Many people who find their way to a professional bench I think do so in a more natural course than I have. Some of my peers were born into the position and grew into it naturally but for me it was a rebellious feeling at college. I attended the University of Kansas and was a senior in the school of Liberal arts when I decided to take an art class, and metalsmithing seemed to pique my interest. It turned out to be one of the most demanding classes I had taken and I found the process of making a unique item from concept to completion very fulfilling
During the course of the semester we made 5 items and at the end of the year there was a juried exhibition for art students; anyone could enter although only students in the school of fine arts could win any scholarships. My teacher encouraged me to enter so I did, I entered all 5. As it turned out, all of my pieces made it into the show, a feat I quickly found out was a first for this show. At the conclusion of the show, the head of the metals department suggested that I might continue on with my metals courses and consider a major in metals. When I explained to him I was set to graduate the next semester he talked to the head of the school of fine arts and made me an offer if I continued on my course. If I decided to double major they made it so I could take the higher level classes while concurrently taking the requisite classes, thus cutting my time down to two more years.
I took them up on the offer and jumped into the higher level metalsmithing classes alongside with people that would be graduating within two years. The challenges and rewards were unlike anything I had experienced in school thus far, but what I didn’t yet know was how different art school metals class was to professional jewelry manufacturing. For me, much of the draw to metals was the ability to make small intricate mechanisms, clasps, closures, springs and the like. For my peers it was sculptural expression that seemed to be their drive. It quickly became apparent that precision and accuracy were outcasts to happy accident and the Zen of hammering metal to discover what shapes it might unfold. I felt something was missing and looked to books for inspiration. When I asked the head of the metals department which courses would show us how to set stones his reply became my turning point. He told me you need not worry about stone setting there will always be someone you can hire to set the stones into your designs. Where does one go to become one of those people I wondered.
As luck would have it the small town of Lawrence Kansas had a downtown with several jewelry shops and I decided to see if I could take my coursework outside the university. I got a job at a local retailer that specialized in custom making very art inspired rings. At the start I was little more than an extra hand, sweeping floors, running errands, and learning everything I could. Finally, the art of stone setting and jewelers who knew mechanical construction were within my grasp.
The store had four jewelers, two wax carvers, a few sales associates, and me. Some of the jewelers specialized in things, one was the main stone setter, one did all of the intricate fabrication, one did most of the sizings and cleanup, and the owner filled the last spot working as a sales associate, bench jack of all trades, and wax carver. I was given rough castings, ring sizings and my specialty chain repair. I loved soldering the finest chains usually with no noticeable join or seam. This was the early 1990s and there was no computer in the shop, payroll was done with a ledger and lasers and tack welders were something that only existed in trade magazines and rumors. Being meticulous in nature and good with numbers, the owner quickly enlisted my help with book work and being used to working with computers as a hobby I showed him the power of the spreadsheet from payroll to keeping track of sales figures.
Looking back it is obvious that this was a perfect storm for me, I was being shown all the keys to running my own business as well as the skills to make a go of it myself. Within a year of starting at the bottom the technical jeweler quit (on Christmas Eve), and the owner asked me if I would be willing to pick up a lot more hours and try and fill his shoes. It meant dropping out of KU having taken all of the metals classes they offered, though still a year shy of the fine arts degree, and 6 hours short of my liberal arts degree. I agreed.
Ten years would go by and in that time I was able to finish up my 6 hours and get my degree (though not in metalsmithing), but much more importantly to me, I worked into the lead jeweler and stone setting position, running the store for the summers as the owner would travel abroad. Promises were made that I would eventually take over the business but after more than a decade there I was seeing that my ideas for the future of the store and the owners were not in the same vain. We finally came to loggerheads over both family and the quality of some of the work that was skating by. I would come in to find jobs that I had promised clients to be done in a certain fashion had been rushed through and patched over for the quick sale and turnaround. I began to make plans to go out on my own.
During the next year I moved to a town about 25 miles away, I had a non-compete agreement with the owner and could not work within 10 miles of his store. My love of tools meant that my new house had a well outfitted shop. One of my first priorities though was to make sure and get a Stuller account, and in the fall of 2002 I joined the Jewelers Board of Trade, got my tax license and my Stuller open credit account. It was really the latter that made me feel like a real business about to take off. It was this process that I also had to come up with a name for my store, I came up with jewelry designed to fit your Niche, and it stuck.
Over the years I sometimes wonder if I should have gone with a different name, as I often get clients that think that my last name is Niche, or people who have no idea what a niche is or have trouble spelling or pronouncing it. It is pronounced with a hard c in case you were wondering NITCH. At the time it seemed like a simple enough name and I thought catchy.
Working from home, I think seems like a dream of many people, for me it was constant distraction and even though I actually had a separate studio off my garage it was not convenient for a steamer or ultrasonic or plumbing. I also was concerned with clients meeting at my home and general safety issues. I decided the time to get a retail space that I could take my work out of my house was in order. After selling my tiny house in Lawrence and buying a place in the Kansas City area I had a small amount of cash to buy some inventory, and set up shop.
I quickly found out that with my small budget I was going to have problems finding jewelry cases and renovating a place. So I invested in some woodworking tools and taught myself how to make jewelry cases and did the renovations myself. At the time gold was at $350 an ounce so I was able to buy some inventory but looking back on the pictures of my grand opening now are kind of funny how sparse the cases were. I still use many of the cases today though I have since bought some better ones. To me the eclectic look of the shop I have always thought part of the appeal and people often comment how comfortable they feel when they walk in. I will never see the pages of INSTORE’s coolest store, but it’s my second home and comfortable for me.
Things seemed to work out, after the first year I was in a position to buy a laser, the second year I doubled my inventory, the third I actually got paid. In 2005 I was able to move into a space double the size across the parking lot and despite the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, Andy at Stuller got me four top of the line jewelers benches for a great price, I think to save them from part of the storm. It has always been part of my mission statement to adapt and change with the times. I know many only put stock in the growth of a business but for me it is also about the quality of the business. What can I do to make things simpler for me and keep the quality of the products and experience of the shoppers at an elevated level. The next step was to either invest in a full time wax carver or look into CAD/CAM. Based on my experience building my own jewelry showcases it is likely not a shock to find out I opted for CAD/CAM. I bought ArtCAM Jewelsmith and a mill at the 2006 JCK Vegas show and set to learning how to use it. It paid for itself quicker than the laser, which was lucky since the troubles of 2008 were right around the corner.
With 2008 and the rise of gas prices, the beginning of higher gold prices and the recession things were about to get rocky. My inventory was continually growing but I made a point of buying it outright so unlike so many, when the hammer finally fell and soft markets and high gold collided I was not overextended. We went without fresh jewelry in the cases for a few years (aside from pieces made in the shop), but being able to get things in overnight from suppliers (thank you Stuller), and our new more efficient custom CAD/CAM gave us a real chance to weather the downturn. A combination of luck and having some good trade accounts and excellent repeat business kept us in the black and got us through.
I used to worry that the repair business would suffer from the mass liquidation of gold jewelry, but already I have seen clients who sold their yellow gold jewelry when the prices were high come in with bargain white gold jewelry that has been lightly worn yet already needs repair. Although this damages the reputation for the jeweler and jewelry, it also makes a place for those who can create high quality lasting jewelry to shine.
I see many challenges in my future, deciding to fill a price point at the expense of quality, finding good help (a subject worthy of its own blog entry), remaining competitive in the custom jewelry field despite the eventual day when everyone who wants to create has easy access to 3D printing technology, and keeping on the cutting edge of technology without losing too much blood. In general, it is a great time to be a jeweler, we just need to make sure and do our part to educate our clients on how we got where we are, and why our commitment to quality has a value above the price of the cheapest earrings in town.
Do you like William’s story? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a jewelry owner? Tell us in the comment section below.
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