Sitting in Beverly Hills in a picturesque apartment in varying shades of gray, is our current muse and new friend, jewelry designer Johnathan Cardillo. His meticulously designed living space is understandable as interior design is one of his many passions, but this jack-of-all-trades is more than meets the couch. Johnathan Cardillo is a California native and an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with in the fine and fashion jewelry industry.
Self-taught Cardillo went through a series of trials and error to perfect his craft and refused to settle for anything less than perfection. With a distinct aesthetic, Cardillo aims to create staple, statement pieces that everyone can enjoy. With his hand in every aspect from design, gemstone selection, to photography, Cardillo has created his signature in the Spike Pendant. We were lucky enough have a candid chat and mini, impromptu photo shoot with Cardillo and take a look at his stunning jewelry collection.
Labeling Men: Tell us about yourself and your line.
Johnathan Cardillo: What do you want, like history going way back?
Labeling Men: Anything and everything.
Johnathan Cardillo: So, I grew up in So Cal, in San Bernardino. When I was just 21 I moved to LA to work at an acting studio, and I worked there for a couple of years in an admin position and I was starting to get really restless. I was like, “you have to be doing something with your life. You don’t want to be an admin, you don’t want to be working for someone, you’re creative.” So I was talking to a really good friend on the phone and I said, “I just don’t know what I’m going to do, I have all these ideas and I don’t know which direction to take.” He said, “Johnathan, you are a designer, you always have been.” And it clicked with me. I had read a really interesting article around the same time about hiding behind your job because you are too afraid to take the road you should be taking. So many people go through their whole life hiding behind that job, a false truth, because they are scared. I was like, “I have to do this.” I didn’t even know what kind of design I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to do interior design, because I love furniture…
Labeling Men: Well, you are good at it!
Johnathan Cardillo: I do love furniture, I love shopping for it, I love cool stuff, but the more I thought about it I was like, there are so many interior designers in LA. Not only that, but do I want to be doing this for other people? I don’t think so. I don’t think I want to be picking out paint samples and designing a kitchen; it’s just not me. I sat in my space and I looked around and I thought, “what am I good at, what do I have an eye for?” People had always told me I had really good taste in accessories. Whether it’s a wallet, jewelry, watches, I can walk through a store - even like TJ Maxx or Marshall’s - and I will find the one treasure there that looks really expensive but isn’t, the one thing you are going to get compliments on. So, I was like, “how about jewelry?” So I sat down and I bought a bunch of art stuff and I started to draw. I started to teach myself how to stencil. I mean, I’m not a crazy artist but I get by enough to get my point across to the manufacturers. I want to say that was in 2013, and I designed one piece, a key necklace with my initials on the top; it was kind of a huge pain in the ass. The guy I was working with was a great jewelry seller, not a brilliant manufacturer. I was like, “this is not going to work.” I scrapped that website, I scrapped the piece - I still have it, but I didn’t sell it. I was not 100% happy with it, and I have to be to put my name out there. So I started drawing again, and every time I came back to pieces with really sharp angles. I always came back to the spike. I started to draw and everything I drew was an evolution of a spike.
Labeling Men: Interesting.
Johnathan Cardillo: So I thought, “simplify it, start with the spike.” It’s what I’m attracted to, that means it’s my signature style, it’s who I am. I didn’t invent it, there are other spike pendants out there, but I just knew it was going to be my signature. I was going to find a way to do it and do it better than everyone else. I came out with that collection in late 2014 and that website, and earlier this year I was discontent again. The pieces are great, the pictures are great, I know I have a really good eye for branding and marketing. There is just no brand identity here. It says nothing about the designer. I need models and to put my touch on it. That whole year, I had dealt with nothing but manufacturers and production issues, because I didn’t go to school for this.
Labeling Men: You are just learning as you go.
Johnathan Cardillo: Exactly, trial and error. I was taking meetings with manufacturers, I settled on a group of people who promised me the moon. But I had to fire them eventually. I spent a lot of money and I still just wasn’t confident in the product. They were like, “We are not Cartier, we told you that.” And my response was, “I don’t care what you told me, you are giving me pieces that I can’t physically sell. I do not like the way that they look, they are not perfect, I’m not going to sell them to people.” So I kind of stepped back for a little bit until I could find a real manufacturer I was happy with and kind of recharge. I got a little burnt out. So earlier this year, I was like, “We are going balls to the wall again,” and this whole time, I have invested my own capital into the project and that’s what I did again. I hired a photographer, I hired models, the manufacturing was on point. I came out with new sizes for the spikes, new colors, I added stones to them, and I was finally really fucking happy.
Labeling Men: Good! [Laughs]
Johnathan Cardillo: I got the pictures, I started editing them myself because I know how I want them to look, I built the website. I was like, “Okay, I have something I’m proud to put my name on now and something I’m proud to sell to people.”
Labeling Men: That’s everything.
Johnathan Cardillo: Absolutely. People are like, “Don’t you want more pieces?,” and I’m like, “No, I want to start with the pendants, start with the necklaces because that’s what I always seem to sit down and draw.” I just don’t want to clutter it up at first. I want to do one thing well and then let it evolve.
Labeling Men: That’s exactly how you should do it.
Johnathan Cardillo: Otherwise you might just shoot yourself in the foot. So we shot the necklaces and the next photo shoot I will be introducing the bracelets, the earrings and the rings. I literally sat down last night with the CAD designer and we designed a few new things, so it will involve a derivative of the spike but has new shapes and ways of doing it. I think that’s what I’ll always do; I’ll always go back to what I’m drawn to.
Labeling Men: What do you think it is about the spike specifically that draws you in?
Johnathan Cardillo: I think that it compliments anybody. It doesn’t matter who wears it, it’s such an attractive, slim piece that your eye comes to a point. I’m just drawn to things that draw your eye in. Every time I wear them people compliment me, ask me where I got them. I think it’s just a sharp angle thing for me. I’m not big on circles, rounded edges. I feel like what my niche will be is that I wanted to create one thing and then offer it in sizes and colors that will appeal to any taste. So you might love gold, but you might find the perfect pendant and they only offer it in silver. So you will be mad about it!
Labeling Men: People are definitely very particular about their gold or silver. Like, I love mixed metals, but there are some people who specifically only wear gold or only wear silver.
Johnathan Cardillo: Yeah, I’m a gold guy. Like, I hardly wear the silver pieces I have because I’m just drawn to gold. But I want to be able to always put my signature on it, I want to design things that are me but offer it in any taste. A lot of guys are drawn to the black pieces, so we are going to keep running with that. A lot of girls love the gold.
Labeling Men: I think that’s a good way to do it! As you mentioned, there are other spike pendants out there; what differentiates you from those other brands?
Johnathan Cardillo: Most designers use brass, because it’s a bit more cost effective. Most spikes that you see - and I don’t see that many to be honest - but any that I have seen are costume jewelry and brass, and to me it’s a worthless metal. I don’t believe in just marking things up to mark them up. I would rather give you a quality metal that’s worth something someday. So that’s why I only offer sterling silver, no lead in our metals. We do the three different colors, black rhodium plated on sterling silver, yellow gold plated, or a white rhodium over sterling. We also offer all the spikes in solid gold, so if you are the client that has a bit more expendable income and you love solid gold then you can spend the money on that.
Labeling Men: That’s really nice! What are some of the gemstones you incorporate?
Johnathan Cardillo: The first collection we did blue sapphires, we like the way that looked on the silver. White diamonds and black diamonds. I hand pick all of the stones. I go to downtown LA and pick them out because I am very particular, and people will try and give you crap if you don’t know your stuff.
Labeling Men: How did you learn about all the gems and quality? I feel like it takes a while to learn that.
Johnathan Cardillo: To be honest, I’ve learned it to an extent, well enough for what I need to know. For the most part in fashion jewelry, you have to eye it. You show up and you look at the pieces. For white diamond you are looking at clarity. You want to make sure they are not yellow or brown and if they have those and they are not chipped you are good to go. I’m not selling certified diamonds. I mean, the cost would go up astronomically; it’s fashion jewelry. But most people will put crap diamonds in your pieces if you don’t keep an eye on them. Blue sapphires, you just want to make sure they are not too milky. Black diamonds, for the most part they are all the same across the board. You just want to make sure they are not chipped. I have had people sell me in the past black diamonds that are chipped. You can see all the way through the diamond on the other side that there is a chip in it.
Labeling Men: Wow, that’s crazy!
Johnathan Cardillo: Yeah! So you really have to go down there if you want to have a good amount of quality control, you have to go look at them yourself and you can’t depend on anyone else. But in my opinion, you can go to school for this stuff and spend tens of thousands of dollars, but it is still going to be trial and error. So I’m just going to do it this way first. I’m just going to go and talk to people and they will educate you. It’s a free education; you can ask your manufacturer just about anything. I can ask him about stones, I can ask the people I’m buying stones from about stones, you can pick their brain and most people are willing to help.
Labeling Men: That’s awesome. So when you look at your collection, do you consider it more minimalist or more statement?
Johnathan Cardillo: Oh, good question. I would say it depends on the customer, because I would say I design a minimalist collection, but I offer it in so many sizes and colors that you can layer it all and then it’s a statement. If you put all four necklaces together, which is what I’m hoping they do, then it’s a big statement. The bigger spikes are more of a statement piece, so I would say it’s 50/50, and that’s the way I want it to be. I want there to be something for everyone. A lot of girls right now are more drawn to the tiny, dainty pendants, but most guys - this is why I design them - but guys kept asking for bigger spikes. They wanted a thicker chain, a longer chain, something more masculine. But a lot of gay men love the medium size, where they can wear it at the pool.
Labeling Men: [Laughs] It’s minimalist but still a statement.
Johnathan Cardillo: Falls just in the right place!
Labeling Men: So who are some of your biggest inspirations in the industry?
Johnathan Cardillo: I would say who I model myself after would be David Yurman. Because he went in the direction I want to go in, he always kept his signature look. You know a David Yurman piece by the rope, they are all heavy, quality, he doesn’t stray too far from his look and he never sold them dirt cheap. There is still that factor, they are still worth something. There is not a David Yurman store in every mall, when that happens the pieces will be worthless in my opinion. I think they are growing at the right rate. I would never want to turn into someone; I don’t want to mention any names, but a designer that would just slap my name on everything because eventually I do want to do leather accessories, backpacks, maybe wallets and purses. I just don’t want to be that guy that slaps his name all over the bag. I want to design an attractive piece and then the name should be the smallest part about it. I want to be a brand with integrity and I think that David Yurman does that well.
Labeling Men: How would you label the guy that wears your pieces?
Johnathan Cardillo: Um, I would say… we did an event with Touch of Modern, and we did really well. Their client is “The Bachelor,” for the most part not married, a bit metrosexual, expendable income, and I think that is my client. So far, all the sales that I get, I kind of snoop and look at their Instagram…
Labeling Men: [Laughs] I love that!
Johnathan Cardillo: You have to know your clientele!
Labeling Men: Market research…
Johnathan Cardillo: Absolutely! They are attractive guys who are into fitness with a specific taste. They want a piece that is going to complement them, that is masculine no matter what they wear it with. You can wear it with a button up, you can wear it shirtless, but for the most part they are bachelors with expendable incomes. And a lot of gay men, [laughs] fashionable, metrosexual men.
Labeling Men: How would you label your own personal style, and would you say that plays a role in your designs?
Johnathan Cardillo: I would say my own personal style is boring.
Labeling Men: No!
Johnathan Cardillo: I would say honestly, I dressed up for you. Most of the time during the week, I wear a baseball cap, which is why I put it on the model on the photo shoot. I wanted it to reflect who I am. For the most part just jeans, a shirt and Nikes.
Labeling Men: Sporty…
Johnathan Cardillo: [Laughs} I’m all about muted for the outfit. A good friend of mine who is a stylist taught me this. She said, “Don’t over complicate it. Go with your style, keep it simple, plain t-shirt, black jeans, a good pair of shoes, but have that one or two accessories that are really hot.” That is the way I wanted to design things. You can wear whatever, but your one accessory is what people are going to ask you about and compliment you on. That’s the same way I shop for watches.
Labeling Men: I did notice your watch straight away.
Johnathan Cardillo: It’s vintage Gucci. I couldn’t design a more perfect watch for myself. If you can keep things muted, then your accessories are what people are going to ask about. Usually, a good pair of shoes, necklaces, find a pendant that you love and maybe spend a little extra money for solid gold so the color lasts forever. But find a staple piece that you can wear every day and that goes with everything and in time people know you for that, it’s your signature. So I always want to reflect my personal style in that sense, when it comes to jewelry, I want to design something that I would wear every day with plain clothes.
Labeling Men: So, finally, what are your future plans. I know you mentioned adding some leather items, bags?
Johnathan Cardillo: Yes. The next photo shoot will have female models, earrings, rings to appeal to women, but also make masculine versions of them. I really want to do, and I’ve already done the research and laid the foundation for designing a line of really sexy leather backpacks. I think there is a hole in the market for them. It’s hard to find an attractive leather backpack that you think, “Wow, that’s worth $600.” Because you will pay the markup at Kitson, but they are still pretty plain. I definitely want to incorporate the spike into the backpacks.
Labeling Men: As you should.
Johnathan Cardillo: I’ve already designed them. They are going to have a signature look. More stones, too. I want to play with new stones. I’m considering replacing the blue sapphires with blue diamonds and see what the feedback is on that. But yeah, within the next couple of years I really want to grow the staff. I’ve always wanted to be that guy that has built a career for himself, where he could hire people and it would mean the world to me to be able to actually employ somebody. You can’t grow unless you let people help you. The kind of be all end all for me within the next year is I want to be in Barneys. It would just be amazing to walk by a Barneys display case with my line in it. I don’t think it’s too far off. With the next couple of collections I think there is a really good chance.
Labeling Men: I think so too! Is there anything else you want to touch on?
Johnathan Cardillo: If I could just offer some advice to other young designers?
Labeling Men: Of course!
Johnathan Cardillo: Consistency. You can’t give up, because at first it’s hard. I mean, I’ve done that, I’ve laid the foundation for a few years and it’s trial and error. I think in terms of education, maybe you don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a degree. Try it your way first, go take meetings, pick their brains, meet other designers, walk into boutiques and ask them questions. It’s all free information. Google it and have an answer in two minutes! So if you are confident and your taste and signature style and your abilities to design a quality finish product are there, then go for it. Don’t let anyone talk you out of it, because trust me, there have been a million people who are like, “Jewelry is really saturated,” and it is. But that doesn’t stop a lot of designers. You have to put your stamp on it and make it different. It’s all about branding, otherwise you are going to get nowhere.
Labeling Men: That is great advice!
Shop Johnathan Cardillo’s collection at jcardillo.com
Interview and photos by Mischa Teichgraeber