WJA: Fabulous at 40

The Women’s Jewelry Association Empowers the Industry’s Leading Ladies. Olga González FGA DGA provides a history of one of the first industry organisations for women, which continues to thrive as its enters its fourth decade. This article was published in the Winter 2023 issue of Gem-A’s Gems & Jewellery Magazine.

For forty years, the Women’s Jewelry Association (WJA) has stood as a testament to the power of unity, mentorship, and professional development within the jewellery and watch industries. From its humble beginnings as a gathering of visionary women seeking a network for professional growth, WJA has grown into an international force, fostering education, mentorship and leadership. The organisation has members and chapters throughout the United States and around the globe, with a new chapter in Toronto, Canada under formation.

Let’s take a journey through the remarkable four-decade history of the Women’s Jewelry Association, exploring its impactful legacy, accomplishments and ongoing initiatives.

INCEPTION AND EARLY YEARS: LAYING THE FOUNDATION (1982–1985)

The roots of WJA were planted during a get-acquainted party at the Boston residence of jewellery sales representative Toni Lyn Judd in 1982. At a time when professional networking was challenging for women, especially in male-dominated industry circles, Toni Lyn Judd and Cindy Geller took the lead in pioneering an organisation for women in the gem trade called the New England Women’s Jewelry Association. Despite the ladies of the trade facing initial difficulties accessing key industry events, such as the Annual Banquet of the Twenty-Four Karat Club (from which women were excluded until 1988), their vision gained momentum.

In early 1983, a gathering in New York hosted by jewellery buyer Ronnie Lavin culminated in the formation of the national Women’s Jewelry Association. The founding members, including Toni Lyn Judd, Cindy Geller, Tina Segal and Linda Orlick (formerly Goldstein), developed by-laws and sought nonprofit status. The members gathered also elected Gerry Gewirtz as their first president (in absentia). This meeting established the groundwork for what would become a beacon of empowerment for women in the jewellery industry.

PRESIDENTIAL LEADERSHIP AND EXPANSION (1984-2009)

The WJA Awards for Excellence Gala made its debut in 1984, marking a significant moment in recognising women’s achievements in various categories within the jewellery industry. Over the years, this event grew in prestige and size, evolving from intimate gatherings to grand celebrations, highlighting the remarkable contributions of women in design, manufacturing, retail, sales and more. The Gala remains a popular event into the present day.

Under the leadership of presidents such as Linda Goldstein, Helene Fortunoff and others, WJA expanded its reach, establishing chapters across the United States and becoming a vital platform for networking, education and industry recognition. The Gala’s success, outgrowing esteemed venues and ultimately finding a fitting space at Chelsea Piers’ Pier 60, underscored the growing influence and significance of WJA within the jewellery community.

In the late 1990s, iconic figures including Phyllis Bergman further propelled WJA’s growth by inducting major retailers into the Hall of Fame, enhancing the Gala’s reputation as the ‘Best Cocktail Party in the Industry’. Also in the 1990s, the organisation initiated the WJA DIVA Design Competition, championing the excellence of women designers and creators. Part of the annual AGTA Spectrum and Cutting Edge Awards, the competition was started to encourage women to ‘express their creative voices through the medium of precious metals and gemstones’. The DIVA Design Competition recognises the best designs by women in the following categories: Bridal Wear, Classical, Business/Day Wear, Evening Wear and Men’s Wear. The contest is open to all women, whether or not they are members of the jewellery industry or have formal training. Applicants must enter those Spectrum categories, then check the Gem DIVA box for judging by a panel of WJA design and craftsmanship experts.

MODERN ERA AND ONGOING IMPACT (2010-PRESENT)

As WJA approached its thirtieth anniversary, a new wave of leadership under Brandee Dallow and subsequent presidents brought innovative initiatives and expanded outreach. Events like Jewelry Night Out became annualmcelebrations, uniting women across the country and offering platforms for industry-wide networking and recruitment.

WJA’s commitment to mentorship has remained steadfast throughout its journey. The Mentor Program, a cornerstone of WJA’s ethos, matches experienced professionals with aspiring talent, fostering rewarding relationships that aid in professional development.

The establishment of the WJA Foundation, a 501(c)3 entity, furthered the organisation’s impact by providing scholarships, funding educational endeavours and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives within the jewellery and watch industries. Through its multidimensional framework, the Foundation has supported responsible sourcing, sustainability education and offered numerous scholarships to aspiring industry leaders.

“The WJA Foundation’s mission is to build relationships and maximise opportunities for financial support and professional development across all facets of our industry for women whether they are beginning, advancing or enriching their careers,” says Gabrielle Grazi, president of the WJA Foundation and VP, Head Retail Strategy and Partnerships, Natural Diamond Council.

LOOKING AHEAD: THE FUTURE OF WJA

Today, WJA stands tall as a global network of women and industry professionals across chapters worldwide. The organisation has much to offer its members, from ongoing educational programs to awards ceremonies to initiatives focused on advancing women’s careers. WJA continues to serve as a catalyst for professional growth, empowerment and community building within the jewellery industry.

As Susan Chandler, current WJA president and chief merchandising officer for Citizen Watch America, leads the organisation in its fortieth year, WJA remains committed to its mission of fostering professional advancement, education and inclusivity. “This year marks a significant milestone for the Women’s Jewelry Association. We have impacted women’s lives for forty years,” said Ms Chandler. “I am personally very proud that the WJA remains committed to engagement, inclusion and community at the forefront of all we do. Our Diversity Equity and Inclusion programs, and Gen-Z research seminar, are great examples of how we will continue to deliver important conversations for our membership and supporters throughout the jewellery and watch industry. We are grateful to partner with leading organisations that make these educational moments possible, and we look forward to ramping up even more in the coming year.”

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The WJA Ruby Gala In Review

The Women’s Jewelry Association recently marked a significant milestone with its much anticipated Ruby Gala, an extraordinary event held at The Pool in New York City’s Seagram Building. Commemorating forty years of dedicated efforts in empowering women within the jewellery and watch industries, the gala delivered an unforgettable evening of elegance, glamour, entertainment and philanthropy.

The Pre-Gala Buzz

Excitement was palpable as the WJA prepared to host this milestone celebration. The Ruby Gala promised to be an enchanting affair that combined elegance, entertainment and a commitment to philanthropy. Attendees were encouraged to wear red, in keeping with the ‘ruby’ theme; black tie was optional. The venue, The Pool in the Seagram Building, set the stage for an evening that exuded timeless sophistication and glamour. The anticipation was evident in the pre-event preparations, promising an unforgettable gathering.

“We are very grateful to all that came out to celebrate this significant milestone. The energy and the spirit of generosity demonstrated by leaders in our industry further illuminates they believe in all that the WJA does to provide meaningful networking, professional development and financial support to women in our industry. ‘Belief’ is a powerful motivator, and it was evident in the funds raised for the foundation that the industry truly believes in all that we do,” stated Gabrielle Grazi, president of the WJA Foundation and vice-president, head retail strategy and partnerships, Natural Diamond Council.

A Night to Remember

The evening began with a red-carpet entrance. The stunning setting of The Pool provided an ambiance that transported attendees into a world of luxury and celebration. Throughout the night, the guests’ finest moments were captured through the lens of renowned photographer Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

Guests were treated to a cocktail reception that featured an array of delectable delights presented by Major Food Group, offering a fusion of gourmet cuisines that delighted and satisfied every palate. The entertainment lineup was nothing short of spectacular, featuring acclaimed performers who provided an unforgettable experience, including Lexie Lowell’s mesmerising harp performance and the high-energy act of urban rhythm musicians Drumadics.

Astarte Creative amazed the audience with a captivating dance routine set to a personalised compilation of music inspired by diamonds and jewellery — a spectacle featuring numerous crystals and large burlesque feather fans. Adding the final touch to the night, Lorenzo Laroc captivated all with a dynamic performance on his distinctive five-string plexiglass electric violin, delivering an array of appealing musical styles that thrilled guests.

One of the gala’s highlights was the auction led by Caroline Ervin, presenting luxurious experiences generously donated by Inspirato for Good and Balmain. These auction items aimed to raise funds to support WJA’s mission, ensuring continued empowerment and support for women within the industry.

Throughout the evening, leaders, founders and friends of WJA came together to celebrate milestones, forge new connections and acknowledge the impactful work of the association in empowering women within the jewellery and watch industries.

A Night of Celebration and Inspiration

The WJA Ruby Gala brought together industry luminaries, notable personalities and influential figures from various sectors, including fashion, entertainment and philanthropy. The evening’s curation was orchestrated by WJA Gala Event Chair Monica Elias, CEO and executive producer of Elias World Media. “The evening was magical and a testament of what can be achieved when thought leaders and industries come together to support a good cause. “We were determined to create an evening that was big, bold and unique. Taking a chance, we incorporated many new elements not seen before, like bespoke dance and musical performances, an auction featuring luxury packages generously donated by famed brands, and the invitation of notable names in philanthropy, fashion, and entertainment,” noted Ms Elias.

The event wasn’t just about revelry; it was a platform to honour achievements, raise critical funds and underscore the enduring impact of WJA. The gala’s success resonated with the industry’s support and belief in WJA’s endeavours to provide meaningful networking, professional development and financial support to women in the industry.

A Resounding Success

As the night concluded, the WJA expressed gratitude to its sponsors, whose support was integral in making the evening a grand success. The gala was a testament to the unwavering commitment of the jewellery community to support women’s progress. The event’s resounding success further fuelled WJA’s mission to continue nurturing a more inclusive, informed and sustainable industry. Through philanthropic endeavours and the generous contributions from the attendees, the gala reaffirmed the importance of empowering women in the jewellery and watch industries for generations to come.

“The most beautiful part of the evening was seeing WJA members, leaders, founders and friends celebrating old friendships and forging new ones. When we come together as an industry, we do great things, we create opportunities and we continue to build our legacy,” said Susan Chandler, WJA president and chief merchandising officer for Citizen Watch America. “The work we do raising funds for the association and foundation nonprofits is powerful, meaningful and the key to a brighter future.”

A Bright Future Ahead

Looking ahead, WJA remains committed to its mission, and the gala served as a testament to the organisation’s enduring legacy, reflecting on past accomplishments while setting the stage for a promising future of continued growth, support and empowerment. The Women’s Jewelry Association’s fortieth anniversary Ruby Gala was indeed a night to remember, epitomising elegance and philanthropy. From the illustrious venue to the spectacular performances and generous contributions, the event underscored the jewellery industry’s commitment to supporting women professionals.

As WJA looks ahead, the gala’s success serves as a testament to the enduring impact of its mission and the unwavering support from leaders, sponsors and attendees. The evening’s memories will linger, inspiring further initiatives and endeavours that continue to uplift.

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