of technology and engineering.
Empowering women isn’t just the end result of the endeavor, it was also the impetus. It started less than two years ago, when she was having her engagement diamond, a sizable emerald-cut sparkler from billionaire husband Stephen Ross, reset. It was then she realized that most women would never buy themselves a diamond—big or small. Her choice of setting—a viper’s mouth using fangs as prongs—and her proclivity to wear the ring on her right hand also broke with convention. “It’s modeled after a real diamondback; you can see the details on the top of the head,” she says with a smile.
These simple choices led to many unexpected conversations. “A lot of women asked me, ‘Why do you wear it on your right hand? What does it mean? What does it symbolize?’ and so on,” says Ross. This made Kara realize that although she would never want to separate the buying and gifting of diamonds from their romantic connotations, there were some rules that needed to be broken.
“Women shouldn’t have to wait to be given a diamond. It’s the only commodity in today’s society where there is a stigma attached to a woman buying one for herself,” Ross notes. So she wanted to encourage the “self-buying” female jewelry buyers and offer something for them.
“It’s hard to imagine, but there used to be a time in the ’40s and ’50s when women simply wouldn’t buy themselves lingerie. Then, Les Wexner came along with Victoria’s Secret, and lingerie becomes a celebrated thing for women to buy for themselves. If you go further back, there was also a time when women would not buy themselves perfume, either. Estée Lauder was a change agent for that. When people look at this in those terms, they can’t believe nobody has done the same thing for the fine jewelry and diamond business,” says Ross.
“Why do something that has already been done?” asks Ross. With this attitude, it’s no wonder that she takes issue with old ideas and the stale “A diamond is forever” tagline. She hints that there are many far greater concepts that can be conveyed to customers: “A diamond is the hardest, strongest, most beautiful substance on Earth. It’s the universal symbol of brilliance, strength and greatness. A diamond signifies the epitome of excellence and… it’s flattering on everyone!”
“Each ring will have a give-back,” explains Ross. When customers buy pieces they will also know which groups the purchase will benefit. Another organization to receive funds from Diamonds Unleashed sales will be She’s the First, a charity providing scholarships to girls in low-income countries. Diamonds Unleashed is not a nonprofit, however. “This is a company that’s making a profit, but we will do good with it. It’s profits with a purpose,” says Ross firmly. “If this was a foundation, we wouldn’t be able to have all these arms. There would be so many rules and regulations. We wouldn’t be able to do things like the Salon Series we are hosting here in Miami.”
Indeed, there are a lot of moving parts to her new venture. “It’s a complicated puzzle, and we are still figuring out how to put all the pieces of the puzzle together so that it will really frame out and be clear to everyone,” says Ross.
“This year, we will go to London, and instead of working with Neiman Marcus, we will be at Harrods, and Zaha Hadid will be part of our panel discussion.” Ross is also in talks to take Diamonds Unleashed to China and India, which will have give-backs to women in those countries.
Another thing Ross gets is social media. She picks up her iPhone, adorned with a case boasting Diamonds Unleashed’s logo. “If you don’t get it, you shouldn’t be in business today. My voice is small, but if you go around and use all of our voices you can really amplify the voice and the message,” explains Ross. To this end, she has created social-media-friendly branding for Diamonds Unleashed. This includes a very photogenic bejeweled octopus named Pinky. She’s also gotten endorsements from more than 400 women who get behind the cause, including Serena Williams, Susan Rockefeller and Melissa Etheridge.
She also understands the issue of provenance when it comes to gems, explaining, “You can’t have a company like this and get your diamonds from Sierra Leone or Botswana. It would kill the whole premise of the give-back!” Instead, Ross gets all of the stones from CanadaMark Diamonds, which has ethical mines and traceable diamonds from North America. “The Canada partnership is very important to us, and we are honored that they wanted to work with us. It’s huge to have a $99 product that is traceable to Canada,” says Ross as she points to her earrings. “I wore these for exactly a month and a half before my daughter took them right off my ear.”
But don’t worry about Ross—there’s more where those came from. “I have a lot, lot, lot of jewelry,” she points out. And she’s come by most of it on her own accord. “Steve doesn’t have a relationship to jewelry,” she says, noting that the famous financier doesn’t even wear a wedding band or a watch.
They do, however, have a relationship to South Florida. Her husband owns the Miami Dolphins and the couple has an 11,000-square-foot beachfront home in Palm Beach that they use for getaways in the winter. “Palm Beach is beautiful; what’s not to love?” says Ross, who likes to use her home to escape the coldest days and host dinner parties with friends. The style is more on the modern side, hinting at the couple’s taste. “We both like modern, but comfortable moderns. We don’t want anything that is too hard-edged or stark. We use many textures to soften whites along with art,” explains Ross. Glass art is among her favorite to collect, although she says she would like to acquire a Francis Bacon or Louis Bourgeois giving a hint at her taste in avante garde art. She’s also incorporating art into Diamonds Unleashed. They are reaching out to different artists and asking them to do their take on the message and the soon-to-be iconic logo.
Then, at the end of 2016, they premiere the pieces and auction them off at Sotheby’s and possibly, Ross hints, Art Miami.
In addition to running her fledgling company, Ross also gives her time to many boards including the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America), the photography acquisition committee at the Museum of Modern Art and the Board of Women and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She also provides scholarships to would-be Georgetown University students.