Sergio Mendoza has sold many rings to women. But, he says, he’s never selected a single ring for one. “I don’t want to pick a ring for a woman, ever,” he says. “I want them to find the one that reminds them of the best version of themselves.”
He talks about honoring women. But try to venture into the language of self-help and he’ll stop you. He makes rings. Other than the ring itself, he doesn’t create anything that’s not already there.
“I am not raising any woman up,” he says. “I am not empowering anybody. That implies that I am a part of it; I am not a part of it. These women are already worthy of this honor. I never use the word ‘empower.’ I’m not doing anything to women except reminding them – trying to create the space in the world where that is part of the conversation.”
Mendoza founded his business, Pharaoun Cocktail Rings, in 2018. His rings are big, bold, frequently inspired by the ocean. Cocktail rings generally tend to be large and noticeable. Traditionally, a woman wears it on her right hand. It’s not meant to signify marriage, engagement or anything else. It’s a ring you wear for yourself. Mendoza sits and shows rings to women, waiting for them to find one that they’ll wear for no reason other than they want to.
“When I started, I thought it would be about pretty jewelry,” he says. Then he sat with people he knew – his first rings were gifts to female friends – and it changed. “The phrase that came back again and again was honor,” he says. “The mission is for women to honor themselves. That’s a much broader goal that I have. It’s about doing certain things.
“The definition I want to bring to the world is the cocktail ring as the women’s ring, worn on the right hand rather than the left, worn for nobody other than herself … something that gently reminds you that the things you’ve done are worth honoring already. The way I phrase that is ‘Honor yourself.’”
For Mendoza, this career path – let’s go ahead and call it a calling – was hard won. He was married with a young daughter and a successful career in tech startups. Then, in 2017, his wife Sarah died of breast cancer. The following year his sister, Beatriz, also died.
“I started the business because my wife died and I wanted to change my entire life,” he says. He started making rings. As he made rings, he also started showing them to his female friends. An idea of honor, of honoring women, began to take hold.
Mendoza has always enjoyed jewelry and experienced it through the women in his life. His family’s story is part of that larger story that helped build South Florida – people fleeing a former life in Cuba for a new, uncertain life in Miami. His earliest memories of jewelry are tied to memories of other, harder to reach things.
“I was really lucky, and I got a lot of access to a lot of jewelry from very young,” Mendoza says.
But it went beyond that. A piece of jewelry would get pulled out by one of his grandmothers, and with it would come the past. “Part of my education, the time I spent with them, was them showing me pieces of jewelry and telling me stories about them,” he says. He’d hear about a party, about a house, about people and places he could imagine but would never see. It was, he says, a “view or window into that lost world.”
“Those pieces of jewelry encapsulated stories that they both wanted to tell me,” he says. He saw Cuba through jewelry.
Later on, when he found other stories that needed telling, he returned to jewelry. It struck him that honoring oneself is not something we as a society always make easy for women.
“My wife prioritized her children, her husband, her parents, her friends, everybody above herself,” he says. He was going to make space for honor. At this point he was gifting rings to friends.
“I didn’t want to create a difficult conversation with every one of my girlfriends,” he says. He wanted to give them away, not hector friends to buy anything. It was, he says, a matter of “getting these women, sitting them down and saying, ‘This hour, I’m not picking a ring for you, I’m just going to show you lots of beautiful rings and one ring is going to remind you of your favorite version of yourself. This ring is not about me at all.”
As that initial exercise in gift-giving morphed into a business, Mendoza has made sure that honor is the sort of thing that’s available at all price points. It’s possible to spend as much as you’d like on a ring, but the website notes that they start at $75.
“The jewelry world and the luxury world is so conditioned to have tiers,” he says.
“Accessibility in my pricing is a huge decision for me. In every single aspect of my business I try to make things not only accessible, but everybody gets the highest standards. Everybody gets the nicest version of what I have to offer.”
Everybody also gets something that’s just for them. Literally.
“Almost all of my pieces have lots of stones on the bottom,” he says. “It’s not that they’re hidden, it’s that they’re not meant to be seen. They’re for you. The world doesn’t need to see it or be shown that it’s there for you to know that it’s there.”
When it comes to actually designing pieces, Mendoza enjoys taking inspiration from different places.
“A lot of my lessons have come from the most beautiful pieces history has created,” he says. He loves studying great jewelry pieces from history, the sorts of pieces kings would have commissioned because, well, it’s good to be the king. “They were so beautiful and so fascinating,” Mendoza says. “Remember, the world was different; everybody was bored. People would pull this thing out and talk about it for a month, because it was amazing.”
He also loves traditional Japanese crafts. And he spends time on the ocean, snorkeling or fishing and finding inspiration there.
“The undersea world is just so outstanding,” he says. Cuba, he says, is represented through elegance. His wife and sister are represented always. Then comes the work.
“To me, design is a craft,” he says. “It’s iteration after iteration after iteration. And every now and then you say, this is beautiful, I want to expand on this. It’s focusing tightly on a very specific problem and trying to improve it, trying to improve it, trying to improve it. It’s hard, it’s not just a eureka moment. It’s slow, sometimes frustrating. For me it’s 100 edits, and then you think ‘Oh, this is amazing.”
This is where a background in startups helps. They fail all day long.
“You need to be moving,” he says. “The more designs you try, the more successes you’ll have. I’ve tried many designs. I’m working on many projects at the same time, because I know many of them will fail.”
And always, every inspiration comes back to that one word: honor. In other times, it was reserved for kings and great men. Mendoza has other ideas. “If you can be your best version of yourself,” he says, “the world will be a better place.”
That said, he gets that these are rings. In recent months, the world has often seemed so scary. He himself knows grief. Rings do not fix things. He gets that.
But this is what he can do. A ring is what he can make.
“I just come back to that silly little tiny micro-focus,” he says. “And I just think if I can make one woman recognize that she deserves honor, I think I can do that and I think that that’s the way that I want to change the world. When the world is a war zone, I think this is my role in this world. This is how I’m going to change the world.”
He sometimes gets letters of thanks from people who now wear one of his pieces. “They never talk about me,” he says. “That’s my goal.” He wants to hear about how they make the wearer feel.
His grandmother, who once introduced him to Cuba via the treasures in her jewelry box and who is now 92, gives feedback on his new designs. He thinks about her with every single design.
“Right now she’s wearing a prototype failure – really beautiful but impossible to make,” he says. “And she just happened to love it. She’s wearing this incredible piece that might never make it to the real world, because she loves it.”
For Sergio, that’s the fun part of the job. Giving a ring to a woman – perhaps one he’s known all his life, maybe one he’s just met – and finding that it works. But behind all that are the women he makes rings for, but whom he will never give one to.
Asked if he was someone who brought a sense of honoring women to his marriage, he’s quiet for a moment.
“I think I was,” he says. “I don’t have any regrets about that at all.
“I definitely brought that to our relationship.” Now he tries to bring it wherever he goes.
Today, Sergio Mendoza will most likely meet with women. He won’t be there to flirt, and he won’t be there to sell. He’s made rings, and he’s there to show them.
“I honor the women in my life, and I hope that women mirror that experience.”
Superpower (left): “I love this ring because it has two parts: in front, a large bold face, and behind that face, an intricate structure of 46 slender tendrils that gracefully, but unquestionably support it. This combination of boldness and the strength to back it up makes it unstoppable.”
America (middle): “Life on a normal day is difficult. With the onslaught of COVID-19 and the secondary consequences, we need to work together to move forward.” 100% of the proceeds of the America ring will be donated to No Kid Hungry (nokidhungry.org), an organization dedicated to feeding children.
Shield of Athen (right): “Do you have a pair of shoes that make you feel beautiful? This is the ring version of those shoes. If you are having a hard time choosing a ring for yourself, and want one that you know will bring you joy, Shield of Athena is my recommendation. This ring is a sure thing.”
Pamela (right): “I love the way the Pamela ring feels when you slide it on your finger. It is a sensual experience that is worth closing your eyes for, and there is nothing better than looking down and seeing this beauty on your hand. I stole the nub details from my Sea Urchin ring for the face, and lined the edges with two subtle but framing sets of alternating stones.”
Chakra Mandala: “I think I didn’t really understand what a mandala was until I designed this ring. I kept adding layer upon layer to it, until I saw it not as a set of layers, but as a whole. That is why this ring is a mandala. With all of the complexity of the universe, with its myriad paths and energies, it is a whole, and that is where its beauty is found. Without every layer, it would not be complete.”
Spiny Sea Urchin: “The spiny sea urchin is special. For this ring, I turned the stones upside down, pointy side up, and created as dense of a geometry as possible. Focus on the stones, and you will see a set of patterns; focus on the gold and you will see others. This checkerboard of black and white highlights this design, and I hope it captivates you as well.”
Lotus Marquise & Ellipse: “This ring’s powerful stone is supported by an intricate and exquisite lotus pattern, hidden from those that don’t look closely, but that you always know is there. I hope this combination of boldness backed by depth symbolizes your own strengths, and that this ring inspires you in your mission, just as the lotus brings beauty into our world.”
Sea Urchin: “A miniature sculpture, this ring is spectacular. It’s tactile, it’s fun, it can be worn to a gala or to the beach, and every time you wear it, you will get compliments. You’ll find yourself touching it, fiddling, enjoying it. Even though the inspiration for this ring comes directly from nature, I tried to abstract the design to make it iconic. I think there is a tremendous amount of beauty that can be captured with just gold and stones.”
Photographer: Olga Keeney, @portrait_deluxe_studio
Makeup: Liliya Karpova, @lovestory_makeup
Models: Nayla Latis, @naylalatis; Carla Collado, @candidlycarla; Catherine Kaupert, @catherinekaupert