These Jewelry Brand Founders Seek Success on the Shelves
Tag along as AUrate’s Sophie Kahn and Bouchra Ezzahraoui go book shopping in New York.
It was 2015 and Sophie Kahn’s ring had turned her finger green. She and Bouchra Ezzahraoui were sitting at Cafe Gitane, the French-Moroccan cafe on Mott Street in lower Manhattan, when Kahn noticed that telltale sign of cheap, copperized forming a circle around her index finger. “I had gotten this expensive ring at a discount somewhere, and it was turning my whole finger green,” the Netherlands-born Kahn said. “That’s what sparked this whole idea. You either have super expensive, traditional pieces that are real gold but way overpriced. Or you have the kind of throwaway jewelry that nobody really wants anymore, that you can't pass on to generations. There was nothing in between, so we decided to give it a shot.”
That shot turned into AUrate, which the duo launched in 2015. AUrate is attempting to fill what Ezzahraoui and Kahn saw as a considerable gap in the jewelry market by offering direct-to-consumer products that cut out middlemen and give customers a transparent look into both pricing and supply chains. They’ve opened four brick-and-mortar locations on the east coast and are scouting their first west coast location with plans to expand in the coming months.
AURate’s growth wasn’t without considerable challenges, and Ezzahraoui and Kahn had to search for partners that were willing to work with an upstart.
“The jewelry business in New York is reputation-based so we couldn't find any partners that wanted to work with us because we were nobody,” recalled Ezzahraoui. “And then one partner took a chance on us. They said, ‘This is interesting, we’ve never seen this before.’ It was so odd and out of the box to them that they got interested in what we were doing.”
The pair met at Princeton, where both women were pursuing advanced degrees in finance. “It was a very mathematical program—it was mostly guys,” said Ezzahraoui. “So when I saw Sophie, I jumped on her and we became really close friends after that.” They both earned impressive gigs in New York after graduation: Ezzahraoui as a trader at Goldman Sachs and Kahn as a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group. (She later served as the Director of Strategy for Marc Jacobs.) Still, they knew they both wanted to start and own something—and knew they wanted to do it together.
We’re sitting at McNally Jackson, a stone’s throw from Cafe Gitane and one of the last bookstores in the neighborhood. The temperature outside is somewhere between “surface of the sun” and “Death Valley in July,” and we’ve taken refuge in the industrial air conditioning of the bookstore. Ezzahraoui and Kahn are on the hunt for a new book and know McNally Jackson well, both having lived in the neighborhood for years. Ezzahraoui, who is French-Moroccan, thumbed through tomes that reminded her of high school—Simone de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time—before grabbing Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Underground Railroad. Kahn had settled on a copy of the Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi’s stunning debut novel Homegoing. (They also buy a thank you card for an employee.)
“It’s funny, I see some overlap between what we’re doing and what happens when you find a book you really love,” says Kahn. “It’s about empowerment. We’re giving women a way to know where their jewelry is coming from, that it’s real gold that they can pass on for generations. I think that’s why Bouchra and I love books so much; they’re empowering too.”
Books in hand, we strolled down Prince Street, walking past the red brick walls of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral before doing an about face and heading towards Lafayette. Ezzahraoui and Kahn’s outfits matched the climate: Kahn in a multihued blouse covered with artfully scattered shapes, Ezzahraoui wearing a green romper covered in a tropical flower print.
“We joke that our first joint bank account was with each other, not our husbands,” says Ezzahraoui. “Sometimes if founders are too similar, the team can almost get lost in the fold. Sophie and I are very open with each other. If something doesn't fly, we sit down and have a conversation about it.”
Kahn chimes in: “Honestly, it's like family by now. After 10 years, it's kind of like as close as sisters. You're constantly in this together.”
After taking a break under the trees in Petrosino Square, we step out of the sweltering heat and into the mercifully air-conditioned confines of a yellow cab bound for the Strand, New York’s famously labyrinthine bookstore just south of Union Square. A blast of cold air welcomes us as we cross the store’s near-century old threshold. Ezzahraoui and Kahn are rapturous, and make a beeline for the pyramid of classics. They pick up books from George Orwell and Zora Neale Hurston, exchanging notes about each volume like they were back at Princeton.
They wander from stack to stack, and find favorites in every one. An underappreciated Murakami here, a forgotten John le Carré classic there. You get the feeling they could spend hours lost in the book-lined corridors at the Strand, as if they were hoping to lose themselves in the search. They’ve done the same thing with AUrate. By diving into the trade completely—the months of training at Parsons School of Design, the countless visits to different factories and artisans, the hours poring over design archives to find the perfect piece of jewelry—they have created something unique and found purpose in their passion.
Ezzahraoui and Kahn wander between the towering shelves, searching for inspiration among the miles of books stacked to the century-old ceilings. The last time I see them they have a half dozen novels between them, looking as if they had just struck gold.
T.M. Brown is a journalist based in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Fast Company, Deadspin, the Village Voice, and others.