July 22, 2019
By David Duddy
Katherine J. Kornblau is the founder and president of KJK Jewelry, Inc., which specializes in working with museums and other cultural institutions to create custom jewelry that complements collections and exhibitions. Katherine studied art history at Oberlin College. A lifelong New Yorker, Katherine reflects on her career, the impact of MSA and she even shares her favorite pizza topping.
I was born in Brooklyn, moved to Long Island and then I moved to Manhattan when I was 12 — and I am still here!
What does your company do? How long has your company been in existence?
I started selling to stores 35 years ago. We specialize in working with museums and other cultural institutions to create custom jewelry that complements their collections and exhibitions. We also offer a full range of our own thematic collections designed specifically for MSA customers.
What is your role within your company? Have you changed positions within the company? Worked for another company?
“Chief cook and bottle-washer?” Since we are a small business, I oversee every aspect of our operations. My role is to design beautiful collections, have my studio execute them to perfection and ensure that they are delivered on time. I love the client contact and working directly with buyers to make sure that what we produce is exactly what they need. I work closely with my staff — some of whom have been with me for decades. While I was growing my company, I worked for several schools teaching art and jewelry making. It was wonderful to guide people creating their own works!
Describe the life journey that brought you to this career.
I started selling jewelry out of my little red wagon on Fire Island. I have been selling jewelry to stores since I was 16. I took art classes at The Metropolitan Museum of Art growing up. A real watershed moment was the famous King Tut exhibit — it was an inspirational, life-changing exhibit for me. I fell in love with ancient Egypt: the history, the art and, of course, the jewelry. I even studied hieroglyphics!
In high school, I was an intern at The Met in the Jewelry Reproductions Studio. I also worked in The Met Store. I lived in Peru as an exchange student, which gave me a unique opportunity to experience another culture. After that, I went to Oberlin College, where I studied art history. Then, I had another international experience studying Egyptian archaeology during my junior year abroad at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris. These international experiences were enriching and left me with a desire to study, travel and discover other cultures and their arts. These experiences, combined with living in the inspiring fashion capital of New York City, brought me to where I am today.
Tell us about the first sale you ever made to a museum or nonprofit institution. What was it? Who did you sell it to?
Years ago, I met with the buyer from The Guggenheim about an upcoming show they were hosting, “5,000 Years of China.” Since I had just finished my degree in art history, I started making a bunch of suggestions like, “If it is Shang Dynasty, we should show bronzes. If it is Tang, let’s bring in some porcelain.” After listening to my thoughts on what she should consider including, she said: “You just do it.”
Did you feel like a partner in that process? Are you still?
Yes! My business is all about the partnership. I listen to my customers’ needs and advise them based on my experience so that we are all successful.
What is unique about your product, production technique, design or other aspects? What would the MSA membership really want to know about you?
Because I have worked with so many institutions, I truly understand the challenges that museum buyers face. We produce high-quality pieces that fit into the price range that works for institutional buyers. We have thousands of designs that we can produce in a wide variety of topics.
Every piece is made to order and our clients know they can rely on us.
I believe that many of my clients value that my work is made in America and that we are woman owned and operated.
Since we have so many collections, we have many clients that will use us one month for a Deco exhibit, the next month for a recycled-materials exhibit and then use us again for an Impressionist show. If we do not have what an institution needs in our collections, we will make it. For them, we represent reliable one-stop shopping!
Currently, there is a lot of turmoil in the retail world. Can you tell us one exciting trend that you’ve noticed? Are you taking advantage of it?
There is always perceived turmoil in the retail world. I think that if you offer unique products at a fair price with excellent customer service, customers keep coming back to you and they recommend you to others. An exciting trend I have noticed is that my highest-priced pieces are bringing in a healthy percentage of my annual sales. I am always cautious about designing pieces with a high wholesale because my MSA customers are hesitant to bring in higher-end goods, but I am delighted to report that they are selling them. They may not move as many pieces per style, but the high end makes the cases look great and their profit per piece is so much higher. Museums have such credibility with their public that they are able to sell luxury goods as well as moderately-priced items. This makes me want to go design more higher-end pieces right now!
What are some concrete goals for your next three years working with members of the Museum Store Association? How do you see MSA helping you achieve that?
First, I need to say thank you to MSA. I am deeply honored to receive the MSA Vendor of the Year Award. It is wonderful to be recognized for my many years of hard work and devotion to cultural institutions. For me, winning this award was like winning an Academy Award. It is the highest achievement I can think of in my industry. I have attended the MSA EXPO for 23 years, missing only one the week I had my daughter. My mom, Helen, who regularly attends with me, had to go to that one without me. MSA is the organization that helped me establish myself in this industry. I am grateful. I hope to grow with the organization and find many ways to help us continue to unite buyers and vendors and to bolster our recognition as an important, unique facet of retail with a valuable mission — to support our great institutions.
Have you ever attended an MSA chapter meeting? Tell us about that experience.
I attended one in New York City many years ago. I would love to attend more, but I need lots of advanced notice with my busy travel schedule. We do support chapter meetings in other ways, like sponsorship, even if we cannot attend.
So, you are marooned on a desert island. What three music albums do you take?
Yikes — that is just too hard! One would have to be a selection of classical music. It is what I listen to while I work. One would be something like “Motown’s Greatest Hits” because it makes me happy and I love to dance! And finally, Carole King’s “Tapestry” because it reminds me of my youth and I sing it to my daughter at bedtime.
Go-to pizza topping?
I am a veggie girl — so probably spinach and mushroom, but plain cheese is just fine. As long as it is a great, crunchy crust New York City pizza!
Last one. “Star Wars” or “Star Trek”?
No question, “Star Wars”! It’s about recognizing the power of good energy in the universe.