Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Part I - Durable Beaded Jewelry Tips from the School of Hard Knocks

If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s shiny things! I’m not kidding, I’m like a crow. So naturally making beaded jewelry has become a major part of my creative life.

Swarovski Crystal & Sterling Cluster Ring by http://christinemarieford.etsy.com/

I sold my first jewelry pieces more than six years ago in my studio at Williams Mill Visual Arts Centre.  Since the early days, I made it my policy to guarantee my jewelry. Having pieces come back broken was never part of the plan. My goal was and still is to create jewelry so well that my work never comes back needing attention. I typically use expensive materials and repair for free especially if it’s my fault.  Quality and durability is an absolute must.

Despite my best efforts to create indestructible jewelry, a small percentage of pieces made their way back to me.  These pieces taught me invaluable lessons about where structural vulnerabilities occur and how to avoid them.  I thank my customers for coming back and letting me set things right and I thank them for coming back to buy more pieces.

In my entire career I’m pleased to say I’ve only ever had to refund a purchase once. While some of my lessons were disappointing, frustrating and embarrassing, I can now offer you my personal experience courtesy of the school of hard knocks. These tips are not likely to be found in jewelry making books or magazines. I know, I’ve read gazillions of them!

The one that got away- refunded item which I had to discontinue due to structural weakness and bad "sterling silver"

So, grab a beverage and take a seat because class in now in session. Welcome to Tips from the School of Hard Knocks Part I!

Lesson #1 - If a piece of jewelry can break it will.

Despite every precaution, jewelry is inherently delicate. Sometimes, jewelry just breaks in unpredictable ways.  Some things are simply not within our control, so let’s focus on the things we can do to make our creations last as long as possible.

Japan Tsunami Relief - Dali clocks - polymer clay necklace $19 by MoussyCrafts.etsy.com

Lesson #2 – Decide how long you want to your jewelry to live before you make it.

Every handmade piece will have a certain lifespan. How long your jewelry lives depends largely on the materials and construction methods you choose. If you pride yourself on offering lower prices and use costume metal and acrylic beads, your buyers shouldn’t expect to pass it on as an heirloom.  By the same token, it shouldn’t break after the first wearing either.  Your goal may be to simply make sure your customers get their money’s worth. If you use semi-precious stones, precious metals, swarovski crystal or precious stones, your customers will expect your pieces to last much longer.  I make upscale beaded jewelry, so I expect a significant lifespan from my pieces. 

As a general rule, the more expensive the piece, the longer your customers will expect it to last.  If you manage to exceed their expectations that’s the best case scenario for long term relationships and repeat business.

Filigree Inspired Ring Tutorial $7.50 by AbbyJewellery.etsy.com

Lesson #3 – Avoid cheap crappy findings.
An attractive price tag is no good if the findings don’t hold up their end of the bargain.  90% of the time when my jewelry breaks, it’s due to a single tiny commercial finding that was poorly manufactured.  Identifying cheap crappy findings is harder than you might think because sometimes they aren’t priced cheaply at all!

Many bead stores overprice costume findings deceiving us into believing that it’s quality merchandise and they look great in the package. Sometimes it’s just really hard to tell. So what are we to do? My advice is to test the findings first to see if they meet your expectations before you start selling.

I once bought a package of fancy looking hook clasps and I was shocked when one of them broke apart after trying it out the first time! I took another clasp and gently pulled. It easily broke into two pieces. If it was made of metal it was the weakest and most brittle metal I’ve ever seen.  I once bought pricey gold plated head pins from a popular craft store that when bent or looped caused the plating to crack and fall off exposing the base metal. Craptacular! If this happens to you, return them or use them for practice, they’re garbage.

One way to help guard against badly made findings is to switch to sterling silver or gold filled. If this sounds too expensive, consider using them for just the most critical components such as clasps, crimps and earring hooks. I’ll list some wholesale and retail options that offer affordable pricing. If you’re still not convinced that it’s worth the added expense consider this; people can already buy mass-produced commercial jewelry at bargain prices that artists can’t compete with. Why not offer something better than what’s already available at the mall?

Textured 3/4 Inch Shiny Fine Silver Circle Links - Lot of 16 $49 by prolifique.etsy.com

Lesson #4 – Use the right stranding material for the job

When choosing a stranding material to string your beautiful beads onto, consider the weight of your piece and how smooth or rough the beads are.  Rough beads will chew through beading thread or wire over time causing breakage and broken hearts. If in doubt, go with a heavier weight stranding material than you think you’ll need.  Consider filing or discarding poorly drilled rough beads before including them in your project.  Many brands such as Beadalon and Soft Flex specifies the appropriate gauge to choose.

One of my favorite stranding materials

Well that's our lessons for today, join me for Part II!

Questions? Tips? Please leave me your comments!


  1. So interesting! As a non-jewelry making person, I don't normally think about what goes into making a piece, just whether I love it or not visually. However, as a buyer, it is disheartening when you buy a piece and it breaks almost immediately. Thanks for putting all this great info. out there!

  2. My pleasure Sweet! Thanks for commenting. I think we've all bought pieces one time or another that broke way too soon.

  3. Great information. I work in copper, brass, and bronze and find that I have a hard time finding good quality jump rings (they are usually so darn thin). I have started making my own most of the time, but still need to purchase a good jump ring maker.

    Thank you for a great article!

  4. Thanks Teaman!

    Lorie Lynn, I agree, finding good commercial jump rings is hard sometimes. I'm going to have to start making my own too. Will keep you posted if I find any really awesome tools for this.

  5. All excellent points! I use commercial headpins, jump rings, etc. and I'm always SUPER careful to inspect everything before I turn it into a project. I got a bad batch of jump rings once (several of them broke in half--wtf?) and you can bet I'm never buying that brand again. For anything.

  6. I loved the post and I loved your rings!
    They're so beautiful!!

  7. Lots of good information here. I am not a jeweler, but I appreciate anyone that cares about quality and guarantees their work.

  8. Many years ago I worked for a handmade jewelry manufacturing company...your tutorial about inspection and expectation is right on!

  9. Thanks for these tips. I don't sell jewelry, but I occasionally make some for gifts, so these are good things to keep in mind.

  10. Thank you for such positive feedback. This is part 1 or a series because I keep finding more issues to write about! LOL

  11. I love your rings Christine! Nice work!

  12. thanks for this. Jewelry making is such an experimental hobby. You never know what's going to hold up until you make something.

  13. Christine your work is beautiful!

  14. Ooo the first picture looks mystical. Very generous of you to share your lessons.

  15. A very interesting read, Thank you so much for featuring my ring :)

  16. omg, did you say you were pretty new to blogging? this looks very professional. you learn fast..........

  17. Nice blog - I just found it through the etsy blog team. What beautiful jewelry, and I love the tips you shared. I haven't done much jewelry work but I did once buy a handmade necklace made out of an old spoon that was so unique and adorable. Unfortunately it didn't even make it home, breaking inside a zippered pocket within my purse. So disappointing!

  18. Wonderful information.

    Found you through teams. Following.

    Please stop by and link up at www.theoldblockhouse.blogspot.com

  19. I really appreciate all these fantastic comments. After a frustrating month of internet issues, I'll be posting Part II of this series ASAP. :D

  20. Very useful notes, but can you please tell me how to handle pearl beads, they are my nightmare, usually strong wires do not go through their very thin holes and the thin ones are not strong enough to hold them and their hooks open and drop down. Please help.

  21. Also, I wanted to ask you about gold tone jewellery findings. Any kind of gilding or gold plating fades away rather quickly. Do you know if there is a way of fixing it somehow and keeping it longer?