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Your position in the market

Do you ever think about how you fit into your market?

Everyone would no doubt like to think of themselves as the best or
the biggest or the whatever-est. I’ve got this friend in the trade
who keeps pushing for me to upsize by a substantial margin, and would
help support that effort. Bigger, fancier showroom, much bigger
inventory, higher price points, the whole nine yards of a couture
operation. I know I have the skills to do it given sufficient capital
and determination. “Neil, 80% of the jewelers I deal with who have
expanded are doing well”. That’s funny, I hear just the opposite from
another trade friend.

If I did it I would cease to be the benchie (which I like) and would
become the ‘manager’. That’s going to change me, and I know because I
have been there. When times were good they were very good indeed.
When they weren’t, it bordered on hell…all that responsibility. I
figure people come here because of what I can do on the bench, and
they like to deal with ‘me’. Are they going to still come when I’m in
a three piece suit with an immaculate manicure and gasp a haircut?
And hand off the work to an assistant? So there goes my advantage. Or
does it? Do I care since I’d potentially be making much better money?

For jewelers out there who may be pondering a change of any
sort…what would make you do it? What would prevent you? If you are
a hands-on craftsperson like me, do you think it would work to hire a
store manager and staff and you stay on the bench? Is there enough
time for that, given that you still would have to review everything?
For jewelers who have already done it…was it worth it?

I’m sorry. I started out to ask a broad question and wound up
narrative again. Old habits die hard.

Hi Neil

I guess today is my day to ‘run off at the mouth’.

It seems that paragraph two answers your own question. How much money
do you need verses how much time do you have?

I pondered the change you’re contemplating. I love doing the work I
do; not that there aren’t some difficult times. I’m not good at
managing other people’s time. Managers have a habit of wanting to
’take over’.

It’s hard to get good help. I’m a fastidious, perfectionist person
who doesn’t always achieve his goals.

I recently tried to hire a helper someone with over twenty years of
experience. I could make more money if I could produce more. It ended
in tears, me for the money it cost me; and for the other when I told
him ‘good enough’ is not good enough. It’s either right or it isn’t

Do you have it in you to supervise? And would you find it

You can’t buy time with money.



I enjoyed your narrative very much. Brought back memories as well. I
am not convinced that in todays current climate that bigger,
flashier, more expensive is the ticket for everyone. Some do it very
well, and I say hair on them! I have elected a different route in
taking a “niche” market and making it as “big and better” as I can. I
heavily expanded the technologies, equipment, and education, and yet
I am still able to be the bench addict. I strive to offer the
personailzed service and product availabilty to a broad clientel. I
have chosen to operate a smaller retail sales floor helped along with
a big shop on steroids. I stock it with my own design and
manufactured product as well as some generic merchandise to hit
several market levels. We cruise very comfortably when times are
slower, and “cook with gas” when times are good. I believe it is due
to the broad and diverse service spectrum, and close personal
customer service that has lead us to be successful.

I have thought about going big, but I am sure I would miss that odd
customer that comes in and rolls a little tear over something you
have done for them, from your heart. I am sure most of you out there
know what I mean by that. Don’t get me wrong…big money is great,
but I like living in a world where I get the money with a little love
attached…ha ha!


Hi Neil,

I work for a benchie-owner like you. He too wrestled with this
question. When we took on a new line of diamonds, their management
wanted my boss to clean up his fingernails and stay out front. He
made a sorta-go at it but was never comfortable with the management
role and being away from the bench. Long story short, we have swung
180 degrees away from that, he is back on the bench and working on
what he has determined are our core strengths of custom (vs. selling
other company’s lines). He likes selling, he’s good at it, but his
satisfaction (after the bills are paid) is working at the bench.

Personally - and maybe I’m just a coward - I don’t see this as a
great time to upset the apple cart.

Reading your post, my intuitive feeling is that you don’t want to do
this, but you feel as if you should take a serious look at it. So two
questions: (1) Do you feel a strong desire to make more money? (2)
Would making this change have you feeling more happy and fulfilled at
the end of the day?

Good Luck,

PS - I hope you get a lot of responses to your query after all the
great advice you have bestowed on this forum, you deserve it.

Neil, I think you know in your heart of hearts that this is not your
destiny. Do you really want to be
Regardless of your present ‘friendship’ with the money-man, when he
provides financial input, you will become HIS employee in addition to
being your own employee, with him demanding a return on his money
regardless of what is left for you. What will you do if your investor
has financial trouble and his ownership interest in your store is
transferred to the courts for liquidation? It happens every day.

Do you have a lot of experience managing a high-end traditional
jewelry store? I can assure you that it requires a completely
different skill-set than what you are using today. Just the
hand-holding and sucking-up to the customers that is required is
amazing, in both time and effort. What is the competition for
high-line, full-line jewelry stores like in your area? What can you
offer that the customer can’t find in their current jewelry store?

Be prepared to lose most of your present customers, when they find
out that you will no longer be doing the benchwork yourself.

Jewelry stores and makers are going under at record rates due to
lack of cash flow, disappearing credit lines, and the inability of
even well-off customers to finance additional expenditures in a
non-existent credit market. Cities that supported dozens of
successful independent jewelers have seen the numbers drop to a mere
handful, few if any of which are thriving.

Lee Cornelius
Vegas Jewelers

So, you’re an artist. You go to school and learn to make beautiful
jewelry, and it sells well. You pride yourself (as many of us do) on
making everything by hand - no CNC for you. There are two issues at
work that are useful. First off, the FTC definition of handmade has
been hashed over here before. So, if you use a hydraulic press to
make raised forms, is it handmade? Yes, of course it is - but to me,
it’s not. It is, technically, but it is not the spirit of handwork in
my mind. We use the rolling mill, not because we are cheap but
because every part of every thing is custom made. Does that make our
work “more handmade”? It all just gets needlessly complicated and
sillier and sillier. We just make jewelry, whatever it takes to get
the job done.

The other issue is much more important. If you bill your time at
(pick a number) $50/hr while you are handmaking everything, then
working 10 hour days the maximum amount of money you can make is
$500/day, and no, we don’t live in a perfect world. If it takes you 3
hours to make a piece, then you make 3 pieces a day @ $150 per.
That’s all well and good. And idealistic numbers for discussion,
naturally. Then you have a baby, and maybe another one… Let’s say
that your piece is moldable, so you mold it. Or let’s say that a
punch press and a $200 die will put out the major component in 1
second for $5 each… You have lost you idealism but now it takes you
20 minutes to make the same $150. Then you gang your work, put in
some tooling and cut that time to 10 minutes each. Then you hire a
crew, pay them $20/hr. to use production methods to put out 10
pieces/man/hour for which you get $150 each. Meantime you decide
that making each and every component on a 1000 piece run just isn’t
for you when you can buy that one part for a penny…

The other important thing about the above scenario is that the
customer wins, too. It’s using those philosophies that a retail
customer can get, not a “handmade” piece but a representation of one
for 100th the cost, at times. People like to sneer at Costco jewelry
(why they would look at all…), but every piece there was made by
hand - that is to say, the originals were. You’re able to buy a
representation of handmade work for $50 - the original is out of most
buyer’s budgets - they simply wouldn’t buy it at all.

So. I also enjoy sitting here at my bench, crafting fine things from
scratch, but I long ago lost my starry-eyed ideals. If I sit down
and spend two hours making something that I can just buy for $10
that nobody will every know about anyway - I have wasted my time and
cost the customer needless money out of some kind of honor, or
something. A very few people care about “pure” craftsmanship outside
the shop. Just about everybody is looking for a good deal on a nice
piece. Imagine if you went to the tire store and they told you
they’d have to turn you a lug nut for $300 when the auto parts store
has them for a buck?

When people get over art as art, and it becomes a business - well,
that’s the nature of the beast. What counts is what you hold in your
hand in the end, and what someone’s willing to pay you for it.

Reading your post, my intuitive feeling is that you don't want to
do this, but you feel as if you should take a serious look at it.
So two questions: 

There was a whole book about "rising to your level of incompetence"
for any who don’t know the concept. Perhaps Neil will, perhaps he
won’t. I watched two companies crash and burn because of it, though

  • two half-century old firms that no longer exist… The newbies
    weren’t incompetent, they just put themselves into an alien world,
    thinking they could adapt. But who knows, with Neil’s particular
    situation… He describes himself as an old gearhead, at times. Then
    again, he’s been pretty much a shooting star in his jewelry
    business, from what he’s shown and told me. If all these decisions
    were easy, life wouldn’t be any fun at all, eh?

an old gearhead 

you’re right, that’s me. I’m looking at this in much the same way I
am looking at just how and why I want to hotrod my car. I
investigated boring it, stroking it, trick heads and on and on and
then a supercharger. My God it never ends, the pursuit of automotive
satisfaction. Then I’m thinking, if I’m gonna do all that, why don’t
I just start with a more distinctive car. Like how about a 1965 Dodge
Dart, swap in a 95 Lincoln dual overhead cam aluminum motor? You see
the quandaries I put myself into. (OK… that was a gratuitous nod to
the fellow gearheads here)

Is the metaphor apparent?

Do you have it in you to supervise? 

Aye, that’s the rub. I disliked being the ‘staff’ police. An ego
here, dishonesty there. Phooey, can spoil your day.

We cruise very comfortably when times are slower, and "cook with
gas" when times are good 

That’s what I have now. Why would I screw with it? Obsessive
tinkerization, that’s why.

Just the hand-holding and sucking-up to the customers 

Fortunately(or not) I am skilled at handholding and upsucking.

feel as if you should take a serious look at it 

You’ve nailed it.

How much money do you need verses how much time do you have? 

Time’s getting short and I’d like to retire with a paid house and
fat 401K. Not doable in my present incarnation(or is it?), but
possibly so if I pull the trigger. Complete ruin is also possible.

And thanks for all the offline comments too.

The guy who’s needling me just told me this story…

There’s a man who owns a small shoe store downtown. He sells a few
shoes, he repairs a few shoes, he makes a living. One day a big shoe
store opens up right next to him. They have all the latest styles,
they have all the colors. He asks his Rabbi for advice, who tells
him, “You shouldn’t worry, you’re going to be alright”. Some time
later another shoe store opens on the other side of him. He moans to
the Rabbi, “Now I’ve got a big shoe store on my left and a big shoe
store on my right. What am I going to do”? The Rabbi tells him, “You
shouldn’t worry, you’re going to make a million dollars. You’ve got
a big shoe store on each side of you, the whole block looks like one
big shoe store. You’re going to put up a big sign over your door that
says…Main Entrance”.

Neil, your question reminds me of a story.

This mega-wealthy New York restaurateur goes to the Bahamas for some
well-deserved R&R. He asks the concierge at the resort where to go
for the best seafood. He gets a recommendation, and also a warning,
that looks can be deceiving. When he arrives at the location he finds
a run-down mobile home on the beach converted to a bar-and-grill sort
of thing, with outside seating at some pretty questionable picnic
tables. But the place is packed so he apprehensively, he sits down
and proceeds to have the best seafood he ever had. He was so
impressed that he asked the waitron if he could talk to the owner and
tell him how much he enjoyed the meal. He was told to come back at
around three as the owner was out fishing for the evening menu.

At three o’clock he got back to the restaurant and met the owner,
who was dressed in an old t-shirt and shorts. He told the man “That
was the best seafood I have ever tasted. You should set up shop in
New York. I can help you get it going. We could make a killing!”

“Really?” asked the beach bum. “What would we do?”

“Well first, we’d find the perfect location. Then we’d get the best
staff money can buy. You can put together the menu, and show the
chefs exactly how you do what it is you do.”

“Then what?”

“Well then we’d invite all the restaurant critics and all the right
people in New York to our Grand Opening,. I know just exactly who we
should have. We’ll blow 'em away!”

“No fooling! Then what?”

“Well, then the New York Times will do a story on us, we’ll open a
couple of locations on Long Island and North Jersey, and we’ll be on
our way.”

“Really? On our way to where?”

“Come on now! We’ll be rich! We’ll be able to retire and go fishing
any time we want!”

“Well gee whiz!” said the beach bum. “Why didn’t you say you wanted
to go fishing! Why don’t you skip all that New York stuff and meet me
at the dock a half hour before dawn. We’ll go catch us some lunch!”

So Neil. If you love fishing, fast cars and making jewelry, why
don’t you just skip all that New York stuff and be at the shop at
6:00. Beat some platinum wire into a pleasing shape, set some stones
in it, then hook up the hot-rod to the boat and go catch some lunch.

Life doesn’t get any better than that, in my book.

If you love fishing, fast cars and making jewelry, why don't you
just skip all that New York stuff and be at the shop at 6:00. Beat
some platinum wire into a pleasing shape, set some stones in it,
then hook up the hot-rod to the boat and go catch some lunch. Life
doesn't get any better than that, in my book. 

Love it!!!

Actually, I think the importance of actually ENJOYING what you do
for a living is highly underrated today, at least in America. I have
been blessed to spend most of my life working doing something I love.
One of the things I do is go into schools as an Artist-in-Residence
for a week at a time. When my daughter was younger (2-5), I took her
with me. Then when she was older and we were home schooling, I took
her with me again. By then she was an excellent young harpist, and
she would do “residencies” on her harp gratis (at age 9 - 11) for the
whole school, while they paid me to do it with my visual art.

Among the things she learned was how important it was to like what
you get up and do every day; that money is NOT everything; that time
to do what YOU want to do is invaluable; that the range between the
haves (the Hilton Head schools) and the have nots (Mullins!!!) was
incredible; and that people are people regardless, and what matters
is who they are in terms of morals and values, not in terms of
clothes, money and status. Invaluable lessons.

Having taken these lessons to heart, she is in college majoring in
history with minors in anthropology and international relations,
expecting to go on to get at least on PhD, and expecting to love
what she does every day and hoping to make enough to pay the bills -
but not be rich. She realizes she will be richer for doing what she
loves, than for hating what she does and making pots of money.

Great lessons for us all.

Beth Wicker
Three Cats and a Dog Design Studio