Behind every success story, there's always stories of grit, determination and many, many mistakes. In the case of sisters Christie and Rosanna Wollenberg, the founders of London-based jewellery brand Otiumberg, their business began as a side hustle...
The moment they began was pre-huggie era (if you can imagine a time where we didn’t all want to wear huggie earrings). As a VIP consultant at Burberry, Christie travelled a lot for work, and had some diamond huggies made in the Middle East. She got back to London and all her friends wanted her earrings. “I had six or seven up my ear,” she recalls. “There was no jewellery brand back then that was middle ground. It was Tiffany or TopShop – nothing in between. The word demi-fine didn’t exist, people weren’t really toying around with vermeil or nine-carat. We had no experience in jewellery, no experience in e-comm, building a website… we took our time and literally started from scratch.” In the early days, they would send orders in their lunch break, get home and work into the night. Rosanna then moved to New York, and they continued to work on the business in different countries. When Christie found out she was pregnant with her first child, she decided she had nine months to really get the business off the ground. “I quit my job at Burberry when I was pregnant and then worked solidly for nine months to get the business up and running. About a year after that, Rosanna decided to come back to London and join me. I think we both realised that there was huge opportunity there.” They were right – within two years, the business was profitable. And most recently, the brand became B Corp certified, a huge milestone for the founders.
L-R: Rosanna and Christie Wollenberg
A carefully considered strategy
Jewellery was an easy choice – it made more sense than shoes or handbags or clothes. “I think we both liked the fact that it was seasonless and forever,” says Christie. “I didn’t like the idea of having a fast-paced brand and needing to create newness every season.” They’ve never gone on sale – a very carefully considered strategy. “It’s always tempting,” says Rosanna. “80% of the market goes on sale around our price points. When it comes to those seasonal times, we definitely do see dips, because the competition is fierce. But our thinking around Otiumberg is very much a long-term strategy. It’s not something that we have an exit plan for in two years. Christie and I have always been driven by the idea of building a luxury brand and ultimately that’s a long-term thing. It’s not something you get overnight. We’ve seen the pitfalls of going into sale. Brands that I know go on sale, I never buy at full price.”
Slow, steady growth is a strategy the brand applies to everything they do. “We’ve never had any investment. We’ve literally had to grow very slowly and steadily over the last six years,” says Christie. Without a marketing budget, they’ve got creative. Collaborations have always performed well for the brand. Just recently, they collaborated on their third collection with Australian fashion brand camilla and marc. “Collaborations have been a really important way to grow, especially when you haven’t got the money to invest in marketing,” says Christie.
Working with your sister
“We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses really well,” says Rosanna. “There’s a loyalty there, which underpins that we’re never going to fall out because of something in the business, because ultimately there’s this bigger thing that holds us together.” Being related is not the only thing that holds them together – they live next door to each other. “It’s really nice,” says Rosanna. “It means that hanging out doesn’t have to be a forced occasion, you can just pop around, and get that extra social time together outside of the office.”
Staying in your lane
Like all brand founders, they feel the competition in the market, but for the most part, they don’t let it distract them. “There’s a real danger of getting side-tracked by competition. We’ve definitely had moments where we’re like, ‘Ugh, we’re not as good as them. Oh, why are we not doing this?’ You’ve just got to focus on yourself.” Each year, the founders review their brand – what they stand for, what their values are. They also establish what they’re not. “I think that’s a really interesting conversation to have,” says Rosanna.
Building a direct-to-consumer model
The brand has built both a loyal direct-to-consumer following, as well as wholesale accounts around the globe. For brands, a rock solid D2C business is the dream, purely because the margins are higher. “Wholesale is probably about 35% of the business,” says Rosanna. “We always want to keep it way below 50% for the stability of the business. I think it’s so important to have that direct consumer relationship for a multitude of reasons. A, you’re able to control that selling experience, which I think can get lost at these sale points that are outside the control. And B, it just allows you to be more profitable so you can grow. I think the danger with wholesale is that your margin is decreased and one season you might be in favour and one season you might not.” Wholesale certainly has its place. “Wholesale is amazing for legitimizing a new market but I think ultimately for a sustainable business, it’s something that we want to try and restrict and just work with select luxury partners,” says Rosanna.
The Otiumberg woman spans multiple generations. “It’s literally from 16 to 70,” says Christie. “We’re not designing for one person in particular. It’s meant to be jewellery that follows you along your life. The ups and downs. It’s more a vibe. She could be 50, 70, 20. It’s the vibe of that person.”
Navigating motherhood and career
As a mother of three, Christie admits it has been an “intense” seven years. “I birthed my first son and literally started working the next day. I even made my husband leave the hospital to go and send an order, because it was just that intense,” she says. “The thing that I struggle with is to try and turn off and focus on one thing at a time. It’s very easy to get carried away with work with your children. My kids are constantly saying, ‘Put your phone away,’ which is so bad. It’s something I’m working on and I’m fully aware of it, but it’s addictive. It’s been part of my life for so long that you’re constantly learning how to mother and how to manage your business at the same time.”
Imposter syndrome? It’s unavoidable
“I think everyone has it, right?” says Christie. “Imposter syndrome flies in and out of my life all the time. I think luckily for us it tends to not be at the same time. We can sort of tag team it a little bit in terms of who’s giving the other one support. I think that’s why I can’t imagine ever doing a business by myself. It’s so nice to be able to have that other person’s support. You don’t even have to say that much and they kind of get you.” And there it is – the sisterly bond that drives this incredible business.