5 Biggest Lessons I Learned After 40 Years in the Jewelry Biz

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Evolving my jewelry business for 40 years...

has been enormously satisfying though not always easy.

I experienced many ups and downs, and riding out the rocky economic times required steely determination, courage, good timing and "plain old luck."

Everyday is a learning experience when you have your own business. I've always been passionate about creating and that has been a key ingredient to my longevity - It's so important to have something new and original to present to your customers.

When I was a kid, my Mom encouraged me to make something rather than buy it. If I wanted a new outfit for school, a gift for a teacher, or a birthday card, I made it by hand. So from an early age I was instilled with a resourceful creative energy.

In reflecting back on my business and learning experiences, I'd like to share some of what I hope will inspire and help you, whether you are just starting out, or currently running your own business or holding a vision of owning a business.

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Lesson 1
Be Fearless in Evolving Your Product Line

Scatter Pins in the Man Michaels line, early 1990s

Experimenting creates momentum. Researching materials and having secure sources set up before you create your collection is a must. If you think you'll never see a supplier again, then buy enough material to create a collection and enough inventory to support that collection!

I prefer to buy materials when I see them and then create a color palette that ties in with the industry’s trend colors. Once I formulate a direction and create the first good piece, I spin off that and the family of items multiply. I work and re-work my designs until I have an entire collection. It moves quickly when you have all the parts together and the concept is driving you. I love getting lost in this creative hypnotic energy.

Researching new materials is crucial. I originally started out making fashion accessories with leather and snakeskin, rubber and vinyl and gradually evolved to brass stampings. First were filigree pieces, and as I acquired equipment and learned how to assemble efficiently, eventually I added semi-precious gemstones! Through these cycles of re-invention, my business was able to set trends over the decades.

There were times when the market forced my business to evolve. In the late 80s/early 90s when China received most favored nation status, it was devastating to domestic manufacturing. It was difficult to compete with the cheap knock-offs that flooded the market. But as stores became filled with low quality imports and similar looks, there was a growing demand for fresh ideas from within the U.S. In the wake of this, I created a line of novelty Scatter Pins for hats, lapels, bags and coats. I met the demand with a unique creative direction that pushed my line into new markets with new representatives expanding my jewelry to the Gift Shows!

Lesson 2
Listen Closely to Your Customers

Futuristic designs with resins and colored glass, mid 1990s

Fashion accessory and gift trade shows have been a primary marketing and sales venue for my business. The shows put me front and center with wholesale customers, who in turn, were on the hunt for collectively thousands of women who purchased jewelry from them. Tapping into these customers and listening to what they wanted helped to spark some of my best ideas and set the direction for upcoming jewelry collections.

As attendance at trade shows have dropped and the costs have increased, you may choose to invest in other channels to market your wares. But whatever you choose, it's important to connect with your end customers to gather insights about what excites and moves them.

Lesson 3
A Miscalculation or Mistake Can Also Be An Opportunity

Bows and belts made with stenciled leopard skin chamois, early 1980s

Invariably you will make a big mistake or a miscalculation, whether it's a new hire that didn't work out or a a less than successful product launch. Yes, it's disappointing and can make a dent in your bottom line. But in my experience, there are often hidden opportunities in an unfortunate situation, and if you stay clear thinking, you might even benefit from it.

In the early 80s, I used stenciled leopard skin chamois to make bow ties and earrings. I had a good rapport with my leather supplier, but one day they made a mistake and gave me more skins than I had ordered. I called in a panic to return this enormous order of skins, and unexpectedly, the supplier offered me Net 30 terms so i would keep them. Since my business was just starting and I had absolutely no credit, this was an opportunity to start building some. So I went for it and kept the material!

From the extra skins, I created the cutest military styled belt with a versatile adjustable buckle. I sold them to one of the biggest department stores at the time called I Magnin, where they were featured in their gorgeous window displays on mannequins wearing trendy jumpsuits. It was a big success, and soon after, they included the belts in their mail order catalog. As I ordered more and more skins to keep up with sales, my credit multiplied as well and was soon extended to other suppliers, growing my business in the process.

Lesson 4
Don't Sacrifice Quality

Tectonic Necklace with rutilated quartz and pyrite, 2017

You've worked hard to develop your own unique style, so market your products with pride and believe in what you are selling. Don't sacrifice quality in terms of your materials or construction, and give great customer service. Both wholesale and retail customers want consistency and durability so make sure they get it.

Semi-precious gemstones are a perfect example of increased quality as they require more time to research and source compared to glass and resins. They also require more handling to match colors and fit into bezels. However, when I converted to better quality stones, my customer base expanded to include Museum shops and galleries, as well as high-end boutiques.

Lesson 5
Hire a Financial Advisor that You Trust

You've most likely heard this before, but hire the best financial advisors you can. Make sure they think along the same lines as you, and that they appreciate your business approach. Also, invest in your house accounting and hire a strong book keeper that makes sure everything is organized so nothing falls through the cracks.

My advisors have helped me decide on everything from capital investments to making sure tiny stones are accounted for. Details in your financial world are as important as the details in your collections. You'll be paying for this advice, so listen carefully to what they tell you and implement it. 

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me directly at jan@janmichaels.com.

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Customer Service
Jan Michaels, Inc.
PH: 1-800-971-7717


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