Unlucky Charms: The Rise and Fall of Billion-Dollar Jewelry Empire Alex and Ani
Astrology, private equity, a $1.1 billion gender discrimination lawsuit, and a precariously built bangle behemoth
Patent No. US D487,709 S was granted on March 23, 2004, to Carolyn Rafaelian-Ferlise of Cranston, Rhode Island. The application captured the concept in a mere five words: “an expandable wire bangle bracelet.” Further details would have been superfluous. The bracelet’s design, as illustrated in a set of accompanying renderings, was astonishingly straightforward, familiar to hard-core rock climbers and Eagle Scouts as a double fisherman’s or a grapevine knot. Somehow, though, no one had ever thought to patent it for jewelry.
Rafaelian, a thirtysomething mother of two daughters, and her sister had recently taken the reins of the modest jewelry factory Cinerama, Inc., launched by her father nearly four decades before. The company had been successful, providing a good living and helping pay for private schools for the family’s five siblings, but its future was far from clear. Cranston, a suburb of Providence, was once the thriving hub of the costume jewelry trade; in the 1970s, nearly 80% of the baubles sold in the U.S. were made in the area. But in recent decades, the market was flooded with cheap overseas imports. One after another, Cinerama’s competitors were forced out of business. Historic mills and factories were being reimagined as luxury lofts.
As uncomplicated as Rafaelian’s design was — a single length of wire, long enough to encircle the wrist nearly twice, cinched on both ends with tiny loops that clasp the main strand — it soon proved remarkably popular. Just over a decade later, more than 10 million of the bangles, all of them made in the U.S. using recycled materials and eco-friendly practices, were being sold every year. Customers could choose from a dazzling variety of charms that promised well-being, empowerment, and spiritual growth — everything from starfish and unicorns to St. Christopher medals, dream catchers, and little enameled memes (“Cat Mom,” “Pumpkin Spice & Chill”). “Alex and Ani bangles are more than just pretty jewelry,” the company explained in the self-published 2013 book Path of Life: Why I Wear My Alex and Ani. “They are…