Written by Marcella Escarfuller
Click aqui para español- >Cristy Cali
There’s purple everywhere. That’s the first thing you’ll notice when you walk into the new Cristy Cali store on Magazine street. The second thing you’ll notice is that you feel instantly at ease. Karen, the store manager, will always greet you with a welcoming smile and a friendly face. On occasion, you will even be greeted by the store’s unofficial mascot, Mocha. Even the store itself seems to welcome you. There are notes of jasmine and lavender in the air, and a steady stream of alternative music filters gently through the speakers. You are made to feel at home, which is exactly how the owner intended it.
“I want people to feel special when they come into my store,” says Cali. The tableau at the front of the store was made with just that – and social media – in mind: a curtain of artificial greenery graces a section of wall, adorned with giant white roses splattered with purple paint; a large black leather throne sits atop a plush purple rug. The sign overhead reads “we’re all mad here” in neon lights. “I’m a huge Alice in Wonderland fan,” she says of the scene’s inspiration. “The song ‘Painting the Roses Red’ is why we splattered purple on the roses, to paint the roses purple.”
Why so much purple, you ask? Purple is the brand’s official color, a decision Cali made very consciously. “Purple is a high-vibe, high-energy color,” she says. “It’s also known as the color for forgiveness, so it’s a very healing color.”
“The choice of the phrase “We’re all mad here” was deliberate as well. “I want everyone to feel welcome in my shop,” says Cali. “I don’t want anyone to feel intimidated or like they can’t afford [the jewelry]. Inclusivity is very important to me.” Every customer is made to feel welcome. “That’s why I got the throne chair instead of a loveseat. I want every single person to feel like they’re someone special.” Every detail of the store was lovingly curated by Cali. The pride that shines through in her voice and her face is evident as she takes me on a mini tour.
But a storefront was not in her plans when she started her company on October 1, 2012. She had already decided then that she would never open a physical shop. “Growing up in the retail industry, I felt that it wasn’t for me, because I had a certain impression of it based on my family’s history. And because of that impression, I developed this belief that having a brick-and-mortar store and being in retail was not what I wanted.
Instead, Cali built her brand online and only offered certain pieces through third-party retailers. It wasn’t until late last year that she felt a shift in her point of view. “Around August or September of 2018, I was starting to feel burnt out,” says Cali. “I was working so hard and I wasn’t seeing the results that I wanted… I was feeling isolated from the world and I really missed the personal engagement, being able to meet my customers. And I was getting complaints about the customer service at some of my retailers, which frustrated me because there was nothing I could do about it. So, I started to ask myself, ‘What can I do? What is within my control?’… I decided to give it a try so that I could live my life and look back and say that I really did do my best to try to take this business as far as it could go.”
Born in Guatemala, Cali was raised between Central America and New Orleans because of her parents’ exporting business, based out of the French Quarter. They ran a stand selling handcrafted Guatemalan goods at the French Market for 15 years before finally opening a store in the French Quarter. It wasn’t until her mother began traveling to Mexico that they started to sell jewelry in earnest, before transitioning to jewelry entirely.
Jewelry quickly became a subject of contention for a young Cali, who struggled with the frequent travel that was a necessity to sustain the business. “I grew up not wanting to be involved at all with my family’s business,” muses Cali. “I resented the business because they were gone so much, and I didn’t want to be involved in something that took them away from me.”
It wasn’t until hurricane Katrina that things began to shift for Cali. The business, like many others in the city, suffered significant losses. Cali’s parents had sent her away to live with close friends while they attempted to rebuild.
“I was 15 at the time,” remembers Cali. “I was so unhappy being so far away from them, I wanted to help with the rebuilding process after Katrina. I essentially begged them to let me come back. I would do anything to help. So, they let me come back and they put me to work.”
She started working at the store by sweeping and doing entry-level tasks. Then her mother started teaching her to make jewelry. “It was at that point that I realized the creative aspect of the business. [Working at the store] went from being an obligation to appreciating and understanding how I could contribute creatively to the business.”
Cali still remembers her first experience watching one of her designs come to life. “When I was in high school, I entered an art competition and created a design of a fleur de lis with a heart in the middle held together by two hands, one black and one white. After Katrina, I really felt a sense of community, and this piece represented that for me… My parents had it made into jewelry and I didn’t know until I walked into the store one day and saw it.” Cali shares that the piece will be added to her own collection in the store this December, in honor of the store opening.
Seeing people buy that piece and watching their reaction to something she created made a lasting impression on Cali. “That just completely changed my whole life.” Cali developed a vision of what she could do with jewelry made from her own designs, a vision that her parents did not agree with for their business. She branched out on her own shortly thereafter.
Today, the very thing she resented as a child has become one of the things she is most passionate about. “When you’re wearing a piece of jewelry, I want it to remind you of why you’re wearing it,” she says. “I don’t see it as an accessory, I see it as an expression of who you are or something that means something to you.” Cali doesn’t limit herself to jewelry, though. She’s constantly looking for ways to grow the brand, whether through community partnerships like her breast cancer awareness campaign with Casting For Recovery, or through new product development. “I’m starting to explore other areas outside of jewelry. I have a new line of voodoo dolls and I want to start making handbags, wallets, jewelry cases, and some other things.”
“I’m just in a really good place whenever I make jewelry. You have to be, because I believe in energy healing. Someone is going to be wearing this, so I need to be in a good place [spiritually] when I’m making it.”
Her passion for community won’t take a back seat, either. “[One day, I would like to] start offering entrepreneurship classes to women in villages in Latin America to help them learn to use social media to sell their goods and help grow their business. I want to educate and empower.”
Emotional and spiritual healing are priorities for Cali, especially when it came to building her store. She credits much of the project’s success to the help she received from her parents. “Them helping me with all of this really made up for all of the baggage that I felt occurred as a result of them not understanding my vision. All of those nights crying because I felt so misunderstood by my parents. This project literally helped my family heal. Business is what created the clash, but this business also helped us heal.”
Her favorite piece in the store? She couldn’t possibly choose one. She points to a necklace she made herself with watermelon tourmaline stones and her Queen of Hearts pendant. --A one of a kind piece, something she’s never going to make again--. She says these are the pieces she treasures the most. “I go in my studio. I have my music on. I do my meditation before I start. I have my diffuser on, and I have the dogs next to me, by my feet. And I’m just in a really good place whenever I make jewelry. You have to be, because I believe in energy healing. Someone is going to be wearing this, so I need to be in a good place [spiritually] when I’m making it.”
As she hugs me goodbye, I realize that she doesn’t give herself enough credit. She takes the same approach in life as much as in jewelry.
Photography by José García