Jewelry designer Kimberly McDonald has made a splash with her eponymous line of bold, mineral-based pieces, which have appeared on Michelle Obama, Cookie from Empire, and in the Sex and the City movie. McDonal’s wares are sold at all the best retailers, from Bergdorf Goodman to Net-a-Porter, and she’s been to the White House on more than one occasion. Here, the designer spoke to the Arch about her rise to fame, what makes her feel most confident, and her beauty essentials. Read on for the full Q&A.
Q: Tell us about your background:
I’m from North Carolina and went to school for psychology. After college I owned a little boutique in Atlanta. During that time, I met this French man and I started traveling the world with him. I ended up spending part time in Paris and part time in Atlanta. When I was in Paris, he suggested that I take classes to be a makeup artist, because I loved everything having to do with makeup and color. And so I did, and I started getting local celebrities and the mayor’s wife and the socialites of Atlanta as clients.
When I would travel back to Paris, I would spend time at the marché aux puces and I found that I had an eye for jewelry. I’d buy pieces for myself and when I would come back to Atlanta and do women’s makeup, they would flip out over a cool brooch or ring. So I started selling antique jewelry and I found it was something I was really interested in. I moved to New York and got a job with a firm that brokered diamonds, and once I learned about grading diamonds, I left and went out on my own, because I’m really not a work-for-someone-else kind of person.
I started curating private jewelry collections and I started with one of my clients in Atlanta. For about six years I just worked privately with clients and it would be anything from remaking pieces that they had inherited to sourcing rare stones.
My now-business partner would say to me, “I think that you could have your own line.” So I made a small collection and met with a couple of editors and all of a sudden, one day I’m sitting at home and I get a call from the jewelry buyer at Bergdorf Goodman, and long story short, Bergdorf was my first store. I’ve been very lucky with regards to not just the best retail partners on the planet, but I’ve worked with the most amazing clients, and my first year we were in the movie Sex and the City, which was a big boost. My first year doing red carpet we had Michelle Pfeiffer and Halle Berry and Jane Krakowski. That was before – now everyone is paid. Then I started working with the First Lady [Michelle Obama]. I went to the White House I a few times. She’s been very good to me. Thanks to her, my work is now in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
Q: How did you start working with Mrs. Obama?
I started getting emails saying that “FLOTUS” was a fan of the line, and would I share a look book? But I misread the email and read “Flo Rida”, so I deleted the email. A couple months later I got another email, and I was like, “Wait a minute.” I called my main business partner and I asked, “Who’s FLOTUS?” And she was like, “What did you do?” And I said “Nothing, I keep getting these emails that say FLOTUS” and she was like, “It’s First Lady of the United States, you moron.” And I was like, “Not at all where my head was.” So I emailed the stylist back, and we started a relationship from there and honestly, she’s only been wonderful and easy to work with and an absolute pleasure.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced when starting your business?
I would say that the investment in the business is a challenge. Being in a country where people are allowed to knock you off is a challenge. But I’m really lucky, I think there’s something different. I’ve seen people try to copy my work and it doesn’t translate. The people who know my work don’t want to buy a copy. So even though the copies do exist, it’s always short-lived because it doesn’t seem to take.
Q: Tell us about your commitment to sustainability:
We use recycled and reclaimed diamonds as much as possible. We use reclaimed gold in most of our products; we don’t use it for rose gold because it’s too porous. Even more important is our relationships with our miners. For example, with the geodes, we only work with one mine. This family lives on the land, so it’s not like they’re just going to a site somewhere and digging stuff up, they really actually take care of it. Their main mining operation is imperial jasper, which I don’t use, but the geodes are in a creek bed in the mine. They used to just move these buckets of geodes out of the way to get to the imperial jasper. And since we’ve been working with them, it’s really helped their business grow. They’re actually able to utilize things that they were once sort of just casting aside. I try to limit who I buy from and know their philosophy and their ethics and know that every step of the way the stones I’m getting are ethically sourced and the people are receiving fair wages and working in decent conditions.
Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Being a woman in business. I mostly self-financed at the beginning, and my business partner is a woman. I think just being able to be in a very male-dominated business as a woman. I didn’t get the money from my husband, I didn’t get it from my daddy, I didn’t get it from my rock star boyfriend because he thinks I need a hobby. I really worked my butt off to do this myself. I think being able to meet powerful woman, who wanted nothing from me but just to see me succeed, is right at the top of that. Obviously, it’s great to be on the cover of Vogue, it’s great to be on the First Lady, it’s great to be in the Smithsonian. I’ve been blessed to be part of some really amazing moments in fashion, but I think what will last even longer is the relationships that I’ve built.
Q: What’s your best advice for standing out from the competition?
Don’t look left, don’t look right. I haven’t bought a fashion magazine since I started my line. One thing is it irritates me when I see the copies, but if you have a point of view, whatever you’re doing, you just need to do that. It sounds kind of trite, but truly just be yourself. I wasn’t trained in design. I knew what I liked, I knew I had good taste. And I just have trusted myself. Every decision I’ve made, good, bad, or indifferent, has just been my gut instinct, really trusting myself and evolving things the way that felt natural for me. And I almost never say no, so I think that’s also key — to make it a point to say yes to as many opportunities as you can.
Q: What do you find the most beautiful?
To me, nature is the most beautiful thing. We think as humans that we kind of rule the universe, but no human has made something as beautiful as a perfect opal. I’ve never seen any work of art that takes my breath away like some of the geodes I’ve seen, or some of the patterns in the agates.
Q: What makes you feel powerful?
I don’t know if I feel powerful. I think I feel confident. I’m in my late 40s, knowing that everything I have, I’ve worked for. No one can take that away from me. And it just goes back to having great relationships. As I’ve getting older I’ve realized all the stuff is nice, but what really matters is knowing that there are people out there who have your back and care about you.
Q: You said that you’re a beauty aficionado. What are some of your beauty essentials?
For my brows, I only use Anastasia. And those new highlighters in the tube are my favorite product. It’s gotten to the point where if I have a little bit of a tan, I don’t even wear any kind of makeup, I just put a little of the highlighter on and some mascara. Then I’ve recently fallen in love with Charlotte Tilbury lipsticks. It’s been fifteen or twenty years since I’ve worn lipstick, I usually just wear gloss, but she has this soft matte lipstick that I’m really crazy about. I go for this coral color, or a pinkish nude.