Interview: Rony Tennenbaum!

Underneath This just had the inspiring and enjoyable experience of interviewing Rony Tennenbaum, an out and outspoken gay designing jeweler striving to make a difference in and for his community. Please read more about Rony (adapted from a press release bio) before proceeding to the interview.

Rony has long served the LGBTQ+ community regardless of the law, carving the hopes and dreams of same-sex couples in gold and diamonds, and sending a strong message of inclusiveness to the LGBTQ+ community.

What makes Rony particularly current and newsworthy is his ongoing contribution to the LGBTQ+ community and how he positioned himself as a recognized and sought-after authority on LGBT wedding jewelry fashion and protocol.

As we continue to celebrate the consistent string of victories in the legalization of gay marriage, more mainstream stores are calling upon his expertise to break into the LGBTQ+ wedding market. Why? Because they want someone who assimilates with that community and can provide valuable “insider” information about the culture and ethos of an audience they know little about.

Though these retailers recognize the need for the niche, most of them do not know how to approach it.  In the optic of remaining politically correct and genuine in their marketing initiative and intention, they seek Rony’s expert understanding in the culture, tastes and needs of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the jewelry and diamond worlds.

What makes Rony stand out from the rest of the jewelry designers looking to capitalize on the current momentum created by the continuing marriage equality victories, is the fact that not only is he part of that community (he has been with his husband for 21 years); but he also comes with the whole package: the trendy high-end (yet affordable) Jewelry collection, the style & fashion, and the knowledge (education/tutorial).

Moreover, Rony doesn’t just ship his collection to be added to bridal cases across the country, he actually takes the time to visit the many stores carrying his brand to EDUCATE both consumers and retailers about the new options in wedding jewelry etiquette and consults about making educated purchases.  Often forgotten is the fact that gay couples can feel uncomfortable shopping at stores for jewelry together because they don’t really know if it’s a store that will frown upon it. Every store carrying Rony’s brand, which welcomes gay and straight couples, strive to provide a comfortable location for people to shop regardless of sexual orientation.

What’s more, unlike most jewelry designers whose collection speaks explicitly to the LGBTQ+ community, Rony’s designs go beyond the use of “stereotypical rainbows and triangles,” tweaking traditional bands and diamond rings in stylishly subdued ways, and keeping social and eco-responsibilities as the driving force in his work.

More than a designer, Rony understands the need in educating a generation of retailers as well as consumers who are facing new traditions and etiquette.  LGBTQ+ couples have few societal scripts to follow and thus find themselves in uncharted waters.

Yet so are most of these mainstream retailers – from high-end stores in the likes of Tiffany’s, to department stores (Macy’s) and local mom & pops – who are now gaining access into this ever-growing LGBTQ+ demographic. Meanwhile, with several states across the country now allowing gay marriage, same-sex couples are increasingly putting a ring on it!

To date, 19 states plus Washington, D.C. have passed marriage equality laws and judges in an additional 12 states have issued rulings in favor of marriage equality. As  the gay marriage legalization is continuing to garner attention both nationally and globally, and the new mores are being written by the LGBTQ+ communities, “visionary” retailers looking to include same-sex couples as part of their all-inclusive accepted family of consumers, have been calling upon Rony’s expertise.

In June of last year, Seattle-based Ben Bridge Jeweler, owned by Warren Buffett’s holding company Berkshire Hathaway Inc., began carrying jewelry by Rony. In April, Rogers & Hollands –  one of the largest family owned jewelry chains in the country – added Rony’s same-sex bridal jewelry to its Chicago-area stores.  Now Rony’s presence extends nationwide including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Washington, California, Illinois, and Virginia.

In addition, Rony is continuously giving back to his own community. On top of lending his expert voice to, and EQL Magazine; he is as well making a difference by committing to philanthropic initiatives. His collection called LVOE LIFE is about supporting bullied and troubled teenagers.  The concept behind the charity designed collection is to teach teenagers to “Love Their Life”.

At the helm of his brand, Rony is using his expertise and message behind his jewelry to be in the vanguard of a new generation of jewelry consumers, and taking with him any forerunners who wish to join forces with him and his message on the journey.

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Please describe your path to becoming a designer.

I have always been fascinated with jewelry. My mom wore lots of jewelry when I was growing up and I always loved being a part of her treasure hunts for new interesting pieces. About 25 years ago, I landed a job as a data entry clerk in a large jewelry manufacturing company in NYC and I was captivated with the process of making jewelry. I loved everything about it from the designing, to the metals used (such as gold and platinum), to the gemstones (color stones or diamonds). Everything about the jewelry just fascinated me!

I started taking courses to better understand the product I was working with. I studied the manufacturing process, diamonds, design and eventually marketing and sales. I loved the process a design took from the drawing table to becoming a beautiful ring or necklace, and then putting together the story behind it.

It was later on, while working in another jewelry company, that I faced my first customer and enjoyed the interaction with them. Learning about their needs and likes and being able to create something for them to wear based on these specifications. Finally it was working with couples getting engaged (and married), and witnessing the enjoyment they possessed in talking about their future rings that really got me fascinated with designing wedding jewelry.

You have been characterized as “out” and “outspoken.” Please expand upon what those adjectives mean to you.

I am very proud at being an openly gay man. I grew up in a very sheltered environment that did not nurture gayness or freedom to be who you are. I had to find my own path. Today I am thrilled that I am able to live the life I could only have dreamed of growing up. To me being “out” is being free.

I speak my mind and believe that there is a vast array of opinions out there about the LGBT community. Educating ignorant ideas and beliefs is how I believe we will all eventually be able to live in harmony. I speak up and proudly address how I see the norm should be. While I did not have many role models who stood up and spoke their mind while I was growing up, I only hope my ideas and thoughts will inspire new generations to be proud of who they are, and that they can become whatever they want.

How do your social and cultural identities affect what you make?

About 10 years ago when you Googled the words “gay” and “jewelry” all you got were rainbows and triangles and gaudy looking jewelry. I used to say it looked like what a straight person thinks a gay person wants to wear. Though I find nothing wrong with rainbows, or triangles, I don’t know if any of my friends who would want to wear those designs as wedding rings. I set out to design a collection of classy more elegant and timeless pieces of jewelry that would be much more suitable for such personal and intimate items like an engagement ring or wedding band. My collections stem from sentiment and not from symbolism as triangles.

For example, when I designed my LVOE (pronounced the letters L-V-O-E), the idea behind it was that love is love, no matter how you spell it. Everyone sees the LOVE spelt in the 4 letters, and people ask me for the “love” rings. But the deeper definition is that Love is Love, No Matter Who the Two People are, and I find that to be a powerful statement.

lvoe_pave setHow do you know when a design feels right?

Depends on what you call “right.” To me, all my designs feel right for someone. Though I may design several dozen pieces in a collection, there are hundreds of thousands of couples out there choosing rings that fit them. I think each ring I create is right for someone. As in fashion, jewelry can be low-key and conservative and can be fashion driven and contemporary. I never think of a ring as right or wrong. To me the feeling I get when I first sketch a ring is excitement, I have a vision. It is only when it is complete, set with diamonds in gold, that’s when I think to myself, “Nice. But would I wear this,” and if the answer is YES, then I know I did it right.

What were some inspirations for making your same- sex wedding/anniversary ring collections available online?

I am always inspired by love and the commitment two people have towards one another and their long-lasting relationship. I believe everyone has an equal right to love and live with the person of their choice, regardless of sexual orientation. That love and devotion inspires me.

I mentioned my collection LVOE earlier, which represents Love Is Love. Another one of my collections called “TIE THE KNOT” is made of a beautiful golden nautical knot. The inspiration is pretty clear, couples love the sentiment of tying the knot with a symbol of gold, and the fact that they get matching or similar Knot rings makes it a special design for them. It is probably one of my best-selling collections for both lesbian and gay couples alike.

Another collection called “BRICKS” has a beautiful line of blocks lining the ring down the center. The Bricks collection is inspired by the building blocks of every relationship. Couples relate. Relationships are built one block at a time and can take years to build. It’s a strong sentiment that resonates with couples.

From your perspective, how do matrimony experiences differ for heterosexual and cisgender couples compared to LGBTQ+ couples?

I believe the experience of falling in love with someone of the same gender and building a life together does not differ no matter what the sexual orientation of the couple is. The emotion of meeting someone who makes your heart beat faster is universal. I don’t find the genders of a couple to be the differences that make any part of the marriage experience different from couple to couple.

I have spent the last 21 years with the man I love. Both our relationship and the way our household is run are as any relationship. I find that it is the way the couple interacts inside their relationship and towards the outside world that gives a relationship its strength and not their label “gay, “lesbian”, “straight”, “cisgender”, “heterosexual” etc.

What do you think of the current marriage equality movement in the US? In what ways can the movement be amplified?

Marriage equality laws are long overdue in this country. I find the movement is extraordinary and a pillar of Human rights, not just LGBT rights. No one person or institution should have the right to dictate who another human being should love or wed. I find that as the movement gains momentum, we will see more tolerance and a non issue of the matter.

However, I am a huge believer in education. Part of what I do today is travel around the country and talk to groups about these new social trends and etiquettes that are growing out of the marriage equality movement. As I talk with people, and this is not just retailers who are interested in carrying LGBT wedding ring collections in their stores (which of its own is a wonderful thing to witness), I also talk to groups of the LGBT community.

It is amazing how many questions and confused couples I am faced with who know they now have the right to marry, but do not know what they should or can do now that it’s here. They are stumped on the etiquettes within the community when it comes to proposals, weddings, rings etc. Of course I speak from the perspective of a jeweler, but I have witnessed questions such as women asking “Do I propose to my girlfriend?”, “Do we both buy engagement rings”, “Do we wear matching rings?” and the list goes on and on.

That shows me there are etiquettes that are still being considered and traditions that are in the making. It is education that opens people’s eyes to how vast this impacts our lives. It doesn’t end with “Ban lifted. Get Married.”

I commend you for purposefully using EcoGold, a greener substance. What motivated that decision-making process?

Gold is one of the most valuable recyclable materials there is, and there is so much existing gold in the world that is being reused. The thought is why purchase additional gold from mines, when there is perfectly ample supply of existing material that can be recycled.

I love the idea of empowering someone to be environmentally conscious or at least aware that they contribute even the slightest to a better world. It is my little gift to them.

What has been the most surprising reaction to your creative work?

Many years ago I was commissioned to design a surprise engagement ring by one partner for her girlfriend, based on a magazine image. I created a ring very similar to this girl’s dream photo, but when the ring was complete, I did not care for it. I made some excuse and told her something went wrong and I needed to remake the ring. A week later, the new ring was ready and I still didn’t like it, but there was no time for another remake, the couple was heading west the next day where the proposal was going to take place.   With a heavy heart I handed the ring over and for three days I dreaded hearing the phone ring.

On the third day, the phone rings a little after midnight. I could barely make out what the voice of a sobbing woman was saying to me. When she finally took a breath, she told me her name and though I don’t know her, her now fiancé just proposed to her with the most “breathtaking” ring she ever saw in her life. She said she had to call and thank me, even before she called her parents. I learned to never under-estimate what people appreciate in jewelry.

Who have been your most meaningful inspirations?

Warren Buffet once said: “A person is sitting in the shade today, because someone thought of planting a seed a while ago.” I love that. I can only hope that my teachings, and designs and ideas of an equal society will plant seeds in people’s minds that will encourage a better life for future generations.

What insights do you have for aspiring designers?

Stick with it. I find that if you have a good idea and are determined, you will succeed. I think setting goals are important. People who have a passion for what they are doing and push forward are usually very successful. And most important, don’t let anyone persuade you off your course.

On which projects are you working next?

 I never sit still. I have many things in the works at the moment. Besides the launch of several new collections, I am traveling all over the country and enjoy lecturing to the LGBT community on “The New Etiquettes of the Rainbow” and on “Buying Diamonds in the Age of Equality”, both from my “Rony Talks” series. I love the interaction with people.

I am also working on a few exciting ventures that I am not yet ready to talk about, but I guarantee you will be seeing a lot more Rony Tennenbaum in the months and years to come.