by Candace Leeds
Madison Avenue in the 60’s is a shoppers’ paradise, with block after block of grand fashion and jewelry emporiums. One of my favorite stores on the avenue is Judith Ripka, located on Madison Avenue, on one of the most glittering blocks of all, between 66th and 67th Street (east side of the street). Judith Ripka’s elegant flagship New York store is a jewel in itself, with marble floors, decorative pillars and flattering lighting. Every piece in the Judith Ripka store is distinctive – most crafted in her signature 18k “green gold” which has a warmer, richer gold color and looks more flattering next to a woman’s skin. Judith Ripka’s unique designs have a special workmanship adding to their beauty – such as tiny braiding and other delicate textures and design elements worked into the gold – and making her pieces immediately recognizable as Ripka originals.
What makes a Judith Ripka piece so very special is its built-in flexibility – the small hidden loops on her necklaces which flip down to hold any of an array of pendants – each of which can be worn with a variety of neck pieces; the toggles which can be worn in front or back; the diamonds which can be featured or played down. Ripka has always believed that jewelry should be worn and not forgotton, locked in a safe. Her concept has been to design pieces which can go from day to evening – from blue jeans to black tie. In fact, wearing pieces from Ripka’s collection has inspired many women to have real fun with their jewelry for the first time, as they mix and match pieces.
Judith Ripka’s real breakthrough came in 1986 when a friend asked her to modernize an old pearl necklace. The result was what became one of her early signature pieces -- a strand of pearls with a detachable 18K gold loop and toggle closure. The look caught on as women had their pearls refashioned – and found that with Ripka’s many styles of jeweled toggles and drops, they could change the look even further. Ripka’s creative bent began as a child, playing in her mother’s jewelry box and tying charms to belts or attaching pins to chains on her neck. Her mother always encouraged her to experiment. It was natural that she began her career at the May Company, where she was employed as Assistant Jewelry Buyer. From there, she began her own business with a $1,000 investment from a dear friend. “Starting a business,” she says, was “one of the hardest things I have ever done. It took passion, persistence and performance to make it happen.” To pay for the gold and gemstones necessary to make a piece, Ripka did only custom work. She would sketch the piece and then ask the customer to pay for half up front.
With the encouragement and financial support of her husband, Judith Ripka opened her first store in Manhasset, Long Island. “It was one of the scariest things I have ever done, but also one of the best. It was a turning point in my career,” she said. “Fortunately, the store was immediately successful and I was able to use the profits to open a second store, and then a third. I have always reinvested any profits back into my business,” she added. Ripka’s first New York store opened in 1993, on Madison and 61st Street. In 2005 she opened a second store on the Avenue - her much larger flagship store at 777 Madison Avenue. It is easy to become hooked on Judith Ripka jewelry as I did over ten years ago. The personable staff in both of her New York stores are extremely helpful and understand that it may take several visits to commit to a major piece of jewelry. Today, Ripka’s empire is rapidly expanding. She now has 11 free standing stores in major cities across the country, and boutiques in upscale department stores like Saks, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus.