MADE IN AMERICA: Use Quality Components in Your Work

I have a friend in the jewelry biz in Providence, RI. When I was starting out in the biz, he was very kind to me.

He reps for one of many U.S. manufacturer of jewelry findings. These companies have been producing jewelry components–clasps, headpins, tie tacks, ear wires, etc.–for many decades.

And they are hurting.

I don’t understand all the issues. The world of commercial fashion jewelry is a mystery to me, though fashion jewelry is about all I ever buy.

Apparently, the minimalist, tiny jewelry of the late 1980’s and 90’s just about did everyone in. Jewelry sales plummeted, and what was sold was pretty small and simple. I’m personally glad that era is gone for awhile!

The way fashion jewelry is made and marketed has changed drastically, too. Much, much more is imported from overseas, and marked up 3, 4, even more times for resale. It’s hard for small jewelry producers to work with that kind of mark-up in a country where you would hope to at least pay your employees minimum wage and a few benefits.

The hobby jewelry industry has grown exponentially, too. More people than ever are making their own designs, whether for resale at craft shows, wholesale to stores or just for personal use. This is a good thing, actually. Jewelry is BIG again, interesting, collectible. But it also means the actual sales of components are in smaller lots. I buy HUNDREDS of components, not hundreds of thousands. I am pretty small potatoes to the jewelry components industry, and there are thousands more like me.

And the market has become more cost-driven than ever. If components can be made cheaply and quickly overseas and sold here for a fraction of U.S.-made products, people will buy them. As fads and fashion change almost overnight, quick turn around and variety are also the name of the game.

It would seem there is no place for those big ol’ dinosaur American manufacturers of jewelry components anymore.

Unless you care about quality. And choice.

This is not a “buy American!” rant. This is my personal worry about a world that is cost-driven above everything else.

Because ultimately, even if you try to AVOID the cost-driven mindset and buy quality, this “best price” thing can bite you in the butt.

Take a couple of recent headliner examples. It’s turning out that commercial pet food is now mostly made in China, and even if you think you are buying a premium brand for your beloved pet, chances are some shortcuts were made that not only compromised its quality, but perhaps your pet’s health (and life) as well.

It turns out that all those wholesome vitamins and herbal supplements you’ve been taking, because you care about your health and well-being, are probably made in China, too. And many may have the same dangerous quality control issues as uncovered in the recent pet food scandal.

Even though we cared about quality over price, even though we thought we were making good choices, it turns out we actually had NO choice. And very little of the quality we paid a premium for.

My experience with most imported jewelry components has similar threads. The parts look good in the catalogs. Just as nice as American-made products, but soooo much cheaper. What a great buy!

Until you have them in hand and see that they are just not as nicely made.

Or until you go to use them and realize the silver casting is not as well done. I have a whole batch of sterling toggle clasp sets where I have to hand-ream out the silver “sprue”-like stuff clogging the jump rings. It was a fine detail I overlooked until I actually put the parts into production, too late to return them.

Or until you actually sell the items and then have to deal with the returns for faulty parts–clasps that quit working after a few months, or micro-thin silver plating that wears off quickly. THAT was a fun lesson to learn in quality. NOT.

Lately I’ve seen advertisements for gold-filled components that my friend points out simply can’t be MADE in gold-fill. Gold-fill components are a nice-looking and well-priced alternative to gold. Real gold-fill is a kind of sandwich technique, with an actual layer of gold “bread” covering a base metal “filling”. It’s much more durable than gold plating, which is not regulated and so the gold plate can be as thin as a few microns.

But he points out that gold-fill cannot be used in CAST components. Because when the high heat of casting is applied, all the layers melt and blend together. You end up with a discolored glob of gold and base metal, NOT your lovely gold bread sandwich. Components made by casting and cannot possibly be “gold-filled”. They are probably gold-plated at best.

The clasps and findings he showed me are made of cast components.

Are they at least good-quality findings, though probably not gold-filled as advertised? Well, my thinking is, if they are not being truthful about what they are and what the actual gold content is, do I think they are being truthful about their durability?

I’m not a betting girl, but even if I were, that’s not a bet I’d make.

There are overseas components I do trust and use in my work. Sterling silver findings from Israel, Turkey and Italy offer variety and interest, and “work” just as hard as my American-made components. But I’ve learned the hard way to either test first, or ask my friend when it comes to other sources.

And there is a place in the world for cheap or low-quality.  Not every piece of jewelry is meant to last forever, or even more than a season.

What bothers me is, if people continue to choose price purely over quality, then someday, when all the American jewelry components can no longer compete with overseas manufacturers, they will fold up their tents and disappear.

And then we will have NO choice.

It’s up to us. It’s not about “buying American” to show our patriotism or “because we should.”

It’s because it’s the right choice all the way around.

CONSIGNMENT REVISITED

When I first started out in with my little art biz, consignment was the name of the game.

For those of you new to selling your work, consignment is when a store carries your work, but you are not paid until after it sells. Sometimes that means the end of the month after the month it sells. Wholesale, on the other hand, means a store pays upfront for your work–sometimes on the spot, before you ship, or within 10 to 30 days of the invoice date.

Most stores like to play it safe with a budding artist. “Leave a few pieces, we’ll see if it sells”, they explain. No risk to either party.

Actually, the very thought that a store would even let me leave my work with them was a thrill. I took my friends into the store and pointed out my work with pride. Look! My work is on their shelves!”

Flush with my first success, I wanted more. And so, like most craftspeople, I sought out more stores to consign with.

Soon the drawbacks of consignment became apparent. At one point, I had thousands of dollars’ worth of product sitting in a dozen stores, with no money in my pocket.

Sometimes the checks would dribble in, but only many weeks after the items actually sold. Worse, the paperwork was horrific. Some stores would send work back and ask for newer work. Often the returned goods were shopworn, or even damaged.

Since the stores didn’t actually have any money invested in my product, sometimes they didn’t put much energy into selling it. Sometimes I’d find my work on the bottom shelf, six inches off the floor. Not exactly the prime real estate spot in the place….

Consignment didn’t look so hot anymore.

As I got more astute about the business side of things, I demanded—and got—wholesale accounts. I wanted my money upfront, and if the items got damaged or stolen from the store, that was no longer my problem.

I became totally committed to wholesale. I did only one retail show a year. The rest of my business was selling directly to stores, catalog companies and galleries. I would actually sneer at consignment. It was only for those newbie artists who didn’t know any better. I maintained only a very few consignment accounts, mostly non-profits who didn’t or couldn’t buy my work outright. And only with the people who were very easy to deal with, and who kept great records.

After almost a decade, though, something funny happened.

As I became better known and my prices rose, I realized my work—especially my fiber work—was getting too pricey for most of the craft stores I marketed to. I could see that I really should move it on to art galleries. Art galleries who now mostly work on a consignment basis. (Gone are the heady days of the 70’s and 80’s when a gallery would buy the complete body of work of an artist outright.)

Something else happened, too. I got tired of filling orders.

I would make samples for a wholesale show. Customers would make their selections and I’d write up their orders. I would go back in the studio and make up work from the orders.

But lately I found myself dragging my feet. I didn’t WANT to make a dozen more of that design. I didn’t WANT to make sure the last bear sculpture I made was exactly the same size and price as the sample they’d ordered. I didn’t WANT to make the same thing in blue.

The last few years were tough on retailers, too. Cash flow was problematic. Even after an order was bought and paid for, and “not my problem” anymore, there was still griping. And pressure to swap out work that was moving slowly.

My costs of getting new work out in front of buyers rose. Printing and mailing a catalog gets expensive and time-consuming. It takes time to keep a website updated, especially if you’re a one-woman operation. I would spend thousands and thousands of dollars to do one wholesale show–and sit in my empty booth looking at empty aisles, wondering where my buyers were.

“You need to follow up after the show–call your stores and touch base with them!” Excellent advice. But why bother doing the show at all if I still have to work each account one at a time??

I hate to say it. But lately, the thought of working with complete freedom in my studio—making just what I want to make that day, in whatever design strikes my fancy, and whatever color choice excites me—is looking more and more appealing.

I could simply make a batch of whatever—jewelry, wall hangings, sculptures—pack it up, ship it out—and make more stuff.

This is actually one of the strengths of consignment: Because the store doesn’t have to tie up money in their inventory, they can experiment with new artists, new designs, or new (usually higher) price points.

If the stock comes back eventually, it can go into stock for my retail shows and open studio events. Since I’m now making more one-of-a-kind designs, this can be a good thing. I’ll have more selections available to my retail customers, not just more blue fish earrings.

I’ve learned that if it doesn’t sell in one store, another may do better with it.

And the thousands of dollars saved by not doing wholesale shows would buy a lot of beautiful new beads and fabrics…. Maybe even a killer magazine ad or two.

Sure enough, I got a call last month from a new gallery. They’d just discovered my work, and they are very, very excited about it. I looked at their website, and it looks good. Really, really good. A good fit, a good location, a beautiful gallery.

And they only do consignment.

I found myself saying, “That’s GREAT!! I’ll just pick out a good assortment and get it out to you.”

“Whatever you can send!” the owner exclaimed.

Could it be??

Is my future in consignment again???

P.S. For more on consignment, see this article from my Radio Userland blogsite from a series I did on getting started on selling to stores:

GETTING STARTED #13 What is Consignment?

GETTING IN YOUR OWN WAY

We all know what we want and where we want to go in life. And we all work hard to get there. Right?

Sometimes I’m not so sure.

The older I get, the more I notice how often people get in the way of their own success.

People say they want one thing, but seem to be working against themselves all along.

I see people who are desperate to get on board with companies and organizations they think can further their professional goals.  They become convinced that this is THE place they have to be.  No other will do.  They are so desperate, they resort to subterfuge and strong-arm techniques.

They think they’re being subtle and “smart”. But they’re actually being manipulative and deceitful. In fact, they end up ensuring that company will never do business with them, if they can help it.

I see people who want to be respected, who want to set a good example for others. But they lead double lives, negating everything they say professionally by what they do in their private lives. They’ve never learned that “do what I say, not what I do” only works for very young children–say, under three.

The folks who think they can lead these double lives do not understand how devastating it is when their masquerade is revealed. They may mean well. But they end up doing a tremendous disservice to their cause, no matter how dedicated they intend to be to it.

On the other hand, there are people with very little personal experience who feel they know enough to tell everyone else what to do.  But they’ve never walked the walk, they can only talk the talk.  “Advice” from these people sounds good, til you realize they’ve never actually put it into practice.

As artists, we can fall prey to the same temptations.

We say we want recognition, but we don’t work hard enough to get our work and our name out there. We sneer at others’ efforts to promote themselves, calling them “self-serving” or “braggarts”. (There’s a huge difference between puffing yourself up, and simply making sure the world knows about your art!)

We say we want an audience for our work, but we don’t produce enough work to sell. We find a million excuses not to paint, not to write. I’m always amazed at the people who don’t make time or even a physical space for their art in their lives. They often don’t create a single place in their home where they can sit down and make stuff.

We say our customers don’t appreciate us or understand our work, but we don’t try very hard to find the people that would appreciate and buy our work.

Or we berate the customers we do have. In fact, customer-bashing is often a popular artist pastime. Check out any professional on-line forum, and often the biggest thread is the “stupid customer” discussion. Artists cheer each other on to come up with the best snappy put-down to what they consider rude customer questions. I’m always astounded at the phenomenon, and try to avoid it totally. It’s just not good energy. I figure it also proves that those artists are doing the wrong shows!

We’re full of advice for other people, but never ask if what worked for us in our particular situation, is actually what might work for them in theirs.

Or we don’t realize that they didn’t even actually ask us for our advice.  (Ouch!)

We all do this to some extent.  We all have a disconnect between the world inside our head and the world “out there.” It’s part of our human nature.  And sometimes it’s a necessary disconnect.

It’s when it’s not getting you what you want that it becomes a problem.  As Dr. Phil is fond of saying, “Is that working for you?”

The last few years have been a time of much introspection on my part. It hurts to look at the fuzzy zone where my words and my actions should meet, and see what’s matching up and what isn’t. Sometimes it’s downright embarrassing.

But I have to do it. And so should you.

Periodically assess yourself. Pull out your business plan occasionally and see where you stand.

If you’ve achieved many of your goals, then congratulations! Your actions are in alignment with your intentions.

If not, why not?

Did you simply forget what you set out to do? Time to think hard about what you really want, and determine if your current actions will get you there.

Did your goals change, and you forgot to change your process? Remember that sad adage, “Do the same thing, expect different results” is a recipe for unhappiness.
Did you achieve your first round, but forgot to set new goals? That’s wonderful! Time to get your Big Dream hat on again. Now you know the process works, and you can dream even bigger.

Be prepared to forgive yourself if you find yourself off target. Sometimes, I suspect we get off-course because we were never really dedicated to the course we chose. Or we honestly don’t realize how much we’ve fooled ourselves.

Or we find we really don’t want that anymore.  Our needs, our desires have changed.

And that’s okay, too.

We all do it. We are human, after all, not computer programs.

Just be willing to stop and check your map.

Ask for directions if you are well and truly lost.

Or maybe even simply enjoy the new route you find yourself on.

PERFECT WORK

It never fails. It’s only six weeks before my big retail show, the annual League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair, and I’m bursting with new jewelry designs.

Every year, this show seems to pull my best work out of me. This year is no exception. I’m stunned at the new ideas that seem to flow out my brain and through my hands. Nothing like a hard deadline to get those brain cells pumpin’!

I sometimes stop in mid-necklace design to rush over to my polymer station, feverishly making new beads that I just “have to have” to complete the look.

I have a billion beads. Yet late Sunday night I pored over one of my favorite bead sources, buying unusual new beads for a new design that’s been floating in my head.

The colors are amazing, too.   It’s like the new soapstone material I invented last year has opened a whole new color palette for my work.  I find myself digging through my bead stash, looking for those red coral beads I thought I’d never use….  I’m using semi-precious stones whose names I can’t even pronounce.  What the heck is variscite??  I thought gaspite was bad…

These designs look even more tribal and eclectic. The beading looks like someone found a handful of beads at an archeological dig and restrung a broken necklace. I know that doesn’t SOUND beautiful, but trust me, it is!

I’m just about ready to call my photographer for an emergency photo session. I want to post a sneak preview of these new creations on my website.

As I finish each piece, I take a minute to pause and admire it. I find myself murmuring, “This one is perfect!”

I caught myself at it this morning, and had to laugh.

Because every year I think I’ve found the perfect design. I can’t imagine how it could be better. I get a little anxious–“How will I ever top this??”–and fret about when I run out of ideas.

And every year, it just gets a little better, and a little more exciting.

Isn’t the creative process funny?

GO AHEAD, BREAK IT!

I subscribe to a newsletter from http://www.coachlee.com. Every day I get a “thought” from this website. Usually I don’t have time to read them. But today this headline caught my eye:

Just Because It Breaks, Doesn’t Mean You Broke It

Coach Lee goes on to say, “It can be so frustrating when something breaks while you are using it. The assumption by many is that if it breaks while you were using it, it is your fault. Not true. Timing is everything. When something breaks when you are using it, it is a matter of timing not fault. Things break. Don’t feel bad or guilty if it just happens to break during your time of use.”

It’s funny, but the one thing not addressed in this article is why things break when we use them.

It’s because when they are at rest, there is equilibrium. No energy in, no energy out.  No force.

But when we add energy, we disturb that equilibrium.   Think how a light bulb usually burns out when we turn the light on.   It’s that tiny surge from new energy that causes it to flare out–rarely while it’s burning.

So, too things break when we use them.  Only when we touch it/move it/use it/push it/twist it/pick it up does it fall apart in our hands.

And as I struggle to put together a new model for getting my art out into the world, wondering why everything seemed to go wrong in the first place, I realize this is the answer

Everything went “wrong” because I was doing something.

Everything went “wrong” because I was doing something.

I was making my art.

I was  getting it out into the world.

I was exhibiting it, showing it, selling it, promoting it, writing about it

f I had simply been a little lump, sitting in my studio and doing NOTHING, then NOTHING would have “gone wrong.”

And of course, what exactly went wrong?

The economy soured, massive terrorist attacks paralyzed our country, and our national shopping spree went into lock-down mode. Buyers for craft galleries stopped going to wholesale shows, stopped buying new work, and many even went out of business.

So what did I do wrong?<

Not much.

It wasn’t about me.

I just kept trying the same old things for awhile. And when they worked, I kept doing them.< (My one big retail show, the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Annual Fair, just got better and better for me.)

When the same old things didn’t work, I tried something new. A new show, more self-promotion, new marketing materials, new work.

Some of it worked, and some of it didn’t. And I’m still in that process of trying something new.

Of course it all “broke” while I was “using it”!<

I was out there with my art, trying to give it everything I had. Taking risks, new ventures, putting every cent I earned back into the business of getting my art out there.

I tried new presentations for my art—framing with glass, framing without glass, smaller work, bigger work, less expensive work, more expensive work.

And of course I made mistakes.

Because, like the old adage says, if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t trying hard enough.

So no more apologizing from me on not having this all figured out yet. I’m in this for the long haul. It may take me twenty years to be an overnight success.

But when I make it—and there’s no doubt in my mind I will—you will have heard about it from someone who started out just a handful of years before the worst economy in 30 years—and came through the other side.

So go ahead. Make mistakes. Break it!

It means you’re working it.

It means you’re doing something right.

BORN TO BUZZ: Create Your Own Reality

I believe we chose our own reality.

I’ve seen that process in action—two people interact, and both have their own very clear ideas about what actually took place.The same event happens to two different people–one views it as a blessing, the other as a blight.

But saying we choose our reality sounds so very lightweight. There’s no getting around cold hard facts, right? Reality is reality—if your car is going off a cliff, no amount of wishful thinking is going to keep you from eventually hitting the ground.

Well, I guess there is reality, and then there’s reality. So much of what holds us back in life, and in our art, is NOT about cold hard fact, nor is it as concrete as driving off a cliff.

Most of our obstacles are tied up with perceptions and misperceptions, based in fear, in indecision, or results from unclear goals and unfocused efforts.

And all of THESE conditions are, indeed, things we can choose how we think about them.

I wrote recently about actually experiencing a thought burp up in the middle of the night—and watching my mind literally pounce on it and begin to worry a solution out of it.

Til I realized, “This is not a problem I have to solve. It’s just a thought!”

And I’ve been reading more and more about “mindfulness”, the process of observing and naming your thoughts without the compulsion to act on them or even judge them. “Oh, look, there’s that insecure feeling again….” “Wow, I feel like smacking my cat. I must be having an angry thought about her ralphing on the couch.”

But why do I…we…have to go through these processes to achieve inner peace? Why is my brain always buzzing? What’s wrong with me and my brain, anyway?

I’ve been blaming it on menopause and looking for a cessation any day now. But more and more women are telling me, “Oh, it’s not that simple….”, sending me into new panic. You mean it’s not going to just go away on its own?? Horrors!!!

But yesterday I found hope.

I read the most remarkable book excerpt in the July 2007 issue of OPRAH magazine.It’s from Ruth King’s book, HEALING RAGE: Women Making Inner Peace Possible”. You can read more about Ms. King’s book here.

The excerpt reads:

“The mind’s job is to be busy with thought—24/7. The problem is that we often confuse the activities of the mind with the whole truth…A single wave of emotion can feel like the vast ocean at any given time, yet it is still only a wave, to be followed by another…Emotions are fed by thoughts that believe they are the only reality…We can be informed, even entertained by [them] without the urgency to believe them or act on them.”

I have read and reread that excerpt.

“The mind’s job is to be busy with thought—24/7.”

Our consciousness constantly creates thought because that is its function. There’s nothing wrong, that’s just what it’s supposed to do. That’s why it’s so hard to “empty your mind” when you meditate, so hard not to think of brass monkeys when told not to.

We have brain buzz because our brains are born to buzz.

And notice the next big sentence:

“Emotions are fed by thoughts that believe they are the only reality…”

If this is true, then here is the linchpin behind the whole “choose your own reality” philosophy.

If how we feel is based on thoughts, and any given thought can be given credibility if we let it, then we can CHOOSE which thoughts we give credence to, and which ones we won’t.

I don’t think it will be easy. I’m sure it takes practice, practice, practice.

But if such peace-of-mind is really so within my grasp, I’m willing to put a little time into making that happen.

I feel like this marshaling of my thoughts and processes is going to be so good for my art, and for my life.

GOODBYE LITTLE RAT

Yesterday was a hard day. I had to take my daughter’s pet rat to the vet to be put down.

I cried and cried as she fell asleep in my hands and then died peacefully. She was the sweetest animal that has ever been in my care.

I know, I know. I know EXACTLY what you’re thinking. “Rat” and “sweet” do not belong in the same sentence, unless it’s something like, “We killed the rat, SWEET!”

I’ve never been fond of rats, and a year living in downtown Baltimore almost 25 years ago sealed the deal. Even looking at them made me nervous. Movies like “Willard” and “The Bone Collector” merely confirmed my harsh opinion. And no one ever disagreed with me.

Oh, from time to time, I’d hear people say, “Oh, but pet rats are so SWEET!” My response was, “Yeah. Right!” A stint as a rat handler at our local human society changed my mind substantially, but I still got nipped a lot. I grew to see their charms, and I could see how desperately they sought affection. But never really thought I’d grow to see one as an uber-pet.

Until this particular little rat came into our home.

My daughter bought her as a baby at a local pet store, and snuck her into the house. She hid her inside a large box in her bedroom for months before I discovered her. (Waist-high piles of clothes and books and girl trash were very effective at keeping me out of the room.)

When I discovered the rat, Robin thought it was funny her parents were so “dumb” they hadn’t known she’d had a rat for months. I pointed out it wasn’t exactly cool to have a room so messy, you could hide rats in it.

As Robin’s friends and boyfriends dominated her life more, and she spent less time at home, I felt guilty about the rat. I did a little research and learned they are intensely social animals. So social, one source admonished, that having a single rat was tantamount to….well, rat abuse. I resolved to spend an hour every evening handling the rat while I watched TV with my family.

And I ended up falling in love with that silly little thing.

Robin called her Mavra (MAHV-rah) after some Welsh thing, and we never did learn what it meant or how it’s really spelled.

Mavra slept most of the day, and when the TV came on, she knew it was social time.

She’d scrabble out of her house, a little cardboard box we’d cut doors in. Inside that box was her her nest. I now understand where the term “rat’s nest” comes from. It’s a large, carefully constructed bird’s nest made with everything they can get their paws and teeth on. Every time we cleaned her cage, we gave her a new supply of newspaper strips, toilet paper, a rag or sock. She would carefully pull each piece inside her box and trim them down to bite-size pieces. Then each piece would be carefully stuffed into the next. This would keep her busy for hours. They were amazing to look at.

I’d pick her up and let her run around my lap and legs a little, before settling in for a cuddle. Sometimes I’d stick her in a pouch or an old cloth purse, and actually “wear” her into my studio. I’d do some work or read e-mail while she scrabbled around happily, eating tortilla chips, occasionally sticking her nose out for a peek.

She was very much like a dog in her behavior–happy, affable, curious. She never once bit me or anyone else while being handled, not even when she was given food. She even learned not to pee on us, once she realized we didn’t like it. We didn’t have to do much–we would just say, “Oh, Mavra!” sadly and put her back in the cage and go clean ourselves up. She figured out what was up with that, and rarely peed on us after that.

Mostly, she loved to lie happily in my lap and have her head stroked, just like a dog. Long strokes from her nose over her eyes and deeply rubbing her ears. She would chatter her teeth, rat behavior that means, “YES!! I LIKE that!” Often she would fall asleep.

Robin took Mavra with her last fall to her first internship. I’m so glad she did! The internship fell through, but not before Robin had spent months alone in a tiny studio apartment, in a tiny town hours away, so isolated her only social contacts were at the restaurant she worked lunches at. Mavra kept her company during the long, long hours of solitude.

I owed Mavra one for that.

I guess what broke my heart as she died is I know very few people would ever look further than her ratty head and her snake-ish tail, and see deeper to the loving and gentle heart inside. Even my husband never looked at her without shuddering, and most people’s initial reaction was “eeeuw!”

But rat lovers know.

Many folks are not who they seem on the outside. Some are pretty pretty, but shallow and cruel inside. Some are ugly or unassuming, but they are loving and kind.

Give me the rats of the world any day.

I found an old soft t-shirt of Robin’s to bury her in. I tucked her in the pocket, and tucked her tail in around her. Doug and I buried her in our backyard with our other beloved pets. I found a stone from a beach in Rhode Island that amazingly, looked like a rat–gray and long, with one pointed end and a rounded end, and flat on the bottom. I put it on her grave.

Goodbye, sweet Mavra. I hope you find a warm little nest and a pile of tortilla chips in heaven. And someone to soothe you to sleep each night.

I will not forget you soon.