Start-ups

This 36-year-old's jewelry business started as a side hustle — now her 'vote' necklace has gone viral thanks to Michelle Obama

ByChari owner and designer, Chari Cuthbert
Photo courtesy Benjamin Holtrop

Chari Cuthbert knew Michelle Obama had one of her necklace designs; Obama's stylist had purchased a custom piece from her jewelry company ByChari in late July. What Cuthbert did not know was that Obama would wear her gold "vote" necklace during her speech at the Democratic National Convention. 

"Honestly, just knowing that she possibly had one of my necklaces was enough for me," Cuthbert, 36, tells CNBC Make It

But on Aug. 17, CNN ran a clip of Obama's DNC speech, which was set to air in full later that night. Cuthbert got a message of her mom with a fuzzy screenshot from the clip — and Obama was wearing the ByChari "vote" necklace.

Cuthbert was thrilled: "Oh my God, that's amazing," Cuthbert says she thought to herself when she watched the clip. "This is the highlight of my career, having the former first lady wear my necklace."

When Obama's full keynote address aired during the convention that night, people started calling, texting and messaging Cuthbert. A friend called Cuthbert to let her know "it's all over Twitter" and asked for a link through which people could buy the necklace. At the time, Cuthbert did not have it posted as an item for sale, since it was custom. 

"It never occurred to me at that point that her wearing the necklace during the DNC speech would convert to sales or people actually caring that much about the message — for something so subtle having such a big impact," she says.

Cuthbert immediately got on her website and added an option for people to buy it.

The Vote necklace being produced in the ByChari offices in Los Angeles.
Photo courtesy Benjamin Holtrop

"Immediately, within minutes, we had doubled our revenue for the day — within 30 minutes of the speech," she says. "It was just insane to see that kind of response."

News outlets covering the speech were linking directly back to the ByChari website.

"It was honestly, life-changing," she says.

To date, Cuthbert says ByChari has sold 5,000 units of the 'vote' necklace, which starts at $295. (The price depends on chain length, letter size and what materials the customer selects. Obama's necklace, which has large letters, is yellow gold and has an 18-inch long chain, sells for $430, according to the ByChari website.)

Not bad for a business that just eight years ago was still a hobby for Cuthbert. 

Cuthbert was born in Miami and grew up in Jamaica until she was 16. She later attended the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale where she studied photography. After school she had various jobs from production assistant (on "The Ultimate Fighter" television show on Spike Television) to executive assistant (for Dana White, the President and Owner of the UFC, Ultimate Fighting Championship). 

In 2012, looking for a bit of a change of pace, she moved to Hawaii "on a whim" to photograph weddings. That's when she started making jewelry, which had always been a passion.

"I would always dress up in my grandmother's jewelry, so I think that's maybe where it began," she says.

Cuthbert sold a few pieces on the side via an online store she built herself ("Because of my photography background, I shot all of the pictures," she says) and at shops where she would leave her pieces on consignment. 

At that time, all of her pieces were under $100, including things like her $20 Zoe ring and the $55 Pipeline Necklace, (both of which are still part of her collection).

"I would get maybe one or two orders a month," Cuthbert says. "It was really exciting to just be making money off of something I was passionate about, but was also at the time kind of just a hobby."

But after a year, Cuthbert decided to go all in on the jewelry business. 

"To look back," says Cuthbert, it's been a lot of "blood, sweat and tears."

In 2016 Cuthbert moved the business to LA, and in 2018 she hired her first employee to help run customer service. Today, ByChari has 10 full-time employees and four contractors, according to Cuthbert. ByChari now sells exclusively through the company's website. Cuthbert declines to share revenues, but says her sales for August 2020 were 21 times more than August 2019 thanks in no small part to the "vote" necklace, and most of those gains were made in just four days around the convention.

Today ByChari sells both ready to wear and custom gold, pearl and diamond rings, necklaces, bracelets and anklets. Prices range from $70 for a single initial necklace to $3,500 for a diamond necklace.

So far, Michelle Obama has been ByChari's most high profile customer, and while the sales boost has been great and Cuthbert loves the former first lady ("I mean, it is Michelle Obama," Cuthbert says. "Who doesn't love her?!"), it's more than that.

"She's a woman, and a woman of color. And for me, being a woman of color, to have representation at that level ... it's everything for us," says Cuthbert. It is "not who you are, or where you're from, or what background you are — it's all possible, like she did it. … That's something we can all strive for." 

See also: 

'On top of that, I was Black and female': How this Silicon Valley founder overcame impostor syndrome

25-year-old Black tech lead in Silicon Valley: I want to use my influence to combat systemic racism

Michael Tubbs: From son of a teen mom and incarcerated dad to one of America's youngest mayors

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