by jenny johnson | April 25, 2014 | Style & Beauty
Alex and Ani’s Carolyn Rafaelian is quietly creating a golden empire, one zen-powered bangle at a time.
“Real power is silent,” Carolyn Rafaelian says while thoughtfully stroking a gold bracelet clasped around her wrist. “It’s silent and it’s beautiful.” Natural dark curls cascade around Rafaelian’s pronounced cheekbones. Her eyes are deep auburn and exotic. If she needed any proof that power is indeed beautiful, all she would need to do is look in the mirror. Rafaelian has arrived.
The founder, CEO, and creative director of the mega successful Alex and Ani jewelry line, Rafaelian is sitting at her corporate headquarters in Cranston, Rhode Island. The room feels more like an artist’s studio than an executive’s office. Rafaelian sips her tea and leans back in her chair. Awards crowd the wall behind her. A thousand-plus employees are fastidiously at work all through the building. This is the castle that Rafaelian built.
Nearby is the castle that Rafaelian bought. Literally. In 2012, she purchased Belcourt Castle—the Belcourt Castle, the one that once housed Alva Vanderbilt and the Newport Jazz Festival, and overlooks the Atlantic along the Cliff Walk of Bellevue Avenue, the Rodeo Drive of Newport, Rhode Island. She picked it up for a cool $3.6 million and has since invested at least double that amount to rehabilitate the historic property. Rafaelian has grand visions. Now renamed Belcourt of Newport, the 60-room mansion will open this summer to the public. It has been blessed by her shaman and will swing open its ornate front doors for tours, art galleries, and special events. “As the new steward, I feel blessed to take care of this Rhode Island icon, to grow the business, and give it all the love and attention it needs to show its true beauty and history.”
Carolyn Rafaelian met the Dalai Lama in 2012.
Then, there’s the winery—a 170-acre vineyard in Little Compton, Rhode Island, now called Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard, which she purchased last year. There will be wine tours, tastings, and concerts, among many other events. If you prefer an espresso, well, Rafaelian has taken care of that for you, too. She bought the Teas and Javas franchise, which has cafés in Cranston, Newport, and Providence. Call it an empire, or just call it Carolyn Rafaelian, who’s on a mission to make herself part of the cultural fabric of Rhode Island and to send her neighbors the positive energy that’s woven into her jewelry brand’s DNA.
What began as a wire bangle jewelry line named after her two eldest daughters has boomed into a national brand valued at well over $230 million, capturing a cultlike following of customers from 8 to 80 years old. In less than a decade, Rafaelian’s Alex and Ani has grown by a staggering 365 percent, giving rise to more than 40 retail locations, including one on Newbury Street, and a robust philanthropic arm. Still, this Renaissance woman doesn’t measure her success in dollars, but rather breaks it down into big-picture denominations. “If God were running a company, what would it be like? What would it feel like? What would it look like?” Rafaelian ask rhetorically, her eyes widening with each syllable. At first the objective seems lofty—disjointed, frankly—for a jewelry designer, but Rafaelian is quite serious. It’s a life pursuit that began not far from where we’re now sipping tea.
Rafaelian was born in Rhode Island to first-generation Armenian Americans, Ralph and Lucy Rafaelian. In the mid-1960s, Rafaelian’s father opened Cinerama Jewelry in Providence, where he created patriotic jewelry that he sold to various fundraising organizations. Before long, young Carolyn found her way into the jewelry factory, where she watched her father at work. Somewhere amid the tools and frenetic energy, Rafaelian’s creativity took hold. Her imagination was inspired by her father, but her vision was all her own.
Symbols of protection adorn bracelets in Carolyn Rafaelian’s Carnival and Caravans series.
The Alex and Ani collections are based on a single premise. Each bracelet is “infused with positive energy” and designed around symbols or talismans of empowerment and protection. Rafaelian extends a finger to reveal a ring that she’s been wearing for over a decade. It was a gift from a shaman who is a dear friend of hers, and is imprinted with the Alantean symbol of protection.
But her jewelry’s impact on customers extends beyond symbolic empowerment. It has allowed her to support her beloved state of Rhode Island, too, which has struggled with low business rankings and high unemployment. She has made donations of $1 million each to Bryant University, Rhode Island College, and University of Rhode Island. In addition, as part of her Charity by Design program, Rafaelian collaborates with more than 135 nonprofits to raise money though the sale of signature bangles. The Hero bracelet, for instance, benefits the Hasbro Children’s Hospital, where her daughters were born, with 20 percent of proceeds supporting children’s health services there. Other Charity by Design causes include the Jimmy Fund, Toys for Tots, International Bird Rescue, and the National Autism Association. All told, Charity by Design has raised over $10 million since its inception.
Rafaelian, of course, has only just begun. She plans to expand into an all-encompassing lifestyle brand, through beauty products, belts, and handbags. “I think that power and femininity, if you can put those two together, is literally the most enchanting thing that anybody can harmonize.” With that, Carolyn Rafaelian has finished her tea, and is ready to get back to work.
photography by joel benjamin