Designer and Owner
What happens when a designer from Turkey meets an investment banker from Australia living in New York? In this case, they formed a partnership that not only spawned a business but love and marriage. Recently, Gurhan Orhan met with Elite Traveler President and Editor-in-Chief, Douglas Gollan, at his SoHo studio and the conversation ranged from prospering in difficult times to his penchant for learning new skills.
ET: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started.
Gurhan Orhan: My history is very eclectic. First I studied math, then business management. I was in school for a very long time; it was a good life, so I wanted to stay in school. Eventually however I started in electronics, production audio and sound systems. This led me into the hospitality industry—I had a disco at one point, and then a rock bar… I even became a deejay!
Then for five years starting in 1987, I moved from Turkey to Switzerland because I was fascinated with watches. I learned and started fixing old watches, turning pocket watches to unusual and unique wrist watches. I had three exhibitions of my watches in Europe and in Turkey.
One time when I was back in Turkey, I ‘met’ a sheet of pure gold, and it was love at first sight. I investigated how one works with gold, and it only took me two days to decide that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
I moved back to Istanbul and got a workshop. I closed myself away and started to study and learn everything I could. It took me eight months to finally get to the point where I had something I could show somebody. It was interesting because I was using ancient techniques of making gold jewelry, so it wasn’t just understanding the technique, but the tools that were used, which weren’t being used anymore. So then I made my own tools to make the jewelry based on techniques from 2,000 and 3,000 years ago.
I was lucky as well because anything I made, I sold, so I had the luxury of being able to make more. Eventually I started selling in a small shop in Bodrum, which is how my wife found me.
Fiona bought a piece of my jewelry, and she loved it so much, she tracked me down in Istanbul. She came to visit me and told me she adored the jewelry and if I wanted to make a real business with it in the U.S. she could help me.
Even though I studied business I didn’t like the business side of it, but I was especially interested in the idea of doing business in the U.S. Eventually I called Fiona, and about 18 months later I came to New York where she was working. Our romance and business began together at that time. So it was a love story. She took care of the business side and I took care of the design and product.
ET: How is business currently and have you made any changes considering what’s happening?
Gurhan Orhan: I was expecting a decline, because things never go up, up, up, up—and that’s what had been happening for the past 10 years. But this is a severe challenge, not only for us, but for the whole industry, and a lot of companies are fighting for survival.
We’re taking measures to survive and make sure we are even stronger when we come out of it. We are fortunate to have very strong relationships with Neiman Marcus and Saks.
We also started collections with silver. In the past, I made pure gold jewelry accented with silver, but now I am doing pure silver jewelry accented with gold. We believe there is a gap in the market for higher end silver jewelry between $300 and $3,000 done in a unique way as I do.
Launching the pure silver line has helped us amazingly. At the trade shows, we have opened up quite a few new accounts because of the silver collection, and once the retailer has bought our silver collections, we are finding that they then add a few gold pieces as well, so this strategy is really working beyond our expectations.
ET: How does the stress of the current situation affect your creativity?
Gurhan Orhan: Thanks to Fiona it is not really coming on me in terms of stress. She buffers the troubles and in fact this year was one of my most productive in terms of new collections. I was busy…and busy in a nice
way. In the last four or five months I created over 600 styles, and the reception was very promising in that they were buying the new, as well as the classics, right away.
In this current difficult economy, the creative side has to work more and focus on creating more sellable products. And that is good for a designer. Designers, at the end of the day, are problem solvers.
ET: How is your business spread out globally?
Gurhan Orhan: Right now most of our sales are still in the U.S. We started international expansion five or six years ago by going to trade shows in Europe. This past April, Basel [watch and jewelry fair] was our best since we started going. We are now selling in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, the U.K, Korea, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Israel, Turkey and the Middle East, and are working hard to expand into other new markets.
ET: Tell us a bit about your workshop in Istanbul.
Gurhan Orhan: We don’t employ people who know how to make jewelry. We hire honest people and we train them. We teach them first. It is at least a month before they can do anything to even help, and then at least four to eight months until they are at the apprentice level. We have a very loyal team, and they stay, they get married, they have children who are working with us. But the reason we do it this way is we have a technique in making jewelry that is different, so it is as if you hire a person who types with two fingers and you try to teach them to type with all their fingers; it is more difficult to train that person than a person who has never typed at all.
ET: Do you have any hobbies?
Gurhan Orhan: All my life I have always had hobbies, and right now my main hobby is taking photos. It is necessary for me to divert my mind. My imagination gets better and better, and in fact, I now take all of the photography we use for our advertisements and web site. We held the first exhibition of my photography at Saks New York as part of a special event, and it was great. We gave pictures of the jewelry as presents to people who bought the jewelry so the customer liked it because they not only got the ring, they also received a very artsy photograph of it. Being able to do all my own jewelry photography is also cost effective, which is very smart right now!
ET: Would you like to have a line of watches?
Gurhan Orhan: It is a dream. A watch is a living animal. Fixing them is a great pleasure and provides a sense of accomplishment. When you’re done, you made it work. Right now I still make watches from time to time, but not commercially.
ET: Is there anything else you make?
Gurhan Orhan: I have a wide knowledge of electronics. I make computers. I buy the parts, and in fact 13 or 14 of the workstations here I made. At this point, I am too busy to fix them if they break so we have somebody who does that, but originally I made them and I fixed them. I love new challenges.
In jewelry I still have a lot of things to do, and I want to learn glasswork, and combine glasswork and jewelry. I also want to do metal work—on a big scale—metal furniture and objects.
ET: How has the way you have managed the business changed as you grew from just Fiona and yourself to over 100 employees on two continents?
Gurhan Orhan: We have learned from everyone who has been here, whether they stayed for a short time or a long time. The most important thing is to ask questions and listen, and ask questions and listen. And we are quite lucky that we both had great educations and that we both have very analytical minds. In fact, it took us a while to get the team we wanted, which is the team we have today, and the nice thing is now we don’t have to do everything ourselves because we have people who are smart, dedicated and filled with great ideas themselves. We have an efficient structure and it is working.
ET: What’s next?
Gurhan Orhan: We will see, but nobody is talking about retirement so there is no exit plan. Fiona has ideas on widening the product line, so I think you will continue to see us around for quite awhile.