On a sunny Sunday afternoon, a tired-looking young man approaches Judy Kaye’s table at GreenFlea Market. “Are these really your designs?” he asks, gesturing to her men’s collection, chunky black and brown leather bracelets with distinctive silver and brass clasps. “Because this looks a lot like a Salvatore Ferragamo.”
Kaye smiles. “I’ve been making these bracelets for twelve years,” she says. “They’re 100 percent leather, and that piece of hardware is a boat shackle. It’s definitely my own design.” After working for over a decade on her jewelry line, in the last four years building a self-sustaining business from scratch, one might forgive Kaye for answering with outright hostility. But that’s not her way.
“I believe in good karma,” she says, shrugging it off. “What you put out into the universe comes back to you.”
Kaye is 55 but looks ten years younger, petite with large blue eyes and an easy smile. Her outfits and minimal makeup are always immaculately color-coordinated. On one particularly chilly Saturday at The Real Designer Market on Mulberry Street she wears a beige blazer over a white thermal vest, a camel-colored scarf, blue jeans tucked into brown cowboy boots, and a pair of crystal stud earrings from her own collection. She cuts a fiercely fashionable, but friendly, figure. To a visitor who has chosen to wear a flimsy pair of flats in the snow she exclaims, “What are you doing?” Then she laughs. “Sorry, that was such a ‘mom’ thing to say.”
Her booths at GreenFlea and The Real Designer Market, where she has taken up weekend residence for the past four years, are meticulously arranged. Bits of wood and white cushions serve as props to accentuate the colorful wrap bracelets, vintage cufflinks, men’s bracelets, cameo rings and crystal earrings that comprise her collection. Her trademark wrap bracelets, a strip of leather fastened to a delicate chain of beads, Swarovski crystals or antique brass leaves, cost upwards of $175 in stores but are sold at a discount at the market. The gemstone strands are also displayed in a white box, and sample strips of leather are attached to a metal ring for customers to peruse; clients can design their own combinations, and she customizes each bracelet on the spot.
Kaye grew up in New Jersey but is a frequent traveler, having lived most recently in Düsseldorf, Germany. As a college student, reluctantly attending the University of Miami, she drew up a design for a ring, a gift for her father, and brought it to a jeweler to have it made. She became so enamored with the process of jewelry making that she dropped out and moved to New York to apprentice with a silversmith. At 26 she met a German man fifteen years her senior while vacationing in Acapulco. She followed him to Munich and they were married several months later, with their first daughter, Zara (who goes by “Zaza”), on the way. Their second daughter, Isabelle (“Izzy”), was born nearly two years later.
Zaza now lives in New York, working as a photographer and selling her prints alongside Kaye at GreenFlea and The Real Designer Market. “She was always my best friend,” Zaza recalls. “She painted with us, she crafted with us. We go out with her. She’s the one who will dance in a techno club with you.” Zaza attributes her mother’s successes to her fierce persistence. “She’s an incredibly focused person,” she says. “Once she works on something she’s all in. That’s how she was as a mom, too.”
After spending over a decade as a full-time mom, Kaye fell back into jewelry designing almost by accident. While searching for an eyeglass chain for her mother, she visited eyewear designer Alain Mikli’s Düsseldorf boutique. “What he had was very minimal,” she recalls. “I ended up walking out not buying anything, but all of a sudden a light bulb went off in my head. I went home and started designing exactly what I wanted.” She created a line of eyeglass chains and brought them back to Mikli. “I walked right back in there and said, ‘I know you need these.’ He loved what I did, and he started ordering.” In 2000, while designing a line of leather and beaded eyeglass chains for Mikli, she decided to return to her original passion and launched her own jewelry line, selling to several local boutiques. It was good, for a while.
Then in 2009, Kaye decided to pack it all in and try to make a living on her jewelry alone. She separated from her husband and moved back to New York, apprehensive but imbued with her trademark optimism. “I packed two suitcases, one with my jewelry and one with my clothes,” she says. “I had 200 Euro in my pocket. I didn’t know that it would work, [but] I knew that I could make it.”
The first year and a half in New York were financially excruciating, Kaye admits. “But I don’t think about that,” she adds. “I busted my ass, without being scared or saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’” She built up a weekly presence at GreenFlea and the Mulberry Street market. Boutique owners began to approach her to carry her product. That business, combined with the orders she received from her website, built to an income that she could live on.
Kaye has amassed many friends and fans in her four years on the New York market circuit. “Her bracelets are rocking,” says designer Tammy Gia, whose rocker-chic jewelry is also on display at GreenFlea and The Real Designer Market. “They’re very ‘New York.’ [They] can go from work to night, and that’s how we live in New York. We work from nine to five and then after five you take the blazer off and you put your heels on and you go out. That’s her line.”
Chane, a T-shirt designer and one of the organizers of the Real Designer Market, stocks Kaye’s cameo rings at his women’s boutique in Mississippi. “We always sell out,” he says. “It’s that perfect little consistent thing we know we can count on to go.”
Kaye works seven days a week for most of the year; for the entire month of December, she works ten to eleven-hour days at the Columbus Circle Holiday Market. A fiercely positive attitude seems to have served her well through it all. “I believe there is good in everything,” she says. “When I left [Germany] I realized that I was going to leave everything behind. That was probably the most difficult thing I ever did. But I believed everything is going to be okay, and it’s worked out that way.”
Kaye’s horizon is vast, and every goal she reaches builds to the next. She hopes to eventually open her own boutique, stocking her own jewelry and merchandise from other designers. But her confidence is tempered with caution. It’s a difficult business, and there will always be those who want to doubt her; the snide young man at GreenFlea is a reminder of that. “It’s always been a dream of mine. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen this year. But that’s a definite,” she says, and adds the three words that neatly summarize her career thus far.
“I’ll do it.”