On becoming a jewelry designer

I am pleased to publish this guest entry from Tracy Holzman, a former successful jewelry designer for over fifteen years who wanted another challenge. Since then, she changed careers to become a pattern maker which is how she found us here. I was excited to hear from her because we don’t get a lot of questions about jewelry design although a lot of jewelry designers end up here looking for line sheet pointers. Anyway, what follows is an exploratory article on the business of jewelry design. As is often the case, it’s hard to write about something if you know a lot about it because you don’t know where to start. In this case, Tracy has agreed to write more about becoming a jewelery designer in the future if you’ll include some suggestions in comments. As many of you will see, the fashion industry has a lot in common with the jewelry and accessories business.

About her journey, Tracy says “It is kind of strange being a “midlife” changer. I think I imagined, when I quit my company in 2001, that by now I would be running a division or another company. The place I am in now feels kind of bottomless sometimes. I am not complaining, it is a place of a myriad of possibilities, and I often advise other people to enjoy the place of ‘I don’t know’ as a place that the universe has freedom to direct to a great outcome”. It is in this spirit that she offers the following.

This weekend I spent a few enjoyable hours sorting a shoebox full of buttons that I bought for $8.00 at an estate sale. At first, it looked just to be a dismal pile but as I sorted the collection, it became clear that there was a selective eye behind the collection. I sorted the buttons, first by color, size and then type. As I sorted, many ideas came to my mind as I visualized how each set of buttons could be used. I even sorted out the cute or unusual one of -a- kinds that I could use as accents on accessories.

That’s the way a lot of artisans get into business. We start by finding something that is inspiring, then making something that we like, our families like, and our friends want us to make more of. Pretty soon the famous words ” You could sell that!” are uttered, we sell a few and (hopefully) a business is born. There are a lot of jewelry makers that began their careers like that. Not everyone wants to grow a big wholesale business, but a lot of people see the potential to be a jewelry designer, and or manufacturer. Whether coming out of art school with a business plan in hand, or stringing beads to sell at concerts jewelry manufacturing can be a source of pleasure and income. Jewelry is an essential accessory to the garment business and follows the runway trends every season. Some fashion houses that lose money on their couture lines make money on their jewelry and accessory lines.

Jewelry sales follow the fashion calendar but most designers can do good business with two collections a year. In designing for those groups, it is much better to start from a known material that attracts you, which you can get more of and design backwards. In my case, as a designer working to make production products, I found the problem with using a found object, however cool on a sample, is that it was nearly impossible to duplicate that item when you need to make a production line item.Until you can get a source for materials that are nice and consistent and at a good price, you are going to make only one- of-a kinds. Some jewelry made of variable natural materials, always is always going to be one-of-a-kind.

The best place to source stones is the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. It is a fantastic way to get a feel for trends in stone color and cuts and to get a strong feel for what you want to work with for the coming year. The show takes place at multiple venues throughout the Tucson area, every year in February. This show bills itself as the greatest gem and mineral show in the world, and I believe it truly is. I shopped this show for 10 years for my company and had to spend about $10,000.00 (1990 dollars) to make it worthwhile. I figured that I needed to find, negotiate and purchase at least an estimated year’s worth of stones for production pieces. This was the best way to get the lowest price. I would sometimes have to contact suppliers to restock and the price after the show was always higher. I also would buy sample strands of beads or stones to take back for design inspiration.

I loved buying at the Tucson gem and Mineral show. It is so popular that when I was checking out of my hotel, I would often make my reservations to stay there the next year. I know some people would fly in for the day, but I couldn’t everything done that quickly. I loved seeing shows I shouldn’t have gone to and spent money at, like the handmade bead shows. I would also visit our customers in the area, eat at the many restaurants and it was a fun trip for me. I was always extremely paranoid boarding the plane on my way home, with my heavy bags, full of gems and semi precious stone beads. The show is over for 2007, if you go to the web site, you can order a great source book for stones and jewelry supplies and of course, register for next year.

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  1. Big Irv says:

    So Tuscon is where you go for precious and semi precious stones.
    I had a client in Providence, Rhode Island (apparel) and at one time their claim to fame was they were the epicenter of the costume jewelry business in the US. RISD offered jewelry design courses. This sounds like a different snack bracket altogether.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I’m curious about minimums for gems- is that similar to fabric, where it’s always the catch?
    What about prices- I know nothing about this industry, can you give a price range for different gems? How are they graded? Are there certificates of authenticity?

  3. Lisa says:

    If you live on or can come to the West Coast, there are several bead and gem fairs. Go to http://www.gemfaire.com for schedules and other info. The bead fair and gem fair have pretty much the same stuff except the gem fair had people selling jewelry, both the kind you string yourself and stuff that’s cast with jewels set in.

    A lot of the gems that are sold as beads (as opposed to cabochons or faceted gems to be put into a setting) are lower grade than the cabs or faceted ones. You’d have to look up how they grade them. The ones for fine jewelry have certificates, at least, diamonds do, but other ones don’t. Diamonds are graded best is D then downwards E, F, G, and so on. Not sure about other gems. Each vendor will have their own minimums if you’re a wholesale buyer, but if you just go as a person, you can buy as little or as much as you want. Prices are way better at the fairs than at stores and stuff. Again, go to the gemfaire web site or look for other fairs’ web sites in different states.

    Also, Fire Mountain Gems, based in Oregon, has a huge catalog and web site and good prices. Not sure on the web site name, but search for Fire Mountain Gems and you’ll find it.

    I made freshwater pearl necklaces for Christmas presents and got the pearls at the Gem Faire. Each 16″ strand was only $2, $3, $4, or $6 but they had longer and more expensive ones, but still good prices. With the pearls, a cheap strand doesn’t look any less nice than an expensive one, for the most part.

  4. Tracy Holzman says:

    Rhode Island is the traditional hub of the jewelry industry, and is still the place to go for machinery. As more and more manufacturing has moved over seas, the industry has all but died out there. The MJSA (Manufacturing Jewelers Association Of America) http://www.mjsa.org/ show is usually held in Rhode Island and the Southwest has been very influence in jewelry as well. Didn’t everyone have turquoise in the seventies? A big contributor to the MJSA show is located in Albuquerque, a supplier called “Rio Grande” http://www.riogrande.com/ Rio Grande has a great site and catalog and pretty much any supplies that you will need. The local gem fairs are very good as well, but do not compare to prices you can get at the white-hot magma center of the international bead world, Tucson.

    Beads are defiantly graded by many factors, such as clarity, color, rarity, origin and size. A strand of pearls will range from under $1.00 to many hundreds depending. Be wary of the lower priced strands as they often are drilled very badly and will need work on the holes. Maybe I will write more on bead stringing if anyone has an interest in the basics.

  5. Krisalee says:

    I would be interested in hearing about how you priced your work and what avenues you used to successfully sell and market your product. Did the high priced items sell as well as the lower priced ones? Were there any shows or fairs you exhibited at that you found to be better than the others? Did you sell on-line as well?

  6. Andrea says:

    Lisa, thanks for the article. I took a jewelry making class in college and always wanted to do more. I am looking forward to more articles. I am also interested in knowing how it is priced both wholesale and retail and why it’s different…I know that keystoning isn’t typical.

    Thanks again.

  7. Karen C. says:

    I would definitely like to hear more about stringing beads. I’ve bought a lot of beads through Fire Mountain (love their stuff) that I use to embellish some of my tops. Any resources (such as instructional books) would be most welcome. Thanks.

  8. Miachelle says:

    I smiled as I read the line about jewelry designers making their way to your site for the info on line sheets-that was my second visit here! (My first was thanks to a local apparel designer here in Phx.)

    There are a variety of jewelry blogs that do what you do here. I have a pretty good list on my site. For really terrific info on jewelry, I highly recommend joining the Orchid forum on Ganoksin.com. It’s a very professional forum (in tone and atmosphere). Members range from beaders to fine jewelers.

    Thanks for this post.

  9. La BellaDonna says:

    Why am I not surprised you make jewelry? I bet it’s beautiful and imaginative, too.

    The east coast has the International Gem and Jewelry Show (www. intergem.net) twice a year … which also shows at other places, hence the name, but I live here on the east coast, so twice a year, I go to the show at King of Prussia. The vendors with whom I’ve dealt haven’t had any minimums, and by and large, the prices are good. However, do try to pay attention and deal with reputable dealers; I try to be an informed consumer, but I did get stuck with bogus, or at least overdyed, lapis from one vendor who never appeared at another show. I actually learned my bead-stringing from books, and have been pretty successful at it; I’ve had store buyers try to buy pieces off my neck, so I guess I’m not the only one who likes what I make.

    It’s also made me view differently jewelry sold by other people; I’ve bought pieces that I’ve promptly deconstructed for their contents, and strung them into jewelry that suited my taste better.

  10. Megan says:

    I LOVE the Tuscon show! I didn’t get to go this year but plan to try to make it next year. It’s not the only show out there but it’s definitely the best. Intergem and other companies put on shows that are decent.

    I’m so glad this subject is being posted. I’m one of those who found my way over here, as a jewelry designer, and love reading this blog. A lot of the advice really does apply in the jewelry field too.

    I wouldn’t say that ALL gems drilled for beads are lower grade. You can pay a LOT of money for some incredibly high grade stones. I have a few Amethyst briolettes that are A grade and just stunning. They could easily have been made into faceted stones for setting but I love that they were made into beads.

    Elizabeth – there are definitely minimums and pricing advantages for buying strands of gemstones in bulk. Most of the vendors in Tucson prefer customers to buy at *least* ten strands or more. I tend to just buy one or two so I know I am not necessarily getting the ‘best’ price but it’s still better than buying from a vendor like Fire Mountain Gems. And sometimes I end up spending $500 or more just buying one or two strands of each stone I want…and then I get a discount for the amount I’ve spent. I have a favorite vendor who does this for me a lot.

    Speaking of Fire Mountain Gems…they are great for Swarovski crystals but hugely expensive for most everything else. I do get my beading wire from them. But the stones I’ve purchased from them in the past were very poor quality. They do accept returns for any reason which is nice.

    Gem prices can range from $1 to $1,000 and up. I’ve paid up to $300 for one strand (recently at a Seattle show for a high grade 8.5-9.5 mm freshwater pearl strand) and don’t blink too much anymore at $100 per strand of high quality gemstones. I like the good stuff. :)

    I started out making a bracelet with a group of women and got hooked. I began with simple bead stringing, using glass and base metals. As I gained confidence I began using sterling silver and gemstones and now am fully comfortable using fine silver and gold in my work. And the quality of gems I look for is much higher.

    SO glad this topic is here!

  11. Elizabeth says:

    Lisa, Megan, everyone, thank you for the answers. One more question, well two actually- how many beads on a strand, does it vary depending on size and grade? And how is silver/ gold bought? Are there settings, or chains, or other forms that you buy, melt and model yourself?
    Thanks again, everyone, very informative post. I wonder if marketing a jewelry line is harder than an apparel or accessories line. Anyone done both for a comparison?

  12. Megan says:

    Elizabeth: I haven’t marketed both but I can tell you that it is very hard to market jewelry. And I know I am not very good at it either. LOL :) So many people “bead” jewelry that the market is super saturated and you have to work really hard to stand out and do something different. Simple beaded work is a very hard sell.

    Bead strands can come in a variety of lengths – the normal is 16 inches and of course the number of beads depends on the size of the bead itself. Small beads can be 300 to a strand while I’ve had as few as 10 on a strand for larger beads.

    Silver can be bought in just about any form – from beads already made to casting to wire. Same for gold. You can buy chain in the form of necklaces that already have clasps or you can buy chain by the foot. It seems like there are never ending options.

    When I first started I bought all of my findings (clasps, head pins, etc.) but now I make most of my findings using fine silver wire and PMC (precious metal clay – yet another way to make jewelry).

    So many options – so little time! :)

  13. Debbie says:

    I am not really interested in making my designs but rather selling them to companies. Is there good money in just designing, and how would someone go about doing this?

    Thank You,

  14. Kathleen says:

    Hi Debbie
    Generally, unless you are an established, marketable name already (known for jewelry design) it’s hard to break in. I intend no offense by saying so but ideas are a dime a pallet. It’s a buyers market and we have more ideas of our own than we know what to do with. That’s why most designers produce their own stuff; there’s no other way to market their ideas except by producing it themselves.

    If you decide to produce your designs and your stuff sells (nobody cares if your ideas are cool, only if they sell, not the same thing), you may have the option of then selling your line and future freelancing to the people who buy you out. Zoe wrote a post on freelance designing you might want to read. Altho it is about apparel, there’s very little different with jewelry.

  15. for those of you interested in enjoying the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show at a more leisurely pace, my dad rents a fully furnished house by the week–I’m sure he’d rent by the day if I send you.

    I was born in Tucson, so I’m a bit partial, but it’s a really great place to visit, and worth a longer stay.

    e-mail me if you’re interested.

  16. Fay Torresyap says:

    This is a wonderful website. Does anyone know of a website/blog specifically directed to jewelry designers? I have been taking classes at FIT in nyc and I am thinking of a mid-life career change. Does anyone know the income range of jewelry designers–(working in-house for a company vs selling a design line vs selling via tradeshows,etc. vs selling to a wholesale market?) I really appreciate any leads on where to look for this information. If anyone has any questions about a career change to picture research or editing, please feel free to ask me. Thanks for your help!

  17. August says:

    Hi there Fay,

    I’ve been designing and selling my jewelry for about two years now, and it’s only now that I’ve stumbled into a line that it mass marketable. When I began, I was all over the map with my designs, creating anything and everything that inspired me. My pieces were very intricate and complicated. The price point was way too high to sell at festivals and craft fairs. People didn’t appreciate the work that had gone into it, so I sat on pieces for a loooong time. You can see my sale items on my site (www.augustmillerdesign.com)that have been around for more than a year!

    Up until recently I had to work other jobs to pay the bills because my expenses exceeded my sales. I’m learning that even though I’m an artist, I’ve got to think like a business person. Now I’m looking at profit margins and branding. I’ve got a line now (most of it isnt on my site yet) that has a HUGE profit margin. I stumbled into it by accident, and grossed over $2100 at a local festival recently. The pieces retailed for an average of $35 which is perfect. Now, I’m scheduled to meet with the Akira store in Chicago who has several locations in Chicago and in NYC. They want to pick up my line.

    It’s taken me two years on attending festivals and getting a LOT of feedback to learn what sells. Often, it’s not the pieces I love the most. I’ve probably attended 20 shows in the last two years making as little as $200 and as much as $2300. Sometimes it’s been disappointing, but I’ve learned a lot just by watching my customers.

    Ultimately, for me, it’s a numbers game. I’m playing a game to not only support myself but make a lot of money, so I’m looking at mass producing my items while still keeping the design and production in house. How do I do that? That’s what I’m sorting out now. Luckily, I’ve found a niche that I can dig my heels into a run. (did that make any sense?)

    I’ts about 4am, and I was just here looking for a line sheet too. haha! I hope I’ve not rambled too much. Good Luck!

  18. Ellen says:

    Hi Fay,
    Oddly I too am a picture researcher and jewelry designer.
    I’ve done research in the library school market but I’m hoping to broaden my client base. Are companies in trade, adult and children, hiring freelance picture researchers or is it all in house? Any directions on how and where to broaden the clients who hire freelancers?
    As far as jewelry design goes, I’m shifting emphasis in my marketing and thus my concepts. I started with a very fine ‘exclusive’ line but have slowly begun to move to a more wholesale product line, because of the margins mentioned above.

    Thanks for any direction you can provide.

  19. Garnet Baker says:

    It’s so nice to know that I’m not the only jewelry nerd alive! My path to jewelry design has been so incredible and I am ready to do this full time. I’ve made jewerly since gradeschool. I never went to school for it, I just had a natural appreciation of gemstones and precious metals and all things pretty. I always knew I wanted to be a part of the creative process and live an artistic lifestyle. I love the idea that my art is wearable and that it has the power to make women feel beautiful. I lie awake at night with visions of new designs filtering into my mind.

    In college, I would sell my pieces to friends and classmates. I went to school for business and when I graduated, I worked a corporate 9 – 5 insurance job.

    After 4 long years of corporate inprisonment, I teamed up with another extremely talented and visionary jewelry designer, Katie Miller, and together we created Scarlett Garnet Jewelry Designs. We were introduced by mutual friends who had website hosting space available and they thought it would cut down on our expenses with two designers. At first, we didn’t want to work with others but it only took a short while for us both to realize that our partnership was a very good thing. Creatively and businesswise, we are a great team. Katie lived in South Carolina and I live in Kansas City, MO so we communicated via phone and email for 9 months before finally meeting in person when Katie moved to St. Louis, MO.

    We’ve had http://www.scarlettgarnet.com for over a year and currently sell in several boutiques in Kansas City and St. Louis. Katie makes hand blown glass beads and I am a wire molding guru. We equally love gemstones and natural components and have an appreciation for vintage and rare. We each bring our own unique perspective to Scarlett Garnet.

    We decided it’s time to take it to the next level. I finally quit my corporate insurance job to make jewelry full time. My last day was 12/31/07 so I truly made a clean break into a new lifestyle. Of course, it all takes time, and a part time server position at a local bar and grill. Katie and I are struggling with how to effectually make product lines ‘en masse’, a puzzle all jewelry designers must solve in order to make it to the next level in this business. It’s great to blog with other fellow jewelry designers. We are a rare breed, it seems, and it’s so great to network and help each other out.

    I totally agree with August that this is a business and shoud be treated as one. I’ve found that my years in corporate enslavement have actually made me a better jewelry designer. I know how to market my product and have the tools to back it up on the business side of the spectrum. It’s our business and we work for ourselves which is the true beauty of it all, doing what we love for a living.

    Katie and I are in the process of learning metal smithing and plan to design a line to mass produce. Any tips that could help us in this arena would be awesome.

    Good luck to all the fellow jewelry nerds!


  20. Vicki Stone says:

    Hi Tracy, I am a retired accountant, i.e. financial corp. controller. I want to become a jewelry designer and expect to invest my time and money in training classes throughout the U.S. I do not want to be a crafter but rather create designs that are more upscale. There must be a million “designers” out there but how many of them really become profitable? Thanks.

  21. Andrea says:

    I would love to hear more about outsourcing. Demand for my work has grown beyond what I can make with my own two hands. So, I would like to find a company that can mass produce components that I currently produce myself. I also need to know what are customary business practices in such an arrangment.


  22. jean says:

    I am a jewelry designer but want to take it to another level and work with finer metals and stones. My first question relates to creating a collection and what is considered a collection? How many necklaces, bracelets and earrings should be in the collection and should all of them work together? A collection has synergy and commonality but what if the style or pattern is not selling you have wasted so much on one collection. My second question is about manufacturing. It seems you can get better prices by having your designs manufactured outside the United States. How do you make contact with these people and know if you are being given a fair price?

  23. Tiana says:

    I am a beginner jewelry designer, and have taken a basic jewelry making class and wire wrapping class. I have supplies and make my own necklaces, earrings, and some bracelets. This is with the most basic techniques. Is it possible to be successful with this approach without learning metalsmith, soldering, gem setting, sketching, etc…
    Does anyone have any class recommendations for the next step? I don’t want to buy equipment.
    Any recommendations on mentors or just keep using this site? I am new here.
    Thanks for your help!

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