Starting a business is always a journey, but the jewelry brand SASKIA began with a literal one.
Seventeen years ago, Saskia de Vries and her now-husband and business partner Scott Kerns met waiting tables at a DC restaurant. At the time, they were both actors (the only actors working in the restaurant, in fact). After getting engaged, they decided to help the other live one of their dreams. They started with Scott’s – taking a trip around the world.
Over the course of a year, they traveled to 13 countries. And just before leaving, Saskia’s childhood friend encouraged her to take a small jewelry kit with her. The advice paid off.
“We were in Korea on this boat going to Jeju Island,” Saskia remembers. “I was making elastic bracelets, and I taught these two kids how to make them without us having the same language. Then in China, we went very far out where there were no tourists. I’m just sitting on a bus doing these string bracelets and everyone comes crowding around. When I’m done, I just give it to somebody. I found on the trip, it was a way I could communicate with people I couldn’t otherwise speak with.”
While traveling, she used those connections she was able to make to push her artistry by creating apprenticeships for herself with locals who she could learn from. In Tibet, she studied with one man in a market, who taught her some traditional knotting. In Cambodia, she learned some techniques from a group of kids on the beach selling intricate string bracelets. “That trip was all about connecting with cultures that were all new for us, and just talking to people, suddenly we were invited to some festival or a wedding,” she says. “That’s kind of what I like to bring to our jewelry and our customers – sharing my love of people who are different.”
After they returned from their trip and got married, it was Saskia’s turn, and her dream had always been to move to New York. So they did.
At first, they pursued work as actors but, over the last 10 years, developed a rapidly growing “side gig” with Saskia’s jewelry. It grew from selling at the PS 321 Flea Market in Park Slope on the weekends to filling the second bedroom and then hallway of their apartment to forming an LLC and, ultimately, to where they are today: seven employees, one intern, five seasonal employees, a permanent store at Grand Central Station, presence in gift shops like the one at the Rubin Museum, stands at seasonal holiday markets, and a permanent studio/retail space at Industry City.
That move from their apartment to Industry City was not a forgone conclusion. “We didn’t know this was a business,” says Scott. The fact that it was became pretty clear as space became scant in the apartment. With the help of their landlord, a Japanese cabinetmaker, they had built a long, L-shaped counter in the 5ft by 20ft hallway. (Scott went on to build all their displays and cases using their landlord’s basement woodworking studio.) It was cozy – you couldn’t’ get by if chairs were scooted out too far – but not tenable long term, especially as they had started having children.
They had found a studio closer to their home in Park Slope, but Scott really pushed for Industry City. He felt like the community there, being around other artists and business owners, would really be a boost. So they moved into a 680 square-foot studio two and a half years ago and then recently built out their new space, doubling their size and adding a retail space in front. Starting with just the two of them on staff, they now have five employees on staff, most of which were hired locally in Brooklyn.
Their new retail space and store is part of Industry City’s 25,000 square-foot collection of artisan purveyors dubbed The Makers Guild. Housed on the second floor of Building 5 at 51 35th Street, The Makers Guild is composed of nine artisan-retail shops and offers visitors the unique ability to buy goods made before their eyes. There’s a diverse array of offerings, from Brooklyn Candle Studio to Mr. Kaves Pigtown Tattoo to The Wrap Life, who Saskia is exploring a possible collaboration with.
“Products take on greater meaning when you understand how they’re made and you see and interact with those doing the creating,” said Jim Somoza, Industry City’s director of development.
Their growth is clear not just in their physical size but in the volume of pieces they sell each year. This year, they’re projecting making around 4,000 earrings and 5,000 necklaces. And those range in price from being very affordable at under $50 to one of a kind at $2,500.
And the global focus that so inspired Saskia on their trip so many years ago still continues in her work today. Being a first-generation American of Dutch heritage, she’s committed to celebrating cultures from around the world. The material she uses comes from all over Asia, Africa, Europe, and elsewhere, many of which she finds on her annual trip to a massive gem and mineral show in Tucson, AZ. She still uses a super-green turquoise from Tibet that she encountered on her trip.
Thinking about their growth, Scott smiles. “We’re at this place where we feel like next year is going to be a really nice year, the business is kind of its own thing, and the studio can run without us – it’s an exciting time.