This article is an interview with jewelry designer Mark Loren. Read on to get his insights and genius behind his jewelry and designs!
When did you know you wanted to be a jewelry designer?
I was good at science, so for a while I was contemplating becoming an eye surgeon.
I was inspired by a Nova television program about a doctor who had restored the sight of a 15-year-old girl, but I didn’t want to study for so many years. I’m an instant-gratification kind of guy, so I chose jewelry design.
I realized I was interested in design when I had to take a prerequisite art class as a freshman in high school. Every four weeks, we’d change the discipline—ceramics, textiles, drawing, painting, metalsmithing. Then, when I was a sophomore, I could concentrate on the niches that were of importance to me. I chose metalsmithing and sculpture.
Did you study jewelry design at school?
After high school, I attended Gem City College in Quincy, Illinois. Back then, you paid by the day, so my dad said, “If you don’t like it, quit!” It was an independent-study program—you progressed to more difficult subjects as you moved along and got a certificate after two years. I finished after a year because I was dedicated— a bell would ring, and I’d be sitting there working. It was intense.
How did you get your start as a designer?
When I was studying, I met Frederick Prete, a jeweler and a retailer in Chicago. He was kind and patient and offered to stay in touch. After I got out of school, he wasn’t hiring, so I got a job at the Bulova Watch Co. as a watchmaker. I honed my diagnostic skills, steady hand, and hand-eye coordination. When Prete hired me a year later, I had so much fun making jewelry; I would have done it for free. He was a great employer, giving his young staff a lot of responsibility. I learned so much every day!
What was your career path?
After two years, I started as production manager there, but the politics got to be too much. I wanted to make jewelry, not to be a politician. So I started working with different retail jewelers doing custom design and repairs. A few years later, I was working for Fey & Co. When they opened a store in Fort Myers, Florida, I went down there. I loved it. People were so nice! When the store closed after one and a half years, I didn’t want to come back to Chicago so I stayed and started working for trade shops. Soon, I opened my own trade business. I had 15 accounts, and hired two more jewelers, but I missed working with clients. In 1985, I opened a retail gallery, and my reputation grew for custom work, repair, and design. We started out as 99 percent wholesale, and in four years, we became 100 percent retail.
Who were some of your professional mentors and what are the most important lessons they have taught you?
My art teacher, Terry Young, with whom I’m still in touch, is a mentor. I also count Mike Winchell, a diamond setter, among my mentors. He took me under his wing and taught me great setting techniques.
Finally, Sid Fey of Fey & Co. was inspiring and wanted the best for his staff. He cared about our personal growth, not about what we could provide.
What are some of the challenges you had to overcome? What did you learn from them?
The market collapse of 2008 was a challenge. I had bought a new building at the top of the market. What saved us here, in southwest Florida, was that we are a service- oriented business, not retail. Repair and custom design work kept our doors open.
Another challenge was learning how to manage cash flow. Jewelers get an influx of money during Christmas, and here in Florida, we have a tourist season that lasts until Easter. Then, we have five to six quiet months. The trick is to budget correctly.
It’s challenging to find a balance between being an artist and a jeweler— learning not to be right, not to get upset, not to allow customer comments to hit your ego. The goal of a custom jeweler is to deliver a product that makes the client’s socks roll up and down. We make changes until the piece is 100 percent to the client’s liking. The challenge is to listen to the expectations and not to charge ahead without a conversation first.
What continues to surprise me is that the public doesn’t understand the training, care, and the time commitment involved in making jewelry—a task that appears very simple to them. We are now setting up cameras on jewelers’ benches so that people can see the work done live—on flat-screen TVs in our gallery.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently? I wish I had bought a building much sooner. I would have had larger assets to work with and a safety net of knowing where my business would be instead of being at the hands of a landlord. I was leasing for 20 years before I bought.
What advice would you offer to new jewelers?
Find a decent small PR company. When you do something special, they can do press releases. It has to be someone who gets to know you and where you want to go. It’s invaluable. I developed a relationship with a great PR agent who had done press releases or PR in exchange for jewelry. She got us involved with networking events and contests.
Enter design competitions. Many young people don’t do it because they’re afraid to lose. I want to let them know that contests are not rigged. Often, the decision is based on the judge’s aesthetic.
Make a difference in the community. Make it a better place with your art. Participate in charity events, donate raffle items to raise funds for missions, and collaborate with like-minded artists.