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Informal Survey of Metalsmiths


#1

Dear Orchidians;

For quite some time I have been wondering how many people truly make
their living with metalsmithing? When I ask this I mean how many
folks are out there who work for themselves in the field and make
enough money to pay bills, mortgage, rent, insurance, etc and either
are totally self sufficient or make enough that they could be,
without contributions from a spouse, trust fund, teaching job, part
time bench job, performance gigs, etc.

On another track, how many metalsmithing educators are out there who
derive a greater percentage of their income from selling their work
than teaching?

Working in education I get questions like this all the time from
students and parents and sometimes hear that undergraduate students
are told by university counselors to forget metals because you can’t
make a living.

This is a very informal survey, I just want to get a feel for the
answer.

Regards,
James McMurray


#2
    Working in education I get questions like this all the time
from students and parents and sometimes hear that undergraduate
students are told by university counselors to forget metals because
you can't make a living. 

Well, there is money to be made in these industries – just maybe
not at the bench being creative where the students want to be.

There are a number of other areas where there are jobs – jewelry
sales, back room gem sorting, writing, appraising… just to name a
few. If it is enough for a person to be “in the field,” then there
are things they can do. I wouldn’t completely discourage people from
taking up our field.

University counselors may tell students that because the way many
universities teach metals – without the business stuff – the
students aren’t prepared to make a living. It is possible, but you
have to be a business person first.

Elaine
Elaine Luther
Metalsmith, Certified PMC Instructor
http://www.CreativeTextureTools.com
Hard to Find Tools for Metal Clay


#3

James,

I make my living and it is a really good living working with metals,
I am a blacksmith, a knife maker, a machinist, learning to cast thing
myself instead of sending the molds out. I make jewelry with various
methods. I also make tools for other people.

Been doing this now for about 10 years full time. Ate PBJs for first
three years, now I can afford a new Honda every 2 to 3 years.

Jerry


#4
     For quite some time I have been wondering how many people
truly make their living with metalsmithing?

A number of years ago, The Crafts Report published a survey about
metalsmiths and how many had other jobs, how many had other income
in the household. It was pretty dismal. I don’t remember the
percentage who had no other jobs and made a living from selling
metal things, but it was shockingly low.

A few years ago Noel Y. asked a similar question here – Noel, do
you remember the subject line?

Elaine
Elaine Luther
Metalsmith, Certified PMC Instructor
http://www.CreativeTextureTools.com
Hard to Find Tools for Metal Clay


#5

I have made my income entirely from jewelry making since 1971. It
does help to have a credit line with a bank, however, to even out the
yearly ups and downs of the economy and seasonal holidays, and to have
a core of repeat customers, and a wholesale as well as retail
business.

Rick Hamilton


#6
For quite some time I have been wondering how many people truly
make their living with metalsmithing?  When I ask this I mean how
many folks are out there who work for themselves in the field and
make enough money to pay bills, mortgage, rent, insurance, etc and
either are totally self sufficient or make enough that they could
be, without contributions from a spouse, trust fund, teaching job,
part time bench job, performance gigs, etc.

I do and I make a good living at it too. I have supported myself
with it for over 30 years. My wife’s ability to earn a good living
too certainly has helped over the years for us to live a better
lifestyle but we could have done ok without it if necessary. And
now she’s working with me in the business and we’re still ok.

Daniel R. Spirer, G.G.
Daniel R. Spirer Jewelers, LLC
1780 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02140
@Daniel_R_Spirer
www.spirerjewelers.com


#7

I just started to make my living from my jewelry. Officially (as of
a couple weeks ago) this is the first year I have made enough to be
able to pay cash for my rent, studio rent, pay for living expeses,
materials, show fees, etc. This fall it will be my 6th year in
business, so this happened for me much sooner than I thought it
would!

I don’t teach, so I cant answer that survey question for you.


#8

in answer to the Q re: financial independence…my husband Bill is an
artist in wood, I am an enamelist/jeweler. We derive all of our
income from these arts and are doing fine, I’ve never had a straight
job…Bill hasn’t had a straight job since high school or college.
So , in terms of spousal support…I don’t think that counts as being
supported “by” a spouse. How many couples out there have only 1
working person anyway?

Marianne Hunter


#9

Elaine and all on Orchid!

I see it is much more that sitting at a bench and creating, where it
be in precious metal forming, but once it done…so??? How many of
these new students who have finished their degrees know how to
"market them"? This should be a part of the "new workshop"
curriculum…Another point is pricing of merchandise, stones, your
labour & time involved, rates of insurance, advertising routes and
their rates, renting of space for office. Did I even mention the
Canadian Provincial and Federal taxes?

I once did an “example” for my evening class, on how to evaluate a
certain item for RESALE…No one had the foggiest idea on how to make
enough money from the above examples for business survival. This so
very important in these days we are in.

If ‘we’ are the teachers and their mentors, well then we must surely
teach them this…NOW!..will someone correct me if I’m wrong…:>)
Gerry!


#10

i have been working as a designer - goldsmith and supporting three
kids and a high maintance wife for 12 years.

Matthew
mhgjewelry.com


#11
 A few years ago Noel Y. asked a similar question here -- Noel, do
you remember the subject line? 

Yes, it was called the “Truth or Dare Survey”. A search for this in
the archives should turn up the responses. I actually saved them in a
folder-- I have 54. If you can’t find them, I suppose I could forward
them. I don’t actually remember how it turned out-- responses were
all over the map, but quite a few of us do earn our D.B. (daily
bread) from our metals work.

–Noel

Truth or dare survey - February 2003

 All this talk about pricing, etc, has led me to a question I
don't recall seeing before. I would really like to know, for the
sake of curiosity but also possibly for an article, how many of you
out there are actually living from jewelry. If you are willing,
lurkers included (I know you're out there, I can hear you
breathing), please tell me what percentage of your (family's)
expenses are met through jewelry-related work-- from 0% to 100%+.
More detail is welcome, but not necessary. 

Followup:
https://orchid.ganoksin.com/t/truth-or-dare-survey


#12

Hello James;

I’d love to give everybody one of those long and rambling diatribes
of mine about this, but here’s the long and the short of it.

I make my living entirely by custom making and repairing jewelry
running a wholesale trade shop. I have two part time employees who
are relatively well paid for their skill level. My pay is about
two-thirds what I’d make if I got a good paying job, and I work
close to twice the hours I would working for someone else. The trade
off? No single “employer” of mine (my trade accounts) has my and my
family’s welfare totally under his or her control. I’ve got more
power to change my job situation than I had when all I could do was
change jobs.

To make a survivable income as a trade shop jeweler, you need a very
complete skill set, a lot of experience, and you need to be fast.
Best if you have high standards for quality, too. You will have
extraordinary demands put on your abilities no matter how good you
are. I find that if you routinely do the work better than expected,
everything runs a little smoother, no comebacks, and nobody
complaining about the charges unless you’re stupid expensive. Even
small slip-ups take money away from you, and a single major mistake
can bankrupt you. And this is no way to get rich, unless you get to
the point that you’ve got a dozen ringers working for you and a whole
lot of business. How much can you make? Well, with my wife’s income
from her part time job, and her medical insurance, which I wouldn’t
be able to afford, we manage to come out just under what the federal
government considers the poverty level for a family of four (we have
two kids). On the other hand, I started this business 3 years ago
with nothing but a few tools and a whole lot of experience, and it’s
income and mine have doubled every year, so I expect the picture to
improve if I don’t drop over dead from exhaustion.

David L. Huffman


#13

This issue of making generalizations about “making it” in the
jewelry business is fraught with pitfalls of logic and reason. I
think the best measurement of whether you are making it is whether
you are still in business. Take our county, for example, ( San Luis
Obispo, Ca.)

I have been in business here now for twenty years.As I look about, I
note that most of the people who were in the jewelry business here
twenty years ago are still here. I don’t know anything about their
personal financial circumstances, but I would say that most people
have had some financial help during their lifetimes. Another
important dimension of this consideration is that nearly all small
businesses must struggle for quite some time to get off the ground.
The beauty of it is that once you get off the ground it gets
progressively better as time goes on. Don’t expect to get
rich…maybe just fairly well off. The real income is in the self
sufficiency, independence and creativity. And, don’t ever think that
creativity alone will keep you aloft. It is absolutely imperative
that you practice good business habits; things like paying your bills
on time, using spending restraint and promoting your business without
sinking the ship with advertising expense. ( Oddly enough, you can
easily ruin a business with spending too much on advertising ! )
Meanwhile, just think how boring life would be if you had no
challenge ! People who think that winning the lottery would solve all
their problems are deluded beyond redemption !

Ron Mills, Mills Gem Co. Los Osos, Ca.


#14

We have been making a living at “metalsmithing” for more than a
couple decades now, working for a major part of it in your neck of
the woods, Seattle.

What I would like to know is, since you are a professor at the UW,
how you are preparing your students to go out there and make a living
at running a jewelry business? Are you offering business classes,
marketing and accounting? In essence are you part of the problem or
part of the solution?

I heard a statistic once that 1% of the students who graduate in
"art" work in their media of study 5 years after graduation. That is
pretty dreadful.

Marlene Richey

William Richey Designs
P. O. Box 4115
15 Wharf Street . Portland . ME . 04101
207.846.3607


#15

I wrote about this subject in another post, but having thought more
about the subject, I would like to make some ex post facto remarks.
When you wonder whether one can make the mortgage payments, pay the
rent, pay the bills etc. etc. , you are assuming that these fixed
costs are basic and uniform…and, therein lies the rub. The fact
is that all of us have different ideas about what one should accept
as being requisite life styles. There is a suggestion that whatever
one pays for rent is what one OUGHT to pay…phooey ! Your
lifestyle should be geared to what you are making ! You can control
lifestyle , but you can’t control income. The bottom line is that
you have to make lifestyle concessions until you can graduate into a
better lifestyle based on what you are making !. Most people living
in developing economies know this, but those of us who live in a
pampered society have to learn it. To learn it is to survive !

We are entering into a new era in American society wherein we are
having to realize that money doesn’t grow on trees and that the
luxuries that we have taken for granted in the past have to be
EARNED. It used to be that we only had to be concerned with
competition within our own isolated society; now we not only have to
compete with everyone else in the world, we have also to compete
with people in OUR world which have been brought into our society
from developing countries. The competiton is becoming brutal and we
are going to be severely challenged. On a brighter note, what is
wrong with being challenged?..maybe we shouldn’t regret the
competition. Maybe it is about time we stopped resting on our
laurels and got down to the business of creativity, industry and
achievement…

Ron MIlls , Mills Gem Co. Los Osos, Ca.


#16
    For quite some time I have been wondering how many people truly
make their living with metalsmithing?  When I ask this I mean how
many folks are out there who work for themselves in the field and
make enough money to pay bills, mortgage, rent, insurance, etc and
either are totally self sufficient 

Hello James,

I did the whole art school thing and make a living from my work
dispite it. The only job I had was a year and a half as a production
assistant for another smith, right after my MFA. Since 1984 I have
been self-employed full time. My wife had some other jobs until 1997
but she now works for our metalsmithing business as business manager.
I also have a full time apprentice/production assistant and two
people working as sales staff. No trust fund or sugar daddies, bills
are paid, kids in college.

Other jewelers and metalsmiths I meet give me the impression that
there are as many who learned their craft outside the formal art
school route as there are who did. I’ll bet half either learned
on-the-job working for someone else or took a hobby seriously and made
it a career.

Art school values seem like they often get in the way of making a
living. My metalsmithing teachers actually tried to give us some
insight into how we could make a living from selling our work, but
the other departments seemed to be much more “ivory tower” about
careers in art. A well known profesor of ceramics who lives near
where I grew up and returned after school, was very surprised when I
said I was making a living from my art only a few years after
graduation. What does that say about his faith in art education? I
believe that jewelry is a media where it is much easier to make a
living than most of the other artistic fields. Our audience is much
broader and more willing to pay up than most other fields of art.
Filling student’s heads with notions of starving artists and other
low expectations for their professional future is wrong. Several
years ago a jewelry company in Buffalo NY advertised for experienced
production staff with the intention of making 10 or more hires. They
had only one barely qualified applicant. About the same time I sent
a flyer out to 3 nearby college art department jewelry programs
advertising an opportunity to work in my shop and had no response at
all. Art education needs to do much more to prepare students for the
very real opportunities that exist.

Stephen Walker


#17

I have made my total living from creating my own unique jewelry
designs and selling them at juried art shows since 1971. I do shows
on the west coast and in the southwest. I have a few other things I
do from time to time for money, but just because I like to do other
things not because I have to. I teach jewelry workshops and computer
workshops, tutor people in computer graphics, sell used books that I
harvest while traveling to art shows, do photographic work for other
artists and businesses and organize art shows for local non-profits
as fund-raisers (for them and me). My wife is also an artist jeweler.
We each spend about 20 to 25 hours a week in the studio at our
workbenches. We sell only retail, do almost no special orders and
don’t do repairs unless something of ours breaks. We have done some
shows for over 20 consecutive years and at most shows 50 to 90
percent of our business is from people who have bought from us
before. We do a lot of postal mailing and emailing to keep in touch
with these clients.

Jima Abbott
http://www.mixedmetaljewels.bigstep.com


#18

Marlene, First of all I am not the professor in our program, I am the
instructional technician, I do teach a RP certification course
through extension. I have been with the program since Jan, 2000. We
do have a course that includes business practices, we don’t have “
business classes, marketing and accounting?”.

We maybe part of the problem, but we are hopefully becoming part of
the solution. We have very successful grads, both our BFA and MFA
students seem to do quite well in the field. This past year our BFA
students have almost all found jobs in the field or have been
approached by high end galleries. We have one former MFA who after a
couple years at a bench job was just hired to be the product
development manager/designer of a factory in Mumbai, India with over
500 workers. We are working at it from within a School of Art where
sometimes making money conflicts with art.

As far as the 1% statistic goes, I have never heard that number or
any number, who knows, I went to school for neurophysiology and
genetics.

Regards,
James McMurray
@James_McMurray


#19

Ron,

I really mean paying your bills, whatever they are I am not wanting
to judge lifestyle, If someone made $200,000 per year and couldn’t
pay their bills I wouldn’t call them a success, If someone made
$14,000 and could, I would say success. So the question is not how
much one makes, it is, do those funds come from metalsmithing or from
some other source.

Respectfully,
James McMurray


#20

I have been making southwest jewelry since 1973 mostly as a hobby.
I invested my hobby profit in tools and art.

I quit my engineering job in 1982 with the Arizona Public Service
working on the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant and became a full time
silversmith. Some times the pickings were slim but I always managed
to pay my bills. I sold both wholesale and retail. Everything was
paid for. Three daughters through college and a home and car paid
for.

In 1997 my three top customers quite. One lost about 1.5 million
dollars in inventory which was stolen at a show and quit doing about
30 wholesale shows a year. One gallery closed their doors and one
gallery quit selling silver.

The timing was right for me to retire early and do my silversmithing
as a hobby again.

I have never regretted leaving my high salary job as an engineer to
pursue my creative self.

My wife still works because she wants something to do. Her income
allows her to have a lot of luxuries. With Social Security, pension
and hobby income I still pay all the bills.

It would have been a great struggle if I had tried to follow my
creative career from the start. In 1979 I had the opportunity to
try me luck at being a full time silversmith. Fortunately I did not
leave my engineering job. Shortly after my wife had to have open
chest surgery and two daughters needed braces.

Having a full time job allowed me to build up my tools and skills
before I decided to leave the ulcer producing engineering job behind
and make a living at creating.

Lee Epperson
In Phoenix where it was 112 in my rock cutting station today.