It started with a cocktail ring.
Cassandra King Polidori, the managing editor of a Dallas magazine, was on the search for a ring that made a statement but didn’t interfere with her ability to type.
Despite the popularity of cocktail rings at the time, she couldn’t find one. So Polidori, who had always gravitated toward the creative arts, decided to make one herself.
Now, a decade later, Polidori, 35, has transformed her love of conversation-starting, handmade pieces into a popular Austin-based jewelry line, Cassandra Collections, that’s been worn by everyone from Laura Bush to the Kardashians.
We recently chatted with Polidori about everything from being a small business owner to motherhood to why Austin will always be her favorite city. Below is an edited version of the interview.
You were working as a journalist when you decided to start your jewelry line. Have you always been creative?
I grew up in San Antonio, and I grew up in a very creative household. I was encouraged to be involved in as many arts as I could, so I danced, I was in theater, I was in photography, I was in choir.
How did you get into jewelry design?
I studied journalism at SMU in Dallas and went on to work for a magazine there called Women’s Enterprise. I worked there for five years and eventually became managing editor. … It was around 11 years ago and big rings were becoming a fad. At places like J.Crew you were seeing big, cool statement cocktail rings. I purchased a couple and I would wear them and I always took them off because I couldn’t type with them on. I wasn’t making a ton of money supporting myself right out of school, and I thought, "What a disappointment! I can’t believe I bought all these cool rings and I can’t even wear them. I’ve always been interested in fashion and I’m pretty creative — maybe there’s a way that I can come up with a ring that’s big but comfortable and makes sense for me in my everyday life." I went to a friend in Dallas who owned a bead shop and said, "This is my conundrum. I need a cool ring, that’s what I want." We kind of started playing around with wire, and the first Cassandra Collections ring was created. I just made it for myself because I wanted something comfortable and malleable. It’s wire, so you put it on and you think it’s such a big ring but then it feels like a second skin; it forms to your fingers.
What kind of reactions did you get to your jewelry in the beginning?
People were stopping me everywhere (asking about my rings). I was meeting women at Starbucks and they would end up buying one for themselves or their mom or their girlfriend. I was at Whole Foods and the guy at the fish counter asked me about my ring and ended up buying three. That’s how my whole business was born. I eventually just started making more pieces and carrying them with me because I knew people would ask.
How did you decide to start your own business?
I hit an impasse with my career and had a decision to make whether I was going to find a new job. … I was interviewing with different places and I thought, "Do I want to go back into this career, or should I actually see if this jewelry thing works?" A year later I packed up and moved to New York to try it there.
How was New York?
It was great. I picked up some really cool clients and I was doing trunk shows at the Plaza Hotel. It was a really big confidence booster. I thought if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. I felt validated. People from all different backgrounds, all different walks of life, in every industry you can think of, people in fashion, were buying my pieces. New York was amazing.
You moved to Austin five years ago. How come?
My mom and my little sister live here. When I would come home, it was to Austin. I fell in love with it. My husband (Manuel Polidori) is from Italy, and he definitely vibed much more with Austin than New York City. He was really ready to leave New York. Austin is definitely home.
Did you wear your own jewelry to your wedding?
We actually eloped and went downtown to the courthouse in New York City. But yes, I was wearing my jewelry. My "something blue" was my studs with a blue chalcedony drop.
How has Austin been for business?
I feel like Austin has been the most supportive community of the three cities I’ve lived in since starting, and I think it’s because it’s full of artists. When I moved, I knew maybe a handful of people, but I’m a very social person. I actually started volunteering for Ballet Austin, and that just changed the course of my life here in Austin. I met a really amazing group of friends, and I kind of gained this community of women that really supported me and my business, and that opened up other opportunities. One thing I really love is that everyone who has seen my pieces says, "It’s really different, and we love that." That’s everything to me. The last thing you want is to be compared to one of the other 400 jewelry designers here.
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Your pieces are known for their attention-grabbing materials, bold colors and intricate wire work. How do you describe Cassandra Collections?
It’s elegant, but it’s bold. It’s a statement, but it’s wearable. There’s a lot of juxtapositions there, but I think one of the reasons why I continue to create and I’ve created a whole line is because I’ve had people of all ages — my youngest client is 1, because I make baby bracelets, and my oldest client is 92. There’s something for everyone. I love building pieces around things I’m going to wear to a gala or my birthday or whatever it is. When I was pregnant I started my flower collection, which has been this huge success and one thing that people now recognize around town. It was born really from my growing belly and sitting outside one day with a cup of tea and just looking down and thinking, man, I’m just like a huge flower, ready to burst. I thought it would be really cool to make earrings with flowers on them. The flower earrings are really recognizable and a huge statement and really fun. Those are probably my favorite of my whole collection.
How has being a mom (to Aurelia, 2) changed the way you do business?
I think having my daughter has really lit a fire in me. I want to show her that you can do anything and you can build your business. When I say I built this from nothing, I really built it from nothing. No one has ever given me anything financially, so it’s been just me, myself and I. Now, I put her to bed and then I work until midnight or 2 a.m., and then we wake up at 7. I’ve definitely aged 10 years in the last 2 years, but it’s all worth it. I hope I can get my business to where I want it to be because I want to show her that we can do anything we set our minds to.
You still regularly hand-deliver your pieces in Austin, right?
Yes, if they’re local I’ll drop them off at their doorstep. I hope I never stop. I like that. It’s important for me to connect with my customers, and so many of my customers have become really close friends, and that’s a testament to the importance of me connecting with them. Having a glass of wine and designing a piece of jewelry together is really a personal process, and I hope that never goes away.
How has the coronavirus impacted you?
I think supporting each other is really important, especially right now. Small business owners and locals supporting one another is going to help us so much to come out of this. Maybe we won’t all be where we were when we started, but if we all support each other, we can come out as best as we can.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
I put personal pressure on myself to come up with something new and exciting while also staying true to my design and who I am. That’s probably the hardest. Other than the obvious, which is scaling, building a business, making a career. To be able to say this is my job and I pay the bills is gratifying, but it’s hard. It’s nonstop. It’s something all entrepreneurs know — you become an entrepreneur to quit your 40-hour-a-week job, only to work 80 hours a week. You never have an off day, and that is hard, but you get what you put into it.
What keeps you going?
I make jewelry because I want women of all ages to feel beautiful and confident and special. When I make a piece, that’s what I think about. That’s my daily goal, to just make women feel beautiful and unique and confident.
What’s your ultimate goal?
I’d love to be in all the major department stores like Nordstrom and Neimans. And I’d love to have a brick and mortar, starting here locally. To stay different is my ultimate goal, to stay unique. People have told me in years past, "Why don’t you get it manufactured?" But it loses what it is, and the reason why I have clients that have upward of 60 pieces is because it’s different; everything is handmade, and no one else has those pieces. Even when I do have brick and mortars, hopefully it will still be handmade pieces, touched by hands, made with hands, and no one else has it.