California Gold Rush
It’s a sunny May afternoon, and Vanessa Stofenmacher is offering a quick tour of her Downtown Los Angeles office—all white walls, exposed pipes, and custom hickory wood and steel desks. Her one-carat solitaire diamond necklace refracts the soft afternoon light, tricking her 8-year-old French bulldog, Frankie, into thinking there’s a toy on the floor.
A soft-spoken, petite 30-year-old prone to giggling, Stofenmacher may not seem like someone who is disrupting the jewelry industry, but that’s exactly what she’s doing. As the founder, president, and lead designer behind the direct-to-consumer fine-jewelry brand Vrai & Oro, Stofenmacher is ferrying classic jewelry staples into the digital age: first, by taking a page from brands like Everlane and Warby Parker and keeping her prices reasonable by cutting out the middlemen; second, by using lab-grown diamonds, thereby circumventing the environmental and human costs of mining. “Growing up, I was reading TechCrunch more than Vogue,” she says, by way of explanation, as she tucks her wavy blonde hair behind her ears in a rote, lissome manner.
Stofenmacher launched Vrai & Oro in 2014 after cofounding a jewelry e-boutique that helped men buy gifts for women based on a personality quiz. The name—Vrai means “truth” in French, and Oro means “gold” in Spanish—could also be the company’s mission statement: quality and transparency above all else. All her pieces are made in Los Angeles from solid 14-karat gold (no fillers or platings here) and she’s very open about pricing. In October 2016, for example, after raising prices because of higher margins, the company posted an explanation on its blog, complete with charts and graphs. “My dad called me and was like, ‘You should reconsider this,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘That’s the point, Dad.’”
In January, she launched VOW, Vrai & Oro Weddings, an at-home try-on program, which allows clients to select three mock rings—from emerald cuts and solitaires to infinity bands and petite promise rings—and try them on at home for a week. “The traditions around marriage are really backward,” Stofenmacher says. “There’s so much pressure on the guy and the ring! I want to simplify and include the bride in the process.”
It was also important to her to use only diamonds that could truly be classified as ethical. “The diamond industry is completely corrupt,” Stofenmacher says, comparing its operations to that of a cartel. “Even ‘ethical’ diamonds drain the lakes and destroy the ecosystem.”
Fortunately, Stofenmacher came across Diamond Foundry, a San Francisco company that grows diamonds in a lab and shares her values of transparency and sustainability. The company was founded by R. Martin Roscheisen, a solar entrepreneur who, along with three dozen engineers, designed a plasma reactor to build a diamond lattice atom by atom via a process that includes temperatures as high as the outer layer of the sun. The result is a man-made stone identical in chemical composition to those created in nature. (Think of a hothouse tomato versus a garden-grown one.) Diamond Foundry launched in 2015 with $100 million in funding from investors including Leonardo DiCaprio, and last November, the company acquired Vrai & Oro in a stock deal. “What Vanessa built is very special and rare,” Roscheisen says. “Our goal is to be integrated from mine to finger.”
The VOW rings, like Vrai & Oro’s essentials collection, are focused on refinement. “It begins with [figuring out] how we take away and refine to the best simple base,” Stofenmacher explains. “How do we alter the tiny details?” For many of her pieces, the answer lies in setting the diamonds lower and rounding the prongs on all of the pieces, as well as thinning the bands to avoid the prone-to-catching-on-everything struggle. “I wanted to get rid of the space in that really high-set diamond, but my manufacturers didn’t take me seriously. They were like, ‘This is how it’s been done,’ and I was like, ‘Not anymore,’” she recalls, narrowing her large, forest-green eyes.
This month, Stofenmacher launches another line: Vrai & Oro Black, an eight-piece collection of necklaces, earrings, and rings made with 18-karat gold and featuring diamonds of at least a half carat. (The simple, elegant solitaire necklace she’s wearing when we meet is from this collection.) She’s also opening her first brick-and-mortar store, down the road from her studio at the Row, in Downtown Los Angeles’s Arts District, by summer’s end. “It’s not about growing a company that makes millions,” she says, “but about changing mind-sets and creating something more sustainable.”