Job: Jewellery Designer / Maker
Where: Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire
Hi Rachel. What do you do?
I'm a jewellery designer/maker. I use semi precious stones, silver and pearls to make my designs, which are inspired by what I like. They are wearable and a little bit unusual with contemporary lines and vintage-inspiration.
What’s your story so far?
I got A-levels in social biology, psychology and communications, and went on to start a degree in psychology and environmental studies, but ended up dropping out in my 3rd year. I didn't really have a plan at all and worked as a cleaner, in bars, and finally in call centres. That took me up to 2002, when I decided that after 7 years, I’d been working in call centres too long. I decided to push for a promotion, and got a role as a supervisor, which I did for a bit but realised that it was still very high pressure, and not what I wanted to do.
I’d worked in call centres for 7 years, and it was really starting to get too much.
I decided to finish my degree, and as we had a house and mortgage by then, decided the best option was to study with the Open University. It seems crazy now looking back on it. I was working part time and doing two courses in one year to finish my degree. They would normally take two years, and on top of which I was pregnant with my first child. It was difficult! I finally finished when my son was 1. I wasn’t in any hurry to go back to work as I didn’t have a career as such. My partner and I both felt that it wasn't worth me paying for childcare just so I could work for the sake of it and we were just about managing on one income.
I then had my daughter in 2006 and after a couple of years I don't know what happened, but something kind of went pop! As someone who’s always been artistic and pretty able, I didn’t really create anything myself, although I've always loved architecture and all kinds of design. When I got some money for my birthday, I thought I’d go to a gallery and get some 'proper jewellery'.
I couldn’t find anything that was ‘me’, so I bought some beads and made some for myself.
Within a couple of weeks not only was I loving it, but I had the urge to create so much more jewellery including designs that weren't something I would wear myself. As I was just starting out and experimenting, people advised me to start by using cheaper materials. But I have never been interested in costume jewellery so went with my instincts and jumped straight in with silver and gemstone beads, and I found I was really good at it. That was it, it was literally like an explosion, I wanted to make more, and develop this new creative aspect of my life into a business. When I look back now, it does seem like a natural progression, actually, because when I was a child I used to spend hours playing with my granny’s broken beaded jewellery, and dreaming of having 'proper' jewellery myself. I think that's where the germ of it started.
I didn’t have any money to invest or any particular business skills, but I decided to go for it.
I started making around the February of 2008, and by May I was registered as self-employed. I knew I had to make it a real business, as although there are all kinds of things it would be lovely to do, we didn't have money to waste on an expensive hobby. I had lovely feedback from friends right from the start, and so I knew that my designs were appealing to people. Then it was a mission to try and prove it was worth investing time and money into. That May I went to Heart Gallery in Hebden Bridge and asked the owner, Alison, if she would be interested in stocking any of my designs, and was delighted when she agreed.
It did take quite a lot of courage, I was really expecting a rejection and it suddenly felt a very personal thing to be doing, having my own creations judged by somebody else.
After that success I started approaching and stocking more galleries. I started selling on Etsy in September that year, and got quite a lot of sales on there, and I joined notonthehighstreet shortly after, which has been a fantastic selling arena for me. I launched my own website in 2010, although to start with it wasn’t what I wanted, as I used an off the shelf website package. I signed up with the people who host my current ecommerce website nearly 2 years ago, and my online business has been steadily growing since then.
I do everything myself - PR, photos, copy, website bits, basic coding and blogging.
Did going back to uni help you get started?
I think it did, looking back, it gave me the chance to think a little wider and start the process of planning what I really wanted to do. After dropping out of my first degree because it just wasn't doing anything for me, when I went back to the Open University it really made me feel I could achieve something, that I had a brain and could use it. My written work was all well graded and it was a real turning point of self belief for me. I loved the courses, and the critical view it developed within me really awakened something, I believe. Having the break from work to have my children was also important as it gave me space from the daily work grind to really think about what my options were. My last job in a call centre did contribute in some ways too. I used to give pre-sales IT advice to businesses, and learned a lot about computers, and using the internet as a research resource.
What does your job involve?
Day to day it would involve making orders for customers, keeping up my website (keeping it fresh and blogging, which I do fairly regularly), and social media activities such as Twitter and Facebook. I design new products, research sourcing semi-precious beads to give my designs a unique look, and look for new ways of using them. It's important to continue to be creatively inspired, too. I take the photos of all of my designs and edit them which can take a long time as I am a perfectionist!
I’ve done a couple of trade shows and a lot of local craft fairs. It’s great to meet your customers, and it’s a good way of seeing what people like and respond to. I also deal with the finance and admin side of things, which I have to admit I’m not brilliant at! My aim for this year is to be better at that side of my business, which will get easier when I am in a larger workspace soon. I sell in various different venues so I have to collate all that financially. I tend to do it all a month before the tax deadline, which is becoming harder each year as my sales have been growing steadily.
It’s all very well having an idea about jewellery, or any other creative business, but a lot of your day is spent doing things that aren’t actually that thing.
Working in your creative dream is not all about living that dream, and it's important to realise this early on. Even your perfect job will have mundane tasks. I’ve never worked it out as a percentage but at least 50% of my time is spent on other tasks involved in the business, other than making jewellery.
What takes up most of your time?
I spend too long on the computer. I spend time updating my website, editing photos, writing copy and blogging. Using social media is both a blessing and a distraction! I get a lot of my customers by using it, and have really built up my presence online. It's fantastic for letting your customers know about new collections, for instance. Another great aspect is the creative community that I have around me which is vital when working from home. I am part of a growing collective of crafters and artists from Yorkshire and Lancashire called Craft Soup, and we share ideas and information about the best fairs. But it’s also tempting, because you work on or near the computer, to become distracted. Keeping focused can be a big issue at times.
Do you see other people much?
Not much face to face with my customers and stockists. I did a big trade show in April where it was great to spend time with gallery and shop owners. I generally try and keep up with my galleries over the phone every so often. I call a few a week, and I’m always trying to get new stockists. I made a conscious decision recently to really inject a personal feel to my website and this seems to be paying off as I am getting a lot more interaction and lovely feedback from customers which is fantastic.
The internet is a very impersonal medium, but I’m hand-making everything, and I think it's important to show that I’m a real person and I’ll be making your jewellery.
As is often the case with artists and crafts people, I spend more time on my own than if I worked from a shop, or if I worked in a collective studio or office environment. On the whole I don't mind this, and have a network of local artists and friends I meet with regularly for a coffee and chat.
Reaching those people who would like my jewellery is the biggest challenge. There’s a lot of emphasis out there on getting maximum traffic to your website, but to be honest, for me it’s not neccessarily about that.
If you had a shop, it’s not about getting 1000 people in there a day. You want the 20 people who will buy something.
You have to find those people who really connect with your product, and build on that. That’s the hardest thing, but again, social media has been invaluable for this, and I have a growing mailing list and followers on Twitter and Facebook.
What are the job options out there for a jewellery designer?
Because I’ve not been trained in it specifically, and I’ve not come through any kind of education process, this hasn't really applied to me.
I’ve made it up as I’ve gone along, and carved my own path.
If I had my time again, with no kids and more time on my hands, I would love to study a degree in jewellery design or become a silversmith. When you’ve already got a family, you are so limited in terms of time available for you to retrain. I would like to learn more business skills as I’ve had to learn the whole process of how you want to present yourself as a business and an entity, as I've gone along. Pure art courses don’t really help you with that, either, although I think it’s changing now, as educators realise people need relevant business skills to stand any chance of making it in the current climate. I must be doing something right, as I started my design business in the year of the big crash, and subsequent recessions, and I'm doing ok.
Have you encountered any snobbery because you don’t have a degree in the field?
Not in relation to specific qualifications, but there are some venues that haven't taken my work because I am currently not silversmithing.
I am actually learning to do smithing at the moment. We’re building a studio in our loft, and hopefully at some point before Christmas, I’ll be able to get new designs out there, producing rings, and more designs where all the components are handmade by me. I'm really looking forward to developing my jewellery in this new direction! If I had a BA or arts training, it might open up some more contemporary craft galleries, but to be honest, there are plenty around for me without that.
Too long really. When the kids are at school, 9.30-2.30 in the week, and some time in the evening, depending on orders. Stocking a gallery takes more time, too. If there’s a big glut of orders, I work at weekends. I spend a couple of hours most evenings on my computer editing or blogging.
What makes a good jewellery designer?
Somebody who has a good eye for detail. You have to be very precise if you’re jewellery making, to achieve the finish that’s required. You obviously need to be good with your hands, and you need an eye for design. I think you need to be pretty focused, and really want to do it, that’s very important.
It’s not neccessarily ever going to be a very well paid job but it’s my passion.
Is it difficult to switch off when you work from home?
I’m trying to get a better work life balance. The problem with being creative and doing what I love is that it’s a hobby that’s my job and a job that’s my hobby. The lines get easily blurred!
It can be hard to distinguish when my work hat comes off and I’m doing it because I want to.
I love it when I get feedback from customers. I’ve got an order at the moment for four sets for someone’s wedding. It always feels really special that someone has chosen my designs for their special day. It’s an honour to be part of someone’s special and personal gift.
It's always a real compliment to launch a new design and sell it the very same day, it makes me feel like I am getting it right!
Admin and the mundane jobs. And trying to keep my office tidy, this is quite hard because it’s only 2 metres square, and currently has our house filing in too. It’s a constant battle, but will get better when I have a separate space to work upstairs. This will also help my work life balance!
Do you have any advice?
Go for it, and really give it a go, but be realistic. You can’t just go for it without checking to see if people like what you’re doing. If you want to get into the purely art side, maybe that’s less of an issue, as it’s more about what you’re creating and how you are doing it.
But if you want a business and to make a living, you need to test that you are making the right products.
Try it out on family and friends first, try some craft fairs or school events, something to get yourself out there to see if people like what you’re doing. You don’t necessarily need a huge pile of money to throw at it, and it would be rash to, anyway. I found a way of getting what I wanted without that, by building things slowly and investing in my business as the money came in. I have saved a lot of money by doing a lot myself, including the branding and photography.
Is there anything you’d change?
Not really. It would be lovely to have a crystal ball to know what pieces people are going to like, and will be real sellers, because then I would make more of those! Sometimes the pieces I like best are the same as those that sell the best, but not always. Some designs don't sell well at first, then pick-up suddenly, and I might not be able to source those particular beads by then!