The Clear Cut offices sparkle on the sunny 14th floor of 22 West 48th Street, where married co-founders Olivia Landau and Kyle Simon have established a soft-hued, diamond-studded oasis fit for the modern fine-jewelry lover.
It's very close to New York City's Diamond District, the commercial stretch along West 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, which dates back to the 1920s.
Yet The Clear Cut stands worlds apart from the area's traditional past: The company is simplifying the diamond-buying process with an educational, curated approach and e-shopping experience as it aims to become this generation's "jeweler for life."
But neither Landau nor Simon set out to launch a fine-jewelry venture.
Even though Landau is a fourth-generation diamond expert and the pair met while studying at the Gemological Institute of America, The Clear Cut wasn't always part of their plan. It began as Landau's blog, then side hustle, before the co-founders' strategic risk-taking and sheer force of will transformed it into the multimillion-dollar company it is today.
Related: How This Family-Owned Jewelry Business Rebuilt After 9/11
Landau's path to the diamond industry might have been written in the stars, but it wasn't exactly linear.
Though Landau's father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been diamond cutters or dealers, her parents discouraged her from pursuing the business herself, believing the industry was in decline.
As a student at NYU, Landau considered careers in fashion and media, but she ultimately wasn't passionate about either of them.
So she decided to enroll at the Gemological Institute of America, or GIA, after graduating from college in 2013. She figured that, if nothing else, the credential could help her land a position at a corporate luxury house.
But the six-month GIA course only deepened Landau's appreciation for fine jewelry. "I fell in love with diamonds and gemstones," she says, "and I guess it was in my blood all along."
Landau also met Simon during their time at the GIA, and they struck up a relationship.
After graduating from college, Simon moved to Sierra Leone, where he got his start in politics before co-founding a fair-trade diamond-mining business. The investors in Simon's venture sent him to the GIA, and once he completed the program, he returned to Sierra Leone and stayed until the Ebola epidemic struck. He and Landau continued their long-distance relationship during that time.
Meanwhile, post-GIA, Landau began working at Tiffany & Co.'s flagship store on the engagement floor. "That's where I really fell in love with engagement rings and diamonds specifically," Landau explains. "But I wanted to be a little bit more hands-on, so I left Tiffany to work at a large diamond wholesaler here on 47th Street."
Related: Tiffany Is Selling Its Most Expensive Piece of Jewelry Yet
Simon enrolled at Columbia Business School after moving back to New York.
Unbeknownst to he and Landau, it would serve as a crucial stepping stone on The Clear Cut's climb to a million-dollar company. That's because, when all of Simon's friends at business school began to get engaged, they turned to him for guidance knowing he had a connection to the diamond industry.
"So they'd be like, 'Hey, know a guy who can get me a deal on a ring?'" Landau says. "And since I was the one working on wholesale, I was the guy. So I would educate everyone, pick out their diamonds, create their custom rings, and it turned into this fun thing I did on the side."
The growing interest inspired Landau to start her blog, The Clear Cut.
"I realized that most people didn't know the first thing about buying a diamond," Landau says. "There was information online, but no one knew what to trust or believe. So I started The Clear Cut for our friends to read about the dos and don'ts, the four Cs."
In diamond lingo, the four Cs stand for cut, clarity, color and carat.
Landau also created an Instagram account to feature her designs. That social media presence really helped things take off: People were finding and liking her page, then asking Landau to design their rings.
Between 2016 and 2018, Landau's passion project transformed into a significant side hustle. "Strangers across the country were DMing me and sending me their life savings, and I would create a ring and ship it to them," she recalls.
It was during that time that Simon graduated from business school — and realized that the rapid organic growth of Landau's endeavor meant there must be white space in the market.
Related: If You're Struggling to Solve a Problem, You May Be Looking at Things Just 1% Wrong
Landau and Simon wanted to give The Clear Cut a real shot at scalable success.
But many people, including their own families, discouraged them. "[Landau's] parents said the industry was dying," Simon explains, "but Olivia realized that the industry wasn't dying — it was changing."
Still, it was a significant risk: To give the attempt their all, Simon would have to turn down an enticing offer at a big bank, and Landau would have to leave her steady job.
"Transitioning to full-time was pretty intimidating," Simon admits. "I had just spent two years at business school and racked up a fair amount of debt. And Olivia was selling things on the side, but the demand was very sporadic. So it was like, Is there enough here to support [ourselves]?"
Although purchasing luxury goods online today is more widely accepted than ever before, it was "more hypothetical" even just a few years ago, Simon notes.
Fortunately, other people also believed in Landau and Simon's vision at the time. The Clear Cut was accepted into the Techstars accelerator program in 2018 — an admission that came with $120,000 in funding. It meant that if things didn't go according to plan, the co-founders would have a safety net.
But The Clear Cut exceeded their expectations immediately.
"We never actually touched that money [from Techstars]," Simon says. "The business was self-sustaining right away."
Related: Raising Capital? The Latest (and Greatest) Ways to Fund Your Startup
The Clear Cut was resonating with buyers, particularly young ones, who increasingly expect a different kind of fine-jewelry experience — one that goes beyond selecting a pre-made design in-store or online.
That holds especially true when it comes to picking out what, for many, will be their largest luxury purchase to date: an engagement ring.
"Nowadays, young people at that age that they're going to get engaged have all looked on Instagram and TikTok for inspiration for their rings," Landau says. "They know exactly what they want, and they don't want to compromise the quality, what it looks like, or spend too much for it either."
Landau and Simon knew exactly what that was like.
"When we began, we were the customers, so we really understood those needs and tried to meet people where they were," Landau explains. "We're democratizing that private jewelry experience that was once only [accessible to] celebrities or really wealthy people, [and we're] making it at an affordable price point, for anyone, anywhere."
Another thing this generation of jewelry buyers values? Total transparency.
"We always [prioritized] education first," Landau says, "which seems pretty straightforward these days, but this industry is very opaque and traditionally likes to guard a lot of secrets and not be super transparent — that's how it always operated."
It's such a departure from the industry's usual approach that Landau's parents didn't initially understand why the co-founders were giving so much information to their customers, Simon notes.
The Clear Cut's social media presence on Instagram and TikTok plays a significant role in that education-first mentality. On Wednesdays, Landau hosts Instagram Q&As that elicit "hundreds and hundreds" of questions, which allow her to give people the answers they need and, in turn, learn which trends are attracting the most attention.
Related: 7 Social Media Power Techniques that Build Your Brand and Business
By 2019, The Clear Cut had secured a steady stream of repeat customers, many of whom had purchased engagement rings and were following up about wedding bands or other fine jewelry.
So The Clear Cut launched its fine-jewelry line that same year, expanding into classic pieces like pendants and tennis bracelets. Since then, that line has become the company's fastest-growing sector — helping it double its growth year over year. That momentum continued into 2020, when Landau and Simon made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.
The co-founders were reaching heights they'd only dreamed of, but they also realized that their current model wouldn't allow for efficient growth. At that point, they were still working with customers over email, sending photos back and forth from their phones.
"We always knew that people were going to buy jewelry remotely, and we had perfected a very unscalable process to do it," Simon explains. "But we always had a vision of how it should be done."
Landau had conceptualized a technology that would simplify that process. In 2020, The Clear Cut began to roll out its proprietary software, gem., launching a front-end experience tailored to its bespoke engagement ring customers. It's since become an integral part of the company's virtual approach.
It all begins with a 15-minute phone consultation with Landau or another gemologist on staff. From there, customers have access to their profile, which allows them to see a selection of diamonds hand-picked for their perusal and give feedback as part of The Clear Cut's collaborative process.
Once they're happy with the design, the customer pays the deposit, and the ring will go into production. When the piece is complete, the customer can see the final product, give any necessary feedback, send the balance and pick their ship date. The portal also gives them access to their appraisal, GIA certificate and even an optional NFT for purchase.
And the software is just as important on the back end too. It tracks data — like why a customer said yes or no to a particular diamond — and fluctuations in the market, making it easy to adjust prices internally.
Additionally, the technology generates a QR code for each stone, tracking the jewelry manufacturing process from start to finish — and digitizing a system that has remained stubbornly pen-and-carbon-copy-paper, "like a parking ticket," for years.
The Clear Cut also has a GIA API that pulls diamond information directly from GIA's database. "Instead of writing things out, I can just input a GIA number," Simon explains.
The company's collection is linked to its Shopify orders with a similar process, so every time a purchase takes place on the website, it's also tracked by the software.
All of the technology supports the company in its goal of establishing customer relationships that last a lifetime.
Related: 5 Ways to Build Killer Relationships With Customers
Patience and flexibility have been essential throughout The Clear Cut's startup journey. (That proprietary software was an idea for 10 years before it became a reality).
Starting without raising much capital brought obvious challenges, Simon says, forcing the co-founders to be "more judicious" with their money day-to-day. But that same discerning mentality made it possible to scale over time.
"We were able to invest in tech and build a very scalable, resilient company," Simon explains. "So regardless of what the past four years have thrown at us, we've always been able to succeed, and we may be entering a recession, [but] we are battle-tested and disciplined."
The co-founders' ability to adapt quickly was also invaluable. Landau cites Covid-19 as an example — the company was prepared for slumping sales, but instead had to meet skyrocketing demand.
Accepting they have "finite resources" — and that there are only so many hours in a day — has been another important lesson.
"You always have to go to bed knowing that something isn't done and be okay with that," Simon says. "We could never stop working, and there would always be something to do."
Another thing is certain too: As The Clear Cut approaches its seventh birthday, its future is shining bright.