Right now my concentration is wire-wrapped sea shells, starfish, beach stones, sea glass, etc., that I have collected (or someone in my family has collected) on North Carolina, Florida, or Cuba beaches. I do buy some shells, but that's because there are beautiful ones in the Pacific and I don't have any family living in Thailand or the Philippines. I like to be able to tell you exactly where each shell comes from. You should really see my husband's eyes when I try to explain to him what my numbering system on my bags of shells mean.
Q: How long have you been making jewelry?
I think I was in 4th grade when I got my original bead loom. It has always been a hobby in the background. My friends and family got jewelry for Christmas, birthdays, or for no reason at all. I moved beyond hobbyist after I had a knee replacement in December of 2008. I had a period of non-weight bearing and no active motion of my leg after the surgery for eight weeks (picture wonderful contraption from hip to ankle holding leg out straight). By week two, I was lucid enough to be bored out of my mind. Lucky for me, I have a laptop with wireless internet and began to buy jewelry kits, beads, wire, books, magazines, etc. I would be salivating waiting for each new shipment and spent close to eight hours a day making jewelry. This intense period was great for me. I finally perfected simple items like wrapped loops. Prior to then, I would destroy three headpins just to get one wrapped loop that I liked. And I was able to considerably build up my inventory.
I officially opened up business in June 2009. My mother and grandmother began doing craft shows when I was in college, and I thought this would all be very easy to turn a profit. Keyword: "thought."
Q: What made you decide to start selling?
It was mainly a career change. I had just ended my contract with the Marine Corps and took one life lesson with me: Life is too short to be miserable. You need to be doing what you love in order to be happy. I love making jewelry so it was an almost natural transition.
Q: What was your first show?
My very first show was the Fort Bragg Fair, an 18-day-long carnival-like fair in May 2009. There had been an ad in the paper calling for crafters to put their wares before more than 1 million guests over 18 days for the low price of $350. I was one of four crafters who answered the ad. We were in a large 40' x 60' tent and were given three 6' long tables in a 10' x 10' space. The other spaces were given to vendors from a local flea market.
This was the absolute worst craft show I have ever experienced. Anytime I am having a bad craft show day, I remember it is not near as bad as this one. At this show, I experienced unsupervised children who broke my items (including two who jumped on my table on day two when it started raining and destroyed both my mirror and an expensive wall hanging). I had five items stolen, including one person who was caught by the security and forced to come back and pay for it. I had a flea market vendor buy something from me for $1, immediately put it on her table, and tried to sell it 15 minutes later for $20. I even had a man try to hit on me (although I was too dense to realize it when it happened).
These things do not happen at my other shows. And not everything about this show ended up terrible. One of the crafters turned me on to etsy for selling my jewelry. I had quite a few laughs with the woman next to me who was painting faces. She even had it worse than me. She paid $350 for her booth to paint faces. There were three other face painters at the fair who were painting faces for tips only.] She had a wonderful southern accent and when the guy I mentioned above brought me an unopened bottle of Smirnoff (Me - a person who cannot handle any alcohol and is unable to open twist off beer tops with bare hands), she had the most wonderful comment, "Nah honey, he was sure lookin' to buy, but you ain' selling wha' he's lookin' to buy" Little experiences like that let me laugh off the whole big event.
Bad craft shows always have lessons learned. Here, I learned: Never, ever do a carnival show to sell jewelry. 90% of carnival goers are 16 or younger and definitely not my market. (And lesson 2: Stay away from Army bases.)
My favorite show would have to be the Western Wake Farmers' Market. It occurs only once per year (the farmers' market is year round, but crafts are only invited one saturday per year). This is a cheap show - last year only $35 for a 10' x 10' space and there is a small jurying process. The set up is first come/first serve on the day of the event. The organizers file each person into a parking spot as you arrive and your booth set up is directly behind your vehicle. In the end, it looks like someone spend time laying out the booth orders (unlike other shows where 2 people just don't show up and you end up with awkward spaces). It is one of those small shows in the absolute perfect location. Most of the people there expect great quality and are willing to pay for that quality. They also seem to enjoy the farmers' market that is walking distance from their homes and arrive prepared to shop.
Q: How many shows do you do a year?
I did 19 in 2009 and 9 in 2010. My plan for this year is to stick to hopefully 4 or 5 only.
Q: Is this a full-time biz or a hobby?
I would call it a part-time business. At the end of 2009, I decided I did not particularly enjoy the life of starving artist (reminded me too much of college and ramen is as bad now as it was then). I looked for a part time job to ensure I had grocery money every week, so I work at my job up to 24 hours a week and spend 20-30 hours per week on my jewelry business.
Q: I heard that you did a show back in December and it didn't go so well? What happened?
It ran very smoothly, and organizers were very, very nice and extremely well organized. Holiday music the whole time at a pretty nice level, booth sitters available, etc, etc.
Problems: there was more "as seen on TV" stuff than crafts. And some of the vendors were horrible - like the stereotypical flea market heckler. I was next to a woman who would tell people they have to try her cookies while knocking over my display and trying to get to them in my booth (when she would turn around to grab a cookie, they would run the other direction and about 1/2 would give me a pitying glance on their way out). The guy on the other side was selling signed sports photos and magazine covers - he had a tall display that the 1st day he had hung the pictures on the outside of his display so that they looked like they were part of my booth. I had quite a few people complain that they couldn't shop in my booth if I was a Carolina fan and ask how do Carolina sports photos go with shells, etc, etc. I am so not into sports that I didn't know what team the pictures portrayed until after the complaints.
I sold almost 80 items priced at $5 and 2 items that cost more than $10. Nobody was looking at anything priced over $25. I had a couple of friends show up - who love craft shows and can stay all day at good ones... they went though the entire place in < 1 hour which is very bad for a show in a large convention center. In the end for this show, I broke even with my expenses, material costs, etc, but it is disheartening when you realize how many hours you spent at the show and how many hours you spent in labor but have nothing to show for that time.
Q: How do you feel when you have a bad experience at a show?
I see bad shows as a learning experience for me. So far, I've learned carnivals, small churches where I am not a member, elementary school benefits, and venues that allow non-handmade items are some places I don't sell well.
1. Kids are not my market and are the main carnival goers.
2. Church benefits tend to have shoppers that want to support their members, so tend to shop with their members only and would feel bad buying from an outsider.
3. Elementary school mothers are not generally my market. Generally, mothers with young kids are tight on money, feel bad spending money on themselves instead of their kids, or are worried their child might break something in your booth so don't want to approach you.
4. If a person is willing to pay $30 for a lint roller or $45 for a mop (neither handmade), they feel $7.50 for a pair earrings is just too expensive (and have no problem telling you that as they stand in front of you with lint roller and mop in hand). Therefore, stick to handmade-only venues.
My big changes in shows this year is that I'm cutting my show budget in half and spending the other half of the money printing wholesale brochures. Over the last year, my wholesale and consignment items show a 40% greater profit at the end everything over my craft shows and the expenses they entail.
My booth includes one 6-foot table, two 3-foot tables, a DVD shelf (that I steal out of my living room the day before a show), and/or an easel. The minimum amount of time I need to set up (including the 10' x 10' foot easy-up tent) is 45 minutes. I prefer to take 1-1/2 hours to sort of putz and go slow, so I regularly show up as one of the first vendors at an event to give me my putz-around time.
I've cut white sheets and made custom table drapes that fit like a box over my tables and go to the ground. I use various batik fabrics for color on top and try to put as much height differences with boxes/crates/etc around my tables. It looks a bit different every time, and I enjoy making a picturesque display almost as much as making the jewelry.
Q: Do you have any advice for beginning jewelry sellers?
Do what you love and don't worry about everyone else. There will always be someone underselling you; and everytime you think you find a brand new, interesting idea that no one else is doing, you'll find the same theme somewhere else online. I thought wire-wrapped sea shells were the coolest thing, and people kept telling me what an original idea it was. It was quite a shock to my ego when I got my etsy account and six months later searched for "wire wrapped sea shell pendant" and saw how many items popped up. But I love what I do and don't let the peripheral stuff bother me.
Jen Hilton makes one-of-a-kind jewelry sold through her website JLHJewelry.com. She is the founder of the Triangle Jewelry Makers and is featured in the books "Steampunk Style Jewelry: Victorian, Fantasy, and Mechanical Necklaces, Bracelets, and Earrings" and "1000 Steampunk Creations: Neo-Victorian Fashion, Gear, and Art" available at Amazon and other booksellers.