Some designers need years of training before they can successfully create a product that is ready to be marketed and sold. Then there are those like jewelry designer Jill Manzara, who still needed years of training to become a successful designer, only she taught herself. Nights reading design books and months on the road selling her niche product have paid off and now, as she describes it, her work is her joy.
The idea of becoming a jewelry designer without any formal training can seem like a daunting task, and in many respects it is. But Manzara is proof that, with a little bit of dedication, perseverance, talent, and luck, it doesn’t only need to be a dream, it can also be a reality.
We got the opportunity to talk with Jill about her long months on the road, how she learned to market her business and build it into a multi-million dollar opportunity, and advice she might have for those thinking about following her footsteps. Enjoy!
How did you become a jewelry designer?
I currently design a jewelry line called JILZARA that is made from handmade polymer clay. I came across polymer clay beads in the late 1990’s via a client. At the time, I was a personal trainer and had no experience in jewelry design. However, I was so taken by these artisan beads that I began to obsess over how they were made and, more importantly, how to design them.
Did you have formal education or were you self-taught, and how did you learn this skill?
I am a self-taught designer. It was a painful process that required years to develop. This bead obsession led me to my first business, and being a business owner required me to wear many hats. I spent many nights reading design books, practicing graphic design, and researching techniques. I had to learn how to develop graphic art before I could truly start designing my own unique jewelry line.
How did you break into the industry, or start doing this as a career?
My story is one of entrepreneurship. I knew I had a unique product that wasn’t in the market. I really had no clue as to how to bring a product to market, though, so I just drove all over the country selling at art fairs and home shows. I spent months on the road peddling beads, trying to make ends meet. Then, someone within the gift industry noticed the product.
She helped bring it to market via a national sales team. Within a few short years our business blossomed into a multi-million dollar enterprise. I have since sold my interest in that first business so I could develop a premium brand of clay beaded jewelry — thus the company JILZARA was born.
What are some skills that you have as a jewelry designer that you believe are key to your success?
Learning how to create vector art. I see design every day in the most unexpected places. Those ideas take root in my mind and the only place I can truly develop them is through vector art.
Can you give us a description of what you do, how you do it, and your methods that bring about these beautiful pieces of jewelry?
I first start with a color palette. Each season I design 4-6 new color lines. Each line must be a unique color grouping. I research the color trends and select my favorites from the forecast. Then, I lock myself up for about 10 days and work on illustrations. Since the clay is the primary material for our jewelry, design is priority.
Once the design process for the clay is finished, I move on to product development and create our finished products. I select base metals, plating, and all of the components that merge with the clay beads and become bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and watches. This is where the details can be overwhelming, and each product goes through several rounds of prototypes before it’s ready for market.
What have been some of the best ways you have built and marketed your business?
Entering the gift industry really gave me a lot of exposure, but once I got there I quickly realized that I had to get into buyers’ minds by somehow standing out. I learned that consistently putting effort into presentation is crucial if you ever hope to be memorable.
The most important thing I could tell a young designer is to be brand-oriented at all times. Whether you’ve developed a brand name or not, you represent yourself and your product 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. People will get to know who you are, and it’s important to make it a positive impression.
Where do most of your clientele come from, or how do you make money doing this?
Customers come from all over the country. They’re typically small business owners, from high-end boutiques to gift shops. I make money by selling my line at wholesale prices. Retailers then sell my products, and when their end-customers see my branding and packaging, they’re driven to visit our website and get to know us better.
What are your favorite things about being a jewelry designer?
I really love designing my jewelry because it incorporates color and design with a very uncommon medium, polymer clay. I get to constantly create! I love that the possibilities are endless and I’m so grateful that my work is my joy.
What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced when starting out, that others should be prepared for?
I was a single mother with two children and was struggling financially to make ends meet. I was working as a personal trainer while simultaneously trying to build my dream. The exhaustion of battling day in and day out was the biggest challenge of my life. I relied on my will to keep me driven. Be prepared to sacrifice more than you’ll ever expect to.
Unlike you, I didn’t plan on the path of jewelry design – it found me, and I haven’t looked back since. If it’s in your heart, you will make it happen regardless of shortcomings. I found a way to teach myself what I didn’t know, simply because I wanted it bad enough.
If you had to do it all over again, what kind of advice would you of given yourself as a jewelry designer?
I would have gone to art school instead of studying psychology!
Do you have any final words of wisdom to artists aspiring to become a jewelry designer?
Don’t ever give up. I had so many strikes against me. I had no formal education for graphic or jewelry design, I was a single mother, I had no money, no business skills or experience, but the one thing I did have was my will. I willed my dream of success into a reality that changed my life and my children’s lives forever. You have this one and only life, go get what you want and don’t settle for less.
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