Free as a Catbird

Eleanor Kirby

Named after the Catbird, a species of bird named for its “mewing” call, founder Rony Vardi was searching for a name that “could evolve as the store does”. “I have an antique Audubon print with birds of the Northeast on it, the Catbird is there looking sassy with its tail sticking up, I thought it was a nice name with nice connotations”. Pairing the slender silhouette of a cat with the astute eye of a bird lends itself well to those attracted to the aesthetics of the brand.

The image of either species encapsulated by the brand’s name feel a little at odds with the backdrop of New York at its tail. Catbird’s beauty buyer and co-creative director, Leigh Plessner, looks to one of New York’s most famous pets: “I think of Cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; this idea of transience and being free, belonging to no one. But really, once you’re a New Yorker, cat or otherwise, it’s hard to undo”, adding that “we really love our Bodega cats”, a symbol of pussy power as sacrilege as the sphynx.
A heady mix of a “percolating” dream, a “very busted salon closing (it was actually a drug front!)” and a rent controlled apartment saw the first incarnation of Catbird open in 2004. Living up to Leigh’s motto that the brand is “feline in our playfulness and grace, though quite canine in our enthusiasms and love for treats”, Rony says the first few months were met with wide-eyes, “I was probably way too excited when anyone bought something: ‘Oh, I love that!!’ – which was always true, since I had selected it – but I probably could have chilled out a bit”.
Met with a question about visual inspiration, Leigh looks beyond, to words, “ I love to find little bits in books about jewelry, those descriptions by the masters of small details of their characters are rich launching off points”, adding how moving an experience “the small punctuation points that a gold chain or simple ring can provide”.
The road from language and gilt apostrophes must be trodden somehow; Leigh translates the execution of their jewellery, or “sparkly air, as we like to call it”, with their own line acting as the foundation for construction. “Our palette is so specific, so maybe we want something thicker than a Tomboy [ring], or like an Angel’s Hair [necklace] but longer… We then take that to Liz, our in-house jewellery designer, who translates the hand gestures and vagueness” to fit the braille of the body.
Self confessing, “We sell nothing essential!”, Leigh speaks of the natural glide from jewellery to beauty products, “From the very beginning, Rony carried Italian rosewater, we carry only very beautiful, very special, deeply desirable items that allow for pleasure”. While it could be mistaken for decadence, the commitment to ethical manufacturing is seduced effectively, “We vet our sources before we get into bed with them, we have gotten wiser, but the companies we were sourcing our gold from were already in compliance with recycled and fairtrade supervision”.
The graduation from fledgling to flagship was realised in 2006 when the brand moved to its physical storefront on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg; book-ended with a refurbishment this past June, “led by an all female design and architecture team”, the library of designs were added to with Catbird’s first engagement collection, The Swans, which scatters cultural clues with “instant heirlooms” like The Odile, of the more familiar, and The Leda, a subject in Greek Mythology whom is seduced by Zeus (taking the form of a swan).
Pairing the whimsy of the rose cut with a mounting of reference to repel the staid, the team sought to “find the balance between classic and Catbird” with a collection that came to be “a really important milestone for our studio (and 23 jewellers!). They are the nucleus of who we are, it’s exciting to be able to dive into new projects with them”.
Leigh’s advice to anyone looking to choose an engagement ring is earnest in tone, following the same guidelines applied to the process of forming the designs, “Tell us everything you love about [them]”, with books and movies (and a healthy Instagram stalk) being the key indicators, a readymade visual helps to pair ring with finger.
Outnumbered three to two (Rony and Leigh share a gang of cats between them), and with the Swans representing the bird in Catbird, the felines have to have their own mascot.
Born from the mind of one of Catbird’s designers, Hortense (a Parisian native), Leigh notes, “We thought it was only right to name the collection of tiny kittens with diamonds in their ears after the fanciest French kitten we could think of – Karl Lagerfeld’s prized Birman, Choupette”.
A French term for endearment, Choupette’s New York cousins come in the form of Rony’s rescue tabbies, Easy (“Who was called Yeezy when we adopted him, but, umm, no”), Roosevelt, rescued from Roosevelt avenue, and Leigh’s street kitten, Coral – “She likes to sleep in Dior shoe boxes and hit me when I fish around in my closet”. They have more in common than first realised.
Forget breakfast at Tiffany’s, we recommend wetting your appetite in Willamsburg at Catbird instead.