CEO Woman: A Gem Shining Bright

Sheryl Jones, one of the few Black jewelers in Manhattan’s Diamond District, is making sure she won’t be one of the last

By Lydia T. Blanco

Ninety-five percent of diamond and gemstone businesses are third- and fourth-generation family owned, a world largely closed to outsiders. That didn’t deter Sheryl Jones, who, finding herself at a crossroads, decided to pivot from a career in media and entertainment into entrepreneurship based on her early love of gems. In 2002, she signed the lease to a studio in Manhattan’s Diamond District, becoming one of the first Black women to do so. As a public relations professional, Jones had climbed the corporate ladder, reaching vice president status at MTV, before she began her study of diamonds and fine gemstones at the Gemological Institute of America.

Jones’s ability to follow her intuition, learn precociously, and start anew made room for her when others presented her with their prejudices and limiting beliefs. In the Diamond District, where deals are made with a handshake, Jones leaned into the multigenerational and multicultural support of women who firmly guided her. And she discovered that making sure her word is golden is as important as her work ethic.

Over the years, Sheryl Jones Jewels’ designs have been worn by many celebrities, including the Grammy and Oscar award-winning singer and songwriter H.E.R., and the late Cicely Tyson.

When Jones isn’t doing what she loves in her studio, she can be found serving in the form of mentorship and on the advisory board of the Black in Jewelry Coalition.

Diversity Woman: How did your fascination with diamonds and gemstones develop?

Sheryl Jones: I’ve always been a dreamer, even as a kid. That’s what attracted me to gemstones and minerals. They had that sparkly effect. I will gravitate to anything sparkly that catches my attention in that way. And so that wonderment about how something can form and create such a beautiful, brilliant display of light and scintillation was always a part of me. Sometimes when we get older, we bury our passions because the reality of life, or what we think we need to be doing and how we need to show up, kicks in.

DW: What was revealed to you while saying yes to this journey? I hear the intuition and mindset that led you to take the gemology courses. But was anything else revealed about yourself?

SJ: I realized I’m much more resourceful than I knew. When you go from a corporate world—where everything is in place—to working for yourself, and you do not have an endless supply of [the resources] to make it work, you have to be very resourceful. Necessity is the mother of invention.

I also learned that I had a pretty thin shell when it came to feeling like I always needed to have the answer. I think that came from being in a corporate structure—where you can never not have the answer.

To shed all of that and say, “I don’t know how any of this works—and I’m going have to surrender to this,” means I might not know the answer. But there’s no shame in that because I’m learning. I had to look at how that ego had stopped me from experimenting, learning, and growing for a long time before I left MTV.

DW: How much training and prep did you go through when getting started?

SJ: I did a lot of informational interviews before I started working in the business. I spoke with everyone who had a cousin, an aunt, an uncle, a brother, or anyone connected to the business. And every single one of them was discouraging. I realized that, ultimately, I was going to have to invest all of me into this pursuit. I couldn’t look at this as just another job. I got a job working for a diamond manufacturer sorting his goods. I don’t think I made even a quarter of what I had made before. It was a cultural shift. I went from miniskirts and four-inch boots to conservative attire because I was working in an office with religious people.

All of those things did affect how I viewed myself, how I showed up, and how I needed to stay incredibly focused. In the past, I’d been more focused, unfortunately, on being competitive with the people around me—you get on a weird treadmill in Corporate America. In this [industry], unless you work for Zales in the corporate office, there’s no hierarchy because they’re all family members.

I had to figure out my talent. We’d like to believe that we’re special. And yes, we each are. But what makes you special is how you bring yourself to the table. It’s not necessarily what you produce. It’s the energy you bring to it. But that requires an understanding of who you are. And a relationship with yourself—which I’d never had up to that point. But now, even on my darkest days, which we all have, I have a much deeper, more centered, and stronger foundation than I ever had in my previous career.

DW: How were you ultimately able to build your mindset and the community to support that mindset in the business?

SJ: I moved into the only available space [on 47th Street and Fifth Avenue]. And it happened to be between two women who owned their businesses. And another woman had her business across the street from me. The woman to the right of me started her own business 15 or 20 years prior. And the woman to the left of me had her whole family involved. They were jewelers, setters, and polishers.

They were nice but kind of like, “You don’t know anything.” After watching me stumble and stutter, trying to sell and make jewelry on [47th] Street, they started to say, “Hey, you really can’t do it that way. Don’t trust that person. They’re not giving you a good price.”

They started to mentor me naturally. But it required me to shed my ego and take advice. One of the main reasons I’m still in business to this day is that they were incredibly supportive.

There’s a lot of wisdom that sometimes comes from people who don’t look like us, who aren’t the age we are, and who don’t necessarily come from the same background. We need to be open to it.

DW: What has been a critical business lesson you’ve learned that set the tone for where you are today?

SJ: One lesson is understanding the importance of mentors. You need to have a community around you. The second thing is learning your craft. You can’t get where you want to go without understanding what you’re making—and deep diving into learning your skill. At some point, the skill sets are going to have to show up. That separates the wheat from the chaff. The third thing I learned is to put your blinders on and shut out people or situations that are distracting.

When I first started, there were some racist people and things that were said to me. I paid a lot of attention to that because it was so shocking to me. I was overwhelmed by feeling isolated. And I remember a client saying to me, “This is exactly what they want you to do. They want you to get distracted by this stuff. Don’t get distracted. You’re not here to pay attention to this. You have a goal and a vision of what you want to do. Just do it.” And that allowed me to let go of the insecurity of worrying about what people think.

DW: Can you share your thoughts on the importance of diversity in the industry?

SJ: In our industry, Black representation is probably less than 1 percent. And I think it’s that way for a variety of factors. Many of these businesses are fourth-
generation family owned. And behind that is a real economic power base. Unfortunately, because the materials are very expensive, it’s hard for others to get a seat at the table. We don’t necessarily socialize in the same groups and aren’t marrying family to family. So we don’t have that built-in network.

Through BIJC [Black in Jewelry Coalition], we’re figuring out ways to have representation and an opportunity for us to be at every level. DW

Lydia T. Blanco is a business journalist at the intersections of equity and culture who is passionate about building community through storytelling.

“There’s a lot of wisdom that sometimes comes from people who don’t look like us, who aren’t the age we are, and who don’t necessarily come from the same background. We need to be open to it.”

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