An Ethical Approach to Costume Jewelry

Chelsea Sonksen

Marisa Vitale

Walk into a room wearing Lizzie Fortunato earrings and you can almost guarantee that you’ll receive compliments all night.

The brand is run by Lizzie Fortunato and her twin sister, Kathryn. Though the two women may look identical – at least in the face; their hairstyles give them away – they have drastically different skillsets. Lizzie is an artist and maker at heart. She sewed her own prom dress in high school and began designing jewelry in college. Kathryn, on the other hand, is a finance-minded businesswoman.

It seems almost too perfect to be true – a twin with a complementary skillset. It’s as though they were destined to be business partners. The sisters attribute their compatibility to their parents. “I think we’re really lucky because we always excelled at different things.” Kathryn told us. “We’ve got our parents to thank for that because they never made us do the same things growing up. God bless my mom who would take Lizzie to piano and me to gymnastics class and didn’t just sign us up for the same things. In undergrad, Lizzie was an English and Art History major, and I was an Economics major. I think that we’ve always been able to work well together because we didn’t compete.”

Back when they were both students at Duke University, Lizzie would make jewelry in her dorm room, and Kathryn would help her sell the pieces. Kathryn was the ultimate hype woman; when people would compliment Lizzie’s jewelry on the quad, Kathryn would excitedly tell them that they could buy a piece, too, if they’d like.

After school, the sisters moved to New York, where Lizzie took a job in Fashion PR and Kathryn headed to Wall Street. Only nine months into her new job, Lizzie realized she wanted to pursue her jewelry line. Many of their friends from Duke, who were Lizzie’s earliest customers, had also moved to NYC after graduation, and now, with salaries of their own, they were eager to buy more of her pieces. Five years later, Kathryn took the leap to join Lizzie, abandoning her financially secure job at Goldman Sachs.

Lizzie seeks to tell a narrative within each collection. This season’s Fall 17 Collection is inspired by a big trip to Africa last year. The sisters spent time in Kenya and Tanzania with their mom and significant others, and they were enamored with the quality of the light. “Everyone always talks about how the light in Africa is different, and it’s so true. You see hues of gold everywhere you look.” The collection captures the color palette of the plains in the Serengeti.

In addition to their retail and wholesale channels, Lizzie and Kathryn have collaborated with a number of fashion designers to create unique pieces for the runway. Some of Lizzie’s favorite collaborations have been with Victoria Bartlett, the former designer at VPL. “One season she wanted jewelry that resembled the human body and vertebrae. I remember we went and got a rotisserie chicken and took all the bones out and casted them…and made all this anatomical, bone-inspired jewelry… There was another collection that she wanted all origami. So I found someone on Craigslist who made me a thousand paper cranes, and we strung them into necklaces. I can remember meeting this person at the West 4th Subway stop and handing them a hundred dollars for a thousand cranes and being like, “THANKS! See you later!”

As the business has grown, it has been important to Lizzie and Kathryn that they stay true to their values and build a sustainable, ethical business. To that end, they’ve resisted the temptation to move their production abroad and, instead, found creative ways to build a strong team right in their city. “We employ a lot of women, many of them single moms, who work from our office and their homes. They come in twice a week, learn projects, and then take materials home [to construct the pieces].”

The sisters attribute a great deal of their continued success to the city they call home. “People often ask us if we would live elsewhere – because we’re our own bosses, so we could live anywhere. As much as that seems tempting, I do think this city has provided such an amazing platform for the business. To be a 15-minute subway ride from our vendors [in the Garment District], or, say, a stone’s throw away from Anna Wintour’s office – it’s all pretty remarkable.”