Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

Connecting with a cause

Known for her distinctive carabiner-clip jewelry, Marla Aaron is quietly doing her part to help the disadvantaged.

By Rachael Taylor

Marla Aaron does not consider herself an activist. In fact, she screws up her face a little at the suggestion. In her mind, she’s “just doing a little bit of good in my little universe, in my little corner of the world.”

Yet a look at her charitable activities justifies the question. Rather than raising funds for high-profile causes, as many brands do, the New York-based jeweler shines a philanthropic light on some less prominent ones. And in addition to providing financial aid, these activities start discussions on social issues close to her heart.

Chairs that put food on the table

One such project is Take a Seat for Restaurants, which Aaron launched during the pandemic to raise awareness of the much-downtrodden restaurant trade. The idea began to germinate on a chilly October walk home from the newly opened and eccentrically decorated Marla Aaron headquarters — which also serves as an appointment-only salon — in New York’s Diamond District. Having maintained strong sales and global growth throughout 2020, Aaron was feeling “like we had literally dodged a bullet.” A look at the sidewalk cafés reminded her that other businesses had not been so fortunate.

“I would see these restaurant owners trying [to get by] in the dead of winter, putting chairs outside, putting heaters outside,” she says. “I felt like I was watching a fellow small-business owner just trying to make it work, and I found it really heartbreaking.”

Across the US, restaurants closed the tills on New Year’s Eve $240 billion short of pre-pandemic estimates for 2020, according to the National Restaurant Association. This had a huge impact not just on business, but on staff: Eight million employees were laid off or furloughed. By the end of 2020, 110,000 restaurants and bars had closed permanently or for the long term, and the industry was employing 2.5 million fewer people.

Aaron jumped into action. After Googling what the world’s most common restaurant chair was — it’s those classic hot-curved wooden bistro chairs — she made a sterling silver version of it that people could either appreciate as an objet or wear on a chain. All proceeds from the $250 piece go to World Central Kitchen, which provides hot meals to those in need. When the pandemic struck, the food charity ramped up its efforts and used struggling restaurants as a way to feed communities. It estimates that it has helped keep more than 2,400 American restaurants in business by temporarily transforming them into soup kitchens.

Aaron says her project received huge support from others in the trade. Suppliers — including New York findings house Myron Toback — donated materials and labor, while Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center donated floor space for a Marla Aaron vending machine selling the charms. This was the brand’s fourth time deploying the quirky retail device to sell its jewels in locations across New York.

“I think if this year taught anybody anything, it was that you can’t really do enough,” says Aaron, highlighting the generosity she’s seen. The aim for the project is to sell 500 of the chairs; since launching in mid-February, it’s reached “slightly under that,” she reports, “but [we’re] not done yet.”

Showing moms some love

Another campaign to which Aaron is devoted is championing single mothers — a group more often maligned than celebrated. The jewelry designer, who worked in the publishing and advertising industries for 25 years before launching her brand in 2013, was herself a single mom. She raised her son alone on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 2000s and recalls the “inherent loneliness” of solo parenting. On Mother’s Day, she says, “everyone else is receiving all the accolades for their fabulous parenting, and you’re there with a child who doesn’t really know that they have to do that.”

Each Mother’s Day, the brand runs its #lockyourmom campaign, asking people to nominate single mothers who deserve a free jewel. What they receive is one of the brand’s signature carabiner-style heart-shaped locks in silver, along with a note that reads, “Somebody knows you. Somebody loves you. Somebody told us.”

Since launching the project in 2016, Aaron has aimed to double the number of locks the company gives out each year. In 2020, production issues stemming from the pandemic meant the brand could only gift 500 locks (it had hoped to send 800), but this year — after a particularly difficult 12 months for single mothers — the designer is on track to deliver 1,000.

Along with bringing cheer to these mothers, the #lockyourmom project provided a positive focus to keep the Marla Aaron team motivated during those difficult early days of lockdown. “I’m not a spiritual person, but I do believe by having that be our first act as a team [in lockdown], it got us on the path to saying, ‘Okay, we managed to do that, we can find a way forward,’” she says.

The past year, with all its trauma, has led Aaron to double down on what it means to be an ethical business. Hers is a personal interpretation of doing good, rather than one that just follows an industry standard. As the designer herself points out, #lockyourmom is “not gonna change a single mom’s life,” and a silver chair won’t save a restaurant. But by performing small acts of kindness, Aaron is making a positive impact on her own terms.

“Everywhere you look, there’s problems,” she says, “so if you can spare anything, I think you must.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2021. To subscribe click here.

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