CRANSTON, R.I. — Alex and Ani founder Carolyn Rafaelian was sitting in her Cranston home on a recent fall Friday evening, a glass of red wine balanced on the arm of her reading chair, the golden coin necklace she was wearing — her own design, of course — glowing in the setting sunlight.
It has been 18 years since she was awarded her first patent for Alex and Ani, the iconic jewelry brand she named after her two eldest daughters, and more than two years since she was forced to step away from her own company. Still, she said, right now she feels more grounded than she has in a long time.
“The handcuffs are off. The cement blocks are not on my ankles anymore,” said Rafaelian, who said she never stopped designing. “There’s no restrictions, no limitations, and there’s nobody and nothing in my way now. I am more focused on my art than I have ever been.”
One of the most successful businesswomen in the US, Rafaelian describes herself as “a creative first” and a businesswoman second. With her new jewelry concept and company, Metal Alchemist, which officially launched Nov. 4, she is back in control, creating American-made products and sticking firmly to her Rhode Island roots.
Her new company already has a pre-revenue value of $150 million, and she told the Globe she is not seeking private investors.
“I realized that a legacy is the next thing you create,” said Rafaelian. Metal Alchemist “is my life’s most important work.”
In a series of exclusive interviews with the Boston Globe, Rafaelian shared her newest jewelry concept and outlined her plans for Metal Alchemist, which will mark her public return to the jewelry industry.
Rafaelian was born in Cranston, R.I., in 1966, one of five children of Lucy and Ralph Rafaelian. Her grandfather escaped the Armenian genocide in 1913 and came to America with nothing but a suitcase. Her father opened the Cinerama Jewelry factory in Cranston the same year she was born, so she essentially grew up in the business, working there as a teenager. She and her sister, Rebecca Rafaelian, eventually took over the business from their father.
Carolyn Rafaelian was designing jewelry for brands like Express and Victoria’s Secret but the work, she said, wasn’t fulfilling. She wanted to design jewelry that had meaning, and so she started experimenting with metals, soldering them into bracelets and designing charms with symbols and saints on them. In 2004, she received her first patent for an uncomplicated design: the expandable wire bangle bracelet which became Alex and Ani’s flagship product. By the mid-2010s, Alex and Ani was the fastest-growing company in America.
In 2017, Forbes splashed Rafaelian’s face on the cover of its issue about the richest self-made women. But soon a series of executive departures made headlines, several lawsuits raised eyebrows, and wealthy international private equity firms started swallowing up shares. Rafaelian was pushed out in the summer of 2020 and retreated from public view, avoiding the media. The following year, Alex and Ani filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Rafaelian first mentioned Metal Alchemist in an October 2020 Instagram video, since deleted, in which she announced that she had left the company she founded and made famous.
Metal Alchemist’s name is a nod to the process used to create the materials featured in the new lines of jewelry: gold, sterling silver, and copper, all layered and bonded together. Future collections will be released in the coming months.
Developing Metal Alchemist went beyond designing pieces in a sketchbook. Rafaelian claims bonding pure, precious metals has never been done this way before in the industry. The technique heats, presses, and stretches the metals, a process both new and “as old as time,” according to Marisa Morin, Metal Alchemist’s “chief alchemist.”
Unlike with simple jewelry design, the bonding process is something other companies can’t make copies of quickly.
“This technology is not on the market,” said Rafaelian. “This bonding material is a proprietary process that is exclusive to Metal Alchemist... It was years in the making. This didn’t happen overnight.”
Judy Fisher, the senior vice president for merchandising at Reeds Jewelers, immediately saw the potential in Metal Alchemist.
“When we went to her office, there were so many collections and it was like, ‘Wow, where do we even begin?’“ she said. “The hardest part was [figuring out] what we would not include for the launch.”
They finally decided to start with three different collections, which will also be available online, in Metal Alchemist’s flagship brick-and-mortar New York City outpost in Tribeca, and in all 62 Reeds Jewelers stores in the US.
Rafaelian’s innovative approach comes at the right time, Fisher said.
“Romantic gift giving isn’t the main headline anymore,” said Fisher. “It’s more about self-expression. There are no rules, you can wear it the way you want and be you. So I don’t know if (Metal Alchemist) would have worked 20 years ago. But it is very much relevant to today’s consumer.”
Alex and Ani sparked the trend of using jewelry for self-expression, Fisher pointed out, and many other companies now sell “trinkets of self expression” like astrological signs, hobby-themed charms, or mystical symbols like the Evil Eye. What Metal Alchemist offers now has a deeper meaning. “Carolyn is definitely leading the industry,” she said.
Alchemists believed metals were associated with certain heavenly bodies and mystical properties. Gold, for instance, was associated with the sun, and Morin said she believes it “strengthens your life force and ability to attract.” Silver, which “shields and protects while enhancing your intuition,” Morin said, was associated with the moon. Copper — “the generous metal,” according to Morin — is associated with Venus and “increases harmony and balance within and around you.” By fusing the metals together, Rafaelian seeks to help the wearer reap these mystical benefits.
Rafaelian doesn’t fit into any sort of corporate mold. She typically wears jeans and a loose-fitting shirt or oversize knitted sweater. A Rolex — given to her years ago — was worn one time and placed in a box; instead, she wears her own jewelry designs, sometimes to test them out before they’re available to customers.
She owns several properties in Rhode Island, including Belcourt of Newport — a mansion built in 1891 in Newport — which she has fully restored. Instead of living in it, she’s turning it into a museum (it’s already open to the public for tours). When she does stay there, she sleeps in a small apartment once used as staff quarters. She owns Bar and Board Bistro on Thames Street in Newport, and Sakonnet Vineyard in Little Compton — the oldest winery in New England.
She’s placed her personal symbol, a panther, everywhere: on tables in her homes, in the logo of her restaurant, at the vineyard.
Rafaelian, a mother of three adult daughters (Alex, Ani, and Alivia), infuses her companies with the ideals she herself practices. The nearly 30 employees at Metal Alchemist don’t have titles. She avoids bureaucracy. At Alex and Ani, she placed her spiritual guide on the company’s board of directors, gave each employee a panther figurine, and often brought shamans, monks, and priests in to speak to employees and bless the products — something many dismissed as a marketing tactic, but was more of an extension of her own belief system.
Self-empowerment and positive energy may be the new “it” thing in fashion and decor, but Rafaelian has been beating that drum for years. At her home in Cranston, she lays massive amethyst points and towers in the sun to “charge.” Raw crystals and tumbled stones are scattered on the windowsills and tucked in corners all around her homes.
Rafaelian said that, for her, Metal Alchemist is “more than just a jewelry business.” When worn, she says, the bonded metal begins sharing, conducting, and balancing the ions within one’s body. She’s just the person sharing access to that energy tool with others.
The greater good has always been part of Rafaelian’s focus, even as advisors told her it wasn’t worthwhile and warned it would harm her company’s growth. At Alex and Ani, “Charity by Design” once dedicated 20 percent of a bangle’s proceeds to an array of global nonprofits. While she was still with the company, Alex and Ani raised more than $70 million for various causes.
Nancy Davis, a jewelry designer who founded Race to Erase MS in Los Angeles after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 33, was one of many leaders whose nonprofit benefitted from the philanthropy. She told the Globe the millions they received funded research that later became medications that’s now “saving a lot of lives.”
Alex and Ani discontinued its large-scale charitable work when Rafaelian left, according to nonprofit leaders who used to receive funds from it. But Rafaelian is already working on ways Metal Alchemist can give to various communities and charities.
Her soon to launch Posy wire bracelets are inspired by posy rings of medieval times, which were used to express love or friendship or were used as wedding bands, with a message or a name engraved inside. Rafaelian said she plans on collaborating with others and with charities, donating 20 percent of the proceeds from the Posy Wire bracelets to their cause.
“You should do what you can to make a difference for your immediate environment. You keep something steady and growing so that you can go help the world,” said Rafaelian.
She’s also doing that by making sure Metal Alchemist’s roots are firmly planted in Rhode Island. Every factory she works with is based in the Ocean State, once lauded as the jewelry capital of the world. Metal Alchemist is headquartered in Wickford Village.
“I’m going to spend my life catering to Rhode Island,” said Rafaelian. “I’m going to get those factories back up and running. I want to see them hiring, putting additions back on, be able to send their kids to college, and really grow. That was always important to me.”
“My father did business with these [factories] for decades before me. So this is family, this is personal,” said Rafaelian.
Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, has been friends with Rafaelian for the last few years. His family has a similar story: When his grandfather immigrated to the US from Italy he formed Esposito Jewelry Inc. in Providence in 1935.
“Carolyn’s success is Rhode Island’s success,” said Shekarchi. “People who underestimate Carolyn Rafaelian do so at their own peril.”
He added, “If her company ever went public, I’d invest in it.”