Know your worth. It may be tempting to say yes to every single client or project, especially when you are starting out. However, there will always be people who are looking for a bargain and I learned that it is ok to politely decline if the client is not right for you. I am always happy to share some knowledge or free resources with potential clients, however I also learned not to start the gemstone sourcing or jewelry design process until there is a financial commitment.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Irina Kharina.
Irina Kharina is a GIA certified gemologist and a luxury jewelry concierge who takes pride in working with ethically sourced diamonds and gemstones. As the founder of Tsarina Gems, she is a millennial female entrepreneur who started her business during the pandemic after spending 12 years in the gemstone and jewelry industry. Irina now provides 1:1 private consultations on luxury custom jewelry to clients all over the world. Irina has lived in 5 different countries and is currently based in Toronto, Canada.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I am originally from Russia and I grew up in England, I also spent a lot of time in the Czech Republic and Spain.
In 2009, I graduated from the University of Birmingham (UK) with a Bachelor’s degree in Business and Hispanic Studies and moved to Toronto, where my parents were living at the time. I didn’t know what career path I wanted to pursue at this point, but after a successful interview for an admin position, I ended up falling into the diamond and jewelry industry. Working with Canadian diamonds everyday, it did not take long for me to realise that I wanted to be a part of this fascinating community.
To become a gemologist, I had to go back to school. While working full time at my new position at a gemological laboratory, I began my studies with the Gemological Institute of America, the most reputable gemmology school in the world. Three years later and several trips to New York and Carlsbad campuses where I participated in hands on training, I received my Graduate Gemologist diploma.
After receiving my diploma I decided to go back to London (UK) where I was offered a head office gemologist and a diamond buyer position. Two years later I was back in Toronto working for a coloured gemstone wholesale company.
Over the years, I was also involved in several exciting projects outside of work, involving private clients. By summer 2020, I decided I wanted to dedicate my time helping private clients achieve their jewelry dreams.
I now provide 1:1 consultations on luxury gemstones and custom jewelry. I source conflict-free diamonds and gemstones, working with CAD designers, jewellers, setters, polishers, gemstone suppliers and fellow gemologists to curate unique, high end pieces of jewelry. As the majority of these talented craftsmen and women do not work directly with the public, I act as the liaison, working with each one individually to curate custom jewelry pieces. My clients love being involved in the gemstone selection and jewelry design process without spending hours on doing research online.
I also create fun and educational gemstone and jewelry content on my Instagram page and a weekly blog on my website.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
- I am empowering women to invest in their own jewelry. Although engagements and anniversaries are incredible milestones and should be celebrated, women should not have to wait for jewelry to be gifted to them or passed down as an heirloom. I encourage women to buy jewelry to celebrate their own personal or work achievements or “just because”. I am a great believer in self-purchasing.
- I am encouraging women to express their personality. I worked with a wonderful client who avoided wearing bright colours or statement jewelry to her office job for the fear of being judged or being seen as “unprofessional” or “flashy”. I understand that some companies require a certain dress code but I want to normalise showing your personality through the way you dress at work and in your free time, which includes wearing high quality jewelry on the daily basis, not just saving it for special occasions.
- I am changing what people think about custom jewelry. The idea of working with a private jeweler or a jewelry concierge is fairly new. Good news is that you don’t have to be a celebrity to do it! Many of us assume that we are limited to what we see in stores or online and that going custom will cost you an arm and a leg. I am here to assure you that this is not the case.
Although custom jewelry design can be a longer process than popping down to your local jewelry store or clicking the “add to cart” button on your computer, the personalized one-on-one experience truly is priceless. My clients are often pleasantly surprised by what their money can get them.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Yes, I love hearing these.
When I was first working in diamond wholesale as an admin assistant I was required to do a lot of data entry. One day as I was typing away I must have misplaced some decimal points and some zeros and was essentially selling diamonds for a fraction of their price. I didn’t even realise I had made a mistake, it was still thousands of dollars and I had zero concept of how much diamonds cost, it just felt like data entry to me. Thankfully my manger caught the typo before the shipment went out.
I did learn the importance of checking calculations when doing quotes and invoices, and if you are going to write “great attention to detail” on your resume, you should probably double check your work.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
My parents are both entrepreneurs and have always encouraged me to strive for more and think outside the box.
They had the courage to move overseas several times including to the Czech Republic, Vietnam and Canada. Traveling opened my eyes to different people and different ways of living. Thanks to my parents, I realized that starting from the bottom and spending a lifetime working your way up, climbing the corporate ladder was not the only way to become successful. At a time when some thought it was a crazy idea to leave a comfortable 9–5 job in the midst of a pandemic, my parents and my brother supported my decision to start my own business, and for that I am truly grateful.
I had never worked with a mentor until I met Rebecca Cafiero earlier this year.
She is an incredible PR strategist for female entrepreneurs. Thanks to her, I am learning to grow my business and promote myself as an expert. As entrepreneurs we really can’t do it all by ourselves and it is ok to ask for help from those who are willing to share their knowledge and expertise.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
That’s a great question.
I strongly believe that the motive behind one’s actions is what makes your work positive or negative. If you are intentionally going into business to damage a particular industry and wreak havoc, you will not be met with a positive response.
To give you an example, I always found it fascinating that the diamond and jewelry industries are male dominated. Although the jewelry itself is primarily created for women, it is made and sold by men to men (to give to women as gifts). Some people are uncomfortable with change or are afraid of it and might see my message of empowering women to buy their own jewelry as “disruptive” in a negative way or going against tradition, but the women I work with love the idea!
I am not telling men to stop buying jewelry (that message would not be so positive) but I am creating awareness that women can and should invest in their own bling without feeling weird about it. It is a positive message that is coming from a good place.
I believe that any industry that withstood the test of time has also evolved and embraced change. The jewelry industry is changing, for example, several years ago the idea of synthetic diamonds being grown in a lab by scientist was unheard of and was believed to be disruptive to the industry in a negative way, but now, many are warming up to the idea and you can purchase a lab-created diamond engagement ring at your local jewelry store. Whether you decide to purchase it or not is up to you, but we cannot deny that it is a major innovation in the diamond industry and creates a whole new market to cater to a different type of clientele.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1. Promote yourself. Even if you have the best product or service out there, if no one knows about it, it will not serve its purpose.
As a young woman, I sometimes feel like I shouldn’t be bragging about myself or my achievements and I do not want to come across as salesy. But the truth is, if my expertise or my products can help someone, I want to share that with them.
2. Ask for help. You don’t have to do it all by yourself and asking for help it is not a sign of weakness. A big shout out to my boyfriend who helped me build my website and has the patience to take hundreds of photos of me, even when I ask for “just one more”.
3. Know your worth. It may be tempting to say yes to every single client or project, especially when you are starting out. However, there will always be people who are looking for a bargain and I learned that it is ok to politely decline if the client is not right for you. I am always happy to share some knowledge or free resources with potential clients, however I also learned not to start the gemstone sourcing or jewelry design process until there is a financial commitment.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
After working with clients all over the world I realised that the custom process is not for everyone. I want to help successful, ambitious women who cannot commit to being a part of the 6–8 week custom jewelry project treat themselves to something one-of-a-kind. They should not be spending hours of their precious time doing research in stores and online, making the purchase and then realising their friend has the exact same ring or necklace etc.
With these women in mind, I am currently working on a Ready-to-Wear jewelry line featuring ethically sourced coloured gemstones. Each piece in this collection will be completely unique and will never be duplicated. I personally inspect each diamond, gemstone and piece of jewelry to ensure it is produced to the highest level. This way, all my clients can receive the Tsarina Gems experience.
Working with a mentor has sparked my interest in coaching and public speaking. Becoming a mentor who empowers women to follow their dreams is something I would love to do in the future.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think as women we often have to prove that we can strive in leadership and work under pressure. I hear questions like “can she really do it?” and “does she have what it takes?” when people talk about female entrepreneurs way more than when they talk about their male counterparts.
I also don’t think that the question of age is as much of an issue when it comes to male entrepreneurs. Being young is often seen as being ambitious from a young age, where as in relation to female entrepreneurs it is often associated with being inexperienced.
Although I previously encountered some challenges as a young woman working in a male dominated industry, I have noticed a shift in attitudes and opinions, especially in the new generation joining the gemstone and jewelry industries.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
Right now, I am really enjoying the “The Curated Closet” by Anuschka Rees. She has a strategic approach to discovering your personal style and investing in well made clothes rather than fast fashion which I completely support and can relate to. It is also the message I am trying to spread when it comes to investing in jewelry.
I also love the “Jewels That Made History” by Stellene Volandes. It is a collection of 100 stones, myths and legends which combines my passion for jewelry and its history. I often re-read and look through this wonderful book for inspiration.
A podcast that I find fascinating is “How I built this” with Guy Raz who interviews guests from some of the world’s best known companies. I especially enjoyed the episodes with Melanie Perkins, founder of online design platform Canva, Jenn Hyman, co-founder of Rent the Runway and Jo Malone, founder of her fragrance company.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My movement would be to empower women to invest in themselves. Not only when it comes to jewelry but also mentorships, education and personal development.
I have met some incredible mentors and coaches in the last year. Each one offers a unique experience including programs on mindset, health, fitness, style advice, public relations and finances.
I think everyone should have a mentor to give them guidance and support.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “Most people think everybody feels about them much more violently than they actually do — they think other people’s opinions of them swing through great arcs of approval or disapproval” (Tender is the night).
I sometimes catch myself putting a great emphasis on what others think of me and my work. As entrepreneurs we should welcome constructive criticism and feedback but we should not be constantly seeking approval or concentrating too much on what others think.
After all, you can’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
How can our readers follow you online?
I invite readers to connect with me on Instagram @tsarinagems for lifestyle and educational content or via LinkedIn.
For my weekly Blog and Ready-to-Wear collection please visit my website at www.tsarinagems.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for having me!