Jia - Jia


Rose Castillo-Komoda
Stefania Curto

Living in her truth, following her intuition with an open heart guides how Jia-Jia Zhu lives her life, one that is deeply rooted in joy, and family.

The journey of motherhood and entrepreneurship were parallel for Jia - Jia Zhu, designer of her eponymous jewelry brand. Read on to discover how she found her way to entrepreneurship, the tenets that guide her life and business, and the beautiful way she reminds herself and her daughter that the guidance we seek is often within ourselves.
Rose: Tell us about your upbringing and the experiences that have influenced who you are today.

Jia-Jia: Growing up in Shanghai, my family had this close-knit all hands on deck culture — I was raised by everyone really, my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We were all really close. This sense of community has had a strong influence on who I am today and how I’ve shaped my life, my family and how I’ve built my own community.

When my family moved to the US, we didn’t come with much. My parents didn’t speak English, they worked very hard taking on any job they could; the typical immigrant story, but one that’s really shaped who I am today. We lived with my grandparents who helped to raise me while my parents worked multiple jobs. At nights my parents would go to English class and I would always tag along, finding any excuse to spend time with them. 

Seeing the grit that my parents had at such an early age, and how they never gave up, instilled the notion in me that if you put the work in it will always be possible to achieve your dreams, that the possibilities are endless.

Take us through your career journey. What was the catalyst for the change from fashion to jewelry design?

I moved to NYC knowing I wanted to be in the fashion industry. At 18, I started interning at Conde Nast, Gucci — all these different large-scale companies in order to learn everything I could to figure out what I wanted to do. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to become a buyer. I studied economics and art and felt like becoming a merchant and a buyer was the best way to blend all of that together.  

I started at the Macy’s buying program, which was great because up until that point I had only worked in the luxury sector so it was good for me to get another perspective. From there I went to SAKS Fifth Avenue and after a few really good years there, I moved on to Bergdorf Goodman (BG) to be the women’s contemporary buyer on their 5th floor. That was an incredible experience. At BG you really learn how to become an entrepreneur and an owner of your own business. It was there that I had my first experience in jewelry and built some great businesses in the jewelry category. I did not know then that this would lead me to where I am now.

After a few great years at BG, I decided that it was time for me to take a break. I loved everyone that I worked with, I loved my friends and the community in New York City that I built, but I reached the point where I wanted to do something different for myself and to pursue something new.

On change and following her intuition…

I was almost 30 and had not really stopped working since moving to New York. I was really into reading horoscopes and astrology and I realized that it was my Saturn returns; when you move into the next phase of your life. I loved yoga and I was trying to get into a more holistic lifestyle, but it was really hard for me to do so in NY. So I decided to take a one-year sabbatical and ended up moving to Bali. 

It was a very hard change for me because all I knew was the hustle of working in the corporate world of New York City. Once in Bali I dove into yoga, meditation, and holistic living. It’s really easy to do that there because those aspects are the pillars of how people live there. I became vegan and stopped drinking alcohol. Eventually I became a yoga teacher and I studied meditation – I would meditate two hours a day with my teachers. That spurred a lot of change in me. Intuitively I felt that these were the right things to do and I felt incredibly alive and different. I began to live a life with an open heart and less dominated by a thinking mind. It wasn’t so heavy anymore. I was intentionally following my joy and practicing intuition.

What was it like to give yourself the space and room to pause and be with yourself during your time in Bali? Why was this time necessary for your growth?

At the time, I knew that I needed a change but I was still very scared to make that move. I think that’s a very natural thing — change is scary. Intuitively, in my gut, I knew I was ready but in my mind I was really scared. I think that’s where it’s really easy to get caught up and be like, “Okay, I’m not gonna go with that change and just stay with the status-quo and what I know.” But I just knew I had to do it. I was reading a lot of books at the time, and I just knew spiritually that it was the right thing to do for my spirit and to take care of myself in that way. I owe so much of that to yoga and to meditation. It was the moments that I was the most still and most quiet that I received the most information

What led you to crystals?

I was meditating and doing a lot of yoga — learning from my teachers. I met a woman who showed me how to work with crystals. I would meditate in her center and build crystal grids. This gets a little woo woo, but this really happened. I was meditating a lot and I got a vision, I unlocked my third eye, my intuition. I was fully awake, and I started seeing really intense colors. I had a vision to share my learnings and I felt immense joy, gratitude, love, safety and openness. That’s what initially inspired me and led me to crystals. 

I’m someone who loves to dive deep into my interests and go straight to the source, so when my year in Bali was up, I booked a flight to Tucson, Arizona and started meeting with miners, and gemologists. I ended up meeting a gentleman who gifted me a tray of crystals after I shared my journey and what led me to Tucson. He handed me the crystals, and said “Go see what you can make with these ''. They were the clearest crystals and the most beautiful things I had ever seen. At that point I didn’t know that I would be doing jewelry yet, but these crystals became the pillars of my business and how we started. 

What inspired you to create Jia Jia ?

I knew I wanted to share my experience and story of what initially led me to crystals — to follow our hearts, follow our joy, and to touch the earth and be one with nature. Energetically there’s so much information and beauty within them. They come from the earth, they’re a million years old, and they’re formed through the ups and downs of nature, which is like a mirror of our daily lives. 

It was really important for me to maintain the energy of the crystals. I wanted people to be able to feel and access the energy and natural beauty of the crystals. Once I figured out that I wanted to make jewelry, I was very specific in how I wanted them to be showcased. I wanted to keep them all one of a kind and special as they come out of the earth — I didn’t want to use any glue. There weren’t a lot of jewelers that wanted to work with me because it is a lot of work to create something so simple but I eventually found someone who supported my mission and helped make my first designs. That’s how it started. 

All of our crystal quartz are one-of-a-kind. None of them are cut or polished; all we do is cleanse them with water when they come out of the earth. Every single piece is hand grooved, there’s no glue to hold anything together. We custom handset each piece with gold; all made by hand in New York. The intent behind this process is to maintain the natural energy and history of the crystals our earth has created.

On how we started…

I previously worked with Elizabeth Von Der Goltz while I was at BG. She had since become the chief merchant at Net-A-Porter and sent one of her buyers to look at our collection. They loved it as soon as they saw it and launched me as one of their first jewelry designers in The Vanguard, which is a global mentorship program for young designers. When we launched most of our products sold within a week. Mind you while all of this was happening, I was pregnant, and it was during Covid. It was a pretty wild ride!

Tell us about the journey that led you to become an entrepreneur? What gave you the confidence to pursue this path?

My dad is an entrepreneur, a risk taker, and has a lot of confidence in what he does — he’s a huge influence in my life. I’ve seen my parents work incredibly hard, overcome language barriers, endure difficult times, and make it through. Seeing what my parents achieved empowered me and gave me confidence.

What limiting beliefs did you have to free yourself from and what did you have to surrender to?

The belief that no one was going to like what I was making or my designs. That’s still a challenge that I deal with everyday. There’s always that fear of putting myself out there, which I’m constantly working on.

Surrendering to reality can sometimes be challenging for me. I am naturally a quick thinker and result driven and there is an element of timing in life. Being an entrepreneur has taught me to surrender, to be present to the moment and not be tied to expectations or outcomes. Anything and everything can change in an instant.

"I knew I wanted to share my experience and story of what initially led me to crystals — to follow our hearts, follow our joy, and to touch the earth and be one with nature."
Are there women who played a pivotal role in your journey?

There’s a whole list of women who have supported me throughout my journey, both in my professional and personal life. I’m trying to find the right way to say this, to really honor them, but I truly could not do it without them, and I have so much gratitude. 

My mom has been there from day one, taking care of my daughter while I did things for my business. My parents and partner helped me pack up orders and launch an entire home goods business. We were running everything out of our garage and my house turned into a warehouse. We couldn’t hire anyone outside of our immediate family because I just had a baby and it was the height of covid. 

I also have this incredible group of friends. During the pandemic, we all moved on with our lives to some extent, starting our own families. Recently, however, we all spent a week together and it was such an incredibly healing experience. We’re wired a certain way and going through the motions of life and our bodies are experiencing things that men don’t and can’t. There is a huge acceptance in reality that comes with that. Being able to connect and relate, and to get the support that I need as a woman, from a woman, is important. 

Most of my buyers and merchants are also women. Being in meetings and appointments with them, and having this connection is really great. The intention of my designs are to help women feel good in their daily life, and to follow their joy and hearts, and I think they really connect to that.

There’s an element of motherhood and entrepreneurship that a lot of people don’t talk about; that while it can be an incredible experience, it can also be very isolating. It’s really important to have a strong community of people to talk to and be vulnerable with — I’m grateful that I have an incredible network of women who support me. 

Now that I have a daughter myself, it’s so important to expose her to this group of women and the stories of how we’ve all supported each other – because children learn through mirroring. They learn through how you act, how you take care of yourself and who your community is. They take it all in, they see it, and feel it all at a very early age. I’m really, really grateful for all of these incredible, cool women in her life.

In what ways has motherhood expanded the way in which you view yourself?

Motherhood has really changed my life, for the best. You always hear about it, but now experiencing it, I feel like life has just started. I love being a mom, it’s expanded my life, it really is the best thing in the world. It’s given me empowerment, purpose, and strength — things that I knew I had, but on a whole new level.

I’m always wanting to be the best version of myself, but I am going to make mistakes. Sometimes I have motherly guilt. It's then learning how am I going to forgive myself — how am I going to accept the things that I can’t control. That’s the reality. At the end of the day, my daughter is going to see how I react to things, how I handle guilt, how I handle the challenging things in life. I’m this free spirit, my friends are like, “You just go to the beat of your drums, you do whatever you want at your own time.” It’s not like that anymore. Motherhood has also taught me discipline, time blocking and prioritization. She’s my number one priority, so how am I going to structure my life around her? I’m extremely lucky that I can do this so it’s important I do it.

What has been the most unexpected lesson that being a mother has taught you?

The whole experience: the feelings, the connection, the challenges, the empowerment, navigating my instincts through all the opinions out there on parenting. 

What I’ve learned from the unexpected, is to not have expectations. Every child is so different, they go at the beat of their own drums. My responsibility is to guide and give them the unconditional love that they deserve. That’s going to be the best spiritual work for me as a human, as a mother on this earth. It’s been the biggest gift.

What have you learned from your daughter?

She’s my biggest teacher. She has taught me presence on a whole new level. Life, in general, is fast. As an entrepreneur and business owner, there are always things that need to get done. As a society we are really forward looking and not as much present facing. 

Atlas always brings me back to the present. When I'm with Atlas, I’m with Atlas — I’m not going to multitask when I’m with her. We play together, we go on walks together. She has really shown me how important it is to stay in the present and that spills into other areas of my life.

Tell us the story behind your daughter’s name.

I love traveling. Seeing the world has opened my eyes to a lot of things, and it’s through my travels that I’ve learned the most. From a spiritual perspective, I wanted my daughter to know that she will always be guided by the universe, by the world, and to always look within herself. She’ll always have the answers, and even if she doesn’t, she’ll always have the world and the community that she’s built around her. I wanted her to know that the map, the atlas, is always within her; that she embodies it.

Are there tenets that guide your life?

Beauty, love and truth — these are tenets that I want to share with my daughter.

Beauty — to live a beautiful life that makes you feel good where you find joy in even the smallest  ordinary everyday things. 

Love — to live with an open heart. Surround yourself with a community that supports you and lifts you up, people that you can truly be vulnerable with. 

Truth — to live an honest life. This is really important to me and spills into my business. We’re really honest with the process, how we make things, and how we source materials.

Who inspires you?

At the present, it’s my daughter Atlas. She inspires me in all parts of my life.

How do you respond to difficult moments in your life?

That’s always been a challenge for me and a constant work in progress. Right now, I think the most powerful thing is reflection, and speaking with my higher power. That could have a different meaning for everyone. Some people say their higher power is God. For me it’s that inner voice that just knows the answer; we all have the answers within ourselves, if we really take the time to stop and reflect.

It’s also really important to reach out for support if you’re feeling stuck. I am so grateful and lucky that I have this incredible group of women that truly support me. I like to call them “my team” — my community, my village. I can give them a call, or shoot them a text and they are there to guide me through whatever I’m facing.

How do you tap into your joy in daily life?

At the moment, it’s hanging out with Atlas and my dog. Having meals together, being with my family. I’m getting back to yoga, practicing self-care and being in touch with my friends. 

What does it mean for you to chase your sunshine? How does it manifest in your life?

For me, it is following your heart and listening to it. Living your life intentionally and being in your truth. That’s easier said than done; it also comes with a lot of fear, and it’s a constant work in progress but living this way is really important. 

It’s manifesting in my life because I’m living it, I was able to build my business around it. Every single part of my business that has done well happened because I followed my heart. It’s funny because following your heart is always met with fear, and it’s when I’m able to move past my fears, it all works out — the good, the bad, everything.

An insight to those who are in pursuit of their sunshine and a life that makes them whole?

Be in the present. Enjoy life.