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Meet the L.A. jewellery startup combining tech and science

Proving that it’s cool to love rocks

There are few current news topics quite as hot a topic as women — specifically, women’s involvement in the tech and science sectors. Or, more specifically, their lack thereof. While getting more women involved in both areas as a career is a major pursuit, we happened to find one woman who has combined both science and technology to create a very cool two-year-old U.S.-based startup that primarily caters towards — you guessed it — women.

Meet Chelsey Kantor, a self-proclaimed science nerd, jewellery designer and co-founder of Starling Jewelry, her e-commerce business that aims to bring direct-to-consumer transparency and pricing to the sometimes-murky waters of fine jewellery.

“I was always into crystals,” Kantor tells us by phone from her Downtown L.A. studio, where she directs the simple, everyday design aesthetic of her brand (think gold and pave diamond bands, classic emerald studs and mother-child anklets without the extra markup most baubles require when passing from designer to retailer). “I always had a rock collection for as long as I can remember.”

Using her chemistry teacher grandmother as inspiration, Kantor took soldering classes as part of an after-school program when she was just 13 years-old, and her love of science and design only grew from there. A pre-med degree followed (“I wanted to be a dentist,” she says), as did a stint at Harvard Teaching Hospital and an acceptance into a Yale graduate program to study nursing. But another form of science — plainly put, rocks and how they contributed to design – was too great to ignore.

While working for Los Angeles celebrity jewellery designer Loree Rodkin, Kantor got her graduate gemology degree from the Gemological Institute of America and decided to start an online company, overseeing the website build and e-commerce strategy needed to bring her success. And the rest, as they say, is history.

We caught up with Kantor to find out just how science and tech can mix (and be turned into a career), and what advice she has for her fellow science nerds.

Vogue: You’ve mentioned a love of science and geology that started at an early age. What was your inspiration and catalyst towards science and the science of rocks, specifically, when you were a kid?

Chelsey Kantor: I think my parents and grandparents instilled the idea that nature and science were cool and important from an early age. I grew up in the country and was always outside; I can’t remember not having a rock collection. My grandmother was a chemistry teacher and I was always being sent “grow your own crystal” and “build your own ham radio” kits. One of my favourite school field trips ever was when a local geologist took us under a highway overpass and we hunted for pyrite in shale. I remember going home with a little bag of “fool’s gold” or pyrite and being so amazed that this magical, sparkly rock was right there on the highway!

Did you ever feel weird or out of place because you loved science as a kid? 

Not really, I grew up in a small rural town and remembered everyone being supportive.

How has science shaped your career path? 

Science, more specifically health sciences, were my whole career path up until my mid 20’s. Growing up I always wanted to do something in science. I took every science class I could in high school and my undergraduate degree is in bio-psychology. After college, I tried a lot of health-science related fields but nothing stuck, medical research, dentistry, and I was even accepted to a master’s program in nursing at Yale but decided the passion wasn’t there for me. But the background it gave me has been invaluable. Studying science gave me a detail oriented, precise mindset to approaching problems and in general an appreciation and awe for the world around me. An appreciation that I hope we can pass on through Starling in an accessible and fun way, by teaching people about the precious materials we use.

When did you realise that you could — or, more importantly, wanted — to make a living out of something that used your passion for science?  

I had already dived into studying jewellery and metalsmithing before I really realised how much science was involved. But very quickly I saw how much science was an important element of jewellery. It cemented my passion even further.  I was apprenticing with a metalsmith in Santa Fe New Mexico and he began teaching me metallurgy, the how and why the metals mix, bend and harden. I watched and learned from him, precisely weight pure gold casting chain, choose the alloys to mix with it, melt it in a crucible to a specific temperature, before pouring it into a mould. How to work hardened metal and drawn down wire, when you have to anneal and how the molecules change in the metal to allow this. And I have always loved all the tools involved in jewellery, as soon as I started making jewellery I realised many of them were similar or exactly the same to dentist’s tools and parts of my life started to make sense!

And of course, I really gravitated towards gemstones and went on to study gemology at the Gemological Institute of America. Learning not only how to grade diamonds and gemstones, but also the science of how they are formed in the earth over thousands of years and what causes the differences between gems and gem quality. Over time it’s become apparent just how intersected jewellery is with all of my passions.

Your business has such a huge technology component. How has your scientific approach to jewellery design/material sourcing impacted your work with the technology side of your business?

The tech side of the business is still something I’m learning about. Our goal with Starling was to bring the quality of luxury handmade jewellery to a larger consumer base, by making it affordable through a direct-to-consumer vertical, but neither I nor my business partner, Tracy, had any experience here so it’s really been a lot of learning as we go. We have met some amazing people that are helping us – we just keep asking lots of questions and learning as much as we can.

What’s your process of sourcing materials and stones? Do you encounter a lot of women in that area of your business? 

I source materials and stones through contacts that I have worked with over the last 10 years in Los Angeles and New York. It’s a word-of-mouth business and many of the people I work with are small family businesses, husbands and wives and daughters working for the family. Women genetically have a better sense of colour shades, so in the coloured stone world are much better at telling the minute differences between gemstone colours. But in the diamond world it’s still mostly men, we should work on that!

What advice would you have for other science-loving girls who might not know what kind of career options are open to them? 

Science in school can be very competitive and intimidating. Don’t be afraid to not be the smartest in your class. I never was but I didn’t let that stop me from pursuing my interests and trying my hardest.

Study really hard and always ask your questions. If something excites you, go towards it even if you might not be able to see the end picture right away. And don’t forget to look outside the box!

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