In The Magazine

Queen of Diamonds: Kara Ross, Unleashed

Thursday, January 5, 2017

photographed by Ben Fink Shapiro

styled by Emily Barnes

hair and makeup by Marissa Nemes at using Gucci Beauty and Oribe Haircare

fashion assistance by Edwin Exaus

Opal the Octopus is a sparkling beauty. She is made of bronze, resin and crystals. Her eyes shine under gold eyelashes. Her sisters are Lola the jewel-encrusted Lobster, and Pinky the blue-eyed Octopus. “[Lola is] sexy. And she loves fashion,” says Kara Ross.

“So many people have taken pictures of themselves putting Opal on their heads,” continues Ross, who sometimes does the same. She scrolls through Instagram. She finds #OpaltheOctopus, an eight-legged crown. #LolatheLobster has even more fans. Lola lounges poolside, enjoys a spritz of Chanel perfume, plays lacrosse, dons jet skis, and dreams of attending class at SoulCycle.

Lola, Opal, Pinky and Kara split their time between her oceanfront home in Palm Beach and the Midtown Manhattan office of Diamonds Unleashed, Ross’ newest venture. Diamonds Unleashed is a nonprofit that champions women’s empowerment. At the moment, Opal sits in the corner of the conference room. “She’s whimsical. It’s fun,” says Ross. “That’s the way we think [of Diamonds Unleashed]. It’s bright and colorful and cheery and happy.”

Two years ago, Ross reset her engagement ring into the shape of a serpent. It snakes around her finger. Her husband is real estate mogul Stephen Ross, the chairman and founder of Related Companies. The two married in 2003. They have four daughters between the two of them. But Ross, a certified gemologist who has been in the fine jewelry business for more than 20 years, wasn’t content to merely sit like an ornament on the crowned head of New York real estate.

“I got to a point where I wanted to continue working, but I also [wanted to give back],” says Ross. As she worked on her ring, Ross began thinking about the attributes of a diamond—strong, brilliant, unbreakable and multifaceted—and how those qualities also described women.

“Diamonds Unleashed is about rethinking the symbolism of a diamond—to shine a spotlight on the fact that these wonderful attributes that a diamond has also represent women’s strengths,” says Ross. “It’s turning the typical women’s reference to diamonds on its head.” Ross closed down Kara Ross New York, her eponymous fine jewelry company, in May 2015, and launched Diamonds Unleashed in December.

“To be clear, I’m not asking everyone to buy a diamond,” Ross continues. “I’m saying, think about yourself as a diamond.”

Multifaceted describes Ross’ vision for Diamonds Unleashed, too. The company carries out its mission by creating jewelry through a partnership with CanadaMark diamonds, which are all ethically sourced, and by donating net profits to female-focused nonprofits like Girls Who Code and She’s the First. Jewelry collections are sold through HSN and Neiman Marcus. Diamonds Unleashed also provides a vehicle for women to sell handcrafted products. The company has partnerships with other women, most notably Serena Williams, who embody the broad vision of Diamonds Unleashed.

Kara Ross, then Kara Gaffney, grew up outside of Philadelphia as the oldest of five children. She attended the Agnes Irwin School, graduating in 1984 with fellow soon-to-be designer Tory Burch, née Robinson. Ross has always had a flair for stones and jewelry. Her mother was a jewelry designer. Her parents took her and her sister to Kenya when she was a young teenager, and they allowed the girls to pick out two stones. “When we came back, my parents asked, what do you want to make out of them?” Ross designed a ring. “The fine jewelry world can be intimidating,” she says. The price of entry “is very expensive. So that experience was very empowering, very unique,” says Ross.

Ross went on to attend Georgetown, graduating in 1988 with a major in English and a minor in art history. A year and a half later, she enrolled in the Gemologist Institute of America and became a certified gemologist. She soon became well-known in fine jewelry circles, with her most famous private clients being former first couple Barack and Michelle Obama. “Jewelry tells a story. It translates a feeling. It evokes a message. It also speaks of how you see yourself, and then how others see you,” says Ross of the inspirations for her designs.

Though Ross has now shifted her focus from Kara Ross New York to Diamonds Unleashed, the flagship Kara Ross New York Madison Avenue store is still open to sell heritage gems and Diamonds Unleashed products.

“I’ve completely configured the business to be a vehicle for philanthropy,” says Ross. To her, the most fun part of Diamonds Unleashed is meeting other women who “want to give back,” she says of new friends like Martha Stewart and Katie Meyler, who was honored as a part of the Ebola fighters as TIME’s 2014 person of the year.

An initiative that Ross and Diamonds Unleashed recently explored is working with SoJo, a South African lifestyle company that seeks to empower communities, and craftswomen in South Africa to create girls’ clothing.

Dresses are made from custom-created fabric. “You’re giving work to the people who dye the fabric and make the fabric,” as well as the people who make the clothes, says Ross. So far, the project has employed 64 women in Cape Town. “I think product is important, because you’re giving somebody a job. There’s affirmation in that.”

“They’re so proud,” adds Jaclynn Brennan, the vice president and creative director of Diamonds Unleashed. “They text Kara and say, oh, we’re so excited to wake up and go to work today.”

Ross was inspired to start the Diamonds Unleashed X SoJo initiative while visiting one of her daughters when she was studying abroad in South Africa. For her next project, she would like to launch a similar program in Michigan, using the skills of people there. She heads to Michigan with her husband often to visit his alma mater, the University of Michigan. They frequently attend football games. Football is a shared passion for the couple. Kara grew up attending Eagles games in Philadelphia. Stephen Ross is also majority owner of the Miami Dolphins. When she met him, she was playing on a women’s football league.

“I’m on the board at Georgetown and I love Georgetown, but we’re not going to the football games there,” she laughs. “Michigan games are so big. It’s crazy. It’s unbelievable.”

The two live between New York and Palm Beach. “I love the fact that in New York, you can discover something new every day within a 10-block radius. Palm Beach is the antidote of that. It’s more of a relaxed, wonderful kind of resort community that, unlike a lot of resort communities, also has culture.”

Last month, Ross brought Diamonds Unleashed to Art Miami as the only ‘non-gallery’ booth at the event. The company partnered with notable women in the contemporary art world, including Agnes Gund and Lisa Dennison, the Chairman of Sotheby’s. Each nominated a young female artist to create a piece that reimagined the symbolism of a diamond. Sixty percent of the proceeds went back to the artists, and the rest went to a donor-advised fund. Another initiative involved the fusion of fashion, art and philanthropy. Artists worked with a classic white Norma Kamali “All in One Dress” to create a piece that portrayed what a diamond meant to them. The dresses were displayed in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental in Miami.

Diamonds Unleashed’s next venture is a class at the New School’s Parsons School of Design that focuses on women’s contributions to society throughout history. The course is on the syllabus for spring 2017. It will be a combination of learning about women’s history and mentoring sessions with current female thought leaders. “The idea is that you have all these really accomplished, wonderful women who have done something really notable, but you rarely hear about them,” says Ross. The course will also integrate salon series speaker sessions that will be open to the public.

Like the conversation about women, retail has changed since Ross first delved into the jewelry business, and Diamonds Unleashed has been her way of harnessing the new spirit of giving back. “People are talking more than ever before about where products are sourced, what it means, what it’s valued at, and what the give-back associated with it is,” she says.

“I can’t tell you how much joy I get out of this.”


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