I am the epitome of the American dream,” Natalie Mills says while discussing her plans to take the nation’s fashion jewelry industry by storm. “No dream is too big, as long as you are willing to work for it.”
As a native of South Africa, who, in 2016, relocated with her family to Plano, she largely credits a combination of street smarts and good old-fashioned gumption for propelling her to household-name status back home with Crystal Creations by Natalie Mills, the jewelry company she founded in 2012.
In February, she officially launched the company stateside under the new brand name “Natalie Mills.” She designs its thousands of glittering pieces, including bracelets, rings, necklaces, earrings and watches that range in price from $30-$350 and are available at nataliemills.com. “Anything my name is attached to is my baby,” she says. “It is all in your soul, and your soul has to go through to what you touch. That is the only way you are going to deliver excellence — if you have that pride and passion within.”
Some of the pieces, including the elegant Plexiglass Aytan bracelet from the Natalie Mills Floating Crystal collection, feature Swarovski® crystals. The transparent quality lends to her idea “that there is beauty within, as well. It is not just on the surface. This is a literal transcending of that. It is art. It is exquisite,” Ms. Mills shares. Ms. Mills is known in South Africa as the “Southern Glam Girl.” She shares, “I am very true to my brand. I am very true to the design and the feel of the pieces.”
Ms. Mills, 38, says deals have already been made with national U.S. retailers to begin selling her jewelry. Her company also plans to open its own upscale stand-alone boutiques and eventually will expand its line to include chic handbags it also sells in South Africa.
Ms. Mills’ love of jewelry and her desire to become an entrepreneur first surfaced during childhood. Her family, including her parents, who had their own business, vacationed at South African beaches. She collected seashells to take home, string together and sell as jewelry pieces to neighbors. “So, I was a designer and an entrepreneur from the get go,” she says.
After completing school, Ms. Mills, who did not attend college, says she emailed the CEO of one of the largest marketing and advertising agencies in the country to ask for a job. In the years since, she has held executive-level positions with various firms and was the editor of a magazine. She worked alongside high-ranking corporate executives and traveled the world before founding her first business at age 25. “It is all street smarts,” she says of her career’s rise. “It is all a result of learning and absorbing from the best.”
She also shares, “I really had a passion for bling. I had a passion for shine.” However, when shopping for fashion jewelry, she says, “We would go to the stores and the quality of the pieces was really not good. That is when I saw the gap in the market. Some people cannot afford the really expensive stuff, but the cheaper stuff does not last. When I saw that gap, I launched Crystal Creations.”
After designing her take on uber-trendy Shamballa-style beaded bracelets, Ms. Mills secured a contract that put her bracelets on shelves at a major South African department store. “I wanted people to go in and say, ‘I want the Crystal Creations bracelet.’ So, I really developed that brand,” she explains. By harnessing the power of social media, she was able to build the company into “a really formidable brand.” Her wares can now be purchased at numerous South African retailers, as well as at her company’s own beautifully-appointed boutiques there.
Natalie Mills’ target audience is the “affluent, aspiring” Tiffany & Co.® client. “The kind of customer who will get to shop at Tiffany’s one day. She cannot afford it yet, but she still wants something beautiful, made with quality, that is not going to cost a fortune.”
Ms. Mills is adamant that her jewelry pieces remain accessible. “I want people to feel beautiful and I want to use my gift to make women gorgeous. I wanted my brand to be associated with causes I am passionate about,” she says. This is why, for each Natalie Mills purchase that is made, her company donates a healthy meal to an at-risk or orphaned child in South Africa. She says she is finalizing details that will allow the company to support similar charitable programs in the U.S.
Given the challenging economic conditions and high-crime rates that exist in South Africa, Ms. Mills says the time was right to expand her company to the U.S. “I had to make a decision about where to invest my time. In the States, you have a lower unemployment rate and a much higher minimum wage. I feel the products are going to be a lot more accessible to a lot more people,” she explains.
She and her husband, Jacques Bronkhorst, who works locally in the real estate industry, and the couple’s young daughter, Tuscany, decided to settle in North Texas based on the region’s current business boom. “There is something about Texans — their hospitality, the way they want to help you and the networking they do for you. It has been phenomenal,” she shares.
However, juggling a jewelry empire between two continents is not easy. “Especially because there is a seven-hour time difference,” Ms. Mills says. She also owns a thriving South African real estate business that employees hundreds of people, so, she says, “I find it a lot more challenging than I anticipated.”
She credits her team of staffers back home for keeping operations there moving forward. “A good business person knows that when they are establishing any kind of venture, it needs to kind of go into cruise control. I am blessed that I have been able to put my leadership abilities and my work abilities into my team that I left behind so they can continue to build the company. If you are an entrepreneur, you can be an entrepreneur anywhere in the world. If you have something special, then you have something special everywhere in the world.”
In recent months, Ms. Mills says she has connected with and sought professional advice from former executives of several of the world’s largest jewelry and watch manufacturers who are helping her pattern it all together and make Natalie Mills an even more effective company. Her business strategy is to align herself with the best to try to become the best.
She claims several industry bigwigs have speculated that hers likely will be the next big jewelry brand. Ms. Mills says one executive told her that few times in his life has he met somebody who has the business ability and skill to create a truly successful, sizeable business. Ms. Mills says, “When you hear that and you have made a big career leap, you know you have made the right choice.”
From South Africa to North Texas, Ms. Mills has certainly made her mark in the jewelry industry. Time will tell what dreams will become a reality for her next!