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Getting Started in Jewelry Design

The responsibilities of a jeweler or designer are changing as technology evolves. Not only has the advent of computer-aided design changed the way many jewelry designers work, but the Internet has allowed many aspiring and talented jewelry designers a way to enter the industry independently. Many jewelry designers view this change in the industry as inevitable and ultimately think it will be good for the industry as a whole. But they are also watching the change warily and expect that the influx of new independent jewelry designers will make the industry more competitive than ever.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there were more than 39,000 professional jewelry designers/precious metal workers employed across the country, but that number can’t possibly include every single jewelry designer using eBay and Etsy to sell their works, which gives you an idea of just how vast this industry is. The chance to create a meaningful piece of jewelry, whether it is a wedding ring or a necklace that becomes a treasured family heirloom, is what makes the job so appealing and worthwhile.

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Learn the Fundamentals

Master the Basic Concepts, Strategies & Techniques Needed to Be Successful

Jewelry designers work in a wide range of materials to create wearable art in metal, fiber, glass, gemstones, and countless other materials. From simple designs that are produced mechanically, to exquisite pieces of art rendered in precious metals and the finest gemstones, a jewelry designer will take a piece from concept to final creation, and consider everything in- between like color, balance, and functionality.

The idea, or concept of jewelry design is the first step in the creation process and guides a designer through the decisions of determining balance, movement, contrast, and harmony, and how to integrate those concepts into a final creation. Initial concepts will answer questions like what makes one piece of jewelry more attractive than another, will the piece stand out and be noticed, and is the design unique and original? Is it wearable, or too heavy or clumsy? This stage in the design process helps designers decide whether the particular combination of materials is appropriate, whether the jewelry will be pleasing to clients, and whether the piece meets the basic requirements of good design.

While good jewelry design begins with a concept, it is the strategy behind that concept that forms the building blocks; taking a design from concept to completion and includes a thorough knowledge of materials (i.e., gemstones, metals, or fabrics), composition, if one element is to be emphasized over another, and what aspects of the design work, or which aspects do not work at all. This step helps designers candidly critique their jewelry to determine if it is aesthetically pleasing and meets the desired expectations. It allows artists to expand their designs from standard traditional pieces to innovative art, while remaining functional, comfortable and of value to clients.

Good jewelry design is also all about technique. It is something that a person may pick up on their own, through a YouTube video, or learn through coursework offered at a college or university. Technique provides designers with the knack to create designs on paper or with a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) program; it is the ability of a jewelry designer to know if a red garnet will stand-out against a gold pendant. Technique determines if a piece is wearable or durable. If it is too long, too short, or is too difficult to get on and off. Jewelry designers must know how to manipulate their designs, how to make alterations based on customer feedback. Technique allows the creation of beautiful pieces by using a saw, clay, a torch, hammer, nails, a kiln, and other tools that take ideas from conception to completion, and helps jewelry come to life.

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Build Your Portfolio

There are a number of qualities a jewelry designer should possess to be successful; both personally or professionally. Jewelry designers must have inherent artistic ability and dexterity. They must be detail oriented, able to visualize and understand what is stylish and attractive at the time. As with most artistic careers, jewelry designers’ creations will be scrutinized and critiqued by colleagues, as well as clients, so a tenacious personality is key.

Yet, what’s both interesting and potentially worrisome about jewelry design is that there is no hard and fast path to becoming a successful jewelry designer and a strong portfolio is essential. A jewelry designers’ portfolio is important to receiving an internship, a new job offer, or new customers, and it gives designers the opportunity to stand out from the crowd because of their personal style and talent.

Because creative jobs are often based on your connections, learning how to network within the industry can mean the difference between success and failure. Ongoing professional development, either through continuing education or affiliations in industry associations, are also prerequisites for a successful career in this field. It is, of course, easier to be happy and more confident once a jewelry designer has become established. At the same time, many designers relish the unique daily interactions with clients and are immensely proud to understand that their creations will outlive them by many generations.

Get to Know Our Experts

Mark Loren

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Mark Loren Designs, Inc.
  • Where:
    Fort Myers, FL
  • Experience:
    30 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I have pretty much had my eye on this career path ever since high school, which is when I started taking art classes that were specifically aimed at gold and metal smithing. After high school, I had the opportunity to get a scholarship to be a pre-med student, but once I realized I had to be in school for 10 more years I had second thoughts. I had been making jewelry for four years at that point and loved that it was hands-on and gave me instant gratification. I went to look at Gem City College in Quincy, Illinois and decided to try it. I already knew the basics of jewelry repair and had been making jewelry for some time, so I blew through school and got my jewelry and diamond-setting certificates.

    I started as a designer in a trade shop in Chicago, but they wanted to open a store in Florida and so I went there. The store didn’t last much longer than a year, but I decided to stay in Florida because I saw a need for the work I did and also saw that there weren’t that many people doing it in the area. I got the opportunity to buy someone’s business, so I borrowed from friends and family, maxed out some credit cards, and bought the guy’s business. We quickly doubled the number of stores, increased the turnaround time on the work, and started doing very well because there weren’t a lot of jobs in the industry doing quality work that quickly. Over time, the business has changed from 90 percent wholesale and 10 percent retail; to 98 percent retail and 2 percent wholesale. I liked it because it was steady income and I was able to keep my finger on the pulse of the jewelry industry in the area.

    I love the interactions and relationships with clients. I get to not only learn about their lives but also build a relationship based on my skills and my crafts. I know we are making things for special events and that feels good. There is no better feeling than creating something and having the client go crazy over it. Also, I am creating something that will be passed on through generations and will outlive me by a long time. What I don’t particularly like about my job is the running of the business and all of the hassle that comes along with it. I have to think about financials and liabilities and HR; and that stuff keeps me from doing what I love to do, which is design. I also don’t love it when I have to give something to a client because they specifically requested it a certain way, even though I know it isn’t right. If I had my druthers, I would just sit at my bench and hammer away.

    Advice

    You don’t need a formal education to be a good jewelry designer

    I am not a proponent of formal education because I think formal education has been tamping down on entrepreneurial creativity. I think, in the case of jewelry design, someone can become quite good at it just by practicing it. They can seek out particular skills and areas of the industry where they want to work, and if they focus on that, they can carve out a career. I also think it is very important to get your hands into the job. If you really want to be a jewelry designer, you need to get your hands working rather than spend time taking philosophy classes. Formal education can be expensive, and a lot of the skills and education can be easily found on the Internet or just by taking a simple course.

    Understand how your designs and work can fill a need in the industry

    It is so much easier to become an independent business person in the art world now because of websites like Etsy and eBay. It is important for every business owner to recognize the type of art you enjoy making and what type of art you are drawn to, and realize how you can fill a need with those interests. You also need to get your art out in front of people. Experiment with art fairs and the Internet and sites like eBay or Etsy as ways of getting people to see your art. I also think it might be worthwhile to get involved with great local charities. Not only will you get to display your art for a good cause, but you will also get to talk about pieces with the people who attend and you can become well-known in the community for helping make a difference.

    Networking is crucial

    Obviously networking is vitally important. I met our gallery manager because she just walked into our store, we had a great chat, and then we bumped into each other again and I told her I was looking for someone to run my gallery. Just putting yourself in the position to meet jewelry designers and other people in the industry is helpful. If you want to work in a fine jewelry shop, working up front learning about the jewelry and how it is presented to the customer can be extremely helpful. It can also give you access to the store and the jewelers, so not only are you getting comfortable presenting to customers but you are also working with professionals who will grow to know you and get comfortable with you. Maybe then, when they are looking to hire someone, you will be right there waiting.

    Andreas and Elisha Argentinis

  • Title:
    Owners
  • Company:
    Metal Pressions
  • Where:
    Savannah, GA
  • Experience:
    5 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    Andreas has his degree in finance and accounting from NYU. His early professional career was in online sales before transitioning to business systems analysis. From there he ended up in technical manufacturing operations before taking the leap with Elisha to start Metal Pressions. Elisha has a degree in biology from Millersville University. She started off as quality assurance microbiologist working in a lab at a pharmaceutical manufacturer. After that, she transitioned to the development side of the pharmaceutical industry managing clinical trials of new medicines, and then she began making jewelry.

    The average day is always busy for Elisha and I. Sometimes we blink and can’t believe the day is gone. What each day consists of varies considerably depending on the time of year. The busy holiday seasons are almost fully occupied with customer service, order processing, and fabrication. In the slower times of the year we are busy tweaking the site, promoting, improving our manufacturing process, and preparing for the next holiday. As small business owners, like most, we wear many hats. In addition to all the demands of running and promoting an online retail jewelry business, we make everything we sell. To boot, every single item we make is a custom order. Never a dull moment!

    We love everything about the job. It’s the diversity of the tasks that we perform that keep us really engaged. We love making jewelry, but running the business has proven to be equally as rewarding. There isn’t much to dislike. We definitely get thrown challenges all the time. While it might not be exactly fun at the time, there is no better feeling than conquering a seemingly insurmountable problem. Bootstrapping this business was the hardest thing we have ever done, but we wouldn’t change a thing.

    Advice

    Figure out the role you really want to play

    There is some difference between wanting to be a jewelry designer and a jeweler. Some folks love the idea of designing jewelry but do not necessarily want to make it. Other people are passionate about the craftsmanship. Then there are those who love both aspects. Figuring out what role you really want to play will have an enormous impact on your career choices. If you just want to be a designer then you might focus on your illustration abilities while getting an education in fashion and jewelry design.

    Once you understand your role then pick the right program for you

    Once you figure out if you want to be a jewelry designer, a jeweler, or both, then it’s time to pick the right program. We have seen jewelry design programs that might give you some exposure to the fabrication of jewelry but will not get you to a high level of proficiency at the craft of making it. If you want to make jewelry, then go to a great trade school like the New Approach School for Jewelers or try to get an apprenticeship. If you want to be a designer, then I would find the best school in one of the world’s great fashion cities. Submerge yourself in the fashion culture, and try to get as much experience as possible with internships or volunteering at fashion events. Of course, this advice comes from a couple of jewelers with no formal education or experience in the industry or the trade. You can go that route as well, if you have the knack, but you’ll have to be ready for some really late nights.

    Relationships are the lifeblood of any independent business

    Relationships are everything for us. We think that applies to every stage of life, professional and personal. Get out there and create meaningful relationships with people in the industry you want to be in. We find that our professional relationships are strongest when we bring value to the table. For us, that might be our quality, reliability, fabrication skills, or business and marketing knowledge. You need to figure out what value you can provide that makes it worth having a connection with you. That, in conjunction with a little bit of the same youthful optimism that got us going, will be sure to open doors wherever you go!

    Peggy Li

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Peggy Li Creations
  • Where:
    San Francisco, CA
  • Experience:
    10+ years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I have a bachelor’s degree in bioresource sciences from the University of California, Berkeley. I’ve worked as a writer and product marketing manager, and I was writing screenplays for a while in my spare time. Jewelry was a hobby for a long time until one day, I had the idea of sending some samples of my work to a television costume designer I had met through work. I couldn’t have possibly known that decision would serve as the start of my jewelry design journey.

    Now I run my jewelry business, Peggy Li Creations, from home and sell primarily online. I love it because it means I am my own boss and I have a lot of creative freedom. On the downside, being a solo entrepreneur can be isolating and it can be tough to get motivated and find the help you need for specific tasks. When you work for yourself, you have to fend for yourself!

    I’ve explored a few different career paths and don’t think I have any major regrets. If anything, I wish I was more proud of my entrepreneurial leanings early on in my business – I didn’t feel that making jewelry was a “real job”. I wish I had gotten more serious about it sooner than I did. Especially since I didn’t have formal training in either jewelry design or business, I had a lot of work and learning to do!

    Advice

    You don’t need to go to school to be successful as a jewelry designer

    At one point I did look into going to Fashion Institute of Technology for jewelry design. I flew to New York City and interviewed. The professor looked at my meager sketches, and when I said I was already in business for myself, pretty much told me I should keep pursuing that unless I wanted a specific career in jewelry design (say with a Tiffany’s type business, or as a 3D designer for example). I kept my day job and continued to grow my business on the side instead of going to school.

    It’s important to be well-rounded if you go into business for yourself

    I do my best to take classes and learn new skills when I can, but I enjoy all aspects of my business, not just the design side. I think it’s very important if you’re interested in being a jewelry designer with your own business that you are well-rounded and take interest in all aspects from finance to marketing, etc. not just design, in order to be successful.

    Always study your craft and profession

    Take classes from your local bead store or community college if you’re just getting started. If you’re already making jewelry, work on your craft and let the world know this is what you are interested in doing. Talk to designers you admire, find out their career path, and then pick a few options for yourself. Remember that everyone’s path is unique, but you can certainly learn from others’ experience to help build your own. Really refine and define your own style.

    Yin Yin Wu

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    LoveGem Studio
  • Where:
    San Francisco, CA
  • Experience:
    1 year in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I started my jewelry career out of an immediate and personal need. My husband proposed to me in July 2012, and in preparation for our wedding he asked if I would be interested in designing our bands. I was thrilled about his request. In February 2013, my then fiancé sponsored me to attend a metalsmithing class at the City College of San Francisco, and thus the journey began. The class gave me the fundamentals to go explore and learn on my own about other ring design and fabrication techniques. My academic background is in mechanical engineering with a concentration in energy efficiency and conservation, which is why I strive to use eco-friendly sustainable materials. Also, I partner with Trees for the Future to help fund planting a tree for every piece of jewelry that is sold.

    There are so many aspects of my job that I love, for example, that it gives me the freedom to explore various designs and provides me the ability to turn designs and concepts into actual objects. Besides the design and business management aspects, I enjoy the interactions with my customers. Many of my handmade rings are purchased to express love; all kinds of love from wedding proposals to friendship or motherly love. Often I receive messages from customers soon after they receive the rings letting me know of their experiences as they gifted the rings.

    Advice

    Learn the fundamentals

    Learn the fundamentals first by taking a jewelry course. If you want to make jewelry, learning the techniques and having lots of practice are always the first step. Since quality of the jewelry is very important, you want to make sure you can become competent and comfortable with your skills before presenting the work to your customer.

    Study the business side

    If you want to start your own business, taking courses is essential. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) offers workshops and consultations at no cost to small business owners to assist them in start-up and business development. To be self-employed as a jewelry maker, it is important to realize the meaning of “self-employed,” and discard the notion that you will be spending 100% of your time designing.

    Be consistent and creative

    Start with the fundamentals, learn the techniques, and practice a lot until you see consistency in the work that you fabricate. Explore various design ideas, see what others are doing, and get inspired to come up with your unique designs. Design is an interactive process; it is not an end product. You can start from scratch or find inspiration in other people’s work, then it will be up to you as a designer to make it your own.

    Jewelry Design Infographic