How to Sell Wearable Art Jewelry [Conversation with Designer Chris Lann]
Contemporary jewelry designer Chris Lann has spent the past 14 years pursuing metalsmithing and creating one-of-a-kind and limited-production jewelry. He told me that “A lot of people buying art are really buying a piece of the artist, so letting them have that and knowing that each piece is individually made — strictly speaking one of a kind — helps a lot [in building a business]. It becomes a signature thing.”
Serpentine Lariat, Copyright Chris Lann
I couldn’t agree more. People are building a connection with a specific artist when they purchase an original painting, a fine art print, or a signature piece of jewelry. It is why many collectors choose to buy an original fine art print directly from the artist instead of buying an anonymous, mass-produced item at a home goods store.
Developing relationships with customers has played a role with many other artists I’ve spoken with, including Karin Rosenthal, Lesley Heathcote and The Lone Beader. All of them have built successful art businesses. The “Holy grail is people who come back again and again,” Chris said.
The critical question for artists to answer, then, is how do we find these potentially loyal customers and develop relationships with them? Or to put it another way, where do customers go to buy handmade contemporary jewelry and other fine art? Answering this question is something that Chris has grappled with since leaving his career as a newspaper editor and layout artist to pursue metalsmithing full time.
Selling Wearable Art Online with Etsy: the Accidental Marketer
Chris lives in Vermont and setup his contemporary jewelry studio in 2010 in West Brattleboro. He estimates 90% of his jewelry sales are to female Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.
I asked Chris about his artistic presence on Etsy, Instagram and Facebook and how he thinks about them in terms of reaching these potential customers and building his presence. "All my effort goes into making jewelry, marketing gets short shrift," Chris said. "I'm always up against a deadline to have inventory to take to a show. Marketing ends up being expendable."
Having an Etsy shop hasn’t come about as a way to reach collectors who are looking for the very best place to shop for jewelry online. In fact, when it comes to Etsy, Chris said he “sort of feel[s] obligated to do it. It feels almost accidental. In truth, having the website at all has been a lot like that.”
Cornucopia, Copyright Chris Lann
Chris thinks about his online web presence more as a way for people who already know him to reconnect, which is important because a lot of his business relies on repeat customers. The integration of Chris’s Etsy shop with his own website came about purely because he used Wix to create a new website that he says “was slick and easy.”
“Etsy offers a page for your site to link to your shop, to plug Etsy into the furniture of the site. In [my] old site, it was setup like an online store. That was a lot of work to maintain, and was clunky. [The] new site is sort of a gallery [for people] to become acquainted or get in touch for custom orders or know when I am doing shows.”
It is much the same with Instagram and Facebook. Chris said that he feels like he has to have a presence on them but isn't sure he knows what he is doing with them yet. He uses Facebook in particular to promote the art shows that he does and let people know when he is going to be at one of them. This is important because selling jewelry at craft shows is a very important part of his business.
How to Price Jewelry for Craft Shows
Chris primarily sells his contemporary jewelry designs at craft shows and face-to-face from his studio. His model is to stay within a 100-mile radius of his studio when going to a show. That’s how Chris picks which events he’ll participate in.
According to Chris it is “not the golden age of shows that it was in the 70s/80s when you could expect to make $10,000 at a single event.” When he’s doing a show now, he said, he is primarily interested in meeting and speaking with several thousand people and in the process selling some jewelry.
When it comes to craft shows, I asked Chris how he thinks about how to price jewelry for them. How to price art for sale is always a hot topic. In fact, a reader of mine, Steven, contacted me a few months ago to ask my opinion about pricing his panoramic photography for an art show: “Do you think I should charge a slightly less price at the art shows I will be doing, rather than what I normally charge?”
Here’s what Chris had to say about pricing: “It seemed logical that I would have lower prices at a show or in the studio. If I go to the source, I expect for it to cost less. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that isn’t the model. Not only do galleries not want to deal with you if you do that; there is no reason for them to sell your work if you sell it for half price. They have no incentive to work with someone who will undercut them. That is not a good model. It is better to find a price that is reasonable, which is a source of a lot of thought and grief.”
Chris uses a formula that takes into account his overhead (which is low) and the hours he spent on a piece, but he often lowers the resulting price to what he would expect to spend if he were buying it. The result is that he feels his jewelry is often underpriced.
Unfortunately, I am beginning to see a trend about under-valuing work based on my conversations with artists across many different mediums. For Chris, his current approach seems to work, though, because he has many repeat customers and doesn’t spend as much time finding new ones as much as selling more to current customers.
How to Get Repeat Customers for Jewelry
When it comes to selling his contemporary jewelry designs, one of the things that has helped Chris the most has been doing demonstrations at art shows. He will be working on a piece and knitting silver chains when he is at an art show to demonstrate what the work entails.
“A lot of times people won’t think about how it is made, but if they see it made and see there is more work involved than initially thought, it is a chance to connect,” Chris said.
Building this personal and face-to-face connection with his customers is important. Chris was in a gallery for several years in Brattleboro and said he didn’t have the personal connection with buyers in that setting.
Flat Weave Bimetal Ring, Copyright Chris Lann
He found that the gallery had a different motivation to sell pieces and they eventually parted ways. “They want to bring people in the door,” he said, and aren’t necessarily motivated to do what is in the artist’s best interest.
For example, Chris has a piece he uses for demonstrations at art shows that is one of his most popular designs. He sells it at every show. At the gallery, he surprisingly found that people didn’t respond to it in the same way. Chris may go back to a gallery at some point. For now though, he also creates interest in his work through his involvement with Brattleboro-West Arts. Chris currently is chairman of the Brattleboro-West Arts PR Committee.
As a former newspaper editor and designer, he helps write and produce BWA’s promotional materials. What's neat is, because of his investment of time on PR, he feels that it has increased overall awareness and traffic to the Brattleboro-West Arts site that features all of the member artists. According to Chris, “being in a group can you get more traction.”
In the end, building your artistic presence and a successful art business may have as much to do with creativity and passion as it does good business sense. According to Chris, “[You] have to follow your inspiration for the art, and if you create things you are passionate about, people will connect with that. If you aren’t passionate about it, they won’t connect with it. Stay excited about what you are creating.”
Taking cues from nature, Chris employs used since the dawn of metalsmithing to create pieces of wearable art that are at once organic and contemporary. From twigs and branches that seem to have grown to fit your body, to delicate , each item is made individually, completely by hand. To learn more about Chris visit: https://www.chrislanndesigns.com/about
Keywords: art business, art marketing, buy jewelry online, chris lann, contemporary jewelry, contemporary jewelry designers, how to price jewelry for craft shows
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I am a marketing professional and a fine art photographer. With more than 20 years of experience as a marketer and image maker during the digital technology revolution, I now teach creative professionals how to create their artistic presence in the changing art world.
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