As a designer, I’m often faced with justifying the cost and difficulty of what I do. Whether it be a well meaning friend that assumes making jewelry is easy because I do it, a customer that thinks a $150 ring should be solid gold, or passersby letting me know they can find more affordable options from a large online retailer. I’m not here to knock anyone’s budget. I’ve been broke, and I know what it means to wonder how you’re going to pay the rent in a month. But more often than not, I find myself explaining prices to someone rocking a $4,000-$7,000 designer bag. This evening, I found myself deep in conversation explaining the mechanics of craft shows, and decided to share that here, along with other costs, so you know how much $$$ it took for your final piece of jewelry to make it from an artist’s brain to your vanity.
A lot of metalsmiths are self-taught, others have arts-related graduate and/or undergraduate degrees, and finally some people are like me and take specific classes to learn their craft. For me, a six-week class was $380. There was an intro course, beginners, intermediate, advanced, and more that addressed specific techniques. Each one $380 a pop. That included tools, studio time, and instruction. Not a bad deal, but you still have to cover the cost of your materials. Copper and brass are accessible, silver ups the ante, and if you’re a daredevil, gold is extremely expensive. Then you’ll need to sign up for more workshops and classes later to learn more specialized techniques. Some of these classes are out-of-state. You’ll need to pay tuition, room and board, and transportation fees.
So you’ve taken all of your classes, have a base, and want to start making things at home because you need the freedom of flexibility, or want to keep developing your skills in the middle of a global pandemic… Some of us are lucky and we’re able to have a setup at home. If you don’t have the space, or you rent and your landlord is freaked out by fire and your neighbors hate the sound of you working (jewelry ASMR.. not really a thing most of the time), you’ll need to find somewhere to work. Your options are to rent a jewelry bench which could be about $200/month or a studio which can vary in price. I’ve seen studios as low as $300/month and as high as $2,000.
Now that you have a space, you need to start amassing tools. Pliers, a flex shaft or Dremel with relevant attachments, saw frames and blades, raw hide hammers, ball-peen hammers, wax carvers, an oil lamp, extra wicks, dental tools, sketchbooks, pencils, storage, mandrels (to shape bezels, bracelets, hoops, and rings), various forming tools. Wanna make spherical beads? There’s a tool for that. Convex or concave bracelets? That’s a different one. Steel blocks, pads, vices, a torch, a pickle pot, tweezers, copper tongs, polishing medium, emery paper, a desk or jewelry bench, a surface for soldering, flux, bezel rockers, prong pushers and the list goes on. The more involved your process, the more tools you’ll need. Some people like to make a lot of their tools, but for some of those you’ll still need other tools and the right found objects to make something out of. Unless you’re trying to create something custom, you end up having the “is it cheaper to make the dress or buy the dress” debate. Pretty soon you’re dropping some serious cash, and that’s just on your set up.
But, Andréa, we already talked about tools! Yes, but you have to use those tools on something. That’s your sheet metal, wire, stones, wax, etc. For metal you’re most commonly looking at copper, brass, silver, and gold. A 22 gauge (or .64mm) sheet of copper or brass is less than $1 per square inch, silver is $5, and 14K gold is a whopping $81. As far as stones go, the prices vary wildly. You could spend $20 on a sizable piece of jasper, you could spend $500 on a 6mm sapphire square, and those prices just go up based on the type of stone, quality, color, etc. Once you start making pieces, you’ll realize, if you want to make jewelry frequently, you’re probably going to have to turn it into a side hustle if you’re not rich. Lol!
Starting a Business
If you decide to go the business route, guess what? There’s more to spend there too. In Illinois you’ll pay $150 to register, spend another $125 give or take to get a copy of your official papers (you have to have them), you’ll pay taxes either annually or quarterly, and finally you’ll pay about $75 to file an annual report. And don’t forget to pay your taxes or file the annual report on time, or you can expect to pay late fees on top of any amount already due.
Of course there are no sales without product. Even if you plan to only work on customs, you’ll have to show your work. This means designing samples or a line. If you do that digitally you’ll need to buy those programs, and if you do it manually you’ll at least need paper and pencils. If you’re not great at sketching and you need to share designs with someone, maybe you also buy stencils or other drawing aids. Then of course there’s the cost of production. There are some things I can’t do at home. I outsource gold-plating and casting (I don’t have the space, I’m not interested in burning down my apartment building, and I don’t need to get evicted). I pay about $30/pair to plate my largest earrings, and as the price of gold goes up, so does the cost of plating. They’re plated because they’re brass and I, like many, can’t wear base metals in my ears. If you’re taking something to a casting house you’re paying for metal and someone else’s labor.
Marketing, Branding, Photos
Once you have your inventory you have to get the word out. Maybe you decide to have your own website ($20/yr for a domain, the annual price for the actual site, extra $$ for everything you add: commerce, email marketing, plug-ins for taxes), or maybe you say scrap that I’ll go with Etsy (costs are minimal, but be prepared to pay transaction fees). Then you have to take pictures. Those pictures aren’t just for your website. If you sell through a retailer, are listed somewhere, or get a feature, you’ll need to supply your own imagery. Maybe you have the time to learn that skill, but you’ll at least need a phone with a decent camera and some editing software. If you need someone else to do that, you might be looking at $500 for 1 hour of shooting. That doesn’t include the cost of a model, stylist, or makeup artist. Then of course there’s branding. If you need help you could spend up to $1,000 on just a logo. That doesn’t include the cost of jewelry boxes, jewelry tags, pouches, business cards, or mailers.
Sales & Pricing
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for hanging in there! We’ve almost made it to the end of this journey! You have your product, a brand, a website, and probably some kind of social media, but you can’t forget about your prices! If you’re making full-time or plan to later, you’re gonna need to make the equivalent of whatever salary is comfortable to you. If you aren’t blessed with a patron that can provide insurance and cover most or all of your rent and utilities, you still have to. Also, accidents happen and people get old, so you’ll still want savings and maybe a retirement account of some sort. So, what do you charge people? You’re gonna need to get back what you paid for the materials plus a little because prices go up. Then you’ll need to add labor and the cost of any outsourced services, and that’s gotta be marked up because you need a profit. Think that number’s good? Think again. You should probably double it because if you sell through a gallery or a store a 50/50 split is common practice. On top of that, a lot the times your work will be carried on consignment. That means you don’t get that 50% until the work sells.
Craft Shows, Reps, and Showrooms
Finally, if you want to gain more exposure, you might apply for a craft show. Like college, there might be an application fee that doesn’t guarantee entry. If you get in, you could be paying up to $1200 for a booth. Fun fact: I once saw a trade show that was $10,000 to participate. I did not apply. Then, after the booth fee you need to pay for display, inventory, and if you’re traveling there’s room and board to consider. All in you could be looking at $2,000+ just to participate. If your average cost per item is $50 and you want to make three times your booth fee you’re gonna need to move a TON of product in about two days. You might also hire a wholesale rep to help you get your merchandise into stores, or work directly with a showroom, but both could cost a few thousand dollars per month, with no guarantees that your pieces will be either seen or purchased
Now you’ve made it to the end! A few thousand dollars and a billion hours later your work is on display and your prices reflect all of your hard work, overhead, and materials. This is why that $200 pair of earrings isn’t made of solid gold, and it’s why that brass ring is still $150. So please remember this when you’re at the store or browsing at your local craft fair.