On a busy stretch of 16th Street, sandwiched between a bodega and the bar Gestalt, sits a sleek black storefront, lit up by neon. An eye glows in one window and a hand holding a spiderweb-adorned diamond shimmers in the other. This is Fiat Lux, a jewelry store that has taken the old-fashioned concept that diamonds are only for engagements and turned it on its head. With hundreds of items ranging from a vintage fox head ring with rubies for eyes to sparkling diamonds surrounded by writhing skeletons, owners Marie McCarthy and Alexei Angelides have curated a collection quite unlike anything else in the city. Once a month or so jewelers fly in from all over the country for trunk shows and parties; wine flows, rings, necklaces, and bracelets are oohed-and-aahed over and eventually purchased, and people spill out of the doors onto the street.
It didn’t start out this way. The shop’s cult-like following has grown organically — but slowly. Well before Fiat Lux, McCarthy was a self-taught designer who owned a shop on Haight Street. She and Angelides, a mathematician with a Ph.D. in logic, had been dating for only a few months when he gave her a brass ring. It fell apart almost immediately. Unknown to McCarthy, Angelides reached out to her mentor and learned how to make a ring to replace it with. He learned fast: By the time Christmas rolled around, he’d churned out two.
“It was so amazing and so sentimental,” McCarthy says. “He’s an academic, so he’s working on all these abstract theories. Then he made this beautiful thing, and he got hooked. We started making jewelry at home; our second bedroom was our studio. It went from there.”
Still feeling the burn of a bad work partnership at her last store on Haight, McCarthy knew that when they opened up their own shop, she wanted the experience to have a low overhead.
“We biked all over the city looking for a small space, and it’s a lot harder than you would think,” she says. “We finally found our little space on Church Street, and that’s how Fiat Lux started.”
The original shop was miniscule, barely able to hold half a dozen people. But that forced intimacy worked in their favor, creating a connection between staff and customer, a relationship model that carries on today.
At the same time that Fiat Lux was getting started, McCarthy opened Rose Gold, a tattoo-and-piercing studio on Masonic Avenue around the corner from Haight. For most people, launching two small businesses at once would be a stressful experience, but for McCarthy, it was liberating.
“It was this empowering freedom move, because my old partner was this middle-aged man who didn’t think I would go out on my own,” she says. “When I broke those ties, I felt really powerful.”
Marie McCarthy (Photo by Eric Pratt)
Although Fiat Lux was tiny, it quickly drew a following. Women could walk in and try on $3,000 diamond rings, and not be bullied into buying anything. Jewelry as a tool for personal empowerment wasn’t necessarily front and center in Angelides and McCarthy’s minds when they launched the shop, but it soon became obvious that was their mission.
“Our clients change how we think all the time,” McCarthy says. “I remember our first big black diamond ring, and it was the chef at Slanted Door that bought it. We asked, ‘What’s the occasion?’ and she said, ‘That I’m awesome.’ It felt really good for us, we were like, ‘Oh, that’s it, that’s what we’re doing.’ ”
Within a couple years, Fiat Lux grew out of its teensy Church Street space. Wanting to be on a main corridor, Angelides found their current home at 3169 16th St. — between Guerrero and Valencia streets — in 2016.
“Alexei saw it first and said, ‘I’m going to sign the lease.’ I said, ‘If you feel strongly enough about it then do it.’ But then I walked in and almost had a heart attack, because I was like ‘How are we going to fill this space with jewelry? That’s crazy!’ ”
It’s much, much bigger than the Church Street spot. But with all the new space, the pair were finally able to explore their love of vintage jewelry in full — something McCarthy says falls in line with their brand.
“We are so enamored with history and meaning that vintage jewelry makes sense for us,” she says. “There’s a lot of magic in a piece that looks modern but was made a couple hundred years ago.”
Many of the shop’s vintage pieces go back a couple hundred years — but one piece stands out: a ring from 1200 B.C. McCarthy found it, and when she brought it to the shop Angelides suggested they call a museum to see if they wanted to buy it. “I was like ‘No!’ ” she laughs. “It’s my size.”
From small shop to big, some things have stayed the same. The current shop carries around 25 designers at any given time, having become known for some of its artists’ work. Digby and Iona, a small company that operates out of Brooklyn, has always been one of their top sellers.
“When Alexei and I were planning Fiat I knew I wanted this designer behind Digby and Iona, but I wanted to go and meet him,” McCarthy says. “His signets are so meaningful and heavy and historical. We flew to New York to hang out for a little bit. That’s how we pick up designers: We need to meet them, make sure that they’re making the pieces, that we know what they care about, and that it’s the right fit.
“The two most important things for Fiat is knowledge — the history of jewelry, making something that’s meaningful — and the second is empowerment,” she adds. “All of the things that you see in the store have some backstory and meaning. We try our best to relay that.”
Digby and Iona’s signets — heavy rings with symbols and phrases steeped in history — have become bestsellers. Other, smaller pieces have taken a life of their own. In 2016 Fiat Lux launched its FU line, an intricately detailed miniature hand flipping the bird. Now ranging from a simple sterling silver cast for $94 to 14-karat rose gold for $528, the piece is one of their most popular — and they don’t make any profit from it. After President Donald Trump was elected, they began donating a portion of the sales to She Should Run.
“People send us messages about that piece all the time,” McCarthy says. “Women are like ‘I wore my FU necklace underneath my button-down to this board meeting and felt like nobody could fuck with me.’ That’s what it’s supposed to be for. It stemmed from what we considered tragedy — Trump being elected. We made it before that, but it really became what it is because of that.”
“It’s harnessing power,” Angelides adds. “It quickly became obvious that’s how our clients were interpreting it, so we went with that.”
Today, the shop continues to evolve. Jewelers are still invited in regularly to meet their fans, and workshops are now held in the back of the shop. Recently, McCarthy has begun inviting her piercers from Rose Gold to do pop-ups in Fiat Lux’s space on weekends.
“There’s a certain part of the community that doesn’t want to go to a tattoo and piercing place,” she explains. “It was hard for me to realize that, as Rose Gold is a really nice space. But when I processed that I said, ‘Let’s start doing it at Fiat Lux, too.’ It’s more relaxing here. We spend a little more time with clients. Even the piercers say it’s a breath of fresh air. We went further, and now are doing piercing pop-ups at other jewelry stores. It’s been really fun and interesting.”
As the shop settles into 16th Street, its neon sign game is only getting stronger. Along with the eye — Fiat Lux means “let there be light” — and the hand, which honors the makers whose work it carries, is a new one that states, “Outlast the Hills.”
“We want someone to think of jewelry as not just throw-away fashion,” McCarthy says. “We’re not interested in that. We’re interested in someone buying something and passing it down. They wear it their whole life, then maybe it goes into an estate sale and someone 100 years from now buys it and wears it, and also feels empowered. That’s the dream.”
This profile of Fiat Lux is part of our Dec. 6, 2018 small business issue. Check out our other pieces:
Comix Experience Fosters the Next Generation of Fans: Comic books have re-entered pop culture, and the 29-year-old Divisadero Street store is there to guide new and established fans to the best of it.
Hyperlocal Tenderloin Shop Fleet Wood Respects the Hustle: From its ‘100 Under 100′ group art show and beyond, Nico Schwieterman’s boutique and screenprinting business keep it real.