Four years ago, while Alison Chemla was working a run-of-the-mill marketing job in retail, her was curiosity piqued by the whimsical quirks of modern communication. (More specifically: how we text message one another.)
"I'd always wanted to go into fine jewelry," she tells Inc., "But I didn't want to do it unless it was something different."
Indeed, while darker jewelry -- rutilated quartz, onyx, and diamonds are especially popular -- is now trending hot by industry standards, Chemla's inspiration stemmed from a somewhat brighter source: that instantly recognizable smiley face emoticon.
In 2012, she officially launched her eponymous Alison Lou line of fashion accessories, a core collection of luxury jewelry -- from smileys and frowns to flirtatious faces on pendants, rings, earrings, and necklaces. Her creative takes on simple messages -- such as a golden "bee" icon paired with a "happy" smiley face stud -- saw record sales, and are presently sold out on her website.
Chemla, 27, has since expanded on her line of emojis. Poop icons and the "see-no-evil monkey" rings, for example, are surprisingly big winners among customers of all ages and personality types. No matter what mood, buyers can match what they wear with a shiny, humorous twist.
Shoppers do need deep pockets, though. A simple stud can go for as much as $595, with a higher price point of $15,000 for what Chemla calls the "crazier," one-of-a-kind pieces (i.e., an 11-karat yellow sapphire ring).
To date, Alison Lou's success has been on the rise. As of 2014, the brand raked in more than $450,000 in revenue, according to data from Forbes. It has garnered a following of high-profile celebrities, such as Cara Delevingne, Rachel McAdams, and Girls star Jemima Kirke.
As recently as last week, Chemla debuted her latest, floral-themed line of jewelry, as part of the designer's first-ever appearance at New York Fashion Week, where actress Ashley Olsen was also in attendance. For the designer, a Fashion Week debut is an entrance into the exclusive club that may ultimately lead her to success in a lucrative market.
Still, Chemla explains that her every move in her business career has been calculated, at times, painfully slow. It took her an entire year and a half after conceiving the theme to actually launch a collection (and an additional three years to make it to Fashion Week). During that time, Chemla worked independently, and dealt in most of the details herself. She packed and shipped jewelry, designed sample sets, planned events, and handled each payment manually.
She continues to do all of the marketing herself, and thus, at very little expense. "I minored in cybergraphics at Bard and was the editor of my yearbook in high school, so all of that Adobe work came in handy," she says.
Chemla is the first to admit that she's made many mistakes in her journey from jewelry enthusiast to business owner, not least of all in handling those less-than-sexy legal details. Once, she says she neglected to have a client sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA): "He [the mechanic] became obsessed with the piece and wanted to use it for other things," she says. "That caused me a lot of anxiety."
What's more, in the very early stages, she recalls not knowing how to write an invoice. "I just thought people were just going to, like, pay me!" she laughs.
Part of the difficulty, too, is steering clear of the consumer trends -- especially now that emoticons are increasingly entering into the popular zeitgeist. According to the trade organization Jewelers of America, instant messaging is one of the most notable trends in jewelry design this year. Such iconography is also exemplifed by competing designers Alex Woo and Heather B. Moore.
What's more, standing out is becoming crucial in the designer fashion industry at large, which accounted for as much as $1.4 billion in market spending in 2014, according to the most recent available data from IBIS World. The report finds that as demand increases, wealth is concentrated largely among the established players, many of whom partner with high-profile brands like Target or H&M (Olivia Wilde's Conscious Commerce, for instance). Smaller, more "niche" designers -- a mantle that Chemla holds -- are actually experiencing more "volatility" in the marketplace.
Even so, Chemla says that she isn't concerned with the future of her company. She makes a point of coming out with new, non-emoticon themed sets each year, such as last year's "Decadence" collection, featuring icons like caviar and champagne glasses on gold necklaces. Most recently, Chemla partnered with fashion designer Morgan Lane to create a set of day-of-the-week underwear, featuring (you guessed it) emoticon buttons.
In future, Chemla says that she hopes to get into clothing design, noting: "I'm still really young, business-wise."