Leon Megé, a designer and diamond expert specializing in engagement and bridal jewelry, has come a long way from the 25-year-old Russian refugee who arrived in New York in 1988 with $150 in his pocket.
Recognized for his unique handcrafted, bench made designs, Megé has built a thriving business in the heart of Manhattan’s historic Diamond District. But it was no easy journey. “Being a jeweler was a necessity for me,” says Megé, who had enrolled in trade school in St. Petersburg in order to stall his obligatory service in the Russian military. “I fell into this because I had a trade in Russia – jewelry.”
Megé’s parents were scientists who waited over a decade for permission to emigrate to the U.S., and Megé ended up having to serve two years in the Army anyway. When emigration approval was finally granted, it sadly came only months after his mother’s death. Megé and his father were told to prepare for immediate departure, and days later arrived to an uncertain future in New York. For Megé, it was his jewelry skills that helped him start his life over.
“I had to rent an apartment. Buy a pair of blue jeans. Everyone was looking for jewelers, so I went to work.” Relying only on the English he learned during a two-month crash course before leaving Russia, he began to apply his skills working as a bench jeweler. But after a couple of years, he grew restless and studied to earn a Graduate Gemologist diploma from the GIA (Gemological Institute of America). Upon graduation, Megé quickly discovered there weren’t many jobs for gemologists. So he went back to the bench, turning out jewelry on demand for brands whose sales people he never met. It was during this time that Megé felt his talent really develop along with his ability to translate other people’s visions into beautifully finished pieces. Less than 10 years after he arrived in New York, Megé took a chance and started his own label, Leon Megé, in 1997. “Starting out as a jeweler is like playing the lottery,” says Megé. “And I always lose when I gamble. This is the only gamble I’ve taken where I have won.”
After years of doing trade work for other companies, Megé experienced the design freedom – and clarity – of working with his own clients. Because of his experiences in the trade with unhappy customers returning jewelry because a salesperson didn’t properly interview the client, Megé instituted a very careful intake process. He also developed a “punch list” detailing the anatomy of each ring, including the type of pavé, size of stone, style of shank, outline of halo.
Not stopping there, Megé dives into exactly what each client means by such subjective descriptions as “sparkly,” “high,” “simple,” “antique.” He leaves nothing to chance. “I’ve even talked clients out of more expensive rings just to keep them happy.” His questions to customers sometimes result in a ring that has evolved into another style or category altogether. Working from his penthouse studio in the Diamond District, Megé’s team of jewelers and diamond ambassadors create only bench-made designs. “Here we take a piece of square wire… rolling, cutting, hammering, filing, soldering. Megé is proud that there is no casting,machinery or templates used in his studio. All work is finished with hand tools. “This work is very slow,”he says. While the design work could be done by CAD, it would then have to be cast – the process of pouring liquid metal into a form. “Even if you have a perfect form, and you pour metal into it, it comes out rough,” he explains.
At Leon Megé, they make everything in parts and then hand assemble the final design so it is flawlessly clean and beautiful when put together. Megé compares the quality of his bench-made rings to a bespoke suit made on Savile Row. “That is the jewelry we make. An Armani produced at factory sold at Neimans is still high end andexpensive but it is not bespoke.” Megé’s customers appreciate the finer quality and handmade touch he provides. With all his success, the immigrant refugee from Russia still has ambitions. One is for his teenaged twins to take advantage of the education America has to offer – an opportunity he gave up in order to practice his trade.
The other is a personal vision of true success: “I read a story in a travel magazine that described where one could find the shoemaker responsible for turning out the most exquisite handmade leather shoes in Italy ‘Make a right turn, then a left, down an alley and behind the third door on your right… that’s where you will find him.’ I realized – I want to be that guy! New York’s best kept secret.”
By Brooke Conner Sevenau