GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #23: Be Different. Please.

I’m going to pick on jewelry booths today, partly because there are so many of them at shows. And because it’s just a good example of what’s wrong with so many of these shows.

PLEASE NOTE: If you are perfectly happy with your work and your shows, don’t read any further. It will just annoy you. If you are having the degree of success you want, don’t change anything! It’s working for you, and you don’t need my opinions on what you’re doing.

But if you feel like you’re struggling and can’t figure out how to get ahead, it may be time for you to hear this:

How much dichroic glass does the world need?

I’ve visited a lot of smaller shows in my area this season. And at every single one, there are at least two, three, sometimes four craftspeople working with dichroic glass jewelry.

Is there anyone who isn’t working in dichroic glass?

More importantly, is there anyone doing something different with it?

Of the last two to three dozen dichroic glass jewelry booths I’ve visited, I saw one person–ONE–who was doing something a little different. That person had made round beads. And that was only featured in a handful of designs. (Actually, I’m not even sure you can form dichroic glass into round beads. She may have been using purchased beads that just resembled dichroic glass….?)

Dichroic glass is popular because it’s colorful and bright. It’s also chunky and clunky. I have a feeling you can now also buy it at craft stores like Michael’s.

That means you’ve either got to be absolutely brilliant at working with it….

…or it’s time to move on to something else.

Another overused jewelry category is necklaces made with beads anyone can get. The pattern is something like “Bali spacer, semi-precious stone bead, Bali spacer, semi-precious stone bead, etc.” Sometimes someone goes out on a limb and uses two Bali bead spacers. Or two different colors of stone beads.

Dichroic glass, semi-precious stone beads, Swarovski crystals, Czech glass beads (or worse, cheap Indian glass beads)… Whatever. These ready-made materials are easily available, and they have saturated the jewelry market. In the end, it’s hard to come up with anything really different, innovative or unusual.

This kind of jewelry-making is called “bead stringing.” And the word “bead stringer” has become an insult among jewelry designers. I couldn’t see why until I started visiting websites and perusing craft fairs again, and browsing on-line handcrafted jewelry sites.

It’s because that’s ALL that’s out there.

I know it’s how we all get started. I know, I know, I know. I did the same thing when I first started out.

But it seems like in the last ten or twelve years since I started, everyone and their sister is now making jewelry. Access to supplies and resources is easier than ever. Anyone can make it–and does, it seems. If a ten-year-old can do it as well as you (and yes, at an Arts Business Institute seminar, I once mentored a ten-year-old who made jewelry almost as well as anything I’ve seen so far) then that says something.

And a ten-year-old may outsell you with the same work, as you’ll see below.

When everybody is doing the same thing, then it becomes all about

a) pricing
b) salesmanship
c) presentation
and d) story.

You can compete with your pricing. But you must understand that when it comes to price, there is no bottom. There are stores importing huge amounts of sterling silver and semi-precious stone jewelry from India, China, Indonesia and you cannot underprice them. I’ve seen sterling silver rings with semi-precious stone cabochons for under $4.00 at gift stores. I’m sure they are not very fine rings. But they looked okay, and if your work’s only competitive edge is price, then your customer will choose that $4 ring over your $12 ring.

You may be happy with your sales at your smaller craft shows offering low prices. But you will not be able to grow your business much past a small local market. You will only attract bargain-hunters. And you will not be able to wholesale to stores and galleries.

Presentation helps! The only booth with semi-precious stone beads and silver jewelry I even paused at had decent presentation and display–coordinated colors in table cloths and drapes, nice banners, beautiful display. And she had slightly more original designs.

But in the end, it was all still so much like everything else out there. And I passed.

Salesmanship helps. Knowing how to act when customers stop to browse will go a long way to closing a sale, and we’ve seen how very simple questions and statements can give your customers the emotional space to do just that.

The last thing that can help set your work apart is story. Being able to share with your audience why you do this is a huge edge. (Please, not because you love it. Frankly, why should I care?? When an artist says, “I just love color!”, I have to bite my tongue to respond with, “So who doesn’t love color??!”)

And here’s where than ten-year-old is going to beat you out. Is there anything cuter than a 10-year-old with the entrepeneurial spirit? If her work is just as good as yours, or even almost as good as yours, I’m going to buy her work to encourage her to follow her dreams. Or make enough money for her to go to summer camp.

Once again: If you are in this to make a little money at Christmas and to have a little fun, then ignore everything I’ve said in this post. As I said, we all have to start somewhere. I’d hate for you to see the kind of work I started with!

But if you have bigger dreams in your heart, then start thinking ahead. Use the money you make from these shows to take classes, to gain more skills, to expand your techniques, to buy better materials and tools.

That’s what I did.

When your season slows, take time to look into your heart and explore what you really want to come of all this hard work and perseverance.

That’s what I did.

Make sure you have a good product that’s different, high quality, that you absolutely love to make.

That’s what I did.

Because when you find your audience, you’re going to be with this product a long, long time.

Make sure it’s something you can live with, something you can be proud of making for years to come.

Make sure it’s the very best you can do. And take every opportunity to make it even better.

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

16 thoughts on “GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #23: Be Different. Please.”

  1. Luann,

    I hear you totally about the beads and every other booth being bead jewelry.(and admit I may fall into parts of that category, but am working on finding /evolving my stye) In the area where I live, there is a really big arts and craft fair, (very hard to get into) and a few secondary fairs on the same day, same area (which are easier to get into)- so that the whole city has an arts festival feel. When I visited the secondary fair, I swear every other booth was bead jewelry. (or at least it felt that way) Since I know that the booth fees for this show were around $1000.00, I felt really badly for all the artist involved, and wondered how they felt when they arrived and every vendor was a competitor. Do you think a show promoter has an obligation to try and limit the amount of similiar artist styles, or is it all about the almighty dollar?


  2. Oh gosh, Alison, I don’t pretend to know more than show organizers. I have enough trouble figuring out my OWN stuff! :^)

    On one hand, yes, you’re right, it hardly seems fair to sell half the booth spaces at any given show to jewelry craftspeople, especially when the styles are so similar.

    On the other hand, if the fair committee limited the number of jewelry booths available, the rejected jewelry artists would probably complain they were discriminated against–because their work is just as good as the people that got in!

    Also, customers do tend to buy a lot of jewelry. It’s usually the top-selling category at every show, which is why you see so many jewelry booths.

    My gut feeling is, it’s ultimately the artist’s responsibility to develop a unique and recognizable style and body of work.


  3. Yes. I agree every other booth is jewelry. The shows I’ve been doing do not allow bead stringers, but lately I’ve seen more and more of this type of work. My feeling is that many more accomplished artists are dropping out of the craft show circuit because it is becoming impossible to make a living in this manner. There are too many shows, booth and jury fees keep increasing and there is always the constant fear mongering in the media regarding the economy. Many of the artists I’m accustomed to seeing at art fairs are no longer there.


  4. I think it *is* the responsibility of the show organizers to jury/select for a balanced show which features a variety of crafts/media. There are a number of shows in this area that have gone down the “lowest common denominator” route, with no concern that I can detect for quality or variety. Oddly, they still have customers, but an increasingly small number of credible vendors, and I think the writing is on the wall for these shows.

    Quality and variety should not be something a show has to apologise for. Having standards is a *good* thing.


  5. Another thing that always comes to mind at shows, where jewelry is concerned. Just because you have been a busy bee this year and have made 50,000 pcs. This does not mean you have to have all 50,000 on display. To me this cheapens what you do into a mass market look.
    Since I have had my work in Art Galleries for years now, I would/have suggested to jewelry people to display your jewelry like an art gallery does and often this means your price points will be higher by displaying in a professional manner. You can keep the other 49,950 pcs under the counter and feed them out or change them out during the show.

    Just my two cents.


  6. Luann,

    Very well put and to the point. The mass amount of bead jewelry “artists” out there are flooding the market. Most of the higher end shows limit the number of jewelry artists in a show. Trying to get your work noticed above the sea of beads and dichoric glass is a real challenge for silversmiths and conventional jewelers. This is a challenge in getting through the jury process then getting customers to your booth after they have looked at booth after booth of beads and dichoric glass.

    I’m seeing more and more notations on art show entry forms “no beads”. It needs to be highlighted in bold print in my opinion…

    Rick Copeland
    Silversmith and Lapidary Artisan
    Colorado Springs, Colorado


  7. Hi Luann-
    Yep, you can make round dicrhoic beads (or order them from Rio, sigh)I personally don’t use dichroic much cause it’ soooo finicky to work with (unless you are fusing…and who isn’t fusing these days? It’s almost like beadstringers. Got a kiln? Melt some glass! ;-p)

    I am a lampworker originally trained as a metalsmith and I can’t tell you how difficult it is to explain to people that I MAKE the glass beads from rods of glass and form them. They keep asking where I get them from. D’oh!


  8. Wow! I touched a nerve with this post–in a GOOD way, of course!

    Pat B., I agree, sometimes it feels like everyone BUT the artist is making money! If shows are no longer the “simple solution” to getting our work in front of our audience, we will all have to work harder to find a solution that does.

    Judy W., I hear you loud and clear re: show standards. I just know that the artists that don’t make the cut will complain loudly and clearly, too! But I still think show organizers need to focus on what makes a great show. Hopefully, it’s beautiful, well-made, distinctive work, as you say.


  9. Rick C. and Rachel,thank you for both sharing your thoughts on the preponderance of beaded jewelry.

    It IS hard to rise above the crowd, especially with this medium.

    I’m a little sad it’s heading this way, though. Although I make my own pendants and some of my own beads, even *I* am catching flak at some shows for using purchased beads for some of my designs.

    I feel like people who only “bead” have ruined it for those of us who use beads as accents. I work hard to find unusual and rare, collectible beads for my designs. It’s painful to think of making my work without antique trade beads, turquoise, coral and amazonite. Some of my jewelry echoes southwestern and northwestern styles, and the beads accentuate that.

    Oh, well. I see the handwriting on the wall. As Rick pointed out, more shows are prohibiting beads altogether. Which to me feels like a show saying “no raku pottery”….

    What will I do with my stash of 10 bajillion beads??!!


  10. Yes! Finally someone that gets it. It doesn’t help when “beading” magazines give 10 designs for how-to. I can find plenty of bead magazines at the mag store, but rarely do I find my Metal Smith magazine.

    I work in Sterling and Fine silver and I buy top quality cabbing rough and make my own free-form cabochons for use in my hand-made, one-of-a-kind designs.

    It’s not only people that work with beads that have this problem. The market is saturated by cheap labor, high volume sterling silver pendants, rings, broaches and the like.

    When people ask me why I charge so much for my pieces, I have to explain that I do all the work to make the piece, from buying the silver to buying the rough and creating every aspect of my design. I have to explain that I buy much smaller quantities to create my pieces, therefore it costs more. I have to explain that no two pieces of mine are the same and that I don’t do replicas nor do I make 100,000 of the same item.

    The true craft person and bench worker is getting shafted by an increasingly cheapens market and purchasers of this “cheap” stuff just don’t understand the work it takes to be different.

    So with that said, the truth is that YES it does all come down to the almighty dollar.
    I can’t sell my $80.00 one-of-a-kind hand made, top quality ring or pendant because some company has bought 100,000 items that look similar and are made with cheaply purchased and not top quality “gems”. This makes all us artists in the trade look like over priced thieves, when in actuality it is that company that has saturated the market with low quality, cheap labor inferior merchandise that has ripped you off.

    Why should they care, it’s not about the real beauty of the piece,but it’s about how little they paid for it.


  11. I’ve noticed that it’s not just the lower end bead stuff that looks the same, but also alot of the higher end jewelers look alike as you’re walking down the aisle. At some shows it seems that artists are selling work that could very well be sold commercially, maybe not at Kay’s but still at a fancier jewelry store. Just because it’s gold doesn’t make it better.
    I’m always disheartened to find unoriginal work at shows. At the ACC Baltimore show I see alot more original art, but at the mid-range shows and at galleries alot of the time it all looks the same, even without beads. I see this also with glass, pottery, clothes (does anybody really need another chenile scarf?)and photographs. At Longs park last year there were three booths with photos from Italy that looked like they all went on vacation together! I guess it’s achoice between make what sells and make what you want and find a way to sell it. What’s easier?


  12. Maybe the crowds are just overpassing overpriced metalsmiths’ work who used to rely on marketing an image to sell $500 pieces that took 15 minutes to make and less than $10 in material. Yes, there is a saturation of dichroic glass, but not all is bad. They are juried in and for a reason, their work sells. If you feel it cheapens the show, go sell to a gallery.


  13. I sell at both galleries and a few good shows, Jenn. If you are having success selling your work, then you don’t need my advice–this was for the people who aren’t. :^) Thank you for your comments.

    Loved the comment about the Italian vacation, Wendy! You’re right about the choice of approach.

    And I stand by my essay. If you’re making what you love, and you’re selling it well, then don’t change anything.


  14. We had a meeting at a show I’m doing this week, and I heard a comment that put this all into perspective. And it still echoes the point I made in this essay:

    Artists have a voice; let them sing

    Whatever your medium, whether it’s metal, beads or dichroic glass, if your work and style is so distinctive I could pick it out of a pile of other work…

    If it shows strong personal vision….

    And you’ve demonstrated great craftsmanship…

    Go, baby, go!


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