I recently had the opportunity to spend time in Munich during the week of Schmuck.  The trip was invaluable and surprising, in that it wasn’t the work itself—and there was LOTS—that had the biggest impact.  Don’t get me wrong, it was amazing to see so much work in such a short amount of time and to experience pieces firsthand that I had only seen in print.  Norman Weber’s brooches were much less demure than I imagined, having a scale bold enough for a brooch to also exist as a standalone object.  Some of the more transient spaces housed work from younger artists I was unfamiliar with but whose work I was happy to be introduced to.  Also, it interested me to see some of the work I expected to have a high level of craftsmanship, didn’t. 

 

I kept thinking about the relationship between spontaneity and craft; are they mutually exclusive?  Do we expect less from new and non-traditional materials and technology?  I have my own instinctual answer that new technologies or materials shouldn't be held to a lower standard than those that are tried and traditional; experimentation isn’t the end of the craft—it’s the beginning of it.  Honestly though, I’m still mulling that one over, and besides, towards the end of my trip and since returning home it was ultimately another question that’s haunted me: What is the cost of craft—and I don’t mean a labor rate—when we want to expand the reach of our work.  What opportunities are allowed to pass and what potential business is neglected by choosing creative paths that emphasize handwork and lead to inherently higher pricing?

 

My quandary was set into motion by two pieces of jewelry in Munich, the first two pieces of jewelry I ever bought.  I bought both for three reasons: I liked them aesthetically, the intention resonated with me, and most importantly—I could afford them.  The first piece was a ring from Stefan Heuser’s The Difference Between Us. (Pictured below—orange dots placed for sold rings)

The Difference Between Us consists of 100 cast sterling rings nearly identical save for an edition number.  There’s something else that no two have a like—price.  To ascertain the price of each ring, multiply the edition number times one euro: #1 = €1, #100 = €100.     As you can see the majority of the rings sold were on the lower end, except notably, #100.  So, although the difference between us can be many things it’s most likely one of two things:  how much money we have available to spend or how much we are willing to spend.  Ring #100 was the back-left corner as pictured above, with numbers descending across then down.  (I should disclose that I too bought the cheapest available ring at the time, #43, upturned).

 

What fascinates me is the idea that the lowest-cost rings are, in effect, subsidized by those priced higher.  With the right timing, anyone could walk in off the street and have a piece of contemporary jewelry for €1, regardless of knowledge, appreciation, or experience with it. 

I wonder if we are alienating proto-collectors with generally prohibitive prices before they are educated enough about the field to appreciate what we do. 

 

The common question of “where are the new/young collectors” comes to mind, and part of the answer is: They’re broke. 


The second piece of jewelry I took home was a production piece designed by Herman Hermsen (below).  I came across the piece in a small bin near the cashier at the Kunst + Handwerk Gallery of the Bayerischer KunstgewerbeVerein (Bavarian Arts and Crafts Association).  Of course, Hermsen is known not only as a jeweler but also as a product designer.  The small sea of brooches were made in varying colors of plastic vacuum-formed over gemmy clusters, each with what I believe is a simple stud earring with a clutch back which is inserted through a hole to affix the brooch.  I’ve been searching for my receipt—I know it’s here somewhere—but it was either €28 or €38.  Now yes, I genuinely like it, it has an aesthetic I relate to, but what I was really drawn to was the fact that it was a piece of jewelry by a jeweler whose work I appreciate AND I could afford it. 

 

I certainly didn’t go to Munich expecting to buy jewelry of any sort, but without seeking it out, I came across jewelry within my means—and it made a collector out of me.  These two pieces, and my ability to purchase them, has had an impact on the way I think about my work and the range of people I want to share it with.    If I can sell a brooch that represents me for $50 and make a profit, why aren’t I, and if designing work that makes use of industrial processes and modern technology in lieu of skilled labor allows me to reach more people—by selling at a lower price—should I?

 

Shouldn’t we be competing with cheap—in a good way—mass produced products?  If 20-something year olds can only afford to buy commercial jewelry, it sets the trend and taste for their future spending when their income increases.  I too wonder who will be collecting the future.  Let’s face it, as a younger jeweler I’ll be depending on those people everyone has labeled no-shows, but what if they’re all there waiting and we’ve been doing it wrong?  We’ve got our store set up with the door locked and the curtains drawn.

 

Well known contemporary jeweler Ted Noten, who had work in Schmuck 2011 from his ongoing series “Haunted by 36 Women”, has been utilizing CAD/CAM technology to expand the reach of his work.  Noten begins by creating a “real” object, or an assemblage of real objects, and captures their form with the use of a 3d scanner.  Once digitized, the pieces can be scaled to jewelry-appropriate size and most importantly, recreated in a variety of materials.  A single work can be created—and sold—as the original object, rescaled as colorful glass-filled nylon jewelry, and made in a range of metals including gold.  This allows Noten to sell and interact with a variety of buyers: those that want a unique one-off, those who want a precious object, and those that want it separate from value and rarity—or can’t afford it any other way.  We must consider, though, that to design, produce, and sell work in such a wide range may take the time, experience, and skill of more than one person; it is Atelier Ted Noten after all.

 

A glass-filled nylon ring goes for € 75 (~$110) and can be purchased directly from the Atelier Ted Noten webshop.  Much of the available work is only available online, which I imagine aids in offering the lowest possible price by avoiding the wholesale/retail pricing structure.

 


Miss Piggy in pink

Atelier Ted Noten

 

 

 

 

 


Another price-conscious solution is the Icon earring series, simple silhouettes in silver of some of his more well-known pieces.  

For example:

 

Ted Noten Icon Earring "Bag"  (left)

Atelier Ted Noten

 

Superbitch Bag 2000  (right)

Ted Noten

 

 

For the record, I consider the castings of multiples from a master model the same as a 3d print from a file obtained from a 3d scan—one’s just a much more recent technology.  I feel differently about 3d prints from a file created completely from scratch, in that they are not reproductions of an actual object, but instances of a virtual object (which is not meant to be derogatory in anyway, it’s just a distinction I think is important).

 

There are other ways to consider reaching out at lower price points.  We can consider publication of artist’s work as a stepping stone to collecting, but there’s quite a gap (chasm?) between a wearable object made by a jeweler and the documentation of it.  Certainly though, enticing and engaging books like those from Darling Publications and Arnoldsche Art Publishers are capable of satiating some of the desire to own while maintaining a hunger for jewelry. 

 

Since last September, Mirjam Hiller has also sold digital pigment prints (which have greater permanence over dye-based prints) of the blueprints of her pieces.  The beautiful prints, reminiscent of cyanotypes,  don’t simply document the work as an image of its final state but let the owner in on the secret of its two-dimensional origins.  The prints themselves are created in editions, so although they are not unique they are still rare and very worthy of ownership.

 

Mirjam Hiller - Mavalis (1/5), 2010

 

There is an undeniable benefit to creating multiples; splitting the cost of designing, creating, and presenting the work among a greater number of pieces lowers the price.  On the other end of the spectrum we have the importance of a unique object, unapologetic in its need of skilled attention and deserving of its high cost. 

 

If more contemporary jewelers offered work in wide range of prices could we fertilize the barren soil?  Could the seeds planted by low-price (let’s say sub $100) creative design be cultivated to produce a new crop of collectors, collecting higher and higher priced work as their appreciation—and income—increase?

 

I think it’s half of the solution; the other half will have to wait for another day.

-Timothy

 

 

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you are so right! it is not only hard to educate the buyer / collector, there is also the price problem and I also have the same problem : people how want to buy / wear my jewelry, usually do not afford it.

I think it would be ideal to use different materials and ways of producing as a part of creating process (like when you create any other type of art) and this should not be affected by the price of the final piece of jewel. Thinking about the price before creating may effect what we do in a way that will transform us in a small "factory" and get "art" out of jewelry.

but hmmm ... selling and money is a must after all ...

your half of the solution is in my oppinion a good one and I am trying to use it for a few months. I think that if we can make the new generation love and appreciate us, they will grow up to be the collector that will buy the good stuff and they will also be the ones that will educate the next generation and so on.

 

I would suggest that the younger buyers/collectors have a great deal more choice than in the past. At one time there was a clear line between "jewelry store jewelry", costume jewelry and "art" jewelry. Within art jewelry there was production and one of a kind. Folks can buy interesting, if not challenging jewelry at places like J.Crew, Anthropology, Free People, etc. Years ago Bob Ebendorf told me that when he had an exhibition, he tried to have a series of pieces which were more affordable. I have followed that pattern in my own exhibitions. On the other hand, I do not think an artist should not make work that they feel is true to their own vision in order to sell. Perhaps our goal should be to educate younger buyers to the artistic value of what we are making. Then the question becomes how to define and delineate that artistic value. Micki Lippe

Great post Timothy.  I'm so happy to hear that Munich was a wonderful experience for you.

 

If I can sell a brooch that represents me for $50 and make a profit, why aren’t I, and if designing work that makes use of industrial processes and modern technology in lieu of skilled labor allows me to reach more people—by selling at a lower price—should I?

 

I wrestled with these questions for many years and then one day I got over it.  I realized that by limiting my work to only skilled labor (my own two hands) that I was also limiting my growth as an artist entrepreneur.  By applying my creativity to figuring out how to make use of industrial processes in order make a small collection of work in the $50-150 price range while turning a nice profit, and staying in business, I've seen a dramatic increase in my collector base.

 

 My collectors are buying work for themselves and as gifts for others.  The $50 range pieces sell very well and many of the gift recipients have purchased higher price work for themselves after being introduced to my collection through the gift giver.  

 

Could the seeds planted by low-price (let’s say sub $100) creative design be cultivated to produce a new crop of collectors, collecting higher and higher priced work as their appreciation—and income—increase?

 

Yes, absolutely.  This is exactly what has been happening to my business over the past few years.  By maintaining relationships with my customers, at all price levels, through various forms of marketing I've been able to watch their purchases of my work increase as their appreciation and knowledge of art jewelry-and income-increases.

Years ago, when I first started selling my work-- it was all production then-- I had no idea how to price it and so I priced it in the range of work that was already out there in the venues I was approaching to carry my work. As a result, I hugely undervalued my work and particularly my time, but it forced me to do something that I have benefited from ever since: it made me streamline my production techniques and hone my hand skills. As a result, to this day I work very fast and my goal is always to trim time from my product whether it is one of a kind or one of a hundred. I have pieces that I have literally made hundreds of and yet am still finding ways of trimming my production time by a bit here and there.

I also decided years ago not to let my retail stores determine my prices for me by not making everything available to them. If they want a piece badly enough I will let them have it, but I will explain to them that I never made the piece with the intention of selling it wholesale and so I cannot give it to them at half of my own retail price. They may or may not decide to sell that particular piece, but I have never had one of my stores decide to drop me for the practice. It's important to remember that you do have the power to say no and, while you might not make as much money as you would selling retail at the price you would have to in a store to support your wholesale price, you can definitely make a price that is fair to you and will allow you to move a lot of product. In the end, if you don't sell you don't make money, no matter where you set the price.

I do get the occasional email from someone admonishing me that my prices are too low and that I am doing a disservice to my craft because of that. The last time this happened was on Etsy where I am approaching my 3,000th sale in five years. The person who had written me had 12 sales in her three years of having a shop there. When I looked at her work, some of it was very simple-- things that I, in my constant battle with time, could turn over very quickly if they were my pieces-- yet her prices seemed very high to me and her sales seemed to bear that out. I don't think that I was the reason that she was struggling.

My approach to my production work has always been to make it an actual production line-- to mostly make pieces that are easy to reproduce and find the most efficient ways of doing that. If that means casting just part of the finished piece and assembling it after casting, I will do that. If I can cut corners without sacrificing quality, I will do that; there is no need to make bezels from scratch on earrings that are meant to be affordable if a bezel cup will do. I almost never hand finish or use a buffing wheel and I design my pieces accordingly. And so I am able to price my production work at a level that people who know very little about jewelry can afford, I have a lot of repeat customers, and I find that my lower-priced work ultimately helps sell my higher-priced work (and vice versa).

One of the rings I sell in my Etsy shop-- but which is not available to stores at wholesale prices-- sells for $58. A lot of jewelers think this ring is under-priced. But one time, when I had let my orders pile up, I made 13 of these rings in an 8 hour period. The material cost of these rings is less than $5 each, so in 8 hours I made $689, that's $86/hr for my time, creativity, reputation, profit. That is a pretty good day. Do I really need to make a higher hourly wage than that on these rings? If not, these rings are not priced too low regardless of how that price might appear to others. If I get tired of making these rings, I can always stop or raise my prices. But for now they are a really good way of providing me with work and some steady income. This is the approach I have taken to all my production work and it has allowed me to do what I love full time while paying the bills, allowing me to save some money, and letting me grow my business. I couldn't do any of that if my prices were truly too low.

This is not always my approach, but not long ago this happened:

 

I got a mail from an Australian student who saw my work on the net. She loved one of my "Holograms" third series rings, one that is not a practical one to wear (to say the least). Never the less, that was the one she was interested in and asked me for a price.

After some consideration, I told her that she could buy it for any price she thought she could afford, on condition that she would carefully think about what it was worth to her and that the price would at least cover all my costs.

 

She answered that she was overwhelmed. That, being a student, she could only afford to pay 100 € for it, but that she was so thrilled that she told her friend and that she also would love to buy one for 100 €.

 

So I sold two, for 200 € (about 288 $).

To give you an idea, the materials cost about 25 € for the two rings, and they represent about eight hours of work.

 

I did not make a fortune, but I was absolutely glad that two young girls were willing to pay for a piece I consider to be quiet avant-garde and not obviously wearable. And, if ever, a collector wants to pay a higher price, I will not be sad too.

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