ATHENS — Family lore has it that when the hospital discharged each of Ilias Lalaounis’s four daughters after their births, the first place their father took them was not home but to his jewelry workshop, an intricate labyrinth of studios and staircases in the shadow of the Acropolis.
“My dad said it was to get the smell of the workshop,” his third daughter, Maria Lalaounis, said with a laugh. “He wanted to make sure it was in our DNA and in our senses.”
Lalaounis — a fourth-generation jeweler who died at 93 in 2013 — was one of the most celebrated jewelers in Greece during the last century. He was a prolific artist and consummate marketer who revitalized the country’s industry in the 1960s and 1970s while introducing his own creations to a global audience.
Today, almost 50 years since their father founded the company in 1969, the four sisters still control the business, each taking responsibility for different aspects. (And all still use their father’s surname.)
Aikaterini, 58, is the director of retail and public relations in Greece. Demetra, 54, is the chief executive of the international business. Maria, 53, is the chief executive of the Greek business and the brand’s creative director. And Ioanna, 50, is director and curator in chief of the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum, which her parents founded in 1993 on the site of his original workshop. With the exception of Demetra, who lives in London, the sisters all live in Athens.
Jewelry by Ilias Lalaounis, inspired by Greek history, on display at the family museum.CreditEirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
Trying to escape an unseasonal heat wave that gripped the city in September, the sisters gathered in the museum’s cool interior to discuss how they continue to build on their father’s legacy, as well as adapting the business to both contemporary tastes and economic realities.
Growing up, they said, it was inevitable that they all would join the company. From an early age they learned from their father’s goldsmiths and served clients in his retail stores.
“When you don’t know any better, and you’ve been told it’s your destiny from Day 1, then you just do it,” said Demetra, who recalled being left alone as a young teenager to manage a store and its balky credit card machine in the Athens Hilton.
Today, with their mother Lila, 81, at the head of the family, the business is very much a female affair.
Just as Maria modeled for a company campaign shot by Lord Snowdon in the 1990s, Maria’s daughters, Athena Boutari Lalaounis, 21, and Lila Boutari Lalaounis, 20, star in the company’s current advertising campaigns. Next year, it will be Demetra’s daughter, Alexia Auersperg-Breunner, now 21.
Pieces from Aurelia, the new Lalaounis collection. It was inspired by the ancient opus interrasile technique that produces a latticework appearance.CreditEirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
Laoura Lalaounis Dragnis, 30, daughter of Aikaterini, manages the company’s social media and said the family connection is what appeals to young jewelry buyers. “They like that they open a magazine and see my cousins, just like they saw me, like they saw my aunts,” she said. “It’s not just a marketing tool. It’s our story, it reflects who we are.”
That sense of authenticity and coherence in a family business, and across the collections, appeals to everyone, Eikaterini said. Whether based on the stories of Helen of Troy or the Tudor kings in England, her father’s meticulously researched creations always told a story.
As he used to say, ‘It’s jewelry with a soul,’” she said, adding that she often will say something to strangers when she spots them wearing Lalaounis. “Without knowing who I am, they tell me the whole story of the collection,” she said. “It’s part of what they love about it.”
Maria does the same kind of meticulous research when she is creating a collection, frequently basing it on history or an ancient goldsmithing technique.
And yet, while her father created large statement pieces in the rich, warm yellow of predominantly 22-carat gold, her inclination is to design on a smaller scale and often in the gentler hue (and lower prices) of 18-carat gold, suited to the more casual way women wear jewelry today.
A goldsmith at work in the Lalaounis workshop in Athens. The technique he is using, granulation, requires a tool with a feathered tip to place gold beads.CreditEirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
She took inspiration for her latest collection, Aurelia, from an intricate Byzantine-era flower motif rendered in the pierced openwork gold typical of its time, which she found in the company’s extensive library of art and history books.
Deconstructing the motif, she said, she played with its components before reassembling them in articulated sections to give the pieces a sense of lightness and movement. In a collection priced from 525 euros to 70,000 euros ($615 to $82,110) the diamond embellishment adds to the “ethereal, feminine feel,” she said.
Maria, who trained in the classic manner as a goldsmith, also has a team of craftsmen working closely with her in the company’s headquarters on the city’s outskirts. The team, many of whom date to her father’s day, continue to use the ancient techniques including filigree, hand-braided chain and hand-hammering that he revived and made famous.
“We want every collection to be different from the previous one and yet to have a common vocabulary,” Maria said.
Her lighter aesthetic also is suited to the tough economic times in Greece. The country’s debt crisis has lasted almost 10 years, creating economic hardship, unemployment and seriously eroding property prices.
Maria Lalaounis, the chief executive of Lalaounis in Greece and the brand’s creative director, examining some stones in a gem vault at the company workshop.CreditEirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
At its peak in the ’70s, Lalaounis had 14 stores. Reflecting the times, it is investing heavily in social media and e-commerce, both its own site and with others, and intends to introduce online sales in the United States next year. The company also is developing its wholesale business and has a limited number of franchise stores.
There are signs that things are starting to look up in Athens, with the Greek National Tourism Organization estimating a record-breaking 30 million visitors will have come to the country this year. The city is buzzing with new businesses and restaurants, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, covering almost 6,000 square feet with space for the national library and national opera, was completed only last year.
The Niarchos foundation also recently provided a grant for an undisclosed amount to the Lalaounis museum, which promotes the work of contemporary jewelers as well as that of its namesake.
Ioanna, who holds a masters in art history and museum studies from Boston University, is passionate about ensuring that the museum is a vital institution. Children are invited to try metalsmithing techniques, blind visitors can experience display pieces by touch, and thanks to the Niarchos grant, two workshops have been created where artists can work on their own art jewelry as well as helping to conserve the museum collections.
As an artist demonstrated the repoussé technique of forming designs in relief with a hammer, Ioanna said no other jewelry museum in Europe has the kind of workshops and support that the Lalaounis institution provides. “It’s hard to be a studio jeweler in Greece,” she said. “It’s all a form concerned with concepts. Its job is not to be pretty but to signify something.”
The sisters acknowledged that a family business creates challenges. When there are inevitable disagreements, “you can’t just go home and forget about it,” Demetra said. “We’ll have to have family dinner together that evening.”
As for the future, Demetra said she hopes the next generation of Lalaounises will gain experience outside before deciding whether they want to enter the family fold.
“If they go out there and decide what their passion is first, then they can come to us with know how,” she said. “We can only teach them so much. To keep moving forward, we need new ideas.”
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