Traffic On The Road To Success: Becoming a Full-Time Jewelry Designer

Recently, I was interviewed by an online magazine called Voyage Dallas. It's a really cool publication that is dedicated to spotlighting small business owners, creative folks, and the movers and shakers in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I absolutely love the online interview they conducted, but I can't stop thinking about some of the questions they asked me and wishing I could write more and more and MORE about what it takes to be creative for a living. How I started, where I am now, where I want to go, how long it has taken, and how many struggles I have had along the way. After all, I get asked a million questions by people when I tell them what I do for a living; I also find myself mentoring other Fort Worth makers who are just starting out in their creative journey. So if you are a fellow jewelry designer - or anyone who makes anything - and want it to be more than just a side gig, keep reading. I have some stories to tell. Maybe some advice to give. And just a few more questions to answer.


"How Long Have You Been Doing This?"

I get asked this question every single time I do an event. Every. Single. Time. At least once. My answer is always "which part?" because the fact of the matter is that there was never a time I wasn't creative. Even as a kid, I was into fashion plates (remember those?) and coloring and drawing - and even calligraphy and cross-stitching. But I know what people mean. They want to know if I just started making and selling stuff yesterday or if I have been weaving beads together since I was in utero. So here's the real answer to that innocuous question.

I started making jewelry as a hobby and creative outlet when I was a social worker and needed some art therapy. That was in 2005. I was not cut out for that job and decided to leave in 2006. I took a job at Auntie's Beads, working in the warehouse for not much more than minimum wage. I was broke - I'm talking behind on my car payment broke - but I was so inspired. I had friends host home parties where I showed off some new skill sets I was learning as I navigated the world of understanding the materials I loved and learning new techniques. It would be years before I really found my signature style, but I knew there was something in me that understood color and dimension well.

(Some of my early work. Ebb and Flow Bracelet, Circa 2007)

In early 2007, I was promoted to the design department at Auntie's Beads, where I worked with materials in our warehouse to create projects that could be posted online. I enjoyed the role of teaching and inspiring others, but I myself wanted to know more. I wanted to explore the intricacies of wire wrapping, get tangled up in the art of beadweaving, and even learn how to use resin to put tiny pieces of art in a pendant and create an instant keepsake necklace. I could do a little bit of everything by the end of my first year as a professional designer, but I hadn't yet discovered what my thing was.

 (One of my first published pieces - Beadwork magazine, August/September, 2009)

I had about a dozen pieces published between 2007 and 2010, when I left the bead business for a corporate gig (it was a nightmare). Between the years of 2010 and 2012 - when I returned to Auntie's Beads after my soul had been sucked out by the mindless tediousness of said corporate gig - I didn't create a single thing. Not one. In fact, my beads were in storage for a good portion of that time. I was done. Or so I thought.

Fast forward to 2014. I was pregnant. I had what is lovingly (yeah, right) referred to as a geriatric pregnancy; I turned 37 about 5 weeks after my son was born. I got pre-eclampsia and had to be put on bed rest. My blood pressure didn't recover afterwards. More bed rest. I found out I had basal cell carcinoma. On my face. Mohs surgery. Plastic surgery. Sold our old house. Bought a new house. 2014 and 2015 were rough years. Exhausting. BUT... This new house we bought had a room - a bright, sunny room - for me and my beads. After an almost 5-year sabbatical from beading, I began again. I started by going through all of the beads and findings I didn't want and selling them off in lots. I used that money to buy new stuff. This is when I discovered SuperDuos. And just like that *snap* I was beading again. Okay, that's not entirely true. I was rusty and had to look at some of my old patterns to remember how I made certain things. But beading really is like riding a bike. 

(A picture of part of my office in 2016. It has since been moved to a bigger room in the house and is set up a bit differently, but still the same amount of sunlight and lots and lots of beads.)

So I'm cruising along and decide to start submitting my work to Beadwork magazine again. Rejection. It's okay. I can handle it. It's back to basics I go. If you know my work, you know I am the number one fan of the right angle weave. So I got out some RAW graph paper and sketched a pattern and bam! The Heavy Metal bracelet was born. Miraculously, this one was accepted. It was featured in the December 2016/January 2017 issue of Beadwork.

This acceptance was like an announcement: I'm BAAAACCCCKKK! It fueled me. Feeling satisfied with my accomplishment (creating something new using a familiar technique), I decided to try my hand at designing something with these mysterious SuperDuo beads. I tried a bangle. Rejected. I tried a right angle weave embellished piece. I tried earrings. More rejection. And then I saw flowers. Literally. I didn't take the time to smell them because I had beads to stitch together. This is when the Beads In Bloom bracelet was born. Published in the February/March 2017 issue of Beadwork, this piece remains one of my bestsellers at shows and festivals. It's a personal favorite of mine as well.

One of my proudest accomplishments was the Tucson Vista necklace on the cover of the August/September 2017 issue of Beadwork magazine. In 2016, I had been asked to participate in a RAW: Natural Born Artists show in Dallas. I wanted a showstopper, so I made one. The story isn't that simple, but you get the gist. A star was born. (And just to be clear - I don't mean me, I mean the necklace.)

Shortly after that beauty hit the stands, I was asked to "audition" for Designer of the Year. I have an entire blog post about that subject. Feel free to read it. It's called A Year in the Life of a Designer of the Year. It's pretty good.

So... Remember how I said that people always ask me how long I've been doing this? Do you see why that's not an easy question to answer? My short reply is usually to say that I've been making jewelry since 2005. And now you are rolling your eyes and wondering why I couldn't have just said that to you, too. What I want to illustrate is that the creative process and the road to success (whatever that really means) isn't always easy or smooth. There are detours and exits and sometimes a whole lotta traffic.

But wait. That's not all. Because what people also mean when they ask that question is how long I have been showing and selling my work. The answer to that is a little shorter and simpler. (Thank God, right?)

I had my first home show in the summer of 2006, right after I became a professional jewelry designer. I was shocked at how well my work sold. My friend Amanda hosted the party and I don't even know how many pieces of jewelry I gave her to express my gratitude. (I often wonder if she still has any or all of that stuff, which was mostly gemstones and crystals on beading wire. Pretty, but simple.) I did a couple of home shows after that. I tried Etsy. It was meh for me. 

It wasn't until 2016 when I was recruited to do that RAW show I talked about earlier that I really started selling my work. I mean, I had strangers clamoring to buy my pieces. I didn't know people who didn't know me personally would actually want to buy something I made. What?!? This was a totally new concept for me. I had been so focused on publishing and teaching, the thought that people would want to buy and wear my woven jewelry was mind-blowing. 

So I started doing shows in earnest in the fall of 2016. Some were duds. I actually had one where I was trying to do some kind of gimmicky drawing and only one person entered. One. (She won the drawing. Obviously.) It took me a good year or so to figure out what worked for me. I don't do well at more crafty shows typically held at schools and churches, for example. Put my Earthen Collection next to a hand-painted snowman and Frosty will win every time. Instead, I do better at events in urban areas with other artisans and makers (MLM reps need not apply) and patrons who appreciate the handmade and don't ask things like "Did you make all of this?" whilst staring at me as though I have three arms and something strange growing on my forehead. 

As I said in that Voyage Dallas interview, I started selling with one folding table and a bin full of product. It was all I could afford at the time. My collections weren't cohesive, but a cluster of things I liked that kinda matched if you stood on one foot and squinted just right. When I look back at older pictures of my setup, I'm actually legitimately shocked that anyone bought anything from me. It looks like I loaded up the trunk of a Honda Accord with a bunch of stuff and plopped it down on a table with a vintage curtain as a tablecloth and a homemade fabric runner whose edges weren't even sewn. (Which, of course, is exactly what I had going on back then.) I took every dime I made in 2016 and part of my profits from 2017 and really started to invest in myself. My inner Project Runway fan was screaming words like "cohesive" and "collection" and I could literally hear Tim Gunn's voice in my head, telling me to "make it work". So I did. I expanded my inventory vastly in 2018, including adding backstock in my bestselling items. I added a second table. I made my displays - and even my table linens - more consistent. I worked on my website. I carefully calculated my profit margins. And I had a GREAT year. Better than even I could have anticipated. 

So... ask me how long I've been doing this. Since 2005, but also since 2016. But that's not the real answer. Or, more appropriately, that's not the right question. Ask me instead how many times I have started and stopped. Ask me how many times I have been discouraged. Ask me how many times I have cried, both tears of joy and tears of frustration. Ask me how many times I have felt like giving up. Ask me how many times I've given myself pep talks and reevaluated what I'm doing and where I'm going. Ask me what I'm doing next. Ask me what I've accomplished that I am most proud of. Ask me what it means to me that I get to live my dream. 

I'm not a particularly religious person, but I have always loved the saying "Let go and let God". You know why? Because I never intended for any of this to happen. By that, I don't mean my entire career is accidental or I just got lucky; in reality, I work harder as a solopreneuer than I ever did in that horrible corporate gig or when someone else's name and bottom dollar were riding on my success. I work hard because I enjoy what I do and I take pride in my work. I enjoy making other people happy - whether it be because I have taught them something new or made something that is a wearable work of art for them to enjoy. What I really mean when I say that I've learned to let go is that every single door that has opened for me - and one or two that have been slammed shut in my face - has taught me something new. I've learned when to move forward and when to scale back. I've learned that "no" can mean "not right now" or "you're just not ready". I have learned that everything happens in good time and that I am meant to be where I am and I will get where I need to be. Eventually. Until whatever happens happens and I reach my final destination (whatever that may be), I am just enjoying this bumpy road I'm on. Traffic and all.