Faraone Mennella: A Love Story Behind Two Jewelry Brands
After the passing of his lifelong partner, Roberto Faraone Mennella, co-founder Amedeo Scognamiglio reminisces about their time together, both on a personal and professional level, and looks toward the future.
On June 4, 2020, famed Italian designer Roberto Faraone Mennella passed away from cancer. He was only 48 years old. Faraone Mennella, the brand of the same name, was probably best known to the public for its earrings, as seen on the hit TV show Sex and the City. Its most famous piece, the Stella, was a sexy 18-karat gold earring often worn by Canadian actress Kim Cattrall’s character Samantha Jones. It had beaded pendant loops, which came in either tiger’s eye, diamonds, turquoise or aquamarine.
Soon after its work appeared on the show, Faraone Mennella started attracting A-list clients, such as Jennifer Aniston and Hilary Swank. But, who was behind this success story? Roberto Faraone Mennella’s partner, Amedeo Scognamiglio, fondly recalls a lifetime of memories and discusses his plans for the brand’s future.
I) THE BRAND
Not many people know it, but Roberto Faraone Mennella’s grandmother probably played a key role providing inspiration for the start of the brand. “She was the biggest love of his life,” explains Amedeo. “He lost her too soon, when he was 21 or 22. He always said, ‘My grandmother trained my eye for art, beauty and jewelry.’”
Not only that, but her name, Stella, played a role, too.
“We named the famous earring we made in our debut collection after her,” says Scognamiglio. Born in the more conservative south of Italy, going into design wasn’t a natural path for Faraone Mennella. “His parents didn’t want him to go into design. They were pushing him to go to law school or business school,” reveals Scognamiglio. They both attended law school at the University of Naples. “He was struggling in law school. I liked it. Roberto was depressed. It was long before we worked together. I realized Roberto was dyslexic. He was very visual and very much into design. I told him: ‘You need to go to art school.’ He said, ‘My parents will never let me.’”
At the end of the ’90s, they both decided to move to New York.
“Roberto got into Parsons, which was very difficult,” explains Scognamiglio. “I helped him; we told his parents it was basically a business school!”
He attended the design school for four years, getting his bachelor of fine arts. “While he was doing that, he was helping me with my cameo business, something my family has been doing for many generations,” says Scognamiglio.
But Roberto Faraone Mennella already had a keen business sense. “Roberto told me, ‘You need to do a press kit, a catalogue, a portfolio, do some trade shows,” explains Scognamiglio. “I didn’t care.” This gradual involvement led to the inevitable. “More and more, Roberto got involved in the jewelry business.
“The Best Gift I Ever Received Was When I Met Roberto. But, We Were Always Very Private About Our Relationship” — Amedeo Scognamiglio
“When he graduated a few years later, it was very natural to decide to do something together. He told me, ‘You want to elevate your family tradition to something bigger, artistic, fashionable and modern. I want to design; let’s start.’ At the beginning, the company was going to be our initials, RFMAS.”
But then, why was Faraone Mennella, the company, named only after Roberto’s surname? “It haunted me for several years, because everyone asked me, family and friends, ‘Why is it called Faraone Mennella, if it’s the two of you?’ We never had the approval or support of our families, until the end. His family asked, ‘Why do you have to work with Amedeo?’ It was very heavy at the beginning. There was a lot of pressure from people. But, it was a beautiful name, a beautiful logo. It was easy to trademark. I chose the name.”
Faraone Mennella and Scognamiglio didn’t have it easy at the beginning. They started from the ground up, being actually present at their shop.
“Roberto and I spent so much of our time meeting clients and being behind the counter, during the first 10 years of the business,” says Scognamiglio. “We met all of our clients. We didn’t follow trends blindfolded. We knew what they looked like, where they went on vacation, what they like to wear for special events or when they go out with friends.”
When the brand expanded, it became very important to build a team around them that shared the same values. “Honesty and character were always a priority for us — everything else, you can teach,” says Scognamiglio. “Even when I hire people, we never hire away from other companies. The manager of our store in New York has been with us for 10 years now.”
Being closely associated with a successful TV show had its advantages.
“Suddenly, we were celebrities for a younger generation,” laughs Scognamiglio, when reminiscing. “This guy sent us an email from Italy. He had seen an interview of us on TV. He said his dream was to come to New York to work for us. I said, ‘I’m not hiring anyone from Italy. Living in New York is hard. You need to already be living in New York. What if you don’t like it here?’”
“A year later, he sent me an email saying, ‘I’m still available, I’d like to work for you. I’m in New York! I came in June. I’m working in a restaurant. I have an apartment; I’m set up.’ So, we met, I gave him a chance, let him work part time at the store. Things went well, we hired him, we sponsored him and gave him the same visa we have. Then he became the manager of the store. I always say [that] he’s my biggest success story, in terms of human resources. He was somebody I really did not want to hire, and then he persevered. I see him almost like a father would see a son.”
Leandro Scarpa, the store manager, is in agreement. “Personally, I’m very thankful to Amedeo and Roberto,” he explains. “Over the years and under their guidance, I grew as a professional, and I matured as a man.” Scognamiglio’s enthusiasm for his craft is definitely shared by his employees. “I’m lucky enough that my workplace is my ‘happy place,’” says Scarpa. In the end, having a quality product makes everyone’s job easier. “When you have a product that’s loved as much as Faraone Mennella & Amedeo jewelry is, you don’t need much of a marketing campaign,” explains Scarpa. “Because, ultimately, this is what Amedeo and Roberto stand for: love, passion and complete dedication for their job.”
After a brand becomes established, there’s always a danger of becoming complacent, of just relying on your “greatest hits.” Scognamiglio made sure that didn’t happen, so that Faraone Mennella stayed relevant.
“In the last few years, I realized I had to really shock Roberto,” says Scognamiglio. “We had a long talk, and I pushed him to design something else. He didn’t need to design the new Stella. So, he came up with this new collection, called ‘the Abracadabra,’ last year. It had nothing to do with what he had done before. We’re using titanium and ceramic colours, different stones, more graphic. Before, everything had to be nongraphic, linear forms, linear shapes, very smooth shapes. Suddenly, he sat at the drawing table, and I said, ‘Feel cool, feel young again, don’t feel like you should sell at Bergdorf Goodman, it might go somewhere else, it doesn’t matter.’ And he did it. It was like a rejuvenation. Even with my guys in the workshop here, we were so happy, because we had convinced Roberto to be less classic. Then he was unstoppable, he designed a whole collection of one-of-a-kind pieces. Now it’s our best-selling collection, even though we still love the Stella — the Stella is like the Alhambra of Van Cleef for us, it’s an incredible classic. He was so proud and so happy of this new rejuvenation.”
II) THE LOVE STORY
Faraone Mennella and Scognamiglio’s relationship was instrumental to their professional partnership. But coming from a conservative background, it wasn’t easy for either of them to be open about their love for each other to their family.
“The best gift I ever received was when I met Roberto,” confesses Scognamiglio. “But, we were always very private about that, about our relationship. We kept it very professional. I don’t want to say it was mysterious. Since we were 20 years old, we’ve never been open about our private life. Roberto was very private and shy. Maybe he was a bit insecure about that part of his life. We never wanted to mix it with our work. Of course, when you don’t say things, people will assume. But our professional relationship was fuelled by our personal relationship.”
That relationship was even the reason why the brand was born.
“We were sitting in a coffee shop in New York on 52nd Street,” remembers Scognamiglio. “It was almost like a proposal. He had just graduated from Parsons. He had to decide about what to do with his Parsons diploma. He didn’t want to go back to Italy without me. So, he said, ‘Let’s start a company together.’ There were many reasons behind that decision, but the main one was to stay together, to not be separated. The second one was to have a shared project, just like when you start a family.”
“The Immediate Success Was Because It Was Started Out Of Love, Not A Desire For Riches”
Success was quick to come by, and a call from Sarah Jessica Parker to meet with Sex and the City stylist Patricia Field helped the brand attain global visibility. “The immediate success was because it was started out of love, not a desire for riches,” explains Scognamiglio. “It was never about the bottom line,” he adds.
Faraone Mennella’s unorthodox business approach sometimes confused more finance-minded professionals. “When we hired business people, they didn’t get it,” says Scognamiglio. “‘Why open a store in Capri when 75 per cent of your market is in the U.S.?’ they would say.”
But the reason for such a move was quite simple. “It was because we wanted to be in Capri. We wanted to spend the summer there,” laughs Scognamiglio. “It ended up being a super-smart decision. But, business people didn’t understand it.”
Equally controversial was their decision to sell more affordable versions of their jewelry on the Home Shopping Network, on cable TV. Items would retail around US$100, making them affordable to the everyday shopper, whereas the Stella used to retail for $450. “‘Why sell on QVC, on TV, while you’re doing so well at Bergdorf? You could ruin your brand,’ the business strategist would say,” remembers Scognamiglio.
“But we always did it because it connects you with the public. For example, you can sell a $100,000 necklace to one wealthy lady. But to sell 100,000 pieces in a year is better. You can collect the credit, the appreciation of a hundred thousand women. It really gives you the certainty that you’re doing something right. It doesn’t matter if it’s gold or diamond — the price is really given only by the material. All of a sudden, to have this incredible overflowing of love from women all over who appreciate our design really made it all worth it; and it never tarnished the brand.”
Pamela Fiori, the former editor-in-chief of Town & Country, saw first-hand the blossoming of both the relationship and the brand. “Roberto, Amedeo and I forged a friendship that became, as the Italians would say, ‘like family,’” she reminisces. “At first, it was strictly professional when I was editor-in-chief of Town & Country, but the more I got to know them — each in their entirely different ways — the more I learned to love them. Amedeo, gregarious and high-powered. Roberto, the quiet and self-effacing man. A perfect match. We saw each other whenever they came to New York, usually for dinner at my apartment.”
When discussing the life of Roberto Faraone Mennella, it’s impossible to avoid mentioning his dashing physical appearance. “Roberto was one of the most handsome men I ever met and totally unaware of his looks,” remembers Fiori. “Tall, elegant and unassuming, he was breathtaking. As for Roberto’s temperament, he was all sweetness and tenderness. I never heard him raise his voice or get angry. He was always calm and low-key.”
Maybe because he was an introvert, Faraone Mennella let the jewelry do the talking. “In his own discreet and creative way, he designed some of the most extraordinary jewelry I have ever seen: never garish or over the top,” approves Fiori. “It was always finely crafted and original. No one took better care of Roberto when he was ill than Amedeo. He was at his side whenever he could be and constantly in touch. There was no greater love than theirs. It was a joy to behold.”
III) AMEDEO, THE MAN AND THE STORE
Scognamiglio was the perfect partner for Faraone Mennella, because he came from a family of jewellers. “I can say I learned the basics, the fundamentals of the business, from my father and my mom,” explains Scognamiglio. “I started to work with them when I was very young, when I was 14 or 15 years old. I started in the family business, learning the craft. Then I was my father’s attaché in the early trade shows, in America, in Japan. I wasn’t even technically allowed to be in the show, since I was so young. I was in love with the business, with the sales, with being in touch with the clients.”
Scognamiglio didn’t mind starting at the bottom, and would target a wide variety of retail outlets, from Macy’s to little shops in Chinatown.
“I would go to independent retailers with a bag of jewelry, showing them the collection,” he remembers fondly. “This was before Internet. You had to deal with rejection; it was hard. But I learned the discipline from my father, and the fact that, if you do your homework, you will be OK. Seventy per cent of your business comes from the work you do in the workshop. If you produce quality, in the artisanal way, then when you go to sell, you don’t need to be an expert in sales. Your expertise is in the product.
“My father always said, ‘We are experts in cameos, that’s what we do. Yes, we have clients, but it doesn’t mean we have to sell them pearls or diamonds. You want to be their cameo guy.’ That was true. I learned customer service, how to really appreciate the partnership with retailers. When I stepped up with Faraone Mennella, it was easy to work more with department stores and fashion directors. I had so much training behind me that nothing could destroy me.”
But gaining mainstream distribution for his own brand was much harder for Scognamiglio than he initially anticipated. “When we started Faraone Mennella, we had everyone behind us, from Bergdorf to Neiman, Saks,” he explains. “For many years, we didn’t have a sales team. We didn’t need one. All the big shops would come to us. We didn’t need marketing campaigns. But, when I started to rethink the Amedeo brand in a modern way, when I approached them after all the success we had with Faraone Mennella, they’d say, ‘We’re not sure about cameos.’ They were hesitant. Roberto would get very upset about it. He was very protective of me. I said, ‘Forget it, we’ll open our own shop.’”
It turns out that opening the Amedeo store was a key step toward wooing back bigger players.
“It took a couple of months for the buyers of Bergdorf and Saks to crawl back to us, because they realized their clients were coming to our shop,” says Scognamiglio. “The CEO of Bergdorf, Jim Gold, once stopped me on the floor of Bergdorf and asked me, ‘What is this collection you have at your shop? My mom is telling me she’s coming in from Dallas to go shopping at your store!’ I said, ‘It’s our cameo collection.’ He said, ‘Why don’t we have it?’ I said, ‘Your buyers didn’t want it.’ He was fuming. That same afternoon, he sent the buyers running to my store. In a matter of two days, the collection was in Bergdorf.”
IV) OVERCOMING THE LOSS AND LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
It’s hard for people who haven’t experienced the loss of a partner to relate to what Scognamiglio went through. “I’m trying to learn in many ways, reading and listening to lectures,” he admits. After a loved one passes, acceptance is the hardest part. “I’ve been reading Dr. Brian Weiss’s book, Many Lives, Many Masters,” he explains. “My perception of life and death was already different, even when we thought Roberto was going to make it, which was until the end. I never really gave up. I’ve always been very mindful and spiritual. I feel I’ve reached my expiry date, and I’m on an extension. I perceive everything differently now. I read a lot.”
Perhaps what helped Scognamiglio the most is the knowledge that his love for Faraone Mennella was shared by so many. The fans don’t hesitate to let him know their feelings. “I’m collecting all the messages from people who dream of Roberto,” he says. “The dream is always the same; it’s Roberto giving them a message for me. After he died, I was dreading my birthday on September 3, then dreading his birthday on September 25, because we would celebrate together, the same way I dread the first Christmas and the first New Year’s Eve.”
After experiencing this heartbreaking event, Scognamiglio is focusing on compassion and generosity. “I saw so much hurt in Roberto,” he explains. “I was able to help to an extent, but not to the extent that would’ve saved him. I’m learning from that experience. I try to divert that mindfulness toward wholeness. I constantly try to learn from my mistakes. I’m so hungry for more information about consciousness and gratitude. I just go with the flow. I wake up thanking Roberto for everything he gave me. I try to make my employees happy, my clients happy, and myself and Roberto proud. In the future, I want to start a foundation for young designers and young people who aren’t appreciated by their family. In the memory of Roberto.”
Interview by Michelle Zerillo-Sosa