I’ve known Layna Friedman, jewelry designer and engagement-ring expert to the stars, for approximately 15 minutes before she begins convincing me to get married. As she gently shoves a variety of expensive engagement rings onto my doughy fingers, I explain that I’ve been with my boyfriend for 11 years but don’t plan on Making It Official for various reasons, joking that the main roadblock to my betrothal is that wedding rings look insane on my overheated-marshmallow hands. “You do not have chubby fingers,” scolds Friedman, thrusting a yellow, cushion-cut diamond over the uneven topography of my flesh. The ring lodges itself between my knuckles. “Well, this is a very small size, anyway,” she says, calmly yanking it off. "I love that color on you. You should do this. You know what it is? The ring is a symbol between the two of you to say, ‘Hey, I’m taken, I’m proud of it.’” It is a testament to Friedman’s charm that I begin to wonder if I should, in fact, upend my entire life plan.
At “definitely 50-plus,” Friedman looks like a benevolent Real Housewife, with jet-black hair past her shoulders, an impeccably lipsticked red pout, distractingly big blue eyes, diamond hoops, Valentino heels, and a Furstenberg-esque floral minidress that she says she picked up for $100 at a Texas golf shop. She’s disarmingly warm when she greets me at the door of Alan Friedman Company, the elegant, all-white Beverly Hills jewelry shop she co-owned with her husband before his untimely passing a year and a half ago. It’s immediately apparent how much Friedman loves dealing in the business of love itself; she ferries me around the store, chattering excitedly, pointing out her favorite wedding bands and engagement rings beneath glass display cases and calling my attention to a poster of a tutu-sporting baby gripping a gargantuan diamond between a pair of tweezers. The baby is propped up against a deluge of stuffed animals and positioned below a bolded quote: “My daddy says ‘a diamond can never be too big.’” “That’s my daughter,” Friedman says proudly.
Though Friedman appears politely and understandably baffled by my story’s premise (“Pretend I’m a celebrity and you’re helping me choose an engagement ring”), within minutes we’re sitting down on a stark white couch next to a gigantic binder full of laminated famous people sporting Friedman’s designs. The first order of business for me, a fake-engaged fake celebrity, is to flip through the book and find something that appeals to me, for inspiration purposes. Friedman explains that while she usually visits her celebrity clients at home, occasionally via a cross-country private plane, her more plebeian clients tend to come into the store “with or without their boyfriend” to get ideas like this. “But often I’m finding more and more they’re coming in together, which is really fun,” she says. “Because we can design them together. It’s particularly fun because women are expressing their individuality now, and feeling more comfortable, like, ‘I don’t have to just get this traditional white diamond on a single mount.’ Now they’re coming in with ideas — ‘I want to put pink diamonds on it.’”
Speaking of pink diamonds, the first ring we land on is Holly Madison’s, which Friedman describes as a “22-carat, fancy, intense yellow” surrounded by clusters of pink flowers and, for reasons not revealed to me, a carving of an owl on its side. Friedman tells me she paired this piece with a custom diamond tiara for Madison’s “huge reception” at Disneyland. I digest this information neutrally. We move on.
Next up is a ring worn by Jennifer Farley, more commonly known as JWoww, red-hair-extensioned star of Jersey Shore. “Ugh, her engagement ring was totally incredible,” sighs Friedman. “She’s such a pink girl. She’d always say, ‘I love pink, I love pink.’ And we’d talk about pink sapphires, pink diamonds. So for her engagement ring, I used a totally gorgeous 5-carat white diamond, so you have that big, traditional look, and then those pink clusters on the sides. I always think of her as a modern-day princess.” Intrigued by the cognitive dissonance, I ask Friedman for more details on JWoww’s proposal. “I actually flew back there through MTV, and went to their home in New Jersey,” says Friedman, creating an inadvertent moment of brand synergy. “And Roger [Mathews, JWoww’s husband] and I designed it on-air on Snooki and JWoww for her. It was a complete surprise. He jumped from an airplane. And when he had the whole thing set up with roses on the ground, he said, ‘Thank god I landed right where we were supposed to.’ It was so cute.” Though the idea of forcing my boyfriend to jump out of a plane solely to make a pun is compelling, we agree that the pink princess ring isn’t for me and flip to the next page.
Friedman doesn’t exclusively deal in wedding-centric paraphernalia, though it’s her clear passion. “I’m specializing in engagement rings more and more, just because I personally love it,” she gushes. “There’s nothing like people coming in in love.” But she’s also designed everything from Beats by Dre–themed earrings for Lady Gaga (“My husband and daughter gave them to her backstage at a concert and she just went crazy”), to “a dog tag full of diamonds” for Richie Sambora, to a black diamond ring for Ringo Starr, to a diamond nipple ring for an unnamed starlet who walked into the shop, pulled out her breasts, and asked for a custom stud. “I looked at my husband and I said, ‘You know, she really had nice breasts,’” laughs Friedman. “But I didn’t know if I should say it to her.” We pause on a photo of Regina King sporting one of Friedman’s 20-carat amethyst rings at the Emmys. Both of us take a stunned beat. “Her arms,” breathes Friedman. “I want her arms.” I tell Friedman that both the ring and the arms attached to it appeal to me.
Friedman comes by her impeccably toned, royalty-obsessed clientele naturally. Back in the early ’90s, Friedman was an event producer, throwing massive parties everywhere from Monte Carlo to Palm Springs, rubbing shoulders with the Sinatras and Natalie Cole and distinguished men she describes as “old Hollywood cowboys.” She met Alan — who grew up working in his parents’ jewelry shop in Omaha, Nebraska, and had been abroad meeting with diamond cutters — on a plane on her way home from Italy, where she’d been scouting an event location. Alan swapped seats to sit beside Layna, and by the time the two disembarked, they were plotting their future together.
“He wanted me to come to Omaha,” Layna says, smiling. “He said, ‘You’ll live like a queen.’ And I said, ‘I already live like a princess. You come to L.A.!’”
This was back in 1993, when Alan Friedman Company began as an appointment-only wholesaler until the demand for Alan and Layna’s services grew so large that people kept popping by the showroom unannounced. The two opened their current storefront in 2006. Layna credits her own connections and Alan’s natural gregariousness with their ability to attract and retain their high-profile clientele. “It’s all about relationships,” she says. “And Alan was just so amazing at that. Someone would walk in and I’d say, ‘Alan, let me give you the whole background on them, I know what they like, I’ve been working with them.’ And in five seconds, he just instantly had a rapport.”
Alan passed away in 2015 at the age of 60 after a sudden heart attack. Despite the fact that their partnership was the foundation of Alan Friedman Company, Layna says she never considered shutting down the business. “I’ve been doing this for the past twenty-some years. It’s so much a part of my life. And we have so many clients that are not just clients — it’s almost like this big extended family. You know, I did their weddings, christenings, and their college graduations.”
She turns uncharacteristically quiet for a moment. “It’s been … You know, the transition is tough. Because we always worked side by side. I get a lot of great support and an outpouring of love from the customers. It’s just different. You know, it just doesn’t have the same … everybody, we all miss him.”
I look down and realize that Friedman and I have grasped hands. I apologize and we both laugh a little uncomfortably, quickly turning the topic back to my simulacrum of an engagement. Now that we’ve spent some time staring at JWoww’s hands and gripping one another’s, Friedman tells me the next step would be to start designing my ring. “I feel like I can connect pretty quickly and get a sense, after a few minutes of conversation, how the client is trying to express themselves, their taste,” she says. “I see you as totally romantic, but you like a little edge, too.”
I wonder aloud if a true romantic would find the very concept of marriage to be existentially suffocating. “You’ve got a softness about you,” she insists. “You want some color. Not too dark. You need that feminine edge. Oh gosh, if I was designing for you, we’d come up with something really fun. Color is really big now, because women are really feeling comfortable expressing themselves, breaking out of tradition.” Intrigued by the idea of myself as a mushy but patriarchy-smashing romance-novel heroine, I ask if I can try on a few existing rings that match this profile. Friedman pulls out a plate of rings that she’d cobbled together early on in our conversation. She’s had me pegged from the beginning.
The first ring is a classic square-cut diamond with a diamond band. “This is more traditional, but I want you to try this on,” she says firmly. In a sloppy metaphor, my ring finger begins to turn red immediately, its blood flow constricted.
Next up is a radiant-cut ring surrounded by yellow diamonds. This slides on more easily, and complements my own ring, which is a yellow-gold monument to pasta, my truest love. “This looks so beautiful on your skin color,” says Friedman. I ask for the price. “For you or for someone else?” she says, a mischievous look on her face. “It depends — we could have a budget from $2,000 up.” Shocked, I make her repeat the price, having previously believed engagement rings to be the kind of thing that implodes a bank account. “We can pretty much make this work for any budget,” she says. “This particular one is about $10,000, though. The deeper the color, the higher the price tag.”
I try on a few more — a giant cushion-cut white diamond that makes my finger look unprecedentedly slim, a rounder version of the yellow-and-white ring — but none of them feel like rings I’d wear daily without feeling like an alternate-dimension version of myself. The last ring Friedman hands me is a wedding band, a rose-gold piece studded with infinitesimally small diamonds. It’s light and comfortable, almost unnoticeable if one weren’t looking very hard, and only $700. Friedman and I agree that it’s perfect for my pretend wedding.
Our fake work complete, Friedman starts carefully placing the rings back in their velvet slots. Wondering if I am, in fact, a romantic maniac destined for a Disneyland wedding no matter how hard I try to avoid it, I ask her if she, too, considers herself a romantic. “Yes. For sure. I would say 24/7.” “What does that mean to you, exactly?” I ask, trying to play my identity crisis cool. “Mmmm,” she says thoughtfully. “I think I look at everything with rose-colored glasses. And I think that was the balance Alan and I had that worked so well. He was a little edgier with the way he wanted to design, and I was always trying to pull it back a little more, make things curvier and more feminine.”
I ask Friedman if it’s difficult for her, having lost Alan, to be faced daily with googly-eyed couples on the precipice of a future together. Then I immediately feel terrible for asking it, wondering if I’ve upset her. Instead, her face brightens. “It’s actually kind of inspiring,” she says. “It makes me happy to see people when they’re just really — it’s really nice. I think that’s what keeps me going, all this good stuff. That’s why I’m really focusing even more on the brides, on the engagement rings, because it’s so happy and it’s all about love and new beginnings.”
At this point, Friedman and I are both crying and both apologizing to each other for it. I ask her if she’s open to the possibility of a new beginning in her own life. “Yes,” she says emphatically. “I know, it makes me cry. My mom was 50 when my father passed away, and he was the love of her life. She was 17, he was the first guy she ever kissed. Ten kids, an amazing marriage. Until he got sick, I know they had a very healthy sex life, and love, always kissing and snuggling. He’d bring flowers home to her. But she just couldn’t move on. I used to say, ‘Mom, I feel bad because it was my dad, but you have to date.’ And she never did and it really made me sad to see her. I definitely want to have love in my life again, and someone to snuggle with at night.” I tell her that I want that for her, that I’m sure it will happen because she’s so lovable, and I mean it — I’ve never been more endeared to someone within an hour of meeting them. “Everything just happens the way it’s supposed to,” she says, already smiling again. “And I think if you kind of know what you want, and really feel it, it will come to you, right?”
A beautiful, fortysomething blonde woman waltzes into the store, unintentionally slicing the moment in half. Friedman tells the woman she’ll be with her in a minute. She turns back to me and offers one last piece of sweet wisdom. “I remember the moment I got married, the only thing that changed was I felt even more love for him,” she says. “Because it felt like, ‘Wow, we’re a team. We’re really a team.’ There’s something about feeling like someone’s by your side when you go out into the world. Because there’s a lot of challenges in life, and I’m sure you feel it now, but it’s something that makes your relationship a little deeper.”
I ask for the details of Alan’s proposal, and she laughs at the memory. “We were in Malibu at a restaurant. He was acting really funny all night. I was like, ‘Why is he acting funny? Alan, are you OK? What’s going on?’ And [an engagement] was not even in my thinking. And then we walked down on the beach and he went down on his knee. It was so cute. He gave me a beautiful, traditional diamond. I’m a big risk-taker, and I love adventure, but I think he recognized that actually, when it comes down to it, I’m pretty traditional.”
The woman at the counter is growing visibly impatient, and I stand up and hug Friedman goodbye. “If you change your mind,” she says, “let me know.” I promise her that, should I ever do this particular 180, she’ll be my first stop. She smiles like she already knows what’s going to happen, but doesn’t want to ruin it for me. “Please,” she says. “I’d like to see what you do.”