One of the reasons that I’ve continued my Handmade Profile series into 2016 is that I strongly believe that the best advice and insights come from makers themselves. With so many makers from so many places, it’s great to interview makers who bring their personal experiences and insights to the table. Today’s Handmade Profile is no exception. Rebecca Haas not only has a beautiful and serene handmade jewelry collection, she opens her heart and soul to us in this timely interview.
Rebecca’s thoughts on social media, especially Instagram, are on point. Likewise, her insights on the challenges she has faced as a maker will no doubt resonate with many of you. I’d love to hear your thoughts after you read this comprehensive interview. Please do the right thing and visit Rebecca’s shop today. My favorite pieces in this collection: this ring and this bracelet. I want!
What inspired you to begin your handmade jewelry collection?
I wish I could say that there was a crisp launch of my business and my first collection. But in reality it was a bit of a stumbling process, with a lot of learn as you go moments. But I knew that I wanted to be a professional jewelry designer, and I was absolutely determined to figure out how to make it work.
I sold my first few pieces when I was fresh out of college in 2000 and interning for Debbie Fisher Jewelry in Brooklyn. She offered me a little bit of shelf space in her shop on Smith Street to display some of my work to see what people thought. I remember in those early weeks there was a shoplifter in her store who stole a couple of my first pieces. Debbie was distraught when she told me, and thought I would be upset too since my work was in the shop on consignment. But I remember being kind of thrilled, thinking, “Well, that’s great! At least somebody likes them!” Maybe not enough to pay for them yet, but still encouraging I thought. But in all seriousness, having that little space to show new designs as I made them, and hone my pricing, was invaluable. It is sort of like what Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own. Sometimes you just need a little uninterrupted space of your own to be able to let the creative process come to life.
As I began having some success and selling some work I was discovered by a woman who was starting a jewelry showroom in LA. And with a little bit of guidance from her in terms of the size and content of a wholesale collection, and my developing working knowledge of what had been selling off my little shelf, I put together my first collection f or the LA wholesale market in 2001.
As a native Vermonter, Rebecca recently returned to Vermont after 12 years living and working in Brooklyn, NY. Upon returning to Vermont, Rebecca re-created her studio in a converted dairy barn in Chester, VT, and now finds her creativity being nutured by that tranquil setting. Her pieces are primarily made from formed and hammered wire of various gauges, and each piece is handmade to order by the artist. Her work is minimalist in sensibility and draws its strength and definition from its balance, delicacy, and graceful investigation into positive and negative space.
About The Artist – Rebecca Haas
Describe your creative process. Where do you start?
Happily at this point I don’t really feel like I have to start anything. Starting sounds so daunting, doesn’t it? But for me, each new design is a continuation of the process and investigation of the previous piece. So I am never starting from scratch. All of my work has some basic concepts in common, like the balance of positive and negative space, and the play between shapes of different sizes and proportions. And within those concepts there are endless possibilities for new designs. New collections, or groups of designs, start with a new shape.
Recently I have been working a lot with irregular pentagons. So I form a whole bunch of these little shapes out of wire and then start linking them together, making different patterns and combinations, and adding chain elements. And now since I don’t have my little display shelf on a busy Brooklyn street to get feedback on new designs, I take them to the internet. I have found Instagram to be an incredibly helpful place to get peoples reactions and feedback on new work. And sometimes the lack of interest or reaction to a piece is just as helpful. Certainly not as gratifying, but helpful none the less.
I have always loved geometry, both visually and conceptually. It was the only math subject that I was any good at, and indeed the only one that even remotely made sense to me. The concepts of scale, proportion, positive and negative space, and how angles combine all play heavily in my designing process. But it is really far back in my subconscious I think, because for me it just feels like play. I start with a shape, and can build that shape out to an entire collection just by playing with scale and combining elements into eye catching patterns. And though my business was forged in New York, it has now been very much nurtured by Vermont. I can see in my work how the hard edges and right angles of the city have started to merge and combine with the soft asymmetry and organic shapes found in the nature I see now t hrough my studio windows.
How do you use social media and blogging to promote your work?
I used to blog. But I lost steam with it, and started to struggle with what I wanted to say. What I really loved about it was taking and sharing pictures. The text part I could really do without. And there wasn’t enough of a back and forth with blogging for me. I just felt like I was sending posts out into the void, and never really had a sense of who, if anyone, was reading them. And then I discovered Instagram. I feel like there aren’t really enough words to express how much I love Instagram. I know that’s a weird thing to say about a social media platform, especially since I only have around 2000 followers to show for it. But I really feel like I have found an amazing group of artistic people there, and feel like I am part of a community.
There are so many great groups of people who support and promote artists and makers, woman business owners, creative busy moms, and I’m sure countless others. I’m sure whatever you are into, you can find your people on Instagram if you look hard enough. And I love how visual it is, yet there is still an opportunity to have real conversations, either one on one, or with a group. And this includes customers, potential customers, other makers, or even mentors. I have found it to be a great way to help create and share my work and my brand identity, as well as what I care about. And somehow even though it is a kind of advertising, it feels personal and real. And I follow lots of other brands and makers, and I love to see what they are putting out there in a way that I’m not s ure I would if it were an actual advertisement somewhere.
How do you maintain your creative drive?
Hmm, I never really have trouble in this area. Perhaps because I have to wear so many hats in this business, I can’t help the fact that I need to take breaks from the designing process. I think this changing of gears helps jumpstart the creative side of the brain. Just like how research now shows that if you are having trouble working out a particular problem the best thing to do is to take a walk, or take a shower, and often the answer will come to you.
I think by doing lots of different things with my work day my brain is forced to keep agile. And new ideas and designs and shapes just come to me as I go about my day. I do a quick sketch so I don’t forget, and the ones that really stick with me over a couple of days or hours I make the next time I sit down at the bench. And then often that one first piece will naturally help itself become a matching pair of earrings, or a corresponding layering necklace, just by combining the elements in a slightly different way.
What materials do you love to use?
Almost all of my work starts with wire. If wire didn’t exist I think I would be at a complete loss. I can form it into almost any shape I can imagine, almost like a pen and ink line drawing, the shapes can come to life that fast. And I love how it can be so simply and quickly formed and combined with chain elements, and once the piece is hammered it hardens the metal to hold that shape forever. My favorite metal to work with is 14k gold. It is lovely to work with, rich and luxurious to wear, and strong and durable enough to last many lifetimes. But of course it is expensive, and I don’t want to price myself out of most peoples spending range. And I love to make mixed metal pieces, I feel like the different tones add a lot of dimension to my designs. So I offer lots of options, including 14k gold fill, and sterling silver.
Every product has a story. Is there a story behind one of your pieces that stands out to you?
More than any one favorite product, I feel the most proud about the ethos behind every product I make. I handcraft each piece from top to bottom, from ethically sourced or recycled metals. (With the exception of the tiny chains, which are commercially made, but also from recycled or conflict free metals in safe factories in the US or Europe.)
My clasps and findings are also handmade by me here in my studio. It is important to me that the design of the clasp complements the overall look of the piece and I was unable to find any commercially made clasps that I felt achieved this. My hammered wire hook and eye clasp has become my signature closure, and is something I developed early on in my business. They help my pieces to be easily recognizable as one of my designs, which of course helps distinguish my work from that of other designers. I have also had great feedback with both the ease of use as well as their reliability, which is of course the most important. So more important to me than any one favorite design is the integrity I hammer into each and every piece by making sure each piece is made to the highest standard of quality with only ethically sourced or recycled materials. I feel good about each piece I send out of my studio into the world, and I w ant to be sure to its new owner feels the same.
What are some of the challenges you face as a maker?
Small businesses are always changing, both because of the state of things in the marketplace as well as choices we make in our personal lives. It is a ongoing challenge to keep adapting my business so that it keeps growing and moving forward in a constantly changing environment.
Figuring out how to retool my business after moving it from Brooklyn to Vermont was a much bigger challenge than I had anticipated. When I was living in Brooklyn my business was almost 100% wholesale. I worked with my showroom in LA and just worked away in my Red Hook studio all day filling orders and sending them out. But after a while I decided it was time to part ways with my showroom and move to Vermont to start a family. And then the great recession hit, and my business took a big hit too. I now also had a family with small children, and the process of leaving them all, or lugging them all to New York or Philadelphia to do a five day wholesale show was becoming harder and harder.
I was faced with a new set of circumstances in which to reform my business. How was I going to get my work out there for people all around the country to see without doing any trade shows, at least for a few years while my babies were babies? And do it all from the end of a dirt road in Vermont? And with my new relatively isolated location I realized that the internet was going to be my best opportunity for new growth. I began working really hard on my photography skills, my website and social media. I decided that I need to diversify by adding direct web sales and a few craft shows to my wholesale model in order to help keep things more balanced. That way if one aspect of my business fell off there was still a good chance that the other facets would be able to bolster it until I could get the other one back in line.
In order to do this I had to tap into the local artist community here in Vermont and figure out what shows to do and where. So along with my traditional wholesale, I started to do craft shows, direct web sales, and to sell on consignment to galleries. It was the business model of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. I moved my wholesale business online as well, to Etsy Wholesale in place of trade shows. This has given me a place where new and existing wholesale accounts can see new work as I release it. It is a huge improvement on sending out printed line sheets in the mail, both for me, for my buyers, and for the environment too!
These are a few of the many adaptations I have had to make along the way. And who knows what will come next? But it is a fun challenge, and always presents opportunities to try new things and take new directions. Some of them work fantastically, and some less so, but the best choice is to shake those failures off and keep looking forward. And wether or not these were all the absolute best business decisions, it is hard to say. But it has absolutely been the best way to keep the peace in my little family, and that is important too. And as long as I accept that everything is a bit of a fluid juggling act, with lots of balls always in the air, I can just try to make the best decisions as they come up and keep moving forward.
Where do you see your handmade jewelry collection going? What are you working on right now?
My current challenge is keeping up with demand. It is an excellent problem to have, and I feel incredibly grateful for it every day. What I am working on now is what I can delegate to lighten up my load. I am in the process of hiring a book keeper, for example, to help with some of that. And I have an assistant now a couple of hours a week, to help with some simple production and to help me pack orders. So I guess my newest challenge is trying to streamline my business so that it can keep growing without upsetting my work/life balance. No body wants to move from New York City to the country just to work around the clock, right? I don’t have the answers yet, but I’m working on it.
Rebecca Haas Jewelry:
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