To be successful, jewelry designers need more than just great designs – they need the right blend of 6 key ingredients to create bestselling lines.
As a designer, it’s easy to design jewels that appeal to your own personal aesthetic. But if you want to make a living at it, and not just make jewelry for yourself and a few friends and family, then you need to do everything you can to make your designs appeal to a wide swath of potential paying customers.
It’s not enough to just have great designs. Successful designers create collections and bodies of work that are designed to be sellable. This is a function of merchandising, which is too often thought of as solely part of the job of a retailer. But savvy designers know that if they want to increase their odds of success, merchandising starts way before the jewelry is even seen by the retailer. It also goes beyond the creation stage; it dictates how the line will be expanded in subsequent seasons and it influences how the jewelry will be displayed in the store.
Simply put, designing is the act of creating jewelry, merchandising is the act of making it sellable.
With more than 20 years experience working with designers, I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. From that, I have identified six ingredients as necessary to creating a bestselling line. Let’s take a look at how to best handle each of them to maximize your salability.
While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it doesn’t mean you aren’t without ways of helping potential customers see the beauty in your pieces. Regardless of the style of your work (minimalist, modern, ornate, thematic, architectural) there is a basic human instinct for harmony, balance, and rhythm. For many, if not most, that is a powerful factor that helps them see that something is beautiful. Scale, color, size, symmetry (or harmonious asymmetry) all play a part, too. The takeaway here is that imbalanced or inharmonious pieces will find fewer fans (and customers). If you specialize in the avant-garde or the discordant or the controversial, you will resonate only with consumers who are drawn to that. And while that may be a well-defined market, it will be a smaller one.
To some degree the times we live in helps define beauty as well. Fashion trends come and go, and so to help maximize your work’s level of perceived beauty you need to design with a balance of natural harmony, timeliness, and a personalized point-of-view that expresses your interpretation of beauty.
For many, the most useful way to design is two-fold. Create something that inspires you, and then step back to evaluate it. Consider scale, balance, harmony, color, texture, and shape. Ask others what they think. Remember, you’re designing for more than your own pleasure in your business.
To truly stand out from the crowd you have to do something unique, and like the concept of beauty, it’s not always definable since we’re talking about aesthetic judgments.
What I have found helpful when considering this factor is to think of work that is done uniquely. Most jewelers will tell you that “there’s nothing new under the sun” when it comes to jewelry design, and they are mostly right. What can be new, or at least newish, is the way you express an age-old idea. What can make you stand out is the way you interpret, and reinterpret, something that has been done before.
For example, gemstones set in a bezel with other gems around is not an original idea. It’s been done for millennia. But the way that a designer goes about arranging the bezels, combining the shapes, repeating the patterns, and adding some artistic detail can be unique. And then, the building out of that idea to create an entire collection or body of work showcasing that unique interpretation is what gets that designer to be called “an original.”
Like most designers, Todd Reed began his career working in metal and stones, crafting jewelry that was wearable and pretty. But it wasn’t until he began to specialize in one unusual gem (raw diamond cubes) and set them in a particular way (hand-hammered bezels with notches) and in a particular color of metal (a deeply oxidized sterling) and with a unique texture (his own hand-wrought finish) did his work start to coalesce into an original look. The combination of all those details, none absolutely unique on their own, created an original look that is distinguishable from all other jewels that feature raw diamonds or scratchy oxidized silver.
A well-merchandised collection is a deep collection. This means that you’ve created plenty of material in each product category your earring selection has studs, hoops, dangles, and more. There are short, medium, and long versions of some designs. Ideally, a successful collection has something for everyone; if a consumer loves your look but is a “big earring” girl or “little earring” girl she can find something of yours to take home.
Having a wide variety of options gives retailers faith in your entire collection. If they’re going to buy into your collection and not just grab a quick trend item then they’re going to be dedicating significant showcase space and marketing attention to your brand. A deep collection gives them a lot to work with and the confidence that they will be able to get whatever their customer needs from you.
And if each new collection builds upon the previous one then they’re assured there will be a continual flow of new merchandise that fits in with the older stuff they have in the case already.
In addition to offering a depth to your collection, you also need to offer breadth. By offering a broad assortment of pieces, you ensure variety. Good retailers have built stores with clear points-of-view and when you offer a wide breadth you make it easier for them to find themselves in your collection.
A wide breadth of design expression gives the retailer, and their customers, a lot of choices and ways to connect to your point-of-view. A broad assortment takes time and builds up with subsequent collections and line extensions.
Breadth is akin to depth in that you always want ways to add more. For example, while David Yurman has a deep assortment of earrings, maybe 100 styles or more. He has a broad selection of collections such as the personalized group, the matte stone collection, the pearl collection, the petite collection, and more.
Sometimes you can visualize this best by laying out all your jewelry and trying to arrange it by collection. Often designers create in a staccato way as ideas pop up, but forcing yourself to lay it all out is eye opening. Are there many piles or just two? Can you immediately see a design gap between one collection (let’s call it X) and another (let’s call it Z), which gives you the idea to build the Y collection to visually connect one idea to another? Disjointed collections are hard to sell as the retailer can’t see how they’d make sense of it in their showcase nor how they’d easily communicate it best to their customers. You have to build the visual bridge to help both collections sell better.
Whenever you’re launching a new collection, it’s important to follow what I call the Family Tree Theory of Design. Not only must your collection have a clear visual identity so that your work is recognizable as a body of work, but it must also bear a recognizable thread of resemblance to what came before.
While you can make whatever you want, you should make what makes sense as the next branch of the design tree that you are nurturing. Your design DNA should be evident throughout. Imagine your design style as akin to a tall, lean, blue-eyed blond family. It would be a bit jarring to see a short, stocky, swarthy sibling coming from the same stock. Your collections should always bear a thread of resemblance to each other with some common elements relating them together. Your regular customers will appreciate the ease with which they can add new, complementary pieces to their own collections.
On a practical level, what you should do is look at the differentiating points of your designs. What is your design DNA? What combination of metals, settings, textures, scale, adornments, clasps, findings, details, colors, gems, and tricks do you use in creating it? That’s your secret sauce, so to speak.
For example, Sarah Graham’s design DNA is comprised of blackened cobalt with white and yellow gold, natural themes and organic textures always cast from nature, and a somber gemstone palette of white, champagne, and black diamonds. So the color palette is as specific as the texture and the scale and the design inspirations. Together, those points create her secret sauce that is hers alone. While other designers use blackened metal or organic textures, it’s the sum of those parts that equals her unique style.
As your business grows you will be tempted to add all kinds of new things. You will get bored with your look and want to go in all kinds of new directions but most designers should be wary of going off on too far a tangent. This is what I call Design Attention Deficit Disorder, and it can easily derail your design train from reaching Success Town. If you don’t deliver what the marketplace wants or expects, the risk of losing your customers’ attention is great. If they have to relearn who you are every other year, they just might forget you in between.
It’s quite possible, probable even, that the combination of elements you use could run their course or become outdated, a major fear of designers as they search for their own secret sauce. But you should be able to get at least five years out of the first version of your recipe. And then, you’ll have to mix up a new sauce. It may seem obvious by now, but remember to keep some of the ingredients from the previous batch and don’t be afraid to mix in some newer, fresher ingredients.
Sarah Graham’s growth over the past 15 years shows her true mastery of evolution. When she became a mom, she became enamored with sentimental jewelry featuring fingerprints of her loved ones. She now has a very prolific line of custom-designed personalized fingerprint jewelry that fits right in with her collections thanks to her stylized use of texture. The fingerprints become another organic texture she designs with and is what separates her fingerprint jewelry from the other companies that offer the service. Her version of fingerprint jewelry is for her customers those that respond to her design DNA.