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When I was a little girl, I had a fake pearl necklace my mom gave me as part of my Halloween costume. Laid against my neck, the pearls were giant and looked like iridescent, white gumballs. I loved them, the way they reflected the light and how perfectly round each sphere was – the way pearls should be … right? Not quite.
Maris Pearl Co., an online jewelry studio specializing in naturally-shaped pearls, is founded, run and inspired by women. Due to the natural shape of the brand’s freshwater pearls, no two pieces are perfectly round or perfectly identical — and that's exactly what makes them special. I had the privilege of speaking to the woman behind it all, Stephanie Maris Hicks ahead of World Ocean Day. Dive deeper into the brand below.
Stephanie, you describe yourself as a storyteller. How did that help you get started with Maris Pearl Co.?
SMH: “I started my career in story-telling as a journalist in Toronto, sitting in on beauty and wellness desksides. I listened to dozens of pitches every day and I loved that it was my job to tell those stories. As time went by, I became fascinated by the idea of communications on a global scale, and the skills needed to understand and translate stories into different international communities.
I went back to school to pursue my master’s in global marketing, and moved to Hong Kong shortly after I graduated to start a new chapter of my career. I continued to tell stories, but instead of it being on the journalism side, I worked alongside companies all over the world to tell their stories through branding and marketing. I believe that beautiful branding is a form of storytelling. To get people to feel something and to remember something is the core of what makes someone a good storyteller.”
What’s the story behind Maris?
SMH: “'Maris means 'of the sea' in Latin. It’s my maiden name, and a reminder of my family's Greek island heritage. It’s a Maris family tradition to give back to our ancestral island of Andros, Greece. It began with my grandparents, who founded a school for the island's children that my family still supports today. I knew that I wanted to give back to the island in some way, and that I wanted to do this through ocean conservation. I was passionate about marine biology, but my skill was in storytelling and communications, so I knew that I would create the largest impact by building a brand that would connect the two.
I was living in Hong Kong at the time, and so I was surrounded by the beautiful pearl culture of Asia. I spent a lot of my free time scouring the pearl markets in the name of research. The traditional standard for pearls has always favored a perfectly round, perfectly symmetrical gemstone, but I had always preferred a more natural, baroque shape. That’s when I saw the opportunity for Maris to sell naturally shaped pearls — pearls shaped by water, not by man — that would give back to the sea.”
So what was the “right time” for you to get started?
SMH: “It’s funny because it felt almost like the universe had its own plans for me. Back when I was still working the agency-life, I injured my knee and ended up bed bound for months. I physically couldn’t go back to working at an office and every time I tried to rejoin the traditional workforce, my knee would relapse and I’d find myself recovering from yet another surgery. It was actually my husband who looked at me one day and said that maybe this was the ideal opportunity to finally build the brand I had been dreaming of.”
You’ve described the starting days of building Maris as “jumping off a cliff and learning how to build the plane as you go.” What do you mean by that?
SMH: “When I first envisioned myself being a founder, I thought all I needed to do was craft the product and tell our story. Of course, I had to learn all of the other things that were involved in creating the actual business – like getting a tax license, figuring out the supply chain and finding a sustainable pearl farm to partner with that had similar values to the brand I was building. None of those things were fun or glamorous, nor did I have any experience with it, but that’s just part of the entrepreneur journey.
I also wanted to learn everything that I could about pearls, beyond just loving them aesthetically. I wanted to become an expert so that I could ensure that every single pearl was hand-selected to meet a signature standard for Maris. I studied to earn my diploma first from the Gemological Institute of America's pearl graduate program, followed by accreditation as a licensed pearl specialist from the International Gem Society.
As I studied, I was surprised to discover that though pearls come in a myriad of shapes, the jewelry industry really does prize symmetrical, spherical, identical pearls. I couldn't understand why we were forcing such industrial standards on the world's most natural gemstone, so I decided to use my studio as a platform to introduce the world to the unique beauty of naturally-shaped pearls.”
Tell me more about Maris’ focus on ocean conversation and how it’s a core pillar of your brand.
SMH: “In 2018, we announced our official partnership with Athens-based NGO Aegean Rebreath. Aegean Rebreath was founded with the primary goal of helping Greek seas breathe again through the collection, recycling and upcycling of marine litter. We pledge 5% of our total sales to support their initiatives in the Mediterranean.
While this partnership represents a huge part of our business (it’s where the majority of our profits go), our sustainability initiatives don’t stop there. For example, we recently switched over to using algae-based ink, instead of ink pigments made with oil or petroleum.
We live on an island, which means that I spend a lot of time in the water. I get a lot of my inspiration when I free dive, both positive and negative. One of my favorite places to swim is alongside a sea wall here on O‘ahu, which due to the current, acts as a gathering place for seashells. The currents also mean that it is a gathering place for marine debris, like pieces of plastic and tangled fishing nets. Our next collection draws inspiration from this marine pollution. I hope to use it as a beautiful way to raise awareness about an ugly problem.
Ocean conservation is at the core of what we do: from monthly donations, to the aesthetic of our pieces, to the content we produce. Everything that we do is very intentional; it all tells the same story.”
Is there a specific type of person you design for?
SMH: “Pearls have always been an emblem of the woman I aspired to be: timelessly elegant; magically beautiful and an inspiring reminder to be your own muse in a world so focused on the superﬁcial. I truly believe pearls are for every woman.
Our new line of solid gold pieces are created for people looking to start collecting heirloom pieces that will stand the test of time. (And for people like me, who always seem to be jumping into the ocean without taking off their jewelry). If you’re just getting started, studs are a beautiful way to incorporate pearls, either one piece or multiple stacked together. I think a lot of people immediately think of Audrey Hepburn and her pearls, something only suited for a black-tie event but actually, pearls can be fun and playful for everyday as well.
We actually have customers reach out to ask us to specially curate pieces for them. And we love doing that.”
What’s next for you and Maris?
SMH: “We live on a blue planet, and there is so much to be done to keep it that way. I hope to grow Maris into multiple locations in key coastal cities worldwide, each partnering with a different local NGO to amplify our efforts.
This is what I’m here to do and this is my life’s work. When you think of Maris, I want you to think of us as an ocean brand first, knowing and loving us not only for our beautiful pearls, but for our commitment to marine conservation. I want the term a ‘Maris Pearl’ to mean the most sustainably and ethically sourced pearl on the planet – and for that to be the new industry standard.”
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