It’s a Saturday afternoon in mid-December, and the crowd at Neiman Marcus in King of Prussia is surprisingly sparse. An exception is the jewelry department, with its steady stream of well-heeled women—and a few brave men—all lured here by a trunk show featuring pieces from iconic Philadelphia-based jeweler Steven Lagos. One saleswoman helps a customer choose between a vibrant blue topaz and a smoky quartz gemstone—both part of Lagos’ Passion cocktail ring collection. (She opts for the former.) Nearby, another models bracelets for a guy who looks overwhelmed—perhaps by the prospect of satisfying a picky wife for Christmas.
Alas, fans holding out hope that Lagos himself would make an appearance at the event were out of luck. The designer was halfway around the world in Asia, finishing a two-week buying trip for gemstones for his upcoming collections. “I’m always a year ahead in designing,” says Lagos, just a few days before leaving for Asia.
Lagos has set aside some time for a conversation in the conference room of his noticeably unglamorous headquarters in Old City. Most of the day-to-day operations—designing, manufacturing, shipping—take place in this 40,000-square-foot warehouse space, which employs more than 40. “Some have been with me for more than 25 years,” he says.
A never-ending cycle of reinvention has defined Lagos’ life for the past 33 years. “As I’m completing one collection, I’m simultaneously thinking about and designing the next collection—and the collection after that,” says the 52-year-old Broomall native. “I’ve always been super-committed. If you rest on your laurels for two seasons, you’re out in this business. And now, in this economy, it’s even more that way.”
With his long-sleeve, black T-shirt and black jeans, Lagos dresses as he comes across: relaxed and unassuming. “I do love color,” he says. “You just wouldn’t know it by how I’m dressed.”
Lagos’ enormous success might be best described in raw numbers. He’s sold more than a million pieces of jewelry, presenting new collections five times annually. Designing about 300 new pieces a year, he estimates he’s made 9,000 throughout his career.
His work is sold in over 300 stores nationwide, including Neiman’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdales, along with his own place on Rittenhouse Square. He visits about 20 stores a year and travels to Asia at least four times annually, logging roughly 200,000 air miles.
One thing Lagos can’t calculate is the number of hours he’s devoted to building his brand—an endeavor that he has no intention of walking away from anytime soon. “When you’re creative, what a privilege it is to be able to create,” he says. “What an honor it is to create something and have someone want to buy it. I’ve been super-lucky.”
Luck is something Lagos refers to often. And while his humility is admirable, he knows there’s more to it than that. “Let me tell you what my father told me about luck,” says Lagos. “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
As a student at Marple Newtown High School, Lagos began dabbling in jewelry design, crafting pieces out of silverware. “I was very fortunate to have parents who encouraged creativity,” he says. “They gave me their full support.”
Since then, he’s come a long way from forks and spoons. “I love the process of making jewelry,” he says. “I love the idea of building something.”
First and foremost, Lagos was attracted to jewelry’s broad appeal as an art form. “If you’re a painter or a sculptor, you have some people who are interested in your work,” he says. “Jewelry is different because it seems like everyone is interested.”
Lagos’ formal introduction to the business came at age 17, when he took a job as a stock boy at Wayne Jewelers, around the corner from his father’s dry-cleaning business on North Wayne Avenue. There he met his mentor, a Russian jeweler who had a profound influence on him. “He was the person who taught me about jewelry,” Lagos recalls. “He taught me about the craft, the processes, the lessons of Old World craftsmanship, and the importance of working with the highest quality materials.”
A few years later, Lagos had launched his own line. It was the early 1970s, and the jewelry industry was in the midst of a major renaissance fueled by the women’s movement. Many wives and girlfriends had their own careers, so they could afford to buy their own jewelry.
“The women’s self-purchase market really exploded during [the ’70s],” Lagos says. “When I was growing up, jewelry was a very formal gift between a man and a woman, typically. When I started in the business, men bought 90 percent of it. Today, it’s less than 50 percent.”
As with all of his lines to this day, Lagos’ initial work struck a chord with buyers as artistic, unique and, most of all, affordable. At the time, high-end department stores focused on formal special-occasion jewelry. Lagos offered a quality, lower-priced alternative. His designs were the very definition of “bridge jewelry”—bridging the gap between fine and costume jewelry.
In the early 1980s, Lagos was asked to design a 25-piece, 14-karat gold collection for Neiman Marcus. “Anything priced under $1,000 was the idea,” he says.
In 1986, he launched his signature Caviar collection, an array of finely crafted sterling silver pieces accented by 18-karat gold, semiprecious gemstones and the symbolic caviar-like beading that’s still used in many of his pieces today. “Prior to this collection, people wore either gold or silver jewelry,” says Lagos. “This collection brought the two together.”
The pairing was a success, to say the least. Independent stores that never carried sterling silver now wanted collections like Lagos’ to fulfill customer demand. “We were on the vanguard of this whole movement,” he says.
Soon, others were following Lagos’ lead—designers like David Yurman, Judith Ripka, Stephen Dweck and John Hardy. The competition never lets up, and it motivates Lagos in his tireless efforts to stay relevant. “We’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and I have customers who’ve been buying from me for 25,” says Lagos. “They don’t keep coming back if you’re not consistent and relevant.”
For all of his jewelry, Lagos uses 18-karat gold, sterling silver and high-quality, semiprecious gemstones. These days, his pieces range in price from $200—for the signature Lagos key that actress Demi Moore bought when she was in Philly a few years ago—to $20,000. And while it can’t hurt to have the Hollywood types in your corner, Lagos knows he’s only as good as his next collection.
“You have to be open-minded and keep reinventing yourself,” he says. “And as you get older, it’s harder and harder to do.”
To learn more, visit lagos.com.
These sophisticated pieces combine sterling silver and 18-karat gold with white, blue and smoky topaz, green amethyst, black agate, and diamonds.
The latest collection from Steven Lagos offers vibrantly colored gemstones, diamonds and a wealth of gold. Its bold statement bracelets and long, layering necklaces are perfect for Valentine’s Day. And more perfection is on the way. “I have favorite pieces, but I haven’t seen the piece that’s my best yet,” says Lagos. “I’ve done some really good work, but I’m about to do my very best.”