Career Changer: Advice from a Mathematician Turned Jewelry Designer

Melissa Kaye talks about problem solving, her greatest mentor, and how to get creative.

Melissa Kaye jewelry muse

Melissa Kaye is a self-described “quant geek.” After attending MIT for computer science, she was hired as a quantitative strategist for Goldman Sachs in Manhattan. A few years in, she decided to upskill with a master’s degree in computational finance at Carnegie Mellon. “I was taking classes in math, statistics, finance, computer science,” says Kaye. By the time she finished at Carnegie Mellon, Kaye had been at Goldman for 10 years and was ready to embrace a new challenge and a lifelong passion: making jewelry.

Kaye launched her eponymous collection in 2014. Her modern-meets-classic designs range from $1,500 to $16,000 and balance wearability, elegant symmetry, and quality craftsmanship. “Everything is made in New York, everything is 18-karat gold, and every piece of jewelry goes through my hands,” says Kaye. As she unveils her latest collection on Net-a-Porter, we spoke with Melissa Kaye about problem solving, the best advice she’s been given, and how to learn to be creative.

How did you segue from finance to jewelry?

I decided to take a couple of introductory classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and I loved it. I applied for their two-year jewelry design program. I remember telling one of my good friends who I grew up with that I was getting into jewelry, and she said, “Oh that’s so perfect for you. Of course, you’re going to become a jewelry designer—you used to make me jewelry when we were kids!”

Did any of your experience from your earlier career in finance help in establishing a jewelry company?

I had no experience at all in this industry. And in some ways, I was starting from zero, but the reality is, you’re never really starting from zero. You figure out how to leverage your skills. For example, my job at Goldman Sachs—and really all my education, at the end of the day—was about was problem solving. I used to love solving math problems as a kid. Everything’s kind of like a puzzle. It comes down to being a thinker and being resourceful, and those are two things that I’ve always been able to do successfully. Now, I just have different problems to solve.

You’re in a creative field now. Do you consider yourself a naturally creative person?

I would actually say I have an analytical approach to creativity. My starting point—and maybe this is my engineering and mathematical background—is always, “How is this going to work? How is this piece going to fit? How is this going to feel when you’re wearing it?” It has to be an extension of the person wearing it, feel good when you’re wearing it, and work well. It needs to be structurally sound.

Do you have a process for channeling your creative energy?

You have to work toward unleashing creativity. I used to think that creative people would sit in their living room and thoughts would just flutter into their heads. Then I realized creativity is hard work. Creativity is not just ideas floating into your mind—it’s working hard. So, my approach to design is a very inner process. But I’m not sitting down on Tuesday afternoon from 2 to 4 and calling it “design hour”—I’m always looking for inspiration. There’s a Thomas Edison quote: “Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” I think it’s spot on.

How would you describe your jewelry?

I would say modern classic, but with a twist. It’s very important for me that pieces be transitional, meaning that they can go from day to night and be worn comfortably with a T-shirt or to a black-tie affair. I also want them to transition throughout the course of your life. You may wear it differently 20 years from now, but you’ll still want to wear it.

Did you have any jewelry-industry mentors?

Cindy Edelstein was a great mentor to me. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2016. I was fortunate enough to meet with her when I was transitioning into the industry. You could go to her with very tactical questions, and she could, within a couple of phone calls, get the answer. She was also part cheerleader and part therapist. It’s obviously very challenging to go into any new industry, but in my case, I was literally starting from zero. It was nice to have someone I could bounce ideas off of.

What’s some of the best advice she gave you?

One thing Cindy Edelstein said that has always stuck with me is that, “It takes 3 to 5 years to become an overnight success.” She understood that nothing was going to be easy. Being successful is really hard. It’s something you have to make happen. You have to be patient, and you have to keep plugging away. You might have 10 losses, but you have to take those 10 losses in stride, so you can have that one win. You have to be long-term oriented.

What do you do when you feel overwhelmed?

I might have moments, possibly 3 times a week, where I’m like, “What the heck am I doing?” When I get the feeling like everything is crashing down on me, I’ve always been fairly good at taking a deep breath and saying, “Every big problem can be broken down into smaller problems, so let’s deal with one thing at a time.”

What are some of your earliest memories of making jewelry?

Growing up I had a little bench set up in my bedroom, and I worked on various projects. My mother still has earrings I made for her when I was a child. She recently pulled out a pair of earrings that I made when I was 11, and I said, “Mom, they’re hideous.” But she said, “I still love them!”

 

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