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Accessories Designer

Do you dream about designing accessories? Do you envision ideas, create products in your mind and imagine your name is world-renowned? Designing is seen as an exciting and dynamic profession. But it requires patience, motivation and a lot of hard work.

Many people start designing accessories part time until their business is big enough to support them and their expenses. Even so, designers say it's an interesting and rewarding career. But all designers agree it must be something for which you have a passion.

"I had always made things with my hands and I always wanted to do something like this for a living," says Nancy Bernardine-Widmer. "But I never had the opportunity." At least, she didn't until she was laid off from her job as a computer analyst consultant.

That's when she decided to take the plunge and go into designing jewelry full time. Today, she has her own business called Bernardine Fine Art Jewelry in Houston.

Bernardine-Widmer tinkered with jewelry design for a year and a half before she actually took it up as a career. "I started making beaded necklaces," she says. "And it became my passion." She took a silversmithing course, then continued to teach herself the rest of the necessary skills.

Now, seven years later, Bernardine-Widmer says she loves what she does and that she doesn't miss life as a computer analyst. Even though the money isn't nearly as good and she easily works as many hours, she's happy being what she calls "a starving artist."

Michele Scott is a jewelry designer who is also self-taught. She started dabbling in jewelry about eight years ago and has since developed her hobby into a budding career.

"I am building my business part time while I work full time to pay the bills elsewhere," says Scott. "I'm trying to get enough capital and I'm working on a plan to get financial assistance to get a studio going. Then I can eventually have a place to sell, work and teach from."

Scott currently designs wirework and beaded jewelry from home. She took a metalsmithing course as well as a glass bead-making workshop. "I haven't had any formal training in jewelry design," says Scott. She feels going to school is really up to the individual.

But Michael Drechsler, a jewelry designer, thinks going to school can help a designer get started on the right foot. He earned his bachelor's degree in art with a specialty in jewelry. "Having an art degree is a big asset, regardless of your medium," he says.

Drechsler was offered a diamond-setting apprenticeship with a large jewelry store chain after he graduated. After working there for a few years, he decided to go into business with his mom, and they set up their own shop. He's been designing fine jewelry ever since, and has always been in business for himself.

It's common for jewelry and other accessory designers to sell their work in craft and art shows. This is the route that both Scott and Bernardine-Widmer chose to take. Scott still sells her products through shows, but she also sells to jewelry wholesalers and through her virtual store on the Internet.

Selling jewelry and other accessories online has become a sure-fire way for designers to sell their products. Bernardine-Widmer says when she first set up her business website two years ago, she was presenting at 30 shows a year. Now, because of increased sales through the Internet, she has dropped back to doing only one show a year.

"Shows are hard work," says Bernardine-Widmer. Designers must set up and take down their products, often on each day of the show. Shows also involve lots of traveling and they always require several hours of work.

Cathy Kerns is an accessory designer who creates and sells customized canes (Style Sticks). She sells the majority of her products over the Internet. These canes are designed so the users can match them to their different outfits.

Kerns says she began designing these canes out of personal need after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1988. After attending a function with comedienne Joan Rivers, who raved about her customized cane, she decided there might be a niche market for them. "The most important advice," says Kerns, "is to develop a product with a niche market. Then target that market to reach potential customers."

Targeting a specific market is why many designers choose to sell their work through galleries. However, most galleries work on consignment, which often hampers the designer's cash flow. Bernardine-Widmer recommends finding a gallery that buys your product outright. Although she says she hasn't done the gallery route, she says it can be a good source of income.

Earning enough income to live on is often difficult when designers first start out. That means designers need to be financially prepared until their product begins to sell. "It can be a difficult business to break into," says Scott. "If you're not doing art and craft shows all the time, then you need a plan to have income by some other means."

She adds that selling to wholesalers and on the Internet helps her earn money when she's not at shows. But just because you have a website doesn't mean you're going to sell lots of products -- at least not right away. "You don't make money when you're starting out," says Scott. "You have to be patient."

Having patience and a creative streak are certainly helpful if you want to design accessories, but some selling skills are also important.

"The whole business pivots around sales," says Drechsler. "If you want to work, you better learn to sell." Drechsler also sells his product over the Internet and he makes house and office calls to his clients.

"You [have to be] more than just a designer," adds Scott. "Having your own business is multifaceted. You're the designer, the marketing director and the advertiser."

If you're working from home, you also need to be motivated. For Scott, that's the hardest thing about being a jewelry designer. But for Bernardine-Widmer, working from home offers her freedom, even though she often works long hours.

Being successful as an accessory designer boils down to three things, says Bernardine-Widmer. "You have to have a passion, you have to be willing to work hard, and you can't expect to earn a lot of money right away."

Of these three things, Bernardine-Widmer believes having passion for what you do is the most important. And Dee Rouse Huth of the California Institute of Jewelry Training agrees. "Passion is what makes the entrepreneur. You can turn nothing into something if you have the desire and the passion."

Bernardine-Widmer worked in a local jewelry shop for six months when she was first starting out. "I learned things from [the jeweler] that I never would have learned on my own or in school."

According to an article on the International Colored Gemstone Association site, annual world gemstone jewelry sales are estimated at $10 billion.

If you have the skills, the creativity and the passion, designing jewelry or other kinds of accessories may be the career for you. You'll learn a lot about business, a lot about designing and eventually you'll find a niche in the marketplace. Remember, says Rouse Huth, "If you do what you love, the money will follow."

Offers design tips, archived articles and gallery information

California Institute of Jewelry Training
This school provides a six-month jewelry arts course

International Colored Gemstone Association
Provides information on gems, gem buying and market tips

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