Fighting for a Family Legacy
2014 FedEx Small Business Grant Second Prize Winner
Union City, New Jersey
Originator of the modern boxing belt.
This is the story of justice, redemption and unfaltering love. It is the story of SARTONK, creators of the iconic championship boxing belt—a company that, in just a few years, went from “down for the count” to the comeback trail—all because Founder Edward S. Majian and family refused to give up.
Edward was raised by his grandfather and grandmother, Ardash and Nazeli Sahaghian. Ardash was an artist and trained jeweler from Romania; Nazeli was an artist in her own right. Both were forced to leave their homeland in the 1960s to escape the oppression of communism.
“My grandfather was actually tortured in a communist prison for months. When he was released from jail, he gathered his family and fled; first to Brazil and later, South Africa, before becoming eligible to immigrate to the United States,” Edward explained. “They moved to New Jersey and my grandfather worked at a tool and die factory until he had a very bad accident. His back was severely injured, so he was immobilized for months, not knowing if he would ever walk again.“
During this period, he met a man named Phil Valentino, a boxing enthusiast and jewelry professional, who knew of Ardash’s history as an Old World jeweler.
“Valentino recruited my grandfather to modernize the classic championship boxing belts. My grandfather used his artistry to transform the existing two-dimensional design into the three-dimensional sculptural pieces that ultimately became industry icons,” Edward said. “My grandmother hand-painted the medallions on the belts my grandfather created. Together, they made the boxing belt a piece of art.”
The Rebirth of a Legacy
Although, growing up, Edward spent a lot of time in his grandfather’s studio, he never thought of taking on the family business.
“My grandfather always encouraged me to be my own person; he never pressured me to follow in his footsteps. The only thing he insisted on is that I go to college,” Edward said. “I studied social justice, politics and philosophy, and have a true passion for magic, which I’ve been performing professionally since the age of twelve.”
Edward grew up, married wife Hasmig Tatiossian, and the couple left the country for several months to do human rights work in Armenia, where Edward taught non-violent communication through philosophy and magic and Hasmig worked on women’s issues. Unbeknownst to Edward, while they were overseas, his grandfather was fighting his own battles back home.
“When we got back, we discovered that my grandfather’s designs were being knocked-off, with other companies claiming to be the original belt creator. They probably thought that this 87-year-old man with limited English language skills couldn’t defend himself,” Edward said.
That was a defining moment.
“I was raised by my grandparents; they were essentially my parents. After all they had done for me, my wife and I could not let my grandfather’s work be trampled on; we could not let him be deprived of the honor that was rightfully his. My sense of moral justice took over,” Edward said.
So, in 2009, named for a derivative of the Armenian word for “rebirth,” SARTONK was formed. Edward became founder and president, as well as head designer and craftsman. Hasmig, who was pursuing her Master’s Degree at the time, would become the business’ executive manager. All of a sudden, the grandson who never planned to pursue the family business, was at the helm, with he and his wife dedicated to saving it—as well as his grandfather’s reputation.
The Long Road to Recognition
SARTONK’s target customers are the major governing organizations in boxing, and similar regional bodies worldwide.
“In this industry, everything revolves around personal relationship building. In the early days, it was hard to get anyone to hear our story or look at the quality of our product. My grandfather had spent three decades creating these belts, but, because they’d never been branded, few people in the industry knew his name,” Edward said.
The breakthrough came when Edward finally got some face time with a boxing organization in San Juan, Puerto Rico that had been a customer in the past.
“I contacted them to set a meeting and they agreed—until they realized that I was serious about coming. Then, I got a call from an administrative assistant telling me that the president was going to be away and could not meet. So I asked if she would be willing to meet with me, and she said ‘yes,’” Edward said. “She actually remembered having spoken to my grandfather on the phone in the past.”
Five months after that meeting, she called Edward and asked, “Are you still making belts?”
“Now, the truth was, we hadn’t made a belt because we had no one to make a belt for. But, I had been working with my grandfather in the shop to prepare for that first opportunity and it finally came. It was a belt for Manny Pacquiao. They needed something extra high profile and gave us that shot,” Edward said. “We pulled it off—it was a stunning belt—and, from there, were able to re-establish that business relationship.”
From that moment on, Edward and Hasmig did everything they could to tell the story of SARTONK and their grandfather’s legacy.
“We did a lot of research on the industry. We attended the events, and, quite honestly, we initiated events, so we’d have something to contact the press about,” Edward said. “For example, we’d call up one of the famous boxing bars in New York and say, ‘We have the creator of the championship boxing belt who would like to come to an event in your bar,’ and the next week we’d have a meet and greet. Although most of the people who came had never heard of my grandfather, it was very touching to see how much they liked meeting him and learning about the hands behind the belt.”
Today, Edward and Hasmig use social media, primarily Twitter, to connect SARTONK with its growing community of nearly 16,000 followers. In fact, the three biggest media requests the company has received to date, including ESPN The Magazine, have come through this channel.
Round Two: Expanding the SARTONK Brand to a Broader Market
Social media was also the catalyst for generating votes for the 2014 FedEx Small Business Grant contest, fueled by an engaging “33 Reasons” campaign that Hasmig so artistically created. The company was a second prize grant recipient.
According to Edward, SARTONK will use the FedEx grant money toward the first run of “Honor Your Champion” T-shirts, the premier item in a new SARTONK lifestyle apparel brand set to debut sometime this summer.
“For us, boxing is a metaphor for life; for struggling through adversity. Nothing personifies this more than the boxer,” Edward said. “If what I’m saying makes you roll your eyes, just go out and look at how hard these people train—the discipline they have—what they give up to fight for their dream. Our SARTONK lifestyle brand is meant to inspire anyone who needs it—whether that person is a boxer, a boxing enthusiast, or someone fighting through the everyday challenges of life.”
The new clothing line is one way Edward and Hasmig are infusing their own personalities into SARTONK, blending the traditional with something new.
Another is their Ali-King Writing award, an annual essay contest they began in 2011 to honor the legacies of Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr., and to inspire literacy within the boxing community.
What began as a quest to right a wrong has set Edward Majian on a career path he never thought he would pursue; but one that he is now embracing.
“While the SARTONK story started off as a personal fight, today, our business has evolved into a team. We have grown into a full-capacity design firm that benefits from the talents and contributions of others, in addition to the craft that was passed down from my grandfather,” Edward said.
When this whole journey started, Edward was studying social justice and philosophy and was headed down a PhD path, with no thought of ever running a business.
“Now, I realize that, in some ways, what I studied then prepared me for what I’m doing now. Running a business enables you to make your own rules and be a moral compass,” Edward said. “Empowering that is a very important thing to me and to the entire SARTONK team. Living up to a greater good is our way of deserving SARTONK’s success.”
Spoken like a true champion.