Amateur Artists Fill Unique Niche in the Jewelry World

For jewelry artists, it iss an opportunity to sell work that has become difficult to place at price-conscious mainstream jewelry stores. For the public, it iss a chance to buy innovative jewelry that they might otherwise never have seen. And for the savvy retailer -- be it a gallery owner or just an independent jeweler looking for something to set her store apart from the crowd -- it iss a great place to find new sources.

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By Suzanne WadeMore from this author

Amateur artists can now find a place in the jewelry world in fine craft shows featuring only artists offering handcrafted products to exhibit. These artists offer a great addition of innovative and more avant-garde designs to the jewelry world.

For jewelry artists, it's an opportunity to sell work that has become difficult to place at price-conscious mainstream jewelry stores. For the public, it's a chance to buy innovative jewelry that they might otherwise never have seen. And for the savvy retailer — be it a gallery owner or just an independent jeweler looking for something to set her store apart from the crowd — it's a great place to find new sources.

You won't see volume producers at fine craft shows. In fact, large manufacturers are actively excluded from these shows, sifted out by a system that invites only artists offering handcrafted products to exhibit.

At the same time, you won't find hobby crafters hawking simple beaded necklaces, either. The most popular shows - such as the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., the American Craft Council shows, the Buyer's Market of American Craft in Philadelphia, or the Contemporary Craft Markets in Santa Monica and San Francisco - attract more than 1,000 applications from jewelers interested in filling the 100 to 200 booth spaces available. Such a large pool of talented applicants guarantees that the exhibitors chosen will be anything but amateur.

As a result, the work found at fine craft shows is typically more avant-garde in design and demonstrates an attention to detail often missing in products displayed at large jewelry trade shows. Unusual colored stones are common in these aisles, as are hand-fabricated findings and labor-intensive techniques such as granulation and enamel.

In order for a show to attract that type of talent, it must draw the buyers that will make doing the show worthwhile. While shows like JCK and JA New York buzz when buyers from mass merchants such as Nordstrom or Wal-Mart arrive, the fine craft circuit is built on small gallery owners and individual consumers who are knowledgeable about the difference between mass produced and individually hand-fabricated products.

"At the shows I do, at least a good part of the audience is pretty well-educated about craft and think of my jewelry as art or fine craft," says Judith Kinghorn, a jewelry artist from Minneapolis. "There are certainly people who come to all these shows who are new to craft, and they want to know if this is glass or plastic or whatever, but for the most part people who follow these shows usually know a fair amount about fine craft."

Whether the quality exhibitors or the high-class buyers come first is something of a chicken-or-the-egg question, and each show has its own story.

"The Smithsonian Craft Show has developed as an exceptionally well-informed and receptive market, but it didn't really start that way," says Donald Friedlich, a Madison, Wisconsin-based jewelry artist who has exhibited at the show for more than 20 years. "It started as a very competitive show to get into because of the Smithsonian name. I think there were 1,200 applicants the first year for 100 places, but that first year people were asking questions like, 'Is this work for sale?' They didn't understand what I was doing, and although some people did well at the show that first year, I did not."

The Smithsonian reputation was enough to continue to draw top-flight artists, however, and after a couple of years it began to draw equally high-quality buyers. "I didn't apply the third or fourth year, but I decided to try it again the fifth year, and by that point the audience had turned around. I won best in show and sold several major pieces and lots of production pieces, and the quality of the questions from the audience was dramatically different. It kind of gave me some faith that a show can either identify a market or educate a market. The Smithsonian show not only found its audience, but also educated that audience to appreciate fine craft."

At other shows, promoters set out to develop a show that presented only the finest quality craft and then marketed it aggressively to ensure that the buyers would be there as well. "I come from a tradition and a background of seeking out and promoting the highest-quality work being done. That's my orientation, and I'm not interested in doing anything else;" says Roy Helms of Contemporary Craft Market, who formerly worked for the American Craft Council shows. "That [focus on quality] is what makes a juried show different, and the public knows the difference. They comment on the difference. They are very complimentary about the fact that the juried shows are a joy to go to. There's such high quality and such interesting things - things they don't find on street comers or at Pier I Imports."

The primary means for ensuring that quality is the jury system. "I wouldn't consider any other method," says Helms. "What are the alternatives? First-come, first-serve, where whoever signs up first gets a booth? There are plenty of low-quality shows that sell booths, first-come, first-serve, and that's what ley look like, too. If you want a quality show, you have to do juried."

"What are the alternatives?" echoes Beth Rosengard, a metalsmith and jewelry designer from Los Angeles. "First-come, first-serve only works with lower-end shows. You have to make a choice somehow. Whether it's the promoter or people the promoter finds to be a jury panel, how else do you make the decision for higher-end, better craft?"

Not everyone is as enthusiastic. Because juries typically change every year, an artist who is welcomed at a show one year may not be invited to return the next. That can make it more difficult to develop a following, or even a stable level of income.

"It's a little bit of a double-edged sword," says Friedlich. "For me, it's been good, because I've gotten in fairly consistently, and as long as I'm getting in [the jury system] is cutting positively for me personally. But the one year I didn't get in, it was a big hit financially not to have that chunk of income and a big disappointment."

"There's a certain amount of rolling the with a jury system," agrees Kinghorn, who exhibits at several

juried shows in the Midwest. "I've juried a couple of shows. You start at 8 a.m., and by noon you're just so tired. When you're jurying, you're so conscientious about wanting to be fair to everyone, you try really hard, but sometimes you've just seen so much jewelry. There are things I don't like about the jury system, but I haven't thought of a better system."

It's because of the jury system downsides that the Rosen Group organizers of the Buyers' Market of American Craft - has chosen to go a different route.

"I don't believe jurying shows is the right way to do things," says Wendy Rosen, founder of the Rosen Group. "Artists need a reliable place to exhibit. If they're accepted to a show, they should have a stable base to create a living and grow. That may not work for a retail fair, but it works well for trade shows."

That doesn't mean the Buyers' Market is any easier to get into for jewelry artists. Because preference is given to artists that have exhibited before, the show typically has just a dozen or so booths available for new jewelry artists in any given year, and the show screens those chosen to fill the spaces carefully. "Our application is a detailed form that requires the artists to give us all kinds of information about the history of their business, their exhibiting experience, and the customers they have, so that we can choose the most qualified exhibitors possible," says Rosen. "I want to make sure that person is committed to wholesaling."

The staff also actively monitors the products being offered by their exhibitors to ensure diversity. "We check the sales figures carefully, and we make annual adjustments to the type of work that we're looking for," says Rosen. "A few years ago, many of our good silver fabricators were just bringing a lot of beaded stuff, just strung pearls without even a fabricated fob, and we started excluding that work out of the show. We felt it was very important to do that, because the [jewelry in the] show was looking too much alike. So we gave the exhibitors an opportunity to go back to the type of work they had juried in for."

So far, the system has worked for the Buyers' Market, but few shows have chosen to follow Rosen's lead. The reality is that most fine craft shows are retail shows that rely on the jury system to weed out the unworthy and focus the spotlight on the most innovative, highest-quality jewelry and other crafts.

That focus is important for artists who are struggling to adapt to the changing jewelry marketplace.

"I think there's been a tremendous change in the marketing environment," says Helms. "Twenty years ago, globalization was just ramping up. There were many more retail outlets that sold American-made products. Now it's increasingly difficult to survive selling American because of price points, so we've seen the return of craftspeople selling retail."

If that market continues to develop — as both the show promoters and the artists fervently hope — fine craft shows are likely to remain an important outlet for studio jewelers for many years to come.

By Suzanne Wade – © Colored Stone – April 2005
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Suzanne Wade

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