Jeanine Payer: Bling as business

More than 16 years ago, when she was in her early 20s and just barely out of art school, Jeanine Payer moved her fledgling company from a basement apartment in the Tenderloin into the Phelan Building at 730 Market St., historically the center of the jewelry industry in San Francisco.

She viewed the decision as a necessary move to legitimize her business, but also one rife with unknowns.

“I was the only woman in the building. Back then the industry was overseen almost entirely by older men,” Payer said. “And when we moved in here 16 years ago, Market Street was a real crappy neighborhood. It was kind of a scary experience, but it was also a very big deal for me, and it was so exciting to see my little company grow.”

Jeanine Payer Inc. unofficially started some two years before the move, when Payer, a sculpture student at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, walked into a jewelry store in North Beach adorned with one of her creations.

“I was wearing these earrings with tiny little photographs in them,” said Payer, who grew up in Southern California. “I went into this store, and the woman working there noticed them, and asked me to make some for her, and that was kind of the beginning of the whole thing.”

Those modest roots have grown to a jewelry company that grossed more than $3 million last year, and is sold in more than 250 retail stores across the globe. The company’s trademark is hand-etched poetry quotes, barely visible to the naked eye, that grace the bracelets, necklaces and earrings of the collections.

“I was always interested in doll houses, and the idiosyncrasies of these tiny little creations,” said Payer, who opened her own retail store four years ago, just below the Market Street location. “I liked the mystery of not really being able to see what was written on the jewelry.”

Choosing the right poetry quotes to fit the unique collections, which are produced three times a year, has been an admittedly vexing process for Payer, but one she ultimately finds rewarding.

“Finding the perfect quote is almost like finding the object you weren’t looking for,” said Payer, whose company database lists 725 different poetry quotes used since 2000. “It really can’t be forced and there is no formula for it, but once I kind of stumble upon the right poem, there is always an amazing feeling of discovery.”

Business

New project: Limited-edition diamond slice collection

Last project: Our first Archive Collection presentation.

Best perk: Meeting other artists and designers that I admire at industry events.

Gadgets: My handmade Japanese engraving and inlay tools

Education: For almost 10 years, I’ve been a member of an entrepreneurial organization that has expanded my business network, which in turn has helped me grow my business. This group has been an incredible source of support and learning. For my art, I continue to learn new techniques from master craftsmen.

First job: Making Danish ice-cream cones.

Original aspiration: Professional surfer.

Career objective: To one day celebrate 50 years in business.

Personal

Details: I’m 40 years old and 5 feet 1 inch tall plus 1 centimeter. I am a control freak when it comes to my house, I have way too many books, I’m attracted to all things wabi-sabi and I can tell if something is off by a half a millimeter.

Sports/hobbies: Searching eBay to add to my C. Jere wall sculpture collection. Snowboarding.

Favorite restaurant: Zuni Café for its roast chicken and Da Flora when I can get in.

Vacation spot: Surfing in Sayulita, Mexico.

Favorite clothier: Dries Van Noten

Reading: “What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution” by Caroline Weber.

Worst fear: Losing my mojo, selling out, crossing a line and not being able to get back.

Motivation: Deadlines for each design collection and my next vacation.

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