Three years ago, Erica Bianchini, now 27, found herself with an economics degree from McGill and zero interest in working at a bank. Then, through friends, she met Yoan Gehant, also 27 (“handsome, French, impeccable”) and fresh from Tahiti with a harvest of stunning black pearls. “These small local farms have 100-percent renewable pearls,” says Bianchini. “They don’t dive with oxygen because it tampers with the water—some of the cleanest in the world.”
A few weeks post–Tahitian pearls, when shopping for a gift, Bianchini was stunned at luxury jewellery’s patriarchal stodginess. “No one could explain anything to me. You’d walk into a store and feel as though a piece had been there for decades.” Propelled by a long-held fascination with the mysterious Paris-based gem magician JAR and an obsessive drawing habit, she went back to Gehant and proposed what is now Ecksand Joaillerie.
The two money brains inked an air-tight plan and won “a bunch of entrepreneur competitions in Montreal,” she says, enough to get the capital-intensive business off the ground. Within six months they had attracted master jewellers from Europe with their nuanced vision. “We knew our goal was to change the status quo—the way jewellery is crafted and sold.”
It wasn’t an easy industry to crack, especially for Bianchini. She and her two sisters are sometimes likened to the Kardashians because of their long hair and high-wattage glamour. “All men,” she says of the older industry. “A 24-year-old woman walks in and says, ‘I need 100 grams of this and 200 grams of that, and I need you to cast it by next week,’ and they laugh: ‘OK, honey bun, go home.’”
Nonplussed, Bianchini and Gehant relied on their instincts and business acumen. They sussed out modern techniques that would both create a piece “a truck could run over” and be competitive (prices range from $250 to over $1 million). “For instance, we don’t do soldering. We do laser welding,” she says. “It keeps costs down; it’s better for the environment. Everything we do, we do for a reason.” If hiring a team of engineers from California to come and educate their jewellers in laser welding seems incredibly savvy for someone with no background in the field, Bianchini admits, “I didn’t sleep for a year.”
Ecksand divides itself between a 600-square-foot atelier with hardwood floors in an old building in Montreal’s diamond district, flooded with natural light (“the only kind for jewellery”), and a micro-boutique nearby. At first, Bianchini, who has her hand in design, marketing and individual client service, was unsure of where to be. “I had running shoes at the boutique and would go between the two, and to our diamond cutter.” She now spends her mornings at the atelier and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the boutique. “I work seven days a week,” she says. She’s designing, team building and meeting clients, which sometimes sends her to Europe. When she can, she hits green space with her Bernese mountain dog, Benson, which she credits for inspiring her nature-centric designs.
When she’s super stressed (mishaps in her job come with enormous price tags; think metal contamination), Bianchini has two very sweet vices. “The best way of coping is to see that there is a happy ending. Did you know that Richard Branson supposedly presented his business plan 400 times? And Edison made over 10,000 prototypes before he got the one that worked?” Her other go-to is old music. “I’m talking Motown and Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect.’ I love Brigitte Bardot, Rita Hayworth; I’m in the wrong era!”
Like the millennials who are a huge part of Ecksand’s clientele, Bianchini and Gehant are fixated on the origin of their jewels. “Everything is proudly made in North America.” Their diamonds are clean and sourced from Australia and Canada, and they don’t use many semi-precious stones, mainly because it’s nearly impossible to find them conflict-free. Their continually changing collections are slotted for sale in high-end department stores and boutiques across Canada, the focus being magnifying glass–like service. “I make the man bring in a picture of his wife. Within two seconds I ask, ‘What kind of shoes does she wear?’ A woman who plays with her kids isn’t going to want what a woman who wears heels every day and goes to restaurants does.”
Not only is Bianchini dazzling us with micropavé hidden-heart rings and honeycomb earrings (now entered in the American Gem Trade Association’s prestigious Spectrum Awards), she’s making high-end jewellery history as one of the industry’s few women. Girls are really a diamond’s best friend.