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Vanessa Stofenmacher of Vrai & Oro

The millennial entrepreneur and designer on crafting sustainable jewellery and overcoming her most challenging life experience.

You’ve got to be a real standout to be a Forbes 30 Under 30 honouree. For one, it’s harder to get on the list (<4%) than it is to get into Stanford (4.8%) or Harvard (5.2%). You also have to be a beyond accomplished leader in your respective field. But for Vanessa Stofenmacher, founder and creative director of fine jewellery brand, Vrai & Oro, perhaps it was just a matter of time before the rest of the world beyond Los Angeles — where her studio is located — got acquainted with her.

Since launching in 2014 with $8,000 in seed money from her husband, Vanessa turned Vrai & Oro into a $3 million business in 2016. In February this year, she launched VOW (Vrai & Oro Weddings) where diamonds are grown in California labs. That’s right. Diamonds are created in the same natural surroundings, only in a facility in San Francisco where conditions are mimicked by science.

To date, this endeavour is arguably Vanessa’s biggest act of disruption to the heritage business. Having set out “to expose the traditional ways of the jewellery industry” from the get-go, the brand strives to cut out middlemen, use sustainable gold and diamonds, and localise all manufacturing processes. And consumers are buying into this honest, transparent and more affordable approach.

Driven by consciousness for its business model, the consumer’s retail experience and jewellery design, Vrai & Oro is setting the bar for other brands to follow. Here, we speak to Vanessa on leading by example.

“Creating something sustainable really means creating something of quality that will last.”

Vrai & Oro means ‘truth’ in French and ‘gold’ in Spanish. Their signature style is classic and minimalist, like these rose coloured beauties

Why sustainable jewellery?

I realised that there was a gap in the marketplace. On one hand, there was trendy fashion jewellery from places like Forever 21, [that was] made from disposable materials that end up in a landfill within months. On the other hand, there was expensive fine jewellery from places like Tiffany & Co. and Cartier that felt overpriced and unattainable. There wasn’t a good option for simple, everyday fine jewellery that didn’t break the bank. So by selling direct-to-consumer (D2C) and cutting out the middlemen, we’re able to concentrate our efforts on creating simple, high quality jewellery that will last a lifetime and transcend the fast fashion clutter.

How would you appeal to traditional buyers to discourage them from purchasing unethical and irresponsibly made jewellery?

We try to avoid negative scare tactics and prefer to focus on creating a positive future outlook instead. We’re strongly rooted in our values of quality, simplicity and transparency, so we’ve found that as long as we stay true to these three values, everything else comes naturally.

Trillion diamonds, which are often used as accent or side stones, are featured
on their own in Vrai & Oro pieces

You’ve said that companies like Warby Parker and Everlane inspired you to start Vrai & Oro. How so?

Both Warby Parker and Everlane have helped change the retail landscape for the better. By being open and transparent with their customers, they have helped break the ‘big business’ mould and inspired customers to invest in values rather than products. I’m still very inspired by both of these companies as well as all the other D2C transparent brands that have recently emerged.

Why is sustainable jewellery typically simple in design?

Creating something sustainable really means creating something of quality that will last. This goes against the approach of fast fashion that focuses on fleeting trends and quantity over quality. In that sense, sustainability naturally lends itself to the minimalistic belief that less is more.

All of Vrai & Oro’s diamonds, including these baguette stones, are at least G-H color + SI2 quality,
meaning “they look great to the naked eye, regardless of how close you get”

What has been the most fulfilling experience, and the most challenging one, of Vrai & Oro’s journey from birth till today?

The most fulfilling experience has been growing and expanding our V&O team. Sending each other exciting updates over the weekend and knowing that we’re all in this together is really the best feeling and it’s what gets me through the tough times.

Moment of truth! My most challenging experience was the decision to buyout my co-founder, who is a hard worker and whom I respect greatly. While the two of us were very aligned in our vision when we first launched the company, it was apparent that our visions diverged somewhere down the line and it was causing tension and confusion throughout the team. I struggle with confrontation so this was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Ultimately, I had to make the decision that I believed was best for the company. 

“We’re all about real ingredients and love supporting other brands with the same philosophy”, says Vanesssa

When shopping for sustainable jewellery, what are some questions we should ask ourselves, and the retailers who we’re buying from?

Always ask about the materials being used. It’s shocking how many companies try to sugar-coat their materials by saying things like “gold-colour” or “vermeil”. These terms hint that the jewellery is made from a cheap base metal like brass (or silver in vermeil) and plated with a thin outer layer of gold to give the appearance of solid gold. Unfortunately, what ends up happening is this thin layer of gold will rub off within months, if not weeks. Your jewellery will start changing colour and could even cause your skin to turn green.

According to the brand, all pieces are made from 14k solid gold. Unlike its plated or filled counterparts,
solid gold won’t rub off on your skin and doesn’t change appearance over time

“When shopping for sustainable jewellery, always ask about the materials being used.”

What is your ultimate goal for the brand and how do you plan on achieving it?

To be honest, I don’t have an ultimate goal for the company. I want us to continue to grow and inspire sustainable change within the industry. Beyond that, I prefer to keep things open-ended and see where life takes us. I’ve watched too many start-ups become fixated on a particular end goal or exit strategy, and when change inevitably occurs, it’s hard — if not impossible — for them to accept the change and switch gears.

What beauty brands do you use in your daily makeup and skincare routines?

I love Aesop products. Their brand supports sustainability simply through the quality of ingredients they use. I also use Sunday Riley oils for my face. While I don’t wear much makeup, I like to finish my regime with Glossier’s Haloscope and Boy Brow.

Message from Vrai & Oro: Never buy gold that is plated, filled or faked

How do you practice sustainability in other aspects of your life?

Sustainability and healthy living go hand in hand for me. Because mornings are my only “me time”, I like to wake up early so I can dedicate time to both mind and body health. To start, I go for a run (or yoga on Fridays), followed by 10 minutes of meditation to clear my mind (thanks, Headspace app!). And of course, the day can’t truly begin until I have my morning green smoothie for breakfast (matcha makes all the difference).  

What does conscious living mean to you?

Conscious living simply means being aware of who you are and what you consume. Ask questions, question traditions and always make informed decisions.

“Conscious living means asking questions, questioning traditions and always making informed decisions.”

Images courtesy of Vrai & Oro