“Pride is a powerful motivator,” Nadja says of her drive to buff and shine the family name. Despite the breadth of its operations, Swarovski is still a close-knit concern, owned entirely by family, with 60 hereditary shareholders. In 2011, after years of agitation—she told a reporter that she felt “shunned”—Nadja was appointed to the company’s executive board. (Her seat is a source of such pride, and perhaps touchiness, that even her secretary’s e-mail signature reads, personal assistant to nadja swarovski, executive board member.) She considers this a vindication of her open-handed approach, which was initially greeted with skepticism by the more conservative factions of the family. “I appreciate the animals,” Nadja told Forbes in 2004, of the cutesy figurines upon which Swarovski’s reputation, at one point, seemed to rest. “I just don’t relate to them.” Catherine de Medici’s legacy was starting the Tuileries; Nadja Swarovski will be remembered as the cousin who saved the family business from bedazzled iPhone cases and crystal toucans.
Nadja grew up on the Swarovski compound in Wattens, riding her scooter across the factory floor and jumping into piles of quartz sand—a rhinestone heiress’s version of living above the shop. Her father, Helmut, oversaw technology and production. Her mother, Danna, an American who had attended boarding school in Switzerland, met Helmut at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. (Nadja’s sister, Vanessa, is a gemologist in Texas.) At the age of 12, Nadja began commuting to Innsbruck on public transportation to attend Akademisches Gymnasium, a prestigious institution. “That school was great,” she recalled. “But soon I thought, I really have to have that American experience.” So she decided to enroll in an American boarding school, St. Mark’s, in Southborough, Massachusetts. “I thought, Permanent sleepover!” Nadja remembered. The experience turned out to be miserable: “It wasn’t until I got there that I realized how bad my English really was.” Nevertheless, she powered through and eventually studied art history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
After college, Nadja took a job with Gagosian Gallery in New York; next, she did PR with Eleanor Lambert, and then went on to work with clients like Trussardi and Valentino. One day a delegation of Missonis came to town, and Nadja, who was working on the label’s account, was in charge of them. “I, as a European, had to take them around town,” she recalls. “I thought, Wait a minute, I also come from a family business.” In that moment she decided to join the Swarovski empire, but there was no particular job that fit her talents, so she was sent to Hong Kong for a stint in sales and distribution. She studied Mandarin. “Even to be able to exchange a word or two with the shop lady—Oh, my gosh, it was fantastic!” she recalled. More important, she noticed that the manner in which the firm’s crystals were being sold—mainly, out of briefcases—did not reflect their quality, nor did it hold any allure for the fashion clientele that Swarovski was used to cultivating. “I thought, There’s a niche that’s not being tapped into,” Nadja said. Her solution was to establish a series of so-called Creative Service Centers, to which designers were invited so that they could see and feel Swarovski products. After Swarovski opened the first centers outside Austria in 1999, sales spiked dramatically. Soon, Nadja had endeared Swarovski’s products to such designers as Alexander McQueen, who, memorably, used the company’s crystal mesh fabric in his 1999 spring show to create a twinkling snood. “If there’s one person I can credit for totally reintroducing Swarovski to fashion, it is Alexander McQueen,” Nadja said.