Lion Tamers

It’s been said that running a business is like riding a lion, where overwhelmed entrepreneurs are just wondering how not to fall off and get eaten. But jewelry phenoms Jason and Gorjana Reidel, makers of golden goods loved by stars from Michelle Obama to Jessica Alba, don’t just stay out of the belly. This is how they grip hard and enjoy the ride.

By Jason Buckland

California highway 133 begins at the blue coast of the Pacific Ocean and winds northeast, leaving behind it the impossible backdrop of Laguna Beach’s lush, sun-soaked cliffsides. Not far inland, the landscape is completely transformed. The white sand beach, dotted with volleyball courts and muscled players glistening in the light, soon gives way to the dry, sparse escarpments of Laguna Canyon.

At the foot of a ridge, about two-and-a-half miles from the ocean, is a complex of artists’ studios, a collective of low-slung stalls along the edge of the highway where painters and sculptors create their wares. Near the back, occupying the largest swath of space on the grounds, sits the headquarters of Gorjana, the boho jewelry maker whose products have become a verifiable hit. Thanks in part to an organic plug from Michelle Obama, not to mention the brand’s adornments being found dangling from the ears, necks, and wrists of celebs like Jessica Alba and Olivia Wilde, Gorjana continues to flourish, its store count swelling to 18 by spring 2020.

Inside the office is pure coastal style. It is bright and airy, immaculately appointed with Restoration Hardware furniture in all shades of cream, white, and light-grain beachwood. In the case of Gorjana, the backdrop is also the brand. The company has come to embody Laguna Beach and all that it seems to mean—spirituality, natural beauty, a surrender to the universe felt deeply by many of the people who call this community home.

Gorjana’s founders fit right in. Jason Reidel, with a close-cropped beard and blue-and-white striped tee, sits on a deep sofa next to his wife Gorjana Reidel, the brand’s namesake in a mustard dress brushed by her straight, blond hair. It is all so California, and yet on this summer day Jason and Gorjana have been transported back to a far different time and a far different place.

In their minds, they have returned to 2005, to a business trip gone wrong. They are broke, they are freezing in the January chill of New York City, and they have no idea how they’re going to make it all work.

Gorjana’s History: Resiliency, But Only After It All Went Wrong

It was only in 2004 they had begun this business, if you could even call it that back then. They’d met years earlier at Arizona State, he the senior, she the freshman, though reconnected later in California, where Jason studied at Malibu’s Pepperdine School of Law and Gorjana worked in Neiman Marcus’ jewelry division.

“I remember, on our second date, I shared this spiritual thing that I’d never shared with anyone,” Jason says. “It was all based around the number 1/19.” He wasn’t certain why he felt compelled to tell Gorjana, or even what 1/19 truly symbolized. But the numbers had always meant something to Jason that he could not entirely place. It was then that Gorjana replied. “My birthday,” she said, “is January 19.”

There was a connection, that much was true, and Jason and Gorjana soon found they shared other things, too. In 2001, they were married, and not long after they both arrived at the same conclusion. They promised one another that their careers would be different than what the world might expect of them. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life,” Jason says. “But I didn’t want to just go get a job and be miserable.”

Gorjana had found something in jewelry, first at Neiman Marcus and later assisting a local designer in Newport Beach. The designer made beautiful pieces, but the average price of each was around $1,500. “I was 22 and thought, ‘I can’t afford this,’” Gorjana says. “I wanted to make stuff that I can buy, my friends can buy, and [that’s] just as beautiful.”

Gorjana co-founder Jason Reidel Gorjana co-founder Gorjana Reidel

They had considered other pursuits before—perhaps they’d start a fashion brand, or found a men’s skincare line. But there was something there with jewelry that was accessible to them both. In 2004, they first began using Gorjana’s name as the brand and also on the packaging of their small line of debut rings and necklaces (Gorjana was officially trademarked in 2006.) “When we started out,” Gorjana says, “we really had no idea what we were doing.”

In the beginning, the company existed thanks to boots on the pavement and boutiques on the shore. Yet as they canvassed enough shops, setting forth over a wide swath of southern California, Jason and Gorjana began to get their feet underneath them. Within a year, 70 boutiques agreed to sell their products, intrigued to give a shot to this new brand of classic, unpretentious style that seemed to appeal to all customers by the coast—moneyed or otherwise.

One day, a boutique owner asked if Gorjana would be selling its jewelry in any big trade shows. The husband and wife looked at one another. Everything was new; there were no bad ideas. So in the early days of 2005, Jason and Gorjana scraped together everything they had then—$5,000—and entered Accessorie Circuit in New York City, one of the nation’s largest jewelry exhibits.

The indignities happened swiftly and in multiples.

First, Jason and Gorjana missed their flight across the country. Then, when they arrived at the hotel, their credit card was declined. “My mom had to call to do a credit card authorization form so we could stay there,” Gorjana laments. “We’re like, ‘Okay, what else could possibly go wrong?’”

A flight missed, a credit card declined, and inventory nowhere to be found. What else could possibly go wrong?

The next morning, they found out. A day before the show began, Jason and Gorjana visited the venue at Pier 94, along the Hudson River. In the expo area of the trade show, they learned that none of their products had arrived. Jason called UPS, who shared that snow in Ohio was holding up their goods. They’d be there Monday evening—that is, two days into the three-day show.

If that was to be the final nail in the coffin, if they were receiving a message from above to slump their shoulders and limp back to California, Jason and Gorjana were not yet willing to comply. The irony of it all was that, once their jewelry arrived, it was such a big hit—its buyers in New York finding the same appeal as its boutique owners in California once had—that the trade show ended in success. “We sold like $50,000 of jewelry, which was so exciting and so exhilarating,” Gorjana says. “It just felt awesome.”

This was bootstrapping. This was entrepreneurship at its least glamorous. And this next part, even in its retelling nearly a decade-and-a-half later, inside a chic office space in a sun-baked canyon of Laguna Beach, is enough to draw warm laughs and cold shudders at the memory.

“And then we got home,” Jason says, “and realized we couldn’t get the money to even make the orders. You’re like, ‘Oh, come on. Is this for real?’”

It was proof that, in business, sometimes the hits just keep on coming. But Jason and Gorjana showed they could take a punch. Back in California, they pleaded at the bank for more capital, even visiting again their local boutiques to sell whatever goods they had left in stock—via orders as small as a few hundred dollars each—until mercifully they could fill their Accessorie Circuit receipts.

“Early on, we learned if you want something, you’re going to have to push through,” Jason says, “Because challenges are going to come your way.

“We are very resilient. We said, ‘Let’s go. We’ve just got to make it work.’”

The Entrepreneur’s Challenge: Gorjana Learns to Ride the Lion

Jason and Gorjana were learning about the uncertainties of entrepreneurship. They found that the downs that always seemed to come before—and also somehow again after—the ups were now part of this new journey in their life

Nominally, they knew the way forward, but they were okay to renounce the idea that they’d ever know exactly how to get there and exactly when it would happen. “We don’t have a plan. We’re just on a path,” Gorjana likes to say. “But we can see where the right direction to go is.”

At the outset of Gorjana, they were not quite looking for a way to define their unsteady lives. And yet along came a story in the Sept., 2013, issue of Inc. Magazine. It was called, “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship,” and you’d be forgiven if at first glance you were spooked. The article’s header illustration showed a barefoot man in underwear and undershirt, curled like a baby on a mattress cast out into a rolling storm at sea. He hugged his pillow tight, eyes opened wide to the dark skies above. He was a businessman, we were to believe. And he was helpless.

This maybe wasn’t Jason, and indeed it was not Gorjana, either, but in the piece was an anecdote that grabbed them both by the lapels. A man named Toby Thomas, then the CEO of a Texas-based infrastructure repair company called EnSite Solutions, shared his favorite analogy of what life in business is like: a man riding a lion. “People look at him and think, ‘This guy’s really got it together! He’s brave!” Thomas said. “And the man riding the lion is thinking, ‘How the hell did I get on a lion? And how do I keep from getting eaten?’”

Gorjana was struck by the familiarity of the idea. At many turns, Jason and Gorjana had fielded overtures that their business was a point of envy from friends, family, and onlookers. Even in the wake of their Accessorie Circuit appearance, the quintessential disaster-turned-triumph of this company’s history, it was easy to look in from the outside and remark how glamorous it was having sold $50,000 in jewelry at a single trade show.

Yet no matter what amount of perceived stability they appeared to show in their business, Jason and Gorjana returned over and again to an image of them atop the lion. They leaned into the instability of it all, learning to find comfort in the vulnerabilities that may drive other entrepreneurs to the brink. They didn’t yet hold all the answers they needed, but they were fine figuring it out as they went—so long as indeed they churned on.

“It was just this perpetual motion forward,” Gorjana says. “Why we’re here today is because we were able to bend and twist. Like, ‘Yes, this is working. We’re just going to keep going.’”

Gorjana is Laguna Beach

As Gorjana’s foundation solidified, Jason and Gorjana discovered they were pretty adept at one thing. The company’s founders were building a brand off instinct and feel, and it was beginning to pay off.

In 2015, a major milestone came. For the first time, Gorjana had leapt out of the California boutiques and into a larger, more serious retail footprint. Nordstrom agreed to carry its line in 25 stores nationwide, including iconic locations like on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, and with that the brand entered a new stratosphere of consumer relevance. “All of a sudden,” Jason says, “you’re like, ‘Okay. This just got real up in here.’”

Shoppers were more widely finding Gorjana’s jewelry, which meant the rest of the country was, for the first time, being drawn to a line of products that was light, chic, and often as golden as the California coast from which it came.

Gorjana’s texture chart, displaying the brand’s different types of golden jewelry finish Gorjana Reidel samples a golden necklace with staff at the jewelry brand’s Laguna Beach headquarters

Indeed, Laguna Beach represented the bedrock the brand was built upon. For Jason and Gorjana, it was personal. Years ago, as the Gorjana business was still taking shape, the couple was bouncing around homes in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Newport Beach. “We weren’t really living anywhere,” Jason says. “We were trying to find our way.”

But they discovered something, and somewhere, that felt right. “When we were dirt broke, and we’d never even been to Laguna Beach before, we drove up to Top of the World,” Jason says, noting the famous overlook offering some of the most scenic views in southern California. “I’d never been there in my entire life, and I said, ‘We’re going to live here. We’re going to have kids here. They’re going to go to school here.’” If it seemed like too great a proclamation for the moment, Jason didn’t feel much of it was his or Gorjana’s choice. “It was already in the universe,” he says. “It had already happened.”

They gave themselves to this place, an unending spring of beauty by the Pacific, and soon it was impossible to separate the jewelry of Gorjana from Laguna Beach itself. Gorjana became synonymous with California cool, with the very slow, bohemian style reflected in every facet of the city.

When Hollywood’s in-crowd were photographed wearing Gorjana, they were broadcasting Laguna Beach to the world. When Obama called out the bespoke plate necklace in her holiday gift guide, the former first lady was endorsing Laguna Beach as much as she was Gorjana. “This place is fulfilling to me,” Gorjana says. “I could be having a bad day, and then I go outside and you see the water, and there’s just a certain calming energy here. It grounds me.”

Jason and Gorjana had put personal roots down in Laguna Beach, raising two children—Tristan, now 12, and Sienna, now 9. In 2016, the couple dug in further at work, too. During the same year its jewelry was rolled out into every Nordstrom store across the U.S., Gorjana opened the first flagship retail location of its own, a one-story bungalow shop with light hardwood floors and white built-in cabinets in the calm downtown of Laguna Beach.

“We very much dove into this community,” Jason says. “If you give to it, it nurtures you, and the more you give to it, the more it gives back. And so it was very important for us to be proud of that and let our first store be Laguna Beach. I want people to feel that in us. Maybe they travel somewhere and they’re like, ‘Oh, Laguna Beach. Gorjana is from Laguna Beach.’”

There was a deep connection between the brand and its first retail home, though at every expansion—each time Jason and Gorjana grabbed the lion’s mane and surged the great beast forward—the universe gave them other signs, too.

The founders’ first date was in the pristine La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego, which meant to them there should be a Gorjana store there also. Jason bought Gorjana’s engagement ring at the Tiffany & Co. in Century City, so why not put another store there, as well? The first place Jason and Gorjana lived together was in Malibu, the site of Gorjana store number five. For each location, they backed up their decision to grow with reams of information—offline numbers from Nordstrom and Gorjana’s network of loyal boutiques, as well as customer data gleaned from the brand’s burgeoning online business, itself the underpinning for a loyal Instagram audience often ready to shop.

At every turn, retail advancement was a calculated leap, but their stores were such hits—each of them profitable, Jason says—that the leap has been completed over and again, throughout California and now into Arizona and New York City. Gorjana, whose founders had stood 15 years earlier in front of that empty Pier 94 trade show booth without even a stacker ring to sell, will soon have 18 stores across the U.S., with eyes on even further retail expansion in California and New York.

In the beginning, they were riding the lion, hanging on for dear life and trying not to end up strewn about in pieces on the Serengeti floor. But Jason and Gorjana learned a funny thing about running a business. No matter if they were just starting out or more than a decade in, no matter if sales were in the hundreds or millions, there will always be new ground to carve and new anxieties to come with it. “We will have 18 stores,” Jason says. “I’ve never run a company with 18 stores.”

Inside their Laguna Beach offices, light streaks into a workplace abuzz with dozens of young staff, many of them busy with the business of a brand whose retail amplification may signal Gorjana is nearing its true mainstream breakout. Jason and Gorjana appear unfazed by the stakes.

The husband and wife bandy numbers about, markers of a future they may one day realize. Could Gorjana get to $100 million in annual sales? What about 35 retail locations? They were not put forward as specific goals or ambitions so much as they were story points on a narrative that is ever-changing, ever-evolving. The founders of this brand may not be following a plan, but they are on a path that’s clear for all to see. “It's a journey,” Gorjana says. “I have the faith that we'll figure it out, whatever that means.”

On this pristine summer day, as the afternoon sun arcs high above, California Highway 133 begs to be driven back toward the sparkling coastline of Laguna Beach. But Jason and Gorjana settle into their work in the canyon. They know precisely what direction they’re heading.

Gorjana founders Jason and Gorjana Reidel speak to one another while sitting on a cream sofa in their California office