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Jeff Pink's colorful past and bright future with the Orly nail brand

Orly's Jeff Pink looks back at 40 years in the nail business

On an unseasonably cool night recently, Jeff Pink — founder of the biggest privately owned nail brand based in Los Angeles — was holding court at a dinner party on the rooftop of the trendy downtown restaurant Perch. Among his guests: people who sell his brand in Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates, along with Mayor Eric Garcetti, who stopped by to shake Pink's hand — a few nails of which were painted black, blue and red. The occasion was one in a series of celebrations planned for the 40th anniversary of Orly, the nail company that the Tel Aviv-born Pink named after his wife and turned into a global business force, with a presence in more than 80 countries. Pink was one of the earliest originators of nail strengtheners, was among the first to take formaldehyde out of his formulas, and he contends that he created— or at least popularized — the French manicure, that pristine white-tipped nail that looks as fresh today as it did when he began using the look on actresses' nails in the 1970s.

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For the Record

5:45 p.m. May 15: This story originally said people who sell the Orly brand in China attended the dinner party. While guests from China did attend, they were not distributors.

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Given that Los Angeles is where Pink's nail business began to flourish, he is using some of the city's most iconic associations as the inspiration for Made in L.A collections that are being released as part of the anniversary celebration. The Adrenaline Rush collection, in searing shades of lime and fuchsia, is predicated on the city's skateboarding heritage. Sugar High, with its frothy pinks and mauves, was inspired by the confections at popular bakery cafe Auntie Em's Kitchen. Both are available on OrlyBeauty.com, with individual polishes priced at $8.50.

Later this year, Orly plans to release In the Mix, informed by the eclectic local music scene, and Melrose and Venice collections are in the offing for 2016.

When not setting the direction for new palettes, Pink takes time away from his Van Nuys headquarters to work on his memoir, tentatively titled, "It's Not For Me."

"That's what I said to myself when I first started in this business, that it wasn't for me," he said. "I'm glad I didn't give up. If I had, I wouldn't be here now."

Forty years is a milestone for any business. How did you start?

I met Jack Sperling, who had a big beauty supply store in Van Nuys. I told him I would work for him and he wouldn't have to pay me. Instead, I would pay him to learn the business. I gave him $2,500 to work for him for 90 days and train me. I sold lipstick, nail polish and hairbrushes to his customers. After a month, I realized the business wasn't for me. I asked Jack to pay me back whatever portion of the money he thought was fair. But he convinced me to say for the rest of the 90 days, and that if I didn't love it, he would give me all my money back. I stayed, and at the end of that time, I did love it. I then opened a small beauty supply store under my own name in Tarzana.

Why did you decide to focus on nails?

I went out to all the beauty and nail salons starting in Studio City up to Woodland Hills. I handed out my name card, started developing relationships. From these people I learned that the nail business was being neglected by the big companies. L'Oreal and Revlon were making nail products to sell in department stores, but nobody was caring about the salons. Some manicurists told me they needed a good nail strengthener. At that time, they used a primitive product, made from hardware store cement and tea paper. It was called Juliet. I called a company on the East Coast that made nail polish; the man who owned it used to be partners with Charles Revson, who went on to form Revlon. He knew everything about the nail business. He became my mentor. I told him I wanted to make a base coat with nylon fibers, to strengthen nails. After we developed it, I mailed 1,500 bottles out to beauty supply stores around the country. After two weeks, they all wrote to me to say they loved it. It became a hit overnight. I called it Romeo. I started developing more products, like the Ridgefiller, which Orly still makes. We created that by putting talcum powder into the strengthener.

And then came the French manicure.

I used to sell beauty products to Hollywood studios. The directors would complain about how long it would take to change the nail colors on the actresses to match their wardrobes for different scenes. They asked me to make a color that would go with everything. I thought of using white polish on the tips of the nails.... I used it on the tips of nails, then put a flesh-toned polish over it. I showed it to the studios. They said, "You don't know how much money you will save us." I called it the Natural Look Nail Kit. Then I went to Paris and used it on models at a fashion show. When I came back, I started calling it the French manicure. After Cher and Barbra Streisand went on the Johnny Carson show, separately, with their French manicures, people started talking about it. After a few years, it was selling like hotcakes.

Are there limitations with what you can do with nail polish?

The sky is the limit. We now have more than 250 nail colors. You can always come up with new ones. There are glitters and shimmers and nail art. The only limit is your imagination.

Is it true that, no matter their finances, women will always choose to get their nails done?

In the early '80s, under President Jimmy Carter, inflation was ridiculous and there was a recession. But my business went up more than ever before. People didn't have work; women were home, I used to advertise on late-night TV and they saw it. Even if they didn't have money to feed themselves, they would take care of their nails. Now, the younger generation changes their nail colors all the time, more than before. For a woman, painting her nails makes her feel good about herself.

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