Meet the Maker: Irina Zhan

Irina Zhan is the maker of Irina Victoria Jewelry. Her keen sense for minimalism is what caught our eyes, so we knew we had to speak to this young entrepreneur. 

You're a Boston-based jewelry designer! How did you step into the world of such an industry? And when did you start your business?

I went through a serious DIY handbag and jewelry phase when I was about 17-years-old. I just thought it was so fun to create my own version of all the stuff I’d see at the mall. When I wore my designs to school I’d get tons of compliments from classmates so I started focusing on making jewelry and selling in-between classes at lockers. I don’t know if doing business on school property was legit, but my signature sparkly hoop earrings were a hit and definitely helped me put gas in my car! I took a bit of a detour in college, because I didn't let myself think of fashion beyond a hobby… it’s one of those things I look back and think “what a shame." It wasn't until about 2 1/2 years into my professional career as a scientist that I started to fill my free time with jewelry design and creation again. The whole thing snowballed after another 2 1/2 years and here I am now—a jewelry designer and small-business owner that just happens to have a degree in microbio.

There's so many jewelry companies right now, and many of them are wonderful. How would you say your company differs in the market? How would you best describe your brand?

It took me a while to realize my true voice. To work within the world of minimalism while still creating fresh designs requires a sometimes frustrating balance of both the analytic and creative brain. Let’s be honest, it is “minimalism” after all. Beyond the jewelry, it’s important for me to create an all around positive experience. I’m a huge believer in the little things. I focus on quality over quantity, I include a personal note and tips for jewelry care with every purchase, and I love interacting with IVJewelry followers on Instagram. It’s unbelievably important to me that the design, craftsmanship, fit, and customer service are all just right. Just because the pieces have left my hands doesn't mean I've stopped caring about them or the person wearing them. My brand is about staple pieces that complement everyday wear. Like that t-shirt and pair of jeans that fits just right, my vision is to create jewelry that gives you the same feeling of comfort and confidence every time you put it on. In other words, being beautiful and being strong, but not having to be flashy about it.

There's a lot of gold that you are offering in your shop. Will you be incorporating new products, colors, etc? If so, what can we expect to come out soon if you are working on new collections? 

Yes, gold is very popular right now, but I also offer all my designs in sterling silver! I do have a new collection that I will be revealing soon. It was inspired by our best selling “I heart you” ring. You’ll be seeing a lot of charming heart pieces in time for the holidays. For now we’re in the process of photographing each product picture. Most of our collections are created in small batches to stay true to our theme of simplicity, so we’ll only have a limited stock of each design!

We love the minimal approach; that's definitely what we are after. What is the motive behind the desire to offer simplicity into your brand?

As I mentioned before, it took me a long time to find my voice. I played around with chunky gemstone designs and beading before I landed on minimalism. I think I got to this point, because the raw nature of each design intrigued me. When you get down to the basic structure of a piece and show it off in almost a naked form, there’s nothing to hide. It’s in a vulnerable state at which point you have to be honest with your intentions for each piece. They don’t demand attention, but they must speak for themselves. I also love that within minimalism you can still make quite the statement and express yourself through unique pairings and all out layering.

So you migrated here from the Ukraine! We'd love to know more. Is it at all surprising to your relatives that you have pursued the world of jewelry? Were they expecting anything different?

I don’t think they were hugely surprised by my decision because my family has a humble history in the fashion industry. My grandfather (mother’s side) was a master tailor and my aunt and uncle (father’s side) have their own apparel line in Ukraine. I don’t think they realized how passionate I was about jewelry until I told them I was quitting my full-time job as a scientist to pursue this dream. They were surprised, but definitely supportive. I had this overwhelming feeling that the time was right and if I didn't take the chance I would always think “what if…”. My mom and dad especially relate because this is why we came to America. 

How different does your life differ now since moving to the States? And why did you land in Boston? 

I don’t recall what my life was like before, because I was so little when my family moved here, but I am certainly reminded of the reasons why we made the trek. When I was born, Ukraine was technically part of the USSR. As we all know, things in a communist state are a bit different than a democratic one, so my parents made an executive decision to leave in order to give their children the freedoms they never had. Getting to the states was not an easy journey. We lived in Austria and Italy before given the opportunity to enter either Israel or the U.S. as political refugees. My family chose the States, and more specifically Boston, because my mom’s brother had established a life here with his family years prior to our arrival. I am thankful every single day.

We love that you have a degree in microbiology. What made you decide to not pursue that for a career? It's definitely interesting! 

Let me start off by saying, you know you’re expected to graduate college when as a third grader your mother buys a frame for your diploma! I actually had a taste of that career for about 5 years before leaving it. I am 100% a nerd and love learning about anything science related. Don’t get me wrong, I really loved the work I did as a researcher in a lab (think goggles, gloves, and a lab coat… the whole nine yards). It was amazing to play a role in searching for novel treatments for diseases like cancer and HIV/AIDS, but my teenage passion for jewelry design just wouldn't leave me alone. I started out with an Etsy shop hoping that would satiate my need for a fashion and design outlet, but it really just made matters worse (in the best way possible). It got to a point where all I could think about was quitting my job. I was dying to see what could happen. At the end of 2013, I did just that. It’s nice for me (and my mom) to know that if I ever decide to shift again, I have a way back into the science world. Hopefully that won’t happen though because I’m over the moon about my new job as jewelry designer and small-business owner!

As for your brand, where do you see it going in the next few years? Have you listed down long-term goals? 

I dream about long term goals, but don’t have any written down. So far IVJ has been on a slow and steady trajectory. I make daily, weekly and quarterly goals to stay motivated, but I’m not ready to look 3, 5, or 10 years into the future just yet. I certainly hope for the best though! Short term, my goal is to expand my collections and dive deep into wholesaling. For a while I put the idea of wholesaling on the back burner, because I wanted to make sure I was tending to my customer’s needs directly, but now that we've got that nailed down I think it’s time to spread the love!