About 10 years ago, I saw a necklace in a museum shop in Montreal. I really wanted it, but it was too expensive. When I came home from vacation, my best friend said to me "why don't you make a similar one yourself? I'll show you how to do it." This was a revelation to me and I've been making jewelry ever since. I am self taught (my degrees are in all in Philosophy), but I love being creative in any which way. I grew my business very gradually while I was still full time at my university, so I never had any need to raise money. As a result, I have no business dept whatsoever which is great!
I have customers from all over the world, and really, it’s a very diverse mix of people! I would say that my average customer is someone who is interested in rare, specialty gems, and has an income that allows them to collect the gems either as standalone gems or in the form of customized jewelry. They really can be any age though they usually are over 30 and under 70, and while it is primarily women who collect, I do have quite a few male customers as well. Two things they tend to have in common is a good education and a love for travel. If they can’t travel themselves, they love reading about my adventures when I source on location.
The strangest thing I’ve been asked to create for a customer would be a toss-up between a custom designed ring, made to the customers specifications, that (inadvertently) looked like a bathcap or a necklace that I designed to be able to hold perfume.
How did you fund Cecile Raley Designs?
I actually worked full time in the early days of my company, funding the entire operation on my own. My university teaching job afforded me some regular business hours to explore the Diamond District in New York City, where I made friends with local gem dealers and setters and continued to educate myself by careful observation and asking a lot of questions. I hosted some jewelry parties and vended at craft shows once I had amassed a bit of an inventory and sold on consignment at a local shop. I met my first employee, funnily enough, when I joined a local artist/artisan group I was already a member of called the “Jersey City Craft Mafia.” It was actually members of this group that convinced me to set up an Etsy shop, which I did just out of curiosity… but here we are, nearly 14,000 Etsy sales later! My tip for finding employees is actually to just mingle with other like minded individuals and network. Jersey City is full of hobby art and crafts people who are looking to pick up part time work, for instance.
Did you run any companies prior?
I had no experience running a company before, but my aunt had been making jewelry for quite some time and I would actually help her to sell it by bringing it along to craft shows with me and listing some of her pieces in my Etsy shop, since she was not interested in doing either of those things herself at that time. Being a professor, I had to be a self-disciplined individual, able to delegate projects to students, so if you think about it, those are prerequisites for being a successful business person as well! Once I started hiring people to help with things that were outside of my skill set (cutting and setting stones, CAD design, mold-making, casting, etc.) I realized that I could accomplish so much more than I could just on my own, and once I combined that with my expertise in fine gemstones, the sky seemed to be the limit!
My friends were all very supportive, and my family as well. Nobody really thought the business would explode the way it did. We were all pretty surprised.
What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?
There is always a way to fix something, and error is unavoidable. At this point, I don’t get too upset over mistakes. Despite one’s best efforts, there is always room for something to go wrong and the most important thing is to find out how the mistake happened and what can be done to fix it to minimize it in the future. Sometimes it’s a lack of expertise that leads to a mistake. Sometimes it’s a lack of attention to detail. I try to be as clear as I can with directives, but when something is misinterpreted or inadequately executed, the worst possible thing to do is to get upset about it. You just figure it out from there. In the jewelry industry to deal with lots of tiny objects (like gems) and lots of processing steps over time, so something’s going wrong has to be expected.
As far as what has been most successful for me, I think I would actually have to say customer service. Here’s why: most of my customers are repeat customers. I take good care of my customers and they come back. And sometimes they bring a friend or two with them! I would also have to say that Etsy has been a phenomenal platform for me -- far better than I had ever expected it to be! It’s a great place for people to find me. And once they’ve found me, I try to be as responsive and reliable as I am able to be. My email list is probably the most successful means of actual advertising for me for this very reason. I have some success on Instagram and Facebook and Pinterest finding new customers, but really, it’s the consistency with the customers I already have that I give most of my attention to.
What’s stopping me being 3x the size is probably that I am a niche market that pleases collectors. But I think there’s still room to grow. If I got my own website going and made a great and marketable catalog of my custom items, it would be a great step forward.
How do you protect yourself from competition?
Unfortunately, once your designs are out there, they’re out there. In the fashion and jewelry industry, everyone copies from everyone. So I don’t really bother with protecting the designs. My own designs are inspired by the art deco period. What makes my stuff unique are the different and rare gems I use, my color combinations, and the excellent setters and craftsmen I employ to help me make my stuff special. I constantly design something new, continue to talk to gem sellers and to discover new stones and to be willing to do things like actually climbing into mines and seeing firsthand where the stones come from and developing great relationships with gem sellers from all over the world.
What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?
Tailwind is fantastic for organizing and scheduling posts to Instagram and Facebook and Pinterest. It’s very reliable and easy to use. The Sell on Etsy app is also a fantastic way to check in on your shop and respond quickly to orders and questions. WhatsApp has also been very helpful for me to communicate with private buyers and gem dealers overseas.
What are your favourite books and podcasts?
My favorite book is “Secrets of the Gemstone Trade” by Richard Wise. I haven’t used any podcasts. Most of my experience has been firsthand.
What are your next steps?
I don’t have any immediate plans to open a brick-and-mortar store. In the NY area, the overhead is just outrageous and honestly, I am doing so well without one and most of my customers are so far away (many are literally on the other side of the world!)... it just doesn’t make sense at this time.
I am always working on new designs, though! At the moment, I am working on making a few statement pieces that will be a surprise. But I am also working on some designs for underappreciated gem shapes, such as trillions and cushions, as well as smaller ovals.
I think in 5 years I’d like to see myself travelling more to source gems and reporting on locations. This would involve growing enough to have full time employees who can handle things when I’m gone. At this point, I am still heading all the sales and being the one to answer questions on Etsy, excluding shipping. I also oversee all production and I make most of the listings. This is work that I’d like to outsource to a team member working from my home office. I think this is achievable but I believe in gradual and carefully monitored growth because then you can more easily manage risk and guarantee customer satisfaction.
On average, our revenue is between $500,000 and $600,000 per year.
Would you ever sell?
Yes, I would consider selling but it would also have to be a gradual sale with me staying involved. I am the brand, and so if I just sold I couldn’t guarantee success for a buyer. I’d have to remain on the front lines, so to speak, for a while.
|Company Name:||Cecile Raley Designs|
|Founder:||Yvonne Cecile Raley|