I wrote the below business feature for my Bootcamp for Journalists class over a year ago, and though my relentless pitches to various publications proved unsuccessful, I think this piece is worth a read, not only because I spent hours interviewing talented jewelry designers and researching the industry (plus the time and effort dedicated by the artists to answer my many questions!), but because I feel we should educate ourselves on products and buy with our brains. Ask yourself this simple question: Why would you choose to support corporations and sweatshops when you can support a friend, a neighbor, a local artist and score a quality product? If your answer relates to money, I understand. But I urge you to think beyond numbers and wrap your mind around industry - both global and local. I urge you to read on.
Buy Handmade: The Livelihoods of Local Jewelry Designers
Masses of jewelry consumers are running out to nab the latest $5 accessory offered at retailers like Forever 21, H&M and major department stores. These corporate bamboozlers keep their prices low by mass-producing their products using cheap materials and exporting fabrication to other countries, such as China and Bali. In these factories, underpaid workers man machines in substandard working conditions. Quite commonly these consumers will get what they pay for, experiencing the mediocre quality through broken rungs, chipping surface plates and disappearing charms. Creating handmade jewelry is laborious, time-consuming, technical and scientific - a complex yet artistically rewarding creative process. It is also an extremely difficult way to make a living.
As with any industry, responsibility lies in the consumer’s hands to research products. If consumers were better armed with the knowledge of handmade jewelry design, perhaps they would be more likely to buy it, more likely to invest in a work of art. David Posnett, jewelry designer and owner of Maidstone Jewelry in NYC, feels that generally “customers are totally ignorant of the pricing” and of the craft but happily answers queries, often referring them to his thoroughly researched jewelry blog.
Layla Niebrugge, jewelry designer and owner of Laylabelle Designs in Philadelphia, has received “every reaction you can think of” from customers. “I had customers that were astonished at the bargain they were getting, customers who just weren't willing to pay the amount I was asking for, and I've even had customers who said ‘No, that will be too pricey’ without even coming into my booth to look at the prices.” Interestingly enough, Niebrugge’s price range is $15-$75, one that is very reasonable but misunderstood by uneducated consumers.
|Earrings by Laylabelle Designs|
Most designers create low-end and high-end pieces to accommodate a range of buyers. Melissa Glim, jewelry designer and owner of Melissa Glim Fine Jewelry, finds that customers follow a certain pattern whilst perusing art shows. Shoppers almost always initially reach for the expensive piece but are immediately discouraged by the price. Still attracted to the collection, they will opt for a less expensive piece, like a pair of earrings. “They just don’t have the money for that. It’s like buying the wallet since I can’t get the dress,” says Glim, who is based out of Washington, DC.
Pricing handmade jewelry is an art unto itself. First, a maker must be sure the costs of materials and labor are covered. But artisans also need to closely study their target audience. How much is a New Yorker willing to pay for 18K gold bangles? Will an Angeleno pay more or less? There are formulas to pricing, such as the “times 2, times 2” or the “times 3, times 3,” in which artists will start with the materials cost, double or triple for wholesale then double or triple again for retail.
Sandy Leong, a jewelry designer in NYC, works mainly with recycled 18k gold and conflict-free diamonds. The current price of gold is approximately $1,728 per ounce, so Leong’s pieces range from $100 to $250,000. Her 18k gold Charity Twist Bangles cost between $3,500-$4,000, depending on the type of gold and incorporation of diamonds. Because the price of sterling silver is so much lower than gold (just about $34 an ounce), she also offers the bracelet in sterling silver without stones for $125.
Materials greatly affect the creation process, determining what tools and techniques will come into play. An imagination, extensive knowledge of the craft plus a pair of impassioned and dexterous hands are the first set of necessary tools. Drafting a design may take minutes or hours. As fabrication transpires, the design can potentially change as the designer shapes the materials. Niebrugge’s 3 Birds on a Wire necklace, comprised of sterling silver and copper, is hand cut using a jeweler’s saw. She then files “every nook and cranny and along the edges.” The edges as well as the back and front of the cut-out are sanded by hand, starting with a lower grit then progressing to a higher one to “create a smooth edge without any filing marks.” She does the same for the copper backing, sometimes adding a patina to the copper. This process involves much preparation and is followed by customizing and attaching the wire chain. She spends about two hours on each necklace and sold approximately 20 of them last year. The necklace retails for $29.
Glim’s bestseller, Diana Hairband, takes approximately eight hours to complete and involves threading 300-400 pearls, crystals and beads to the band. She finishes the piece with metal rigs on the inside (so that a veil can be added if desired) and adds a strip of ribbon to avoid itch. The price tag for this piece is between $100-$125.
|Golden Echo Earrings by Sandy Leong|
Like Glim and Niebrugge, Posnett and Leong also work with metals, utilizing carving, molding, casting, forming and soldering techniques. Leong spends about a week total creating a new design for a pair of her Golden Echo earrings. She first carves new designs in wax, creating a mold, then casts it into 18k yellow gold, adjusts several times, hand polishes, adds ear wire, solders and applies the final touches. Her Teardrop and Oval designs require setting champagne diamonds, a step that she pays a professional stone setter to handle. Posnett also enlists professional setting help. Working on a new ring design, he has spent the last few weeks just perfecting the wax model.
Traveling to and from stone setters are not the only travel expenses incurred by designers. In addition to scouring the web for materials, they buy from wholesalers, individual stone sellers, local jewelry districts, mom-and-pop shops and trade shows. If displayed in stores, designers visit their work often, switching out pieces to test popularity and boost sales.
Etsy stores, websites and blogs require constant upkeep. Some find Etsy to be very beneficial to their business, though Niebrugge describes the shopping experience as “kind of like finding a needle in a haystack if you haven’t recently posted an item.” Posnett assigns tags to his items on Etsy, like “wedding,” “bridal” and “engagement ring.” His Etsy store receives about 10-30 hits per day, outperforming his blog and website (5-10 hits per day). He also converses with Etsy shoppers who “favorite” his items. “These are the people you want to talk to,” he says. The use of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter helps promote their businesses via posts featuring new items and events.
|Diana Hairband by Melissa Glim Fine Jewelry|
Promoting work at shows and fairs is highly encouraged but comes with a risk. Glim warns that designers must be ready for 10% loss due to theft at shows.
Some designers, like Leong, enlist the help of a publicist, which has served her very well. Her work has been featured in such glossies as Glamour and People. Actress Kristen Stewart was recently photographed sporting her Halo Stackable Ring with Diamonds. Sales and traffic to her website increased directly due to this celebrity exposure. Adding to the benefits of press coverage, Leong says, “It is a great arsenal to bring in with me when presenting my jewelry to potential buyers, too.”
|Gold Ring With 4 Rough Diamonds by Maidstone Jewelry|
Before this extensive process even begins, designers devote much of their time to networking, researching trends and hunting for clientele online. Attending fashion shows and subscribing to a slew of magazines and newsletters, they follow and are inspired by current jewelry trends. Glim will “sit for hours” Googling various keywords and reviewing photos of NYC runway shows on the New York Times site. She even plans vacations around inspiring exhibits. Posnett’s current focus is engagement rings. With the aim of building interest in his product and ultimately gain a new client, he surfs wedding sites and converses with brides-to-be. He loves working with customers and welcomes commissioned work. In fact, 50% of his sales are commissioned pieces. He’s a bride and groom’s dream.
A jewelry designer’s dream, like any artist, is to earn enough to support his or her livelihood, progressing his or her hobby into a career. Many designers supplement their incomes, some with completely unrelated jobs. Niebrugge, Posnett and Glim all work fulltime jobs aside from manning their jewelry lines. Leong is fortunate that her husband makes a good living so she can focus her energy on her craft, in addition to raising her two children.
An automated process operated by factory machines that handle the “grunt work,” as Glim puts it, cannot and will not deliver a unique, valuable piece of jewelry like that of a handmade jewelry designer. As Niebrugge so perfectly and passionately describes, “It's the little imperfections of a piece made by two hard working hands that give jewelry and any handmade creation its character.” Posnett adds, “It’s not an easy way to make a living. You better love what you are doing.”
If I'd crafted this piece more recently, I would've included Golden Plume as a resource, a new L.A.-based handmade jewelry line, created by my talented, dear friend, Nita Blum. Enjoy.
|Hand Painted Jasper & Gold Plated Earrings by Golden Plume|