A passion for creativity is vital to the livelihood of independent jewelry designers, who design, create and sell their own unique pieces either directly to clients or through contracts with retail outlets.
They often need to wear many hats, managing the marketing, administrative and accounting functions of their business, dealing with clients and suppliers alike. For designers like Zoe Comings, a strong entrepreneurial spirit paved the way to a thriving business venture — and a rewarding career.
The median annual income for jewelers and precious stone and metal workers (which includes jewelry designers) in 2014 was $36,870, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Competition in this career sector is expected to negatively impact job prospects; the BLS projects employment will decline by approximately 10 percent between 2012 and 2022.
An in-depth look
Growing up with artistic parents, creative expression has always been central to Zoe Comings’ life. But, it is her inherent interest in making things run more efficiently that gave her the edge she needed to go from artist to entrepreneur.
Here’s how Austin, Texas-based Zoe Comings turned her passion for jewelry design into a thriving, national business.
JMA: Did you plan to be an artist?
ZC: When people ask how long I have been doing this, I say, “My whole life.” Everything has led me to where I am today. I was raised by two artists and surrounded by creativity. I was encouraged to be creative, and I learned basic skills and developed my visual aesthetic at a younger age than many people. But, I was also always interested in how to make things run more efficiently. I remember baking with my mom and always trying to figure out how to make everything work faster. My friends always wanted to play house, and I wanted to play school or factory, and be the one teaching art or doing something creative. All of this has translated well into me living my dream. I didn’t realize until recently, when I started hiring and training interns, how those two passions came together.
JMA: Tell me about your background. Did you plan to go into jewelry design?
ZC: I went to the University of New Mexico to study ceramics, and I also studied jewelry. There was something too rigid for me about working in metal. I liked it but once I discovered clay, that was it. I used to work in each medium [ceramics for tile work and housewares and metal for jewelry] separately. I had really separated these things in my mind creatively. At some point, I knew something was missing for me and I started to experiment. When I began making jewelry with ceramics, it was that eureka moment. A light switch went on and I knew this was absolutely it for me.
JMA: How did you turn that interest into a career? Were you thinking about how to make a living as an artist?
ZC: When I chose what to study, I didn’t know what the end result would be. I started working in production for a potter. I was executing, not designing. She would get orders for 20 bowls and I would start throwing them and painting them. I worked with her for about a year and then went to work in production for a glass designer for another year. I then worked for a jeweler for about six months. These were all production jobs; I was laborer, a worker bee learning the industry.
JMA: Once you had production experience, what was your next move?
ZC: I transitioned to working for a specialty retailer that sold artisan jewelry, housewares and furniture. I started out doing sales, and it was not the most natural transition for me. I realized I enjoyed making pieces more than selling. But, in sales, I learned a lot about what people are drawn to. I also had an advantage because I could explain the pieces more to customers. I had a lot of repeat clientele because I knew about design. I spent about three years in that role and I was making my own ceramic pieces at the time.
I went on to work in retail for a ceramics company and learned quite a bit about the vastness of materials you can work with. As a student, I learned to make clay and use glaze, and then there I was in this job with so much material at my disposal. Everyone was interested in ceramics; our customers were artists and it was a great place to network.
JMA: When did you transition out of retail?
ZC: I was standing in the store one day and I just realized that I wanted to do something more meaningful and give back. I left the field and went back to school to train as a massage therapist. I have always liked bodywork, and it helped me recover from an accident I’d had in my 20s. I worked in a clinic but also started my own practice.
In addition to searching for more meaning in my work, I had this illusion that I would have more time for myself and for my art. But at the clinic, I was booked all of the time and I was building my own practice. Massage takes a lot of mental and physical energy. I was working with my hands all day and didn’t want to do it when I got home. I am glad I tried it, but I don’t know if I loved it. I ended up injuring my wrist and I just stopped.
JMA: What did you learn from launching and running your massage therapy business?
ZC: I learned a lot about the nitty-gritty: marketing, bookkeeping, maintaining relationships with customers, and keeping professional relationships. I learned to set boundaries and be compassionate while also taking care of the money. The word therapist is in the job title for a reason. It’s very personal. I learned a lot about different language — what people say vs. what is really the case. I learned to communicate in other ways and see subtlety in what people say.
JMA: Did you return to retail?
ZC: Drawing on my experience in jewelry design production and in retail, I worked selling fine jewelry for eight years. It was interesting to see what people wear every day and what is an occasional piece. I was absorbing knowledge and style. In some capacity, I knew I wanted to be my own boss, but I didn’t want it to be isolating.
JMA: When did you launch your own line? What else gave you pause about starting a company?
ZC: I launched the line full-time in September 2012. The change from having a steady income to being self-employed made me nervous, but also just aware. People kept reminding me that it would be different, but if the fire is right in front of me, I’m going to jump in.
People were right, there’s an undercurrent and some times are really busy and some are really slow. You don’t know what the reality is until you do it. Moving from being behind the scenes to being out in front and then working as a buyer, I knew I wanted to do this myself. There was a tipping point for me and I wanted to put all of my hard work into my own business, not someone else’s. And I wanted to make my art. I realized I had the skills and training.
JMA: How do you get your jewelry into the marketplace?
ZC: I wanted to focus on wholesale and get national and maybe international distribution. I targeted that market. On the side, I attend retail and craft fairs to get an idea of what people are selling and price points. I go to wholesale shows and that’s where my business has really grown. Word of mouth, friends of friends and people wearing the jewelry are all important, too. I have one of my great accounts because someone here in town saw someone wearing a piece of mine that she got at The Renegade Craft Fair and asked her about it. That was my first account that wasn’t just my mom and friends liking my jewelry. It was flattering.
JMA: What has been the most surprising thing about your career?
ZC: You never know who you will meet. I am shocked by the when and the where — I will be in a restaurant and a buyer will approach me. I have to be more conscious now when I am out in the world because there are potential contacts everywhere — that’s shocking. I used to turn off when I wasn’t at work — when I was getting groceries or working out. But now, my business is my identity, and we identify with our work so much in this culture. I needed to learn how to stay on and be ready when someone says, “I love your necklace.” I get to be more authentically myself instead of trying to separate myself from my work. It’s a positive but remembering that isn’t always easy.
JMA: What is difficult about a career in jewelry design?
ZC: Keeping the excitement alive when I have to make 50 pairs of earrings — there’s some monotony to the production element because every piece of mine is handmade. The other day, I was feeling bored. But I’m in control so I stopped and just made something else to give that part of my brain that space. I truly enjoy making each piece, but I have to keep it fresh. Working with my interns helps because I have to look at the work with a fresh eye to articulate how to do it. I enjoy teaching — it is something new and my brain is happy.
JMA: What is the hardest thing about your career?
ZC: When you’re working for yourself, there are always little extras: traveling, photo shoots, interviews. You just lose time.
JMA: What is your average workday like?
ZC: Mondays I set aside for business: bookkeeping, social media, data entry and sometimes a little production. Every day, I do start with and try to keep a schedule, but each day is surprising. The freedom to work organically is great, but I also try to look at the calendar and pay attention to deadlines. For some reason I work really well on Saturdays, and often the interns can work on the weekend so that’s a nice push. It’s important to take Sundays — or any one day — off and not feel guilty about not going into the studio.
JMA: What is the earning potential for a jewelry designer?
ZC: I make a modest living — about what I was making in my last sales job. Hopefully, it will grow because I put a lot of money back into the business. I live modestly, but it feels good.
JMA: What’s next for the Zoe Comings jewelry line?
ZC: I don’t want to put a cap on that idea of growth and I know I want to quadruple where I am today, but I want to keep the integrity of all of my pieces being handmade with care. Recently, Lou & Grey picked me up for their flagship store — and they are owned by Ann Taylor, which is great. As a business owner, you start to get different offers from people and you have to remember that you are in charge and that you need to decide what fits in with your mission and principles. Yes, those might evolve, but it’s important to check yourself to see what feels right.
JMA: What do you love about working in jewelry design?
ZC: Making tangible objects lets me share creativity, and I love to see my pieces walking around in the world. I love creating objects that make women feel more beautiful when they wear them. I love creating a piece that is versatile, beautiful and brings out a person’s individual look.
Zoe Comings crafts each piece in her Austin studio, with support from Girls Guild interns and her dogs, Baron and Mattie. Take a look at Zoe Comings’ collection here.