Illustration by Allyssa Yohana.

Rony Vardi is the founder of the Brooklyn-based jewelry store Catbird, a brand known for its delicate, one-of-a-kind designs that range from affordable to aspirational. Vardi didn’t take the traditional path to starting her business: born in Israel and raised in New Jersey, she grew up around New York City but never had the plan to one day run what is now a celebrated jewelry store in Brooklyn. While studying pre-med and English at Rutgers University, Vardi landed a part-time job at a local futon store and found herself learning business skills that were not part of her college curriculum. She was managing employees, running the store’s website, and doing graphic design for their catalogs.

It was the graphic design that led Vardi to move from New Jersey to New York City and become a freelancer, working for companies like Bliss Spa and Sephora. In 2004, a space near her apartment in Williamsburg was available to rent, and with the money she had saved, she decided to lease the space and open up a store. She named it Catbird after a species of bird that was on an Audubon poster she had.

The shop began not as a jewelry store but as a boutique that sold all sorts of items–from clothing to home goods–that Vardi sourced from local designers. She began producing pieces of jewelry at home and hiring local jewelers to create small pieces to sell in the shop. Seeing what her customers were responding to, she began to shift her focus to just jewelry. Over the years, she scaled the business from her and a jeweler to her current team of 80 employees, 35 of them being the jewelers who create the pieces at the Catbird studio in Brooklyn.

Vardi and I spoke about growing up in New Jersey, working at the futon shop, and why people love to buy jewelry.

SHRIYA: What were you like when you were younger?

RONY: Since we lived in New Jersey, I would go into the city a lot to see shows. My boyfriend at the time was in a band, and I would go to CB’s matinees to see bands play. I wasn’t in a band myself, but I played music–piano and flute. I wasn’t one of those kids who had a driving passion. I see those kids now and I think they’re quite rare; I think they’re so lucky that there’s this guiding light for them. I was definitely not like that. I was like, “I love English, but I also love science, and I also love math, and I also love music!” What didn’t I love? But it wasn’t like I was great at any of those things. I cared way more about looking cool and being cool and being with the cool kids. I really wanted to be where the action was. But I wouldn’t look to myself as a teenager and want my kids to be like me. I left a lot to be desired!

I will say though that I didn’t fear change, even today I embrace it. I feel like I was lucky enough to have a lot of big changes in my life in a way that was controlled but big enough that it had a positive effect on me.

What are or were your parents like?

My father unfortunately passed away, but he was a mathematician, and my mom had her own business. And my father actually also had his own business–they both had a real entrepreneurial spirit. My dad had his own real estate business, and he had a lot of curiosity. He always had his hands in something and was always ready to try anything. My mom also started her own business and it was her career. I was definitely raised around businesses, but to be totally honest, I don’t think I had a sense of what was happening. It was only retroactively that I understood what they were up to. They were really adventurous and risk-takers.

When you were a teenager, did you ever think that you would start a business?

At the time, no. Looking back at certain things now, I did have a really good work ethic. I babysat when I was really young, then I was a lifeguard, then I worked in bookstores. Even when I was young, I was given more responsibilities–as a lifeguard, I was 15 and making everyone’s schedules. When I was at the bookstore, I merchandised the art department. I think everywhere I worked, I cared a lot and so I took a lot of ownership. I didn’t see that there was any other option, I just assumed that this is what one does. That is definitely a model from my parents, and now that is something I value so much. Everyone I surround myself with here at Catbird works in that way.

What did you study in college?

Once again, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I loved English and I was a huge reader and writer, so I thought, I’ll be an English major! But after a while I thought, I’ll be a doctor! And I shifted to pre-med. I was all over the place. Honestly the best experience I had that really led me to the business was a job at a futon shop in New Jersey when I was 21. I was hired as a seamstress and my friend was the manager. She hated managing, so I ended up taking over as manager. That, of all the jobs I’ve had, was the most formative. The owner lived in another town and never came around; for some reason he really trusted me. I did everything there–I chose what we sold, I hired, I fired, I made everyone’s schedules, I helped customers. It was a very nimble operation and I ran it as though it was very much my own. I loved the feeling of being part of a community and having a physical place that I could affect. To me it felt like an always-evolving project and it was a platform for experimentation. I had many jobs after that, but that was the one that affected me most deeply.