Production Jewelers: How They Survive

From time to time, Metalsmith will locus a series of articles on a particular aspect of jewelers. Beginning in this issue we take a look at production jewelers: breaking into the field, creating and marketing a line and running the business. We will explore the restraints and rewards peculiar to the craftsman who designs tor production. While this issue’s article acts as a general introduction to how a crafts background translates into production work, future articles in the series will more specifically address education, marketing programs, business management and the visibility available through exhibitions, expositions and editorial coverage.

We would like to thank those who helped compile this article, particularly Ivy Ross and Jim Meyer, and also the jewelers who spent valuable time filling in a lengthy and detailed questionnaire.

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Spun gold and sheet metal, gunmetal plating and plastic—as varied as the materials that emerge from production studios are the reasons that jewelers establish them. Fiscal interests perhaps head the list. “Money. I was tired of waiting on tables,” says one production jeweler. And another: “Money. In my first gallery show, the only pieces that sold were the production pieces.” Another found it the only profitable way to continue a fine arts appreciation. But most to the point was a remark made by Etienne Perret of Etienne Fine Jewelry in Camden, Maine: “If a design is good enough to do once, it is good enough to do again.” And this, in one way or another, is the reason why these art jewelers have chosen to do production work.

Still, even if a design is good enough to repeat, how this repetition is best expressed is what distinguishes the work of these jewelers from one another. In a survey of their production work, one difference that stands out clearly is the degree to which it reflects the one-of-a-kind fabrication background most of these metalsmiths share. Mark Pierce of Mark Pierce Designs in New York City describes his pieces as mixed-media assemblages of precious and nonprecious materials; his laminations of polymer and aluminum, he says, obviously look handmade simply because he starts with raw materials and “a lot of fabrication is involved.”

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On the other hand, Perret suggests that “If it looks handmade, the piece isn’t as well crafted as it should be. The general public identifies ‘handmade’ with certain irregularities and imperfections. And I’m trying to achieve the perfect.” Perret’s line uses precious metals—gold, platinum, diamonds. “The malleability and rigidity of precious metals holds form the best. They allow me a technical advantage. And,” he adds, “If you want to be taken seriously, you should use a material that will be considered important for more than a few years. The diamonds and sapphires in our pieces hold more brilliance than a piece of malachite.”

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Business Name: Etienne Fine Jewelry Camded, Maine
Designers: Etienne Perret, Michael Good
Description of Jewelry Line: Limited production in gold, platinum and diamonds. Jewelry is hollow-formed from a flat sheet to make it light, flexible and comfortable. Working in production jewelry for over 10 years. Line remains stable with additions
Business Setup: Cooperative. Ten employees, nine full time, one part time; most employees have commercial jewelry experience. Operate a retail store and advertise in trade journals and local newspapers. Have had work in showrooms and fashion magazines. Members of the Jewelers Board of Trade. Sell primarily through galleries
Education: Hands-on experience

What these two metalsmiths make amply evident is that materials no longer dictate style in production. While industrial laminates can be fashioned to reflect a handmade look, traditional precious metals can be styled by industrial techniques—rolling, stamping, tumbling, plating—to achieve mechanical perfection. In production jewelry, it is, as Perret concludes, not a philosophical judgment that decides whether a piece should appear handmade or not, but determining what process will cut down on time to produce the best results at the least cost.

As also might be concluded from the above arguments, production craftsmen acknowledge their handcraft backgrounds to different degrees. Many, understandably, are unable to find the time to continue this line of work. But those who can find it rewarding. Says Laurence Seegers, a New York jeweler, “My custom pieces are generally bigger. And the stones are larger.” For these reasons, and the additional time they demand, they are also more expensive. While Seegers finds that these pieces are less constrained, larger, riskier and more inventive, he also finds that the ideas they generate can be modified for his production pieces. Or, he adds, “Sometimes I can carry an idea I have in a production piece much farther in a custom piece. For me, the two go hand-in-hand.” Others find simply that handworking an occasional piece makes for a refreshing break. “I enjoy carving wax for gold rings,” explains Kate Hines, a production jeweler in Boston. “Carving for one-of-a-kind pieces is a great break from the numbers of production.”

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While some production jewelers maintain the vitality of their work by making occasional one-of-a-kind pieces, others make changes in the production line. Perret states that their line “never changes. We simply add to it.” Still, within a certain line, changes are made to accommodate certain markets. For example, smaller versions of some pieces will be produced for those with less to spend, while diamonds will be used in other pieces to accommodate those with more.

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Business Name: Deborah Fine Yohal Designs New York City
Designers: Deborah Fine Youhal
Description of Jewelry Line: High-fashion, elegant and adventurous jewelry with emphasis on manipulation of materials—textured brass plated in gunmetal, black, antique copper; innovative use of chains, some stones. Working in production jewelry for three years. Line changes three times a year—moving in the direction of upper end of the fashion market: $50-$200 retail
Business Setup: Solely owned but also shares a cooperative showroom with one other person. Eight employees, five full time, three part time; most employees from art metalsmithing background or art students. Does promotional mailings; has a commissioned rep and does fashion shows. Sells primarily to department stores
Education: San Francisco State University graduate school; Revere Academy of Goldsmithing

How a line adapts and changes clearly depends on its orientation. If the line addresses the fashion industry, it will reflect the colors and shapes of that season. As Pierce observes, “In some respects, I allow current trends to affect my work, not in terms of design, but in terms of color. European fashion designers affect popular taste in color seasonally in urban areas. But otherwise, I follow my own instincts about fashion direction.”

Whims of the fashion industry will plainly carry less weight on a line of art jewelry. Nor are the two kinds of lines mutually exclusive. Deborah Fine Yohai in New York points out that although she gears her work for “upper end fashion,” she looks to fine art—printing and sculpture—for inspiration. Although her pieces of textured brass plated in pink, yellow, silver, gunmetal, black and antique copper address the fashion industry and reflect its stylistic changes three times a year, they are informed more by the fine arts. Perhaps Pierce sums up the changes in production lines best when he says, “My line changes radically. Not because I feel the need to target the work to a specific market, but because, as an artist and designer, I must continue to grow. And the work must change, or I couldn’t possibly stay motivated.”

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Business Name: Kate Hines Boston, Massachusetts
Designers: Kate Hines
Description of Jewelry Line: High-fashion, dominated currently by earrings in sterling, nickel silver, copper, yellow brass. Gears color range to season. Working in production jewelry about one year. Line remains stable; adds to it
Business Setup: Solely owned. Two part-time employees, one with no metals training, one with a BFA in metalsmithing. Has a commissioned rep and also visits galleries personally. Holds a studio open house and sends work to showrooms and fashion shows. Accessorized Halston’s Ready-to-Wear Collection in Vogue, 1982, and work has appeared in other fashion magazines
Education: Metalsmithing and Jewelry Department, Rhode Island School of Design

While these differences, and the dialogue they provoke, between production metalsmiths almost certainly demonstrate a lively and dynamic area of design, a predictable set of similarities does exist between them: Cash flow, pricing, establishing credit, the simple procedures of how to start (and expand) a business are stumbling blocks they have all encountered. Pierce, for example, points out that not until he realized that he should pay himself as a designer as well as a craftsman did his pricing become competitive.

Production jewelers rarely enter the profession equipped with any kind of business background. And indeed, the skill it takes to ascertain costs and maintain cash flow must often match the competence exhibited at the bench. While this is true for any professional craftsman, it applies especially to the production jeweler whose dependence on outside suppliers and contractors, bulk purchasing of materials (often precious and expensive) and larger studio staff make often extravagant financial demands. Most, however, have proved it possible to learn the rules of the game while playing and devise an equation of costs specific to their needs. This equation for pricing usually considers some combination of materials, labor, overhead, percentage for loss, profit margin and marketing. Seegers, for example, very simply doubles the cost of materials, charges $25.00 per hour for labor and adds an 18 percent charge to cover the 15 percent cost of sales; Yohai estimates costs of labor and materials, 15 to 20 percent commissions for sales representatives in the South and West, and then adds a 50 percent charge.

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Business Name: Seegers Jewelry New York City
Designers: Laurence Seegers
Description of Jewelry Line: Emphasis on high-fashion and art jewelry, earrings in particular in gold, silver, bronze, brass and precious stones; clean and neat combinations of materials. Working in production jewelry for 15 years. Adds to line three times a year; discontinues outdated looks
Business Setup: Solely owned. Three full-time employees from art metalsmithing backgrounds. Has a commissioned rep. Sells to department stores and small jewelry shops as well as galleries. Work has been on covers of fashion magazines
Education: Rhode Island School of Design and self-taught

And further, the pricing equation must be ever-changing as skill, overhead and size of staff are only some of the variants. Among these, however, the most important perhaps is marketing. Whereas a small studio might have no marketing budget whatsoever, a larger, more established firm with national accounts will almost certainly need to consider marketing. Etienne Fine Jewelry, for example, owns its own retail store and advertises in trade journals and local papers, whereas smaller businesses will have to depend upon occasional promotional mailings and the jeweler’s personal visits to stores and galleries. But as most production jewelers will agree, the growth and scope of a marketing program should match that of the work it promotes.

The marketing program does, however, in most instances, include exhibiting in craft fairs, which not only gives jewelers exposure and sales, but also allows them the opportunity to view the work of their colleagues and competitors. By word-of-mouth, the fair’s reputation or their own experience, jewelers determine which fairs are the most appropriate for their production line; and most have found some degree of success at the National Fashion Accessories Expo held twice a year in New York City and the Jewelers of America Show. Still, as with promotion, the amount of exposure a production jeweler looks for in a fair or expo should directly reflect the amount of production it is able to achieve: While Etienne Fine Jewelry will be represented for the first time this year at the Jewelry and Watch Show in Basel, Switzerland, smaller studios find the exposure they need in regional fairs. Most jewelers do agree, however, that the same kind of work can be taken to different fairs and that a production line need not be fine-tuned for specific exhibitions, save, in Kate Hines’s words “a color range that might be geared towards a season.”

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Business Name: Mark Pierce Designs New York City
Designers: Mark Pierce
Description of Jewelry Line: High-fashion and art jewelry—mixed-media assemblages, in precious as well as nonprecious materials, combined in a clean, graphic manner and strengthened by unusual colorations and surface treatments. Uses a unique laminate of polymer and aluminum, calling it “luminar.” Has been working in production jewelry for three years. Line changes constantly with artistic growth—adds and eliminates designs two times a year
Business Setup: Solely owned. Six part-time employees, half from art backgrounds with no jewelry training; half from fine jewelry backgrounds, including apprenticeships to goldsmiths in Europe. Operates own showroom and exhibits at fashion shows. Does not actively seek fashion magazine exposure. Sells primarily to department stores
Education: Self-taught, except for a brief apprenticeship to a silversmith

Just for the sheer numbers the production jeweler works in, his work is, by nature, more informed—in both process and material—by industrial techniques than is the art jeweler’s work. Yet their one-of-a-kind fabrication background remains much in evidence. How, exactly, industrial techniques and hand fabrication recognize one another is often what most distinguishes the work of these production jewelers. In the next installment of this series Metalsmith will discuss, among other issues, this use of industrial techniques with the work of Pam Levine, Cathleen Bunt and Ars.

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By Akiko Busch
Metalsmith Magazine - 1984 Winter
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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