For some women, it is the sum of their parts—not just their day job description, that best defines their dynamic personalities. This is the case with Brooke Garber Neidich. Yes, she’s the designer/owner of the successful fine jewelry line Sidney Garber, a Chicago-based business she inherited from her father which she has successfully expanded to include a New York boutique and to become a best-seller at Barneys. But she is also a philanthropic powerhouse, a trustee of the Whitney museum, the Co-founder and Chair of the Board of the Child Mind Institute and on the board at the Lincoln Center Theater. All Brooke’s profits from Sidney Garber go to these and many other causes. She was also a fund-raiser and committed campaigner for Hillary Clinton, and the Clintons have attended many events at her Hamptons home. “Hillary loves to dance,” Brooke admitted to me.
Sidney Garber jewelry designs standout because of their modernist, elegant and very American aesthetic. Why American? Because it takes an American mentality to create an 11-row diamond bracelet that you can pair with both a ballgown and a t-shirt and jeans. Many pieces, such as the rolling bracelets, have rightfully gained iconic status.
I had several phone conversations with Brooke when I was at Bazaar and tried (unsuccessfully) to convince her to do a story. She couldn’t have been nicer, even when she said no. After meeting her in person, which I did for this interview, I liked her even more. Brooke has a warmth, ease and exuberance about her that immediately draws you in. She is also a product of the 60s, and is, for lack of a better word, just plain cool. Sitting in her modern-art filled aerie with Leonard Cohen growling in the background, she told me about being ambition-less, why women are buying jewelry for themselves now more than ever, and what’s next.
Please introduce yourself to the TFI reader and tell us what you do: I was one of those women from the 60s–I marched, I believed, but in the end all I ever wanted to do is get married and have children. I had no ambition. I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I didn’t want to fight for civil rights. I’ve lived lots of places. I had lots of jobs. I always worked because I had to work, but none of them were a calling or a career.
I came to everything really late when I was 31 and married. Everything I did started then and it was based around children, family, hearth and home. It didn’t matter what else I did, I just said I was a mother. Now sometimes I say I’m a trustee, sometimes I say I have a jewelry business, and sometimes I say I’m nothing. It just depends who I’m talking to. But I don’t really see myself as any one of those things because they’re only a part of me. I guess as a woman I wear a lot of hats.
You took over your father’s jewelry business. How has it evolved? It’s really different. My father was a great entrepreneur. He had a very singular vision. He had no experience, he really taught himself. As an adolescent I started to understand who he was and what he was doing, I went with him the first time he went to Italy. I went with him the first time he went to Basel.
Later, I got really involved with the business about 10 years before he died, around 2000, 2001. On the one hand it made him crazy, and on the other hand I think there was a part of him that loved it. I started to do trunk shows in New York. Those really made a big difference in the business’s bottom line because it was a younger crowd. Our business was aging out.
Then when I took it over I gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal Magazine and said I was giving away my profits to charity. My accountant called me and he said, “Brooke, next time you give an interview, maybe you want to pick up the phone and call me first.” I thought, I’m really getting pushback, he doesn’t understand. It’s just my profits; I’m not taking money out of the business, I can do this. He said, “Brooke, you have no profits. You have a business that’s been in trouble for years. There is nothing.”
Even with that, I still didn’t understand how little I knew, how little I understood. I knew I should be able to tell how many rings we sold, how many earrings. But we couldn’t. My father never cared. It was his life, so he did what he loved. He didn’t care if anyone bought it or not, period. He just didn’t run it like a business at all.
Now I have a business that’s run; I hired Susan Nicholas, who ran H. Stern, to be the president of the company. She has brought us out of the dark ages. We’re finally figuring out our inventory system. We’re relaunching our website. We have real metrics. I understand what’s selling. I understand what I need to do, and what I should stop doing, what isn’t productive. I’m not squelched. I like the direction. I like knowing what I should be doing because I want to be successful.
Do you think the way women buy jewelry has evolved? That’s the huge change, and it’s been in the last five years. In the last five years our business has flipped entirely. I would say 95% of my jewelry is self-purchased by women at every price range. From half a million dollars to $5,000, it’s all self-purchased, which is astonishing.
Why do you think that is? I never know what to say when people ask why SG has been so successful especially with women purchasing for themselves. I remember a quote of Halston’s that rings so true to me, ‘Women want to be comfortable and a little sexy.’ I may have added ‘little’, but that’s exactly how I dress, how I want to feel and how I want people to feel in my jewelry. Plus clothes have gotten so expensive. If you think about what women spend on clothes ….
A Valentino dress is $4,000. That’s just a day dress, not an evening dress. And that’s a piece of jewelry. I think that’s part of it. Jewelry doesn’t sound so expensive anymore.
What are your bestsellers? My rolling bracelets, the domed cuff and my feather earrings. They fly out.
Why do you think that is? The rolling bracelets and the domed cuffs are the best bracelets made, period. There isn’t a better bracelet. You can’t convince me there’s a better bracelet. Every time someone says to me, ‘Brooke, I really want a different bracelet than everybody else has,’ I say, ‘You know, it’s like a navy blazer. You find the navy blazer that fits you in your life.’ This is it. You can wear it every day, and it goes young and old. It’s amazing.
You seem to do a lot of unique pieces, too. What’s next design-wise? One of the things that’s challenging for me is to find the balance between the core and the unique. The core is fairly vast. Every time we get what we think is the core down, I’m in another environment, like I’m in the bath and I think, ‘Wait a minute, what about …’ Then I’m emailing everybody, and I’m sure they’re thinking, ‘Could you just….It’s not the core, Brooke,’ but it is the core in a way.
I think of the core as more than it is. I did these hoops, they’re huge doorknockers that are electro-formed. My father would just be turning in his grave. Electroforming is brilliant. They push air into a mold, so they’re light. I’ve really been dying for big earrings, but I don’t want to wear costume and big earrings hurt you.
Then I just found someone who does spectacular titanium, and I think we’re going to launch something where it’s just three jewelers in the world who have what he does.
Since I opened the store on Madison, I have wanted to do men’s. I decided to launch it exclusively at Barney’s–I am their number one women’s vendor, and Tom Kalenderian [the men’s buyer] is a legend, I loved working with him. We had an 80% sell through in 6 weeks!
What inspires you? I really care how jewelry feels to wear it. I don’t want a ring with a lot of stuff going in a lot of areas because I talk with my hands, and in a minute I’m going to have pulled my sweater. It’s unpractical to me.
I’m actually really practical. I’m really pragmatic. I’m very romantic about jewelry. I love the idea of it and I love the present of it. I love the idea of women buying it for themselves and the idea of adornment and the idea of permanence and giving it to your daughter, giving it to your son for his wife or his partner, but in the end you still have to wear it.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: I’m not a quitter. I’m lucky because I love what I do. I think if you’re not a quitter and you love what you do, then you’re going to succeed because if you’re really working, you’re not going to fail.
When you took over your father’s business, what was the hardest part that no one warned you about? The hardest part was the business part. No one warned me because I was already in. It wasn’t like I was starting a jewelry business from scratch. I look at those young women I meet at the CFDA, they’re all incredible and talented and charming. But I just think what are you doing? Do anything else! I mean, when you told me you started a jewelry line, I thought, ‘Is she nuts?’
I should’ve talked to you before. You should’ve talked to me before. It’s impossible, it’s just too expensive. I had so many things behind me. I had history with manufacturers for 60 years. I knew who was scary and who was good and who was dishonest. That was a huge thing.
What was the easiest part? I was very lucky. I mean, this came at a time in my life where I could’ve not had the business and my life would’ve been fine.
Advice for someone starting out in the jewelry business: Go work for someone. Really find some place where you can work your way up and maybe become a partner, somewhere where it’s a meeting of the minds. Maybe you can offer something that this other person can’t do. It’s too hard on your own.
Do you still donate your profits? Yes. I finally have profits. I’m on three boards, the Whitney, Lincoln Center Theater and the Child Mind Institute. Those are three huge chunks. I also donate to about 52 other Chicago charities and then charities if it’s a favorite of a customer or a dear friend. It’s separate than what Daniel [husband] and I do, which is much more than what I do, as it should be.
Can you talk a bit about your involvement in each of these institutions, why you love them, and what it means to you personally to be involved? The Child Mind Institute is what I owe because Jon, our oldest son, actually all three of our children ended up with impactful brain differences. They all did well, but Jon was the oldest and it was hard fought.
Dr. Koplewicz is the doctor who diagnosed him. I was so grateful and said, “What can I do to help you?” Jon is now 35, so he was 12, I think, when I said that, and I’ve been with Harold Koplewicz since. We built the NYU Child Study Center, then we left and then started again from scratch, which was a nightmare, but it’s flourishing.
Now there’s a major research study, the Healthy Brain Network, and there’s a great website. It’s incredible, but it’s exhausting. It’s what I owe, so I do it. The Scientific Research Council comes to my house every summer, these scientists from all over country who supported us when we left NYU, who know how fragile children’s mental health is. No one values it. No one cares and the stigma is tremendous. If I had been raising money for pediatric cancers, please, it would be easy, but this is just hard fought every step of the way.
Then I always wanted to be on the board of Lincoln Center Theater. I always wanted to be involved with the theater. I wanted to be an actress when I was young. That was actually the last board I was asked to join.
The Whitney, I started collecting art probably about 27, 25 years ago. Beth Rudin DeWoody saw me in a gallery and said, ‘Are you collecting art?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t think we’re collecting, we’re sort of just starting.’ She said, ‘Okay, you need to get involved with the Whitney.’ That was it. I was on the print committee. I learned so much. It was such an extraordinary experience, and I love it. Art and theater are both amazing passions of mine.
Three words that describe you: Romantic, pragmatist, and very passionate.
Three words that describe Sidney Garber: Legacy, consistency, and continuity.
Life goals: To keep living. I would love to be calmer and more proactive rather than reactive. I’d love to be more organized. I’m a terrible procrastinator.
Really? Yes, horrible. Especially if I don’t know the answer and I have to think about the answer. Or I have to get something written and I have to sit down and write it and think about it. I won’t do it. And packing, I pack at the last minute, which is really nuts. My kids talk about that.
Daily goals: I would love to answer every email every day–to get to the bottom.
Favorite inspirational/motivational reads: We have this beautiful book Jane Rosenthal who started Tribeca Films sent to me. It’s a book of daily Buddhist quotes, they’re wonderful.
Daily rituals: I have breakfast with Daniel every morning.
How do you unplug? I read. I recently read two really intense books. First was Wild Swans. I sat next to this woman from China at the Wall Street Journal Innovators Awards. Ai Weiwei was at our table, and he was receiving an Innovators Award; it was pretty cool. She was fashionable and sat ramrod straight. I said something to her about how I was fascinated by China and the Cultural Revolution and she said, ‘Did you read Wild Swans? That’s what China’s like!’
I went right home and read Wild Swans. It was absolutely terrifying. It’s a true story. The woman who wrote it lives in London. I think she wrote it 16 years ago, and recently republished it with a new forward, but it’s beyond. Then I read The Orphan Master’s Son, which was really painful. It won the Pulitzer. It’s about North Korea. I mean, usually I don’t read things quite that wild. After The Orphan Master’s Son I read Julian Fellowes for three weeks in a row.
Hidden talents or hobbies: I have no hidden talents and hobbies, nothing. I’m such an open book. This is it.
Do you collect anything? I constantly buy books and art. Then I go through phases. When we were finishing the apartment and I was stuck here, I went on Etsy and started buying mid-century blue pottery.
Favorite small indulgence: A bath.
Album currently on repeat: Leonard Cohen. I can’t believe he recently died, I’ve listened to him forever.
Scent that brings back memories: My mother always wore White Shoulders.
Lucky charm: My daughter had this charm made that reads ‘For our mother who taught us how to love.’ She said she had to explain it to her brothers. She said they both had such weird takes on the whole thing that she couldn’t believe it. She said it was like, ‘Who are you?’ Now both my boys are great present givers.
Favorite hour of the day: Sunset. When I come home and the sun’s setting it’s so beautiful because the light pours in.
Heel/flats: I used to be heels, now flats. My advice is if you ever want to keep wearing heels, don’t give them up.
Follow Sidney Garber: Instagram.
Follow Brooke: Instagram.
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