Ian Charms founder Lisa Sahakian (Photo by Katie Thiel)
MUSIC EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS

Lisa Sahakian: An Ian Charms Kinda Life

In August 2020, Lisa Sahakian accidentally launched Ian Charms. The jewelry empire has organically infiltrated celebrity culture, making for an unlikely presence at Coachella. Here’s how it all weaves together.

Ian Charms co-founder Lisa Sahakian is driving to Big Sur from her Los Angeles home. The destination is “very much not my style,” but one week removed from the opening weekend of 2022 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the 28-year-old needs some space.

“My birthday is Monday,” Sahakian tells Boardroom over the phone while en route, “so I’m going with my friend, Sasha, and unplugging and relaxing for once in my life. A detox from Coachella is so needed — it’s not even funny.”

The three-day festival served as the apex of what’s been a wild two years for Sahakian. Since Sahakian decided to bead a charm necklace as a birthday gift for her boyfriend, Max Riddle, in August 2020, the volume of A-list stars choosing to rock Ian Charms of their own volition is overwhelming. While Doja Cat didn’t perform her Coachella set in the sold-out “ratty” necklace, it dangled from her neck in a pool shortly beforehand.

The celebrity-fueled wildfire started with Dua Lipa and “the danili” in December 2020. And then came the likes of Pete Davidson, Justin and Hailey Bieber, BLACKPINK’S Jennie Kim, Olivia Rodrigo, The Kid LAROI, Lorde, Maluma, and so many more. Sahakian was working as a reality television producer before accidentally launching music‘s favorite jewelry brand, making it her full-time job in February 2021, so it’s also worth noting that Real Housewife Kyle Richards is a fan.

Any given customer’s fame index is certainly not Sahakian’s primary gauge for worth, though. This is a family business, starting with the obvious fact that she runs it with Max from their apartment.

The name “Ian Charms” is an homage to Sahakian’s Armenian heritage. The “danili” necklace is derived from hers, her brother’s, and her father’s middle names. Her mother often comes by the apartment to help bead necklaces. Her father’s beloved Ferrari Testarossa inspired the red-hot “michael shirt” worn first by LAROI in Las Vegas last October.

Sahakian’s life looks completely different since her last birthday, let alone 2019. She chatted with Boardroom about Ian Charms’ triumphant and totally organic Coachella debut, what it meant to her family, and what it signifies for her DIY passion project-turned-booming business.

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MEGAN ARMSTRONG: Before we get to Coachella, I feel like The Kid LAROI is your unofficial poster boy right now — and officially your cover boy.

The Kid LAROI attends the 64th Annual GRAMMY Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena wearing Ian Charms. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

LISA SAHAKIAN: I know! He just released a music video yesterday, and he’s wearing three different necklaces in it, which is just amazing.

MA: I saw the “Thousand Miles” music video. He’s wearing an Ian Charms custom pendant. What was in the pendant?

LS: The pendant has [in it] his very close friend from childhood that he grew up in the projects with who died recently. His girlfriend reached out maybe six months ago, and she was like, “I want to get him one with him in the pendant, and I want to do the charms as the different colors that he had.”

He’s worn it, like, every day. He got it repaired. His photographer is my friend Adam [Kargenian], and he came over and brought the necklace to readjust the pendant. LAROI FaceTimed Adam while he was [at my house] and said hi and thanked me and was like, “This is my favorite gift I’ve ever gotten.” It was just so cute.

MA: You have clothes in the metaverse, too, don’t you?

LS: Yes! The CEO [Akash Nigam] has gotten a billion customs and gets all these customs for his office. He owns this company called Genies, which is an avatar world that they’re kind of moving into fashion — avatar fashion.

He’s wild. He’s very into tech. Pro startup. Super excited, high-energy. His dad started WebMD, so he just starts companies, and Genies really hit. He loved Ian Charms, so we were the first people that he did a digital line with.

What we designed for them is drawn from our physical clothes, but not exactly the same. It has a lot of the simpler imagery. Those clothes they sold to their beta group of people that are on there, they sold out within three minutes, I think. And then, our physical clothes — our original versions of [the digital line] that are a little bit different — will probably be selling in a month.

MA: All of this before I even ask you a question about Coachella. Growing up in California, how many Coachellas have you been to as just a fan?

LS: I mean, in college I must have gone every year. I know one year, I went for two weekends. I’ve been to six or seven at this point. In college, I used to sneak into the festival. So, this was the first year being able to walk in with a pass.

MA: Other than walking in with the pass, how did you experience Coachella differently this year than in the past?

LS: It was such a work trip, which was sort of expected, but not to this extent. I feel like such an unknown when I’m there normally because there’s a billion people, and also, I’ve only ever been in GA. You’re just lost in a swarm of people and then the three people you came with, and it’s almost like the scariest thing is being alone. Normally, the thing is you don’t want to end up alone.

This time, it was almost the opposite. I felt like I couldn’t go a few minutes of walking through either VIP or artist areas without stopping. Talking with a client or seeing someone who’s wearing my pieces, who came up and said hi, or just other people that own small businesses that I’ve become friends with. It was kind of shocking to someone so antisocial — how many people I now know.

MA: Who were you most surprised that approached you to say something to you?

LS: Chris Klemens had called me over, and I didn’t realize that he knew what I looked like, so that was surprising. He was with FINNEAS and Claudia [Sulewski], FINNEAS’s girlfriend, and [Klemens] was cool enough to just shove me in there with him and be like, “Oh, do you guys know Ian Charms?” I was able to give Claudia her two pieces, which was really cool. Billie [Eilish] is one of my people I definitely want to see in Charms, so being in her vicinity was good.

MA: You mention Billie, so you may have already answered this, but which Coachella headliner do you think is most likely to turn up photographed wearing Ian Charms next?

LS: My dream would be Billie, but I know that Harry Styles loves pearls and charms, so that’s also a possibility. But I’ve always just thought Billie was so cool. And actually, because I worked with her stylist with LAROI, I feel like I could be able to get her something soon. That would be sick. Hopefully, she sees Claudia’s, and Claudia likes it and wears it. So I think [Billie], but then non-headliner, I really want to get one to Phoebe Bridgers.

MA: Did you have an actual pop-up on the grounds, or did all of these people — the Riverdale cast, Justine Skye, Tyga — all just coincidentally and organically wear Ian Charms throughout the weekend?

LS: I had no pop-up. Nothing. It was all very coincidental. Sometimes, I would see a group of people — like four people — and all of them would be in Ian Charms, and then they would stop me. The coolest thing was seeing customers who bought customs from when I was still at my old job, so the beads were ones that I don’t even use anymore. The fact that [the beads are] still holding up, and they’re like, “I wear this every day.” I saw my chiropractor there in Charms. It was crazy that so many people who have them were wearing them and stopped me to say hi and were so excited. It was awesome.

MA: It’s so ironic to me that there are all these huge brands activations that spent who knows how much money to attract people, and then you had people just organically walking around everywhere in Ian Charms without having to convince them to buy in at all.

LS: I know! It was actually crazy because we didn’t even really push anything. Obviously, we didn’t pay anyone to wear anything or didn’t really try much to get necklaces on people, and we have so much content from the first weekend. Like, we have content for like six months now. Honestly.

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MA: Ian Charms is so viral in nature, and it took off during the pandemic, so was Coachella your first experience physically seeing this amount of people wearing your pieces?

LS: For sure. A thousand percent. The second day, I had walked in with Max, and it had been five minutes. I was like, “God, it’s so weird. I haven’t seen Charms yet.”

It honestly surprised me because Friday, the first day, was so crazy. I was like, “Maybe people just wore them the first day.” Literally, the second I finished talking, two people saw me, and they were both wearing their [necklaces] that they had gotten forever ago.

MA:  How do you experience being surrounded by all these massive brands with unlimited budgets as a small business owner who has done this completely DIY?

LS: It’s definitely aspirational, in some ways. I really want to put on an event, and I want it to be nothing like any of these. They’re all in the same vein. I was just thinking of how I’ve marketed, what Ian Charms is about, and how that translates to an event.

I would want to make it so it’s not like, oh, you get a ticket because you know someone. First off, you can only get in if you have Ian Charms. You have to find out about it in some secret way. Like, it’s a surprise. It’s the day-of. I was thinking, there’s so many ways to translate the chaos that we have in the company to events that isn’t really done often.

I think it’s a good way to get attention when you can’t afford to rent out the most expensive house in the desert and have all these ridiculous, crazy activations and alcohol. There’s almost a cooler way to do this that’s DIY and way more scrappy.

MA: What about your experience at Coachella inspired something for Ian Charms that you can apply more immediately than an event?

LS: Well, something I realized is how cult-y and personal a small business is compared to a bigger brand. I was telling this to Max: There’s so many brands right now that are exploding, but I could be walking around here and have no idea who actually makes that stuff. I would never recognize them. Part of a small business that is so helpful for marketing is the really personal connection you’re able to have with people, especially our business where we’re making them customs and getting to know them. I was realizing, how can we take advantage of that more?

We have this super personal connection with people that big brands literally can’t have — they pass the point of having that. How do we keep that as part of the culture, no matter how big we get? Someone would stop me [at Coachella], and they’d have the “rio” necklace. They’d be like, “I got the one Bieber has!” It’s so cool that people recognize it as the one he wears and felt a [personal attachment].

We just started text activation, and it’s a really small list of people on it. You get very distinct perks from it. People saw me and were like, “Hey, I signed up for texts, and I’m dying. They’re hilarious.” They’re very weird, like, inappropriate texts. It was really cool that people were telling me they really connect with the way that we use texting. It’s really different than any other brand. We were able to do that with something that’s so boring normally and literally so annoying. Like, nothing’s more annoying than getting a text from a brand — even if you signed up for it. Having everything be so personal between us and our audience creates this connection that’s so much stronger than these larger businesses. That’s so much more important than getting the biggest people to wear your stuff.

MA:  You initially started beading as a stress reliever while watching reality television. How are you managing this transition from stress-relieving hobby to stress-inducing, in-demand business?

LS: I’m very resistant to that very obvious transition that has already happened. My team is constantly telling me, honestly, that I need to stop beading. They’re like, “Unless it’s literally mindless while you’re watching TV, you have such bigger-picture things to push forward and so many bigger responsibilities.” I feel like that’s why I’m actually doing more customs for people. It’s my way of still being creative and feeling like it’s still the first week that I’m doing it.

It’s an uncomfortable transition for me because I didn’t expect to ever have to let [beading] go. But realistically, for the brand to grow and thrive and continue to change and evolve, I can’t just be beading 24/7. It’s something I’ve had to let go of, and I realized the more I hold onto it, the more stressful my life becomes. It’s a transition I’m in the middle of.

MA: As this thing balloons out into so many different directions, how are you making sure that everything goes back to your family and where it all began?

LS: You know, The New York Times article came out the day before Coachella. That was just this really crazy moment for my parents. It made both of them cry, which I had literally never seen my dad cry in my life, and my parents read it while they were waiting at my dad’s physical therapy for PSP [progressive supranuclear palsy], the illness he has. That was this really crazy moment where I was like, Wow, my life has changed so much. My family is dealing with so much, and yet, this is able to provide us with the smallest amount of joy.

My parents and I have a really hard time getting excited about things, with everything going on with my dad. Knowing that everyone was so excited — my mom went to the newsstand and bought six newspapers and sent me a photo and she’s crying in it.

And even so much of the clothing — we ordered more of the Ferrari shirts because people were really liking that and that just ties so much to my dad. Seeing that they can feel so represented and they’re so proud makes it all worth it. It is honestly getting us through this really hard time, especially for me. I can’t even begin to describe where I’d be at if I was at a normal job right now and not working for myself and not doing something personal. It’s so vindicating.

MA: On that note, looking toward the future, what about Ian Charms gives you the most hope?

LS: I’m excited for collaborations. The thing that gives me the most hope is it’s so cool to be in a space where I have the opportunity to not only make things that I love but that resonate with other people. And so, because it’s so personal, because we’re so close with our customers, it really has expanded my whole life.

So many people that weren’t in my life before and are in it now because of Ian Charms have really changed my life and been such positive influences. They are the people that I really lean on — for work and completely personal things. For the first time, I’m finding people that really understand me, whether that’s a customer or another business owner. I just feel really understood during a really difficult, confusing time for me where I actually end up feeling pretty alone.

[Ian Charms] being something I didn’t even realize could bring people close together — and in such a happy, funny, DGAF way — is really hopeful for me. If this is the darkest time ever and I’m really getting through it with this business, and other people tell me that they get through whatever they’re going through because of their personal necklace that we made together, that’s such a cool thing to have when it’s really hard to have authentic connections right now.

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