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3 Ways I Was Bad at Being a Jewelry Designer

Sharon Zimmerman

I was bad at being a jewelry designer...in the beginning.

Very, very bad. I had cobbled together a line of jewelry from some half-formed ideas in my head, took some photos in a small photo tent with my point-and-shoot digital camera, released them in an Etsy shop and dusted off my hands like I had accomplished something. This isn’t to diminish what I did at them time. At the time it was huge. Crazy, in fact. Looking back now though, I made some amazing errors. Ones I didn’t even know I was making. Everyone makes mistakes in their first few years of business, and ideally, we can all learn from those mistakes. I want to share mine with you, so that maybe you can learn what not to do.

So here it is, Three ways I fucked up in the first two years of my business and what I wish I had done better:

1 - I Was Bad at Photography

Original Grainy Image of my infiity ring - RI-008-PG-rose-gold-sterling-silver-infinity-wedding-ring-commitment-ring.jpg

I had a little Canon Point and shoot (I still do!), with a Digital Macro Setting. I sort-of-kind-of-partially-a-little-bit-almost knew the basics of how to use it. I mean, Point and Shoot - it’s right there in the name, right? But I didn’t know any other details - white balance? Uh, I was shooting on a white background (sometimes), so that should be enough, right? Focus? Got it. Sizing, resolution. Um, OK no I have no idea what I am doing, but I’ve got moxie so let’s wing it! So long as the images were in focus I was “doing it right”.

And here’s where that moxie took me. Images technically in focus, but the wrong size for a lot of website resolutions, plus they were grainy, dull, and lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. After a couple of years of DIY-ing my jewelry photography, I finally asked for help from my jewelry community, sought advice and asked questions like, “hey what does this button on my camera do and do I need it?” I also found resources to crop out my jewelry and put it onto a white background, and retaught myself a few tricks in Photoshop. The point is, I wasn’t stuck where I was at. I could ask for help, seek advice and make it all better.

Here we have a ring that is still a classic in the collection, even if I have better images of it now. The infinity ring was one of the first pieces that kicked off my official jewelry line launch. Couples still buy it as their wedding band, other customers love it for the symbolism of the infinity. I’d like to think that I’ve gotten even better at making this ring in the last 8 years. I am definitely better at photographing it.

2 - I Was Not a Good Designer When I Started

I was a designer! Of course I was a designer. I was designing all the time - always jotting down my ideas in a sketchbook, coming up with new ideas and different shapes and textures. The thing is, transferring ideas from paper and brain into metal and gems doesn’t always go the way you think it will. Ideas can look great in your head, even better in a sketch and still turn out all wrong when you execute it in metal.

For instance, these hoops. I loved the design (still do!), it made for a great idea and pretty sketches, but when I made it in oxidized silver, the front of the earring was too heavy, so the hoop kept falling out of the earlobe. Back to the drawing board with this one, and I think these wound up in a sample sale bin years later. Nowadays I know to account for things like weight and balance, and how to think of how a piece will interact with a real live human - fewer sharp and pointy edges to catch on your sweater, knowing how to counterweight a heavy design to make it wearable. Also how to photograph it better (again with the photography). One of my earlier ideas was to make my photography distinguishable from other photography. And, you know what? Achievement unlocked… just not in a good way. I didn’t iron that fabric, and thought that a dull green background combined with even duller lighting would make for a distinctive image. The point is, with more time and more experience I learned to adapt to the design and styling process, to make changes when the finished product wasn’t exactly right, and I got better with a lot of practice and experience. I also asked for feedback, did a ton of research about product photography and read up on what website photography looked best. I got better with time.

3 - Not asking for help

I could have asked any number of people for tips on photography, or read more articles, or taken more design classes or a photography class, but I bought into the lie that I was supposed to do it all myself as an entrepreneur. In our common culture, going it alone is supposed to define entrepreneurship. But I think that this is false. Sure there are times that you should be listening solely to your inner voice - I still take 100% ownership of the design process - but when it comes to other skills, seeking help is vital. Ask your community, hire a human who knows more, take a class, read a book. Here is one example of when I should have asked for help, I am solidly not a graphic designer. Here is a photo of my first business card submitted as defense exhibit A:

What I thought I was supposed to do was design a business card and logo on my own. What I should have done was hire someone else, or at least ask for feedback on the finished cards before printing a whole lot of them. Brown and green colorway to seem “environmental”? Trying to sound so “professional”, but instead coming across as formal and wooden? I could have used some mega feedback on these before handing them out to everyone I knew. Eventually I hired a graphic designer to make my logo and work with me on color schemes and a business name that was a little more catchy. I also asked my business support group for feedback through the process. And I learned to be open to changing all of it in the future.

What Is the Lesson?

These photos shown here are grainy, the jewelry is not designed for everyday wear, the center of gravity on those hoops was not well thought out, and the photo styling is, um, less than dynamic and professional, and I was clearly not a meant for graphic design. But these mistakes and missteps are mine. All mine. The jewelry was designed and made by me, the photos were taken by me, the images were styled by me. I take all the responsibility and own all of the mistakes because each mistake taught me a valuable lesson. And I learned a lot from each and every mistake. I learned to ask for help when I needed it, I learned to take classes when I needed a deeper dive on a subject, I learned to not be so hard on myself when I did screw up. Learning these lessons was painful, but necessary and constantly learning means that I got better.

I know it seems like I have always been a fully-formed jewelry maker, but I had to learn too. Part of the reason why I keep these images on hand, besides a being a good reminder about the pitfalls of hubris and ego, is that they stand as a record of where my work was then vs. where it is now. I keep these images of my old work and in their original formats, with all of their mistakes to show that, like anyone, I am capable of change.

*Have you ever looked back and wanted to change your old work? Leave your lessons in the comments below*