“I really do describe my career basically as survival,” says Leslie Tcheyan, affectionately called “che” by those who know her. “It’s really the obstacles that have forced me to constantly be creative, constantly come up with new things.”
Those “things” are beautiful pieces of jewelry designed by Leslie and sold in high-end boutiques around the city, including Blue Tree, Phoebe Cates’ store on Madison Avenue. Leslie’s company name, L’Artigiano Inc, means “the artisan,” and “that’s what I am,” she adds. In L’Artigiano’s showroom on Madison Avenue, Leslie treats us to a glittering display of her jewelry. We cannot keep our hands off of these treasures. Each one invites inspection and admiration. We try on necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and rings.
“I did unbelievably well with this necklace,” Leslie says, showing off large jade stones encased in gold vermeil (in photo above, on left). The design, however, adds to the appeal. It can be worn long, or taken apart and made into two shorter necklaces. What woman wouldn’t love this versatility? Leslie shows us a truly unique ring—four stones gently surround the finger—that she has not yet offered to stores (shown in center of photo above). She already knows she has a winner on her hand—literally-because every time she wears one of these rings, the compliments never stop. (We place our own order before we leave).
While Leslie herself loves jewelry, serving as a walking display case for her designs doesn’t come easily. There’s no doubt that she is the best advertisement for her creations. Her exotic looks, courtesy of her Armenian heritage, shows these stunning jewels to great advantage. Yet she is as genuine as the stones she incorporates into her pieces. In person she is warm, funny, and self-effacing, downplaying her incredible accomplishments. She is quick to explain most of her success to luck, but that “luck” has involved years of building contacts and learning the business from the ground up.
Born in New York, Leslie went to boarding school in Switzerland, where as “an unrestrained yet innocent young lady,” she earned the nickname “che” after the revolutionary Che Guevara. “Some friends don’t even know the name Leslie!” she says. After a senior year at Choate, she graduated from Colorado College. “My mother was raised between Geneva, Brussels and Paris,” she says. “All my family’s European, so we spent a lot of time going back and forth between Europe and the U.S.”
Leslie has two “amazing” daughters—-Octavia, works for a Manhattan architectural firm, while Thea Giulia, is a college senior. “My husband and I separated when my kids were around 10, and I raised them myself,” she says. “My life was always work and travel. Since the day the kids were born, whatever business trips I had, even when they were three months old, I dragged them with me, to India, Dubai, Lebanon, Mozambique, Turkey, Russia. All of my business trips were focused around their vacation times.”
Fluent in Spanish, French, and Italian, Leslie’s language skills would prove invaluable in her future career and led to her first job out of college, working at the United Nations for the council advocating freedom for Namibia. “No one had heard of Namibia until after Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt drew attention to it,” Leslie says. (Jolie gave birth to their daughter, Shiloh Nouvel, in Swakopmund, Namibia). During her time at the UN, Leslie traveled all around Africa and Europe. She left the UN to enter a training program at Chemical Bank, becoming a junior loan officer in the Middle East division, amassing valuable information about finance.
“I really didn’t think I was a banker and there happened to be an opening for a position at Fred Leighton,” she says. Fred Leighton’s real name was Murray Mondschein, with no background in jewelry, but a man with “an amazing eye.” Obtaining financing, Leighton traveled around the world buying estate jewelry and soon had a wealthy and famous clientele. “Imelda Marcos was our client,” Leslie recalls. “When she came in we had to close the store. In one fell swoop she would buy 60 pieces of jewelry.” When Marcos was arrested, Fred Leighton’s bills of sale were printed in the New York Times. Working at Leighton’s was a transforming experience for Leslie. “I learned a lot about running your own business, dealing with luxury items and Murray was an amazing salesperson,” she says.
When she left Leighton’s 26 years ago, Leslie opened a jewelry packaging business. “I realized there was a dearth of elegant jewelry packaging in New York,” she says. A chance encounter with a packaging manufacturer in Italy soon led to a lucrative partnership. “We went around to Harry Winston, Tiffany’s, Van Cleef & Arpels and all of the places I worked and had contacts, showing them jewelry boxes that we could do for high end jewelry,” she says. “Everyone started to order, so before I knew it, here I was in this jewelry packaging business.” The packages she shows us look more like elegant leather cases that would certainly provide a fitting container for expensive jewels.
“They weren’t for every store,” Leslie explains, “because they are expensive.” At the time she was working with the dollar against the lira, an exchange rate that was favorable. She laughs, however, when she recalls going on calls while being pregnant and suffering morning sickness. “I would go to a client and get sick,” she says, with a laugh. She also had to deal with differences in Italian and American business attitudes. “I would order blue and they would send something that was more purple and I would go, `no, blue!’ and being very Italian they would say, `it’s blue–give them a discount!’ I would say `don’t you understand—Americans don’t want a discount they want what they have ordered. They are perfecting an image.”
After supplying packaging and displays for Verdura, her progress came to the attention of the owner who recognized her international capacities and sought her help in locating skilled craftspeople capable of producing exquisite, high-end jewelry. “I started visiting very small, very high quality workshops around India, Italy, France and set up these very intimate working relationships with these companies,” she says. She continues to work with these small workshops, many located in family homes and their children are now like her own.
At the same time, Verdura asked Leslie to develop a line of silver gift items. That endeavor has also blossomed into a business for Leslie. “So I have high-end jewelry on one side, packaging on another side, gift items on another side,” she says. “Then about a year or two ago, everything started going south. Obviously luxury items were not in the forefront and I was thinking to myself, how am I going to stay in business?” Leslie set to work developing less expensive pieces, with a partner, using gold plate to bring the costs down. Selling to boutiques in the Hamptons, her new items flew out of the stores. She now works with a variety of stores as well as the Museum of Art and Design. “I don’t overlap my products at all because each store is so different and they know exactly what they want to sell,” she says.
In the past, Leslie’s business has taken her all over the world and she doesn’t expect to stop any time soon. “I’m always exploring something new,” she says. “I’ve got wanderlust. It’s hasn’t been easy, but it’s been very exciting.”
She continues: “Over the years working with different people who have taught me so much it is hard to define my business specifically. It is based on the client and what they ask for and I am just the artisan to fulfill their dreams. With such a breadth of knowledge from all my experiences—from the greatest diamond dealer to the humblest adolescent polishing a stone underground with no electricity—I am open to everything, any place, any individual any idea… My daughters like to joke that I am a hustler and any client’s challenge motivates me.”
Leslie’s mother, Adrienne, has been a valuable support system. Now a spry 91 year-old, Adrienne helps out with deliveries. “She set the bar very high,” says Leslie. “At 91, her intelligence, her vision, her support, her generosity, her wit, are still way ahead of any of my accomplishments. The refrain from my childhood was `boring people have boring lives…so that’s why I am what I am!”
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: EN Japanese Brasserie, 435 Hudson Street
Favorite Place to Shop: My mother’s closet (she was one of
Balenciaga’s first clients)
Favorite New York Sight: Central Park Gates by Jean Claude Christo and The
Waterfalls by Olafur Eliasson
Favorite New York Moment: My night in the Tombs
What You Love About New York: So much to do
What You Hate About New York: Too much to do