This is the twenty-third in our 'Focus on Founders' series of articles about alumni entrepreneurs.
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You won’t find glass cases of rings, bracelets, and necklaces at Zameer Kassam’s (TOR 01-03) fine jewelry business.
In fact, you won’t even find a store.
Zameer set out to create something different with his jewelry, creating one-of-a-kind pieces that tell a personal story.
Zameer Kassam Fine Jewelry, based in Manhattan but catering to clients worldwide, has been making waves in the industry. In February, Zameer placed third in VOGUE Magazine’s annual list of the most "dream-worthy engagement rings" – ahead of iconic brands such as Van Clef, Graff, and David Yurman. Not bad for a brand that was just launched in 2012.
His business model takes ‘bespoke’ to a new level. In a process that takes anywhere from three to nine months, Zameer and his team work closely with their clients to design an individual piece of jewelry – an engagement ring, or a piece to celebrate a milestone – that reflects a personal story, and will never be created for anyone else.
The business also boasts some big-name advisors: Rob Kaplan, the former vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs, and the current head of the Dallas Fed, is the head of Zameer’s advisory board.
Zameer has built his business both in sharing his love of beautiful jewelry and on his commitment to exceptional client service, and in talking to him one gets the idea that his bad days at work are pretty few and far between. As he puts it: “How often in life do you get to interact with people only when they're celebrating incredibly special moments?”
In our conversation with him, Zameer touched on his lifelong romance with fine jewelry, the passion he has for helping clients tell their stories, and the “wild determination” he learned at McKinsey.
A passion for jewelry
Zameer’s path to his business was a winding one. After an influential two years at the Firm as a BA, he spent some time working on strategy and finance at MTV Networks in India, trying to decide, as he says, “whether I wanted to be a media person or if I wanted to be a finance person” (spoiler alert: he decided he didn't want to be either), and then went to business school at Harvard.
A leadership professor there challenged him to think about what he was truly passionate about. As a teenager in Vancouver, Zameer had helped out at his parents’ jewelry business. And while he didn’t miss working in a retail atmosphere, he did realize how much he loved jewelry and missed working with it.
This spurred him on to an internship at De Beers, and in his second year of business school he worked on an independent study project with the government of Botswana and then-Harvard professor Michael Porter. Zameer’s high principles and courage in his convictions were already evident: before signing on with De Beers after graduation, he visited their mine personally to ensure that the diamonds he’d be working with were humanely sourced.
At De Beers, Zameer says he “rekindled the romance” that he has with fine jewelry. But something was missing: he wasn’t designing the pieces himself.
Creating a company to fit a vision: telling stories through designs
Unlike many alums we’ve featured in this series who are serial entrepreneurs, Zameer came to entrepreneurship sideways. Not content to work in a business he loved without being able to have some creative control, he created his own model.
“The thing I like best about being an entrepreneur is that I get to chart my own path,” Zameer says. “While I learned a lot working for incredible institutions like LVMH, there's a very set, traditional business model, and it would have been very difficult for me to live my personal passions within that. What I love to do the most is to help people articulate to other people how they feel.” And as the majority of Zameer’s business is made up of helping men design the perfect engagement ring, he adds, “I feel like I get to be the ‘secret weapon’ in someone’s back pocket, to help them express how much they love the person they’re proposing to.”
“Helping someone bring to life the way someone feels in the design of a ring is one of the most extraordinary things that I've ever had the honor to do,” he continues. “And I get to do that every day. If I had retail stores all over the place, I wouldn't be able to pick up and move to meet my clients wherever they are in the world, or have a team of storytellers that currently meet clients wherever they are in the world.”
The detail that goes into weaving a story into the design is exacting, he says: “The shape of the prong holding the gem could bring to life a certain architectural style in an ancestral home in Europe, or there might be gemstones hidden on the inside that tell a particular story, or the number of diamonds on the sides tell a secret code that only they know.”
In his quest to create the perfect piece of jewelry, he has sent a team member to Botswana to pick a diamond, and has personally gone to Afghanistan to search for the perfect emerald for a client.
As you might expect, individualized service like this doesn’t come cheap, but Zameer said that working with him to design a piece is not necessarily much more than one would pay at a traditional high-end jewelry store.
And it’s not just engagement rings that Zameer creates. A large portion of Zameer’s clients come to him to design “milestone pieces.” These clients, he says, tend to be highly successful, career-driven women who want to celebrate an accomplishment or a life milestone, such as a promotion.
Creating future heirlooms
Zameer cites his family’s history as one reason he is keen to help clients create heirlooms. His parents were part of the group of Indians who were expelled from Tanzania during the turmoil in East Africa at the time of Idi Amin’s presidency. “All of our family jewelry, of which there was very little to begin with, was confiscated. There was literally nothing left of my mother's wedding jewelry,” he says. He had no photographs, either. “Family photographs, heirlooms handed down . . . I never had that, and it was something that I always wished I could have experienced. So when I’m creating these pieces of jewelry, I pay a lot of attention to the story.”
“It matters very little to me if a client happens to love the color blue, but it matters the world to me if her great-grandfather had given her great-grandmother a pair of sapphire studs just before they entered and lost each other in the Holocaust, or if there was one sole heirloom that existed that had been lost in a shipwreck,” Zameer explains. “And these stories are in everyone's lives. My motivation in all of this is that 100 years, 200 years, 300 years down the line, there will be great-great-great grandchildren who will learn about their family's history through these pieces of jewelry.”
Zameer’s approach goes far beyond the typical transactional nature of jewelry buying: “This trust-based, deeply emotional, special, privileged relationship that I'm building with my clients – it’s a long-term mindset, which is a unique thing in the world of fine jewelry.”
McKinsey connections and influences
Zameer values highly his time at McKinsey and the relationships he built here. He is particularly proud of the fact that more than 100 McKinsey folks – both current and former – have trusted him to create a custom piece. He even designed the engagement ring for Ian Davis’s son Henry – his fiancée Marissa, who was a friend of Zameer’s, recommended him. “I had known her for many years, and she had seen my work on several of her friends,” Zameer explains. “I had never met Henry before our first design meeting, and even then I had no idea he was Ian's son! It was only during the interview that I made the connection.” He adds, “It was really special because I had worked at the firm under Ian Davis' tenure as McKinsey's managing director. When I was at Henry and Marissa’s wedding, I got to spend time with Ian and his wife and it felt like such a full-circle moment back to McKinsey, where I learned so much about client impact and storytelling, and then having the good fortune of serving his son as a client,” he says. “It was a very exciting time.”
Zameer continues to count current Director Pooneh Baghai, former Director Nora Aufreiter (TOR 86-14), and Brian Stafford (NYO 04-15) as mentors, and says he is grateful for the strong connections fostered at the firm. “To this day, if I call people I worked with at McKinsey, everyone answers the phone. The idea that they answer the phone in and of itself is an incredibly powerful thing, but it also makes me realize the value in relationships.”
Besides the relationships, Zameer says he took away strong leadership skills from his time at the firm. “Things like resourcefulness – this work ethic where you literally will not stop working until you solve the problem. And the ability and humility to know that you can't have impact unless you empower folks around you to have impact with you. There's no such thing as a one-person team at McKinsey,” he says.
He adds, “I do think that this wild determination to deliver client impact, this concept that if the client calls at any point of the day or night, you will answer. Because it's important to you, and it's important to them. It's something that is deeply engrained in my own firm's values.”
Listening to the client, too, is a skill he developed at the firm. “I think that the level of empathy I developed through the conversations I had with clients when I was at McKinsey have made me much better at understanding the needs of my clients now, specifically when I'm learning their love stories and finding ways to articulate those love stories in design,” he says. “There's a certain amount of empathy that I think has really helped me tell those stories in an authentic way. It's about a relationship that I'm building for life.”
A new partnership
As Zameer’s influence in the world of fine jewelry grows, he is now building a partnership with his former employer, De Beers.
“De Beers is now a partner in our business,” Zameer says proudly. “First, we are now the only bespoke jeweler to have access to Forevermark, a collection of diamonds curated by De Beers for their high quality. Together, we have launched a microsite that aims to share our unique approach, how a ring can tell a story, and details on the partnership. The site will have new 'stories' launching every ten days.”
He explains that he is also one of only four jewelers in the world with access to "The Exceptionals," a collection of the top 100 or so diamonds that De Beers has mined in recent years. “These are extremely rare, and come with a thorough assessment of every step the diamond has taken from the moment unearthed to reaching our studio,” Zameer says, adding that he is currently working with a leading luxury retailer to pair his unique settings with these diamonds to their top clients around the world.
This partnership is meaningful to him, as it is a validation of his business model. “What I do is very niche and special, and basically the antithesis of the rest of the jewelry industry,” he laughs. “To have the kind of support that I now have from the De Beers Group is incredible.”
Making the journey valuable: advice on starting a business
Zameer’s main piece of advice for those who want to start a business is to love what you do. “If you build your business around your passions, and are thoughtful about doing that, then even on the worst day you will still be happy.
He adds, “I think that often, people get wrapped up in the outcome. They want a lot of money, or they want to have fame, or they want to build something that people all over the world will use, and all of those objectives are fair. As long as people are honest with themselves, they'll be able to develop a business plan around those objectives and be generally satisfied.
“But when you build a business around the thing that you love, the journey is so much more valuable than any outcome can ever be. If you do something that’s financially rewarding and everyone says it's the right thing, but you're unhappy, that's a pretty important thing to think through."
And ultimately, this story-teller wants to leave his own good story as his legacy.
“When you love what you do, every day becomes a bit of a gift. That sounds cliché, but I can promise you that I'm the happiest I've ever been. When I am an old man, and I look back at all of these pieces of jewelry, they'll tell my story. There's something very rewarding in that.”
Photo credit: Dennis Kwan Photography