Admittedly, when we first met with Vrai & Oro fascinated by their grown diamond concept, we were equal parts excited for brides wanting 100% sustainable engagement rings and, if we’re honest, intrigued about the beauty and realism of a lab grown diamond. An eye opening conversation and visit to their LA workshop later, and we left with a completely shifted headspace after experiencing the beauty of these exquisite jewels in person – identical to any mined diamond, only completely ethical and sustainable. Having long admired Vrai & Oro’s delicate, minimalistic jewels in recycled metals, the newly launched wedding line VOW, reinvigorated our love for a brand forged by simplicity, paring back, quality over quantity, and complete transparency.
Behind this innovative company is founder Vanessa Stofenmacher, a game changing entrepreneur with a quiet confidence and an innate need to question the ‘why’ behind traditions that don’t make sense to her. A woman who refuses to settle, who digs until she finds her answer. She’s a formidable force in the jewelry industry (her start up acquired in it’s third year by Diamond Foundry whose investors include Leonardo DiCaprio) offering a completely new way to purchase jewelry, but goes about everything she does in such an unassuming way. She’s not out to sabotage competitors, there is no ego in any decision she makes, Vanessa simply has a personal, compelling need to contribute work that embodies her own vision for the way jewelry should be sustainably created, carefully chosen and worn as an expression of personal style. It’s work that comes from the heart. The most unstoppable things always do.
With a name that stands for truth (in French) and gold (in Spanish), Vrai & Oro is completely rethinking the approach to engagement rings from the way their pieces are created down to the very structure of the company. With an open book policy, every team member has access tp financial info usually only provided to management, in fact they’ve completely removed hierarchy altogether, banning the word employee and instead creating a team that operates like a true community, with a shared passion for the company’s vision and a bond that’s stronger than any meticulously formed organization governed by rigid systems and processes.
We sat down with Vanessa to hear more about the next chapter for Vrai & Oro, with the launch of the new engagement collection, VOW, designed to make the process of shopping for an engagement ring a much more personal, modern and transparent process…
Where did the idea for Vrai & Oro first stem from?
I actually don’t have a background in fine jewelry, I didn’t know much about the industry. My background is in graphic design and communication and my sister had just graduated from grad school and she has a business background, so we came together and thought about what need we both saw in the market, what pain point we both had. We realized both of our husbands are terrible at buying us gifts (laughs), so we thought, ok other women must be experiencing this issue as well. We’re both very inspired by technology so we basically created a learning algorithm that helped men shop by matching them to the gifts for their significant other based on shopping behaviors and answers to a bunch of questions. We quickly realized fine jewelry is the number one gift men buy for women so we became this curated marketplace for fine jewelry. We then started to work with fine jewelers who were doing more mass scale jewelry and, I had no idea, but these jewelers were actually choosing designs from catalogues and putting their name on it. When I worked in my design studio previously, they would send the product to us to photograph. They would buy the pieces from China, then mark them up for us, then we would mark them up to sell to the consumer.
What shocked you most about the processes of the diamond industry?
There was no transparency and I couldn’t believe no one was changing it or doing anything about it. Even the quality wasn’t very good, it was all made overseas and there was no care involved. I quickly realized there was a bigger need in the market to reshape fine jewelry and bring more transparency to the industry. I was so inspired by companies like Warby Parker and Everlane who were really changing how we buy things online and were being transparent about it.
I decided to launch into Vrai & Oro, and just tested it out. I launched with $8,000 and had an initial collection of 10 pieces, I just Photoshopped the variations and everything was made-to-order for the first year with a two- to three-day turnaround. It was kind of ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ (laughs). I’d literally get the orders in the morning, send them to our manufacturers, and by the end of the day or the next day pick them up and package them, run to USPS and send it off. This hustle was really the first year and we’ve only been around for 3 years.
With the Vrai & Oro Weddings (VOW) collection, why were you compelled to create engagement rings from lab grown diamonds?
I wanted to stand behind something that is completely ethical and transparent but I couldn’t find a way to 100% guarantee that. One day I came across a post by an influencer who was newly engaged and she said her diamond was grown in California. I reached out to her, she told me about Diamond Foundry who is actually growing diamonds. I knew it was perfect – complete visibility, complete sustainability, no questions, this was exactly what I wanted. I started talking to them and our views were very similar and what we’re trying to do is very similar.
If you asked me before Diamond Foundry if I’d have worked with lab diamonds I would have said no, because in my mind I had conditioned myself to think they were synthetic or not a real diamond. But when I became a little more educated about it I realized it’s the exact same diamond, it’s just grown in a slightly different environment. It’s like growing a tomato in a greenhouse, versus growing it outside in soil. You can actually control the environment and you can actually give it just as much water as it needs, rather than flooding it, so it’s more sustainable. You can control the environment in which the product is grown, but the product is the same.
So the quality is exactly the same as a normal diamond? How does this differ from a Cubic Zirconia?
Yes, exactly, simply because it is a diamond. You take a sliver of a diamond and with the addition of natural carbon gasses – Diamond Foundry’s background is in solar energy, that’s where they’re parent technology lies, these people are the smartest human beings you’ve ever met. They know solar energy and they’ve been able to translate that technology into growing diamonds by using solar technology.
A cubic zirconia is not a real diamond, the end result is not a diamond, and you can see that under a microscope in two seconds. Whereas a Diamond Foundry diamond is a real diamond, if you send it to a lab, they know it’s the real thing.
Where do you get the diamond slivers?
It’s now a completely sustainable process, we use the diamonds we’ve grown. The original diamonds were from mined diamonds, but now it’s completely sustainable.
Are the price points lower because you’re essentially cutting out the middle man?
We use transparent pricing. It’s basically the same base price, without adding all the mark-up. Our pricing is the exact same as Diamond Foundry, so we don’t mark it up for our customers.
You’ve since drawn a huge, global following. How did people hear about Vrai & Oro initially?
I didn’t invest in marketing for the first year, it was really all through social media and I think it was right time, right place. I really hit Instagram at a good time, it’s definitely our biggest channel. Although we were small for a very long time, people were really engaged because we were offering something different by being totally transparent. Our audience was very loyal and some of these people were influencers – we didn’t even have to reach out to them, they were just attracted to the product. Again, it was right time, right place and it just started to snowball, also since it’s such a great gifting item, that was huge for us because the buyer is also introducing us to someone else. I also think our focus on minimalism was hugely appealing as it mirrored what was happening in our culture – the idea that less is more and having a more conscious idea of what you’re buying.
With our essential collection, the goal is to educate younger consumers about moving away from fast fashion trends, and to encourage them to purchase something that’s more sustainable. Instead of buying 10 necklaces at Forever 21, you can buy one necklace that you’ll wear every day.
How do you find the market is responding to that message given the fast-fashion, disposable mindset is such a difficult one to change?
I think it’s shifting, I think people are definitely becoming more conscious about what they buy. It starts with little things about what you eat, or skincare, then once you start tapping into that and once you start caring, it starts threading into your life in so many ways.
That comes back to transparency too – there’s such a lack of awareness…
Yes, I think that’s what happened with fast fashion, because people are just too far removed. Especially with huge corporations because the CEO isn’t seeing where everything is being made – it’s out of sight, out of mind. The one thing I would hope for our business to accomplish is to help shift mindsets to create more sustainable habits.
Was sustainability always a focus for you? Were you brought up with its importance instilled in you? Or were you just naturally inquisitive?
I had a really traditional upbringing, so there was a symbolism when I came to the West Coast, I thought whoa, I can start questioning things – I grew up as a Presbyterian, so when I came out here and saw people were questioning things, I thought wait, maybe I’m not Presbyterian, maybe I don’t identify with religion and that’s ok, if other people do that’s awesome, but it’s not for me. I never knew that was a possibility growing up. You have these labels that are applied to you, so coming out to California for college, I started to find myself and studied Buddhism and Eastern religious culture, and it influenced how I think about things. That’s were I started to think about questioning things – not in a bad way, but just asking, is there a better way?
What inspired you to expand into weddings, with the launch of VOW?
Vrai & Oro was two years old and naturally I started gravitating towards engagement rings. It’s one of the most traditional industries, no one is changing anything about it, not to mention there are so many traditions tied to it that I was questioning for myself – I love being married, but I was questioning the idea of marriage as an institution. I started asking, where has this come from? Why do we do this? Engagement rings then became a natural next step, so I hope VOW becomes a platform to start these conversations. I know it’s ironic that we’re an engagement ring company, and we’re talking about these things…
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Likewise at The LANE, I think it’s important to have these conversations, and dive into the why behind them to make sure it really resonates with you. Marriage is an incredibly beautiful ritual and commitment, but our view is that it doesn’t need to fit a mould or tradition, you can completely make it your own and do it your way. We love seeing brands like VOW offering different ways to do things, right from the engagement…
That’s what I hope. There’s so many designers out there designing really awesome, artistic creations and that’s not who we are, we’re really simple. We want to do the essentials really well. The first step was redesigning the experience, we wanted the women involved in the process, not following the tradition of the guy choosing the ring and proposing to the woman.
We know engagements don’t always play out in a traditional way these days, and a lot of the time the bride or at least her best friend is involved in the decision making too…
Personally, my husband and I had never talked about marriage before he proposed, we’d been together for six years but we just didn’t talk about it. We didn’t talk about rings or anything, so he just went and found a ring one day, called my dad on the way home and proposed that night. The ring was like a big, vintage-inspired halo, chunky, covered in diamonds everywhere. He was so confused, he had no idea what to do! He knows me, but just didn’t know how to pick out a ring.
We find that a lot when it comes to weddings! No matter how beautiful and individual your own aesthetic is, for some reason as soon as the word wedding is involved, personal style is tossed out the window and people gravitate towards things that they’ve learned represent a ‘wedding’, bridesmaid gowns they’d never ever wear to an event normally, choices that are so disconnected from who we are.
Exactly. I was wearing this ring with that just totally did not represent me, it just felt weird. I’m a very subdued person, so it just wasn’t my style, although I loved the ring because it meant something to me, my husband had picked it out. It was even weirder having a jewelry company because people thought I designed it myself. That’s where the idea for VOW came from. My friend who is very outspoken and the exact opposite of me was also going through the engagement process, her then-boyfriend, now-husband was talking to me and wanted it to be a surprise. She was hinting to me about what she wanted, he was talking to me about what she wanted, I was the middle man. I went to try on rings with her and she couldn’t find anything simple, not chunky – she wanted something she could live her life wearing. We decided to design it, and I didn’t have experience designing wedding rings so I was a little nervous, but I had this idea of making one for her to try on before she had the real thing. Once you have the real thing made, you can’t change it, so we made like a model for her to try out for a while. That’s where the idea for our home try-on offer. Then I had to design the collection of rings, which was based on the idea of simplifying everything right down to the very essential details and taking a scientific approach. What band does a woman want to wear that’s comfortable, stays on, that she can exercise in? How can we set the diamond as low as possible so it’s not going to stick up so she can actually function? It’s a very functional design, but also takes away a lot of the chunkiness that doesn’t need to be there, really stripping it back.
So you can actually try the VOW pieces at home?
So women or men, can choose their three favorite designs from our website, add them to their cart, check out, and we’ll send them out for free to try on at home for seven days. You receive a box with a guide book and a ring sizer and some other information so you’re learning everything about your band and ring size. It’s taking the idea of going into a jeweler and that uncomfortable setting similar to speaking to a used car salesman, and instead taking it to your home and making it more comfortable.
You can take your time with it, no one is looking over your shoulder, no one is pressuring you. It’s just you, making your decision. I wanted to bring that natural, comfortable feel to something that has been traditionally awkward. So after trying it on, the kit can be sent back and the guy knows what style the girl wants, and then he can pick the diamond with a budget in mind. From the diamond table you can choose larger carat size, or higher quality – things like that, which will determine your price point. We send out one carat diamonds, then people can choose whether they want smaller or larger than that. It’s interesting, a lot of people will say they want smaller.
I love how delicate your collection is and how petite the bands are.
They’re easy to wear and they fit with other jewelry. We even redesigned the prongs, usually they’re really round or really pointy, and we wanted something in between. We really went down to that granular level of redesigning what every little detail is and getting away from that “Stepford” design.
Your approach to jewelry design is so grounded in practicality…
Yeah, it was about moving past traditional ways of doing things. We asked if we could set the diamond lower, and they said no, so we asked why, and they said we can’t, so we kept asking why and finally got to the bottom of it. They told us everyone wants the diamond to be high because if you set it low, the diamond isn’t as big and grand – but that’s great – that’s our whole point! It’s ingrained in us as a company to keep questioning things and getting to the bottom of why.
It also speaks to the woman you want to attract – independent, empowered, educated women who aren’t afraid to question things…
Our main target is someone who is conscious of their choices throughout their entire life. They’re deciding whether or not to buy organic foods, they’re questioning their clothes and using natural health products without additives. They’re simplifying their wardrobes and getting rid of everything they don’t need. It’s a thread with our customers, but I think it’s catching on more and more in society too.
You can feel there is such a movement now. After periods of striving to achieve things in life that were almost beyond ourselves, I feel like we ended up with a quality of life that’s so stressful and overly complex. This year, we all seem to be taking a good hard look at the paths we’re heading down and realising that there’s so much beauty that lies in simplicity. We’re simplifying our careers, our homes, the way we travel – everything we do.
Yes, and I think it speaks to quality too. You can absolutely spot good quality a mile a way in clothing. With a ring, it doesn’t need to be super flashy to be high quality.
Talk to me more about the transparency in your business, I know the way you run your business from start to finish is an open book…
I think this is normal, but keep hearing that people think it’s weird that I do this! Basically anyone who wants access to our QuickBooks can have access, I go through once a month and talk the team through it, but if they wanted to jump in at any point, they could.
How do you think that transparency has impacted your team and the way you run your business?
I think it promotes honesty throughout everything and for me it’s this type of vulnerability I like to culture in everyone, because vulnerability means you’re giving authenticity. I think people are afraid to be vulnerable in that sense, but if I’m ok being vulnerable, then it translates through to everything. It becomes ok to make mistakes, and I want to promote people being open about their mistakes because that’s how we grow.
I agree, I think as a business it takes away the need to tiptoe around information you need to share really diplomatically. You probably get to the bottom of any issues lot faster than a lot of other businesses do.
Yeah, we learn from it, rather than letting it hold us back. It cuts out that corporate mindset – instead of working like a triangle, we work like a circle. I’ve literally banned the term employee – there aren’t any employees, we’re a team. We talk about each other like a sports team, and everyone has a role on the team and we’re all contributing, but we’re all holding each other accountable. It’s not one person who knows everything at the top, we all know as much as each other.