Greenwich St. Jewelers has weathered its fair share of storms the last four plus decades. Since its inception in 1976 it’s survived every life-changing event New Yorkers would face in the 21st century: 9/11, the 2008 Financial Crisis, Hurricane Sandy, and COVID-19. But the business continues to prove itself as a formidable enterprise. This past June, sisters Jennifer Gandia and Christina Gandia Gambale just opened the company’s brand new storefront on Reade St. in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood — just a few blocks away from the brand’s original downtown boutique — still under the original name their parents Carl and Milly gave it years ago.
When Carl and Milly first considered setting up shop, they couldn’t have known they were putting the pieces in place for a lasting family legacy amongst the affluent types of the downtown Manhattan luxury shopping scene. The two had immigrated from Puerto Rico to New York as children and occupied a working class background, so owning an operation lined with cases of sparkling diamonds and decorated with opulent custom-made art wasn’t something they’d originally aspired to. They simply worked hard and were kind — two lessons both sisters name as the most important ones passed on from their mother and father.
“Our father got into the jewelry business kind of surreptitiously, it wasn’t really his intent,” Jennifer says. “He was doing the kind of work that a lot of our families did when they came over here: service work. But he’s really good with his hands and very artistic.” Carl first entered the industry when an acquaintance told him of someone hiring in the area, after which he went on to carve the wax models for casting jewelry in. He refined his skills with apprenticeships throughout the years, even opening his own small arcade shop in Midtown. So, when he and wife Milly saw an ad in The New York Times listing a jewelry business up for sale, they decided to pursue it and take their work to the next level. The shop owners who had put up the notice were so charmed by the Gandias that they sold the couple their business and stayed on to help for a full year instead of moving on to retirement as planned, introducing their successors to returning clients as their personal friends.
Both sisters spent time at the counters and doing various jobs throughout the store to help out on the weekends and school breaks. Of course, the Greenwich St. Jewelers of their childhood is a far cry from the version of it that sits on Reade St. today, and no one entering the current iteration would suspect it came from modest beginnings. The first location was smaller, around 450 square feet, with the shop in front and a back area where Carl did custom work and repairs. Today’s version can only be described as elegant: an archway motif recurs throughout, with several carving out the entryway ushering customers inward and sectioning the store into three parts, as well as a few arch cutouts along the walls stretching open to reveal exposed brick. The space is lined with commissioned artwork, including an installation by Brooklyn-based muralist Mason Nye with steely gray subway grate patterns, blossoms of rust, and the teal of oxidized copper, gesturing at the store’s lower Manhattan heritage.
The store has been run by the Gandia family for 46 years, and sisters Jennifer and Christina have been in and around the business in some capacity throughout their entire lives. Their breadth of knowledge about the industry has amounted to a truly full-service operation: The offerings include pieces from the unique assortment of brands they carry, their own in-house collections that they’ve personally designed, as well as the traditional restorations, repairs, and custom work.
Their parents never pushed the sisters to take over and bring Greenwich St. Jewelers into the next generation. In fact, they encouraged them to follow their own passions and seemed to hope they’d lie outside of the shop, with all the attendant pressures and hardships they knew from experience were part of being one’s own boss.
“As kids or teenagers or even when we were working in the store, I can't remember one time when either one of [our parents] were like [elbow nudge], ‘This could all be yours one day!’” Jennifer says with a laugh. The Gandias just wanted their children to focus on school and go to college, not having attended university themselves. “I think their idea, because they didn’t have any personal experience of what it was like to work for a company, was that it was going to be easier than what they were doing. And with everything that they had to put into their business, really everything relied on them and their success.”
Staying afloat during the most economically challenging times has been a practice in pivoting and adjusting strategies. Throughout the pandemic, the sisters found a greater emphasis on building a robust social presence and focusing on online selling were the keys to keeping the doors open. Of course, COVID-19 is not the first disaster the Gandias have stewarded Greenwich St. Jewelers through. “There was [Hurricane] Sandy — all these things that sort of came up and then finally Covid,” Jennifer says. She also notes that the store’s survival through one of the city’s darkest times equipped her family with the right tools for weathering any storm: “I think that 9/11 was sort of that horrible preparation for when something’s going on that can affect our business, how are we going to face it?”
Jennifer was the first of the sisters to enter the family business in an official capacity. In September 2001, after graduating from FIT, she was working as a marketing manager for a cosmetics company; Christina was still in school, studying finance at Fordham. Greenwich St. Jewelers was mere minutes walking distance from the World Trade Center, and on the morning of the 11th, like every New Yorker’s, their lives were forever changed.
The sisters experienced the same panic so many others went through in trying to account for their loved ones. Carl and Milly had been at the shop and were separated after the towers fell.
“I remember my mother calling me and saying, ‘We got out, I'm waiting for your dad by the garage. He’s closing up.’ What ultimately happened is my parents got separated because the towers came down,” Jennifer says. “So my mother ended up going through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, and my dad [who had been diverted to Staten Island], we didn’t know where he was until he called us at five o’clock that night.”
As the events of the day unfolded they eventually reunited, relatively unscathed by the tragedy despite the store’s proximity to the towers. The Gandias would be able to access the shop in the aftermath, though it was really only “open” in the sense that they could go inside for a time. The street they were on was being used as more of a communications area and there was, of course, no kind of consumer foot traffic so near to the smoldering remains of the towers. It wasn’t long before their building was deemed unsafe.
As the world processed the events of that day and pondered how to move forward, the Gandias considered what the future of Greenwich St. Jewelers might look like, if there would be one at all.
“It takes time to really understand trauma,” says Jennifer. “It’s hard to get into the details of what they saw that day because it’s just so terrible.” The catastrophe caused the eldest sister to rethink her life’s trajectory. When it was decided that Greenwich St. Jewelers would live on at a new location on Trinity Place, Jennifer weighed her options.
She decided to spend a year in Spain and found herself inspired by the luxe storefront displays she came across on her walks. Upon returning to the U.S. in 2003, teeming with ideas to bring to the table, she stepped into a formal, full-time role at the shop. “It was one of those times in life that everyone experiences at some point where you sort of reevaluate,” she says. “Covid is one of those times, where everyone looked at their lives and was like, ‘is this the life I want to be living?’ That’s what 9/11 was like for me: I didn’t want my boss’ job, I didn’t feel satisfied. So, I thought, I'll go and help my parents for like a year until I figure things out. And I just never left!”
Her eye for fashion would be complemented by Christina’s entrepreneurial acumen when the youngest sister joined Greenwich St. Jewelers full-time four years later, after completing her gemologist’s degree. With the onboarding of their second daughter, each member of the Gandias now worked in the family business.
“We came in with this sort of young energy, we were both pretty ambitious, and we really wanted to try new things,” Jennifer says. “A lot of our growth has been [coinciding] with challenging times for New York as a state — and for the country. Christina came in in 2007, by 2008 there was the financial crisis and so we had to think about how are we going to respond to this? We’re in the jewelry business; it’s a luxury, people don’t need this. And that was when we decided to start building our bridal business.”
Putting a greater focus on bridal jewelry breathed new life into Greenwich St. Jewelers throughout the lean years following the 2008 recession. Christina led the charge, designing most of their bridal collection. Even in a time of financial crisis, customers still sought to commemorate their special days with jewelry.
Apart from pushing through the myriad challenges shaping life in the 2000s and 2010s, Greenwich St. Jewelers had made their name as a working class-owned, POC-owned family business in a largely white, affluent luxury market — a feat the sisters didn’t truly appreciate until they got a better scope of the landscape as adults.
“When we got older and more into the industry, we saw the lack of diversity,” Christina says. “At that point we [gained] an understanding of, ‘Oh, wow, what [our parents] were able to achieve is actually pretty phenomenal considering it looked a certain way for a very long time.’ And then we came into it as two women, further breaking that barrier down.”
She describes the work as “being in a business of joy,” celebrating special occasions with customers and getting to talk to people as they navigate the most exciting moments of their lives, immortalized through jewelry. Though it is of course a luxury trade by nature, the sisters aim to eschew the air of condescension that can cast clouds over such a business of joy and make Greenwich St. Jewelers feel approachable and warm.
“When we were building the store and thinking about the kind of space we wanted people to feel like they were coming into, the phrase that we used for everything was ‘luxurious but not pretentious,’” says Jennifer. “Whether you’re coming in to buy $300 Sarah McGuire earrings or a $30,000 engagement ring, we want you to feel like you’re having a really well thought-out experience without pretension, with friendliness.”
As designers, the sisters work in different niches and balance each other out: Christina’s jewelry style is more classic, more aligned with the ethos of typical bridal pieces. Jennifer tends to focus on more of the fashion lines, like her Astra collection, with diamond-dotted Zodiac signs inspired by her lifelong love of astrology.
As curators, achieving a balance is equally important. They carry eccentric, artsy brands like Sylva & Cie with daring pieces featuring skulls and cheeky phrases displayed in the same case alongside the more understated vintage-inspired pieces of brands like Single Stone.
“Jewelry in our minds is not one defined look,” Christina says. “We look for designers that all offer something a little different and try not to overlap designers of the same look, because we want to have a bit of a variety of what jewelry is: Is it organic? Is it avant-garde? Is it classic? Is it classic with a twist?”
Sitting for our interview, it’s clear that both sisters typically reach for different pieces. Both are fully adorned: like her approach to design, Christina opts for a more classic style and tends to hone in on the kind of jewelry she can don with ease every day. Jennifer is more inclined toward the eclectic, with a preference for “showier” pieces as well as an affinity for mixing in heirlooms from her own personal vintage collection.
Watching their parents work at keeping their business alive through the impossible, and following in their footsteps to do the same has been a learning experience for the sisters. Christina tears up as she explains how overcoming such difficulties in maintaining the operation has been the most rewarding part of the work for her, reflecting on just how much of themselves they’ve put into the shop. Pressure makes diamonds, after all.
“Really for me it’s a lot about personal growth,” Christina says. “And knowing where we come from, it’s really humble beginnings. Our parents’ first Christmas, the jewelry in the [storefront] window was the jewelry my dad had made my mother.”
When their parents formally retired in 2011, they knew the family business was in good hands. Their children had each gone out into the world and trained in finance and fashion and both, in their own time and of their own volition, found themselves drawn back toward jewelry — their family’s labor of love. Having spent years throughout their lives in Greenwich St. Jewelers, they’re both well aware of that special something beyond the dollar value of a gemstone that makes people covet the accessories so much. Such prized possessions are more than just baubles; they’re treasured memories. Carrying on their parents’ legacy means forging and finding the kinds of jewelry one would be happy to wear every day and pass down from generation to generation. Like the family business itself, the Gandias aim to help people find the joy in having something worth preserving.
“Jewelry really does connect us,” Jennifer says. “We can talk about fashion and treating ourselves as if it’s just a silly capitalist thing to do, like: ‘Oh, I’m just going to go buy myself something!’ But I have worked with enough people across the counter to know how special it is and how much it means.”
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