By John Shanahan
Jewelers tend to be innovators—if not by nature, then certainly often by necessity. While there’s a staggering array of jewelry tools available on the market, there are still always gaps between the thing you need to do next and the tool that will make it easy. So, necessity being the mother of invention, it’s not unusual for a jeweler to modify a tool or combine this one and that one, grind off an angle or sharpen up an edge, to make the thing that gets the job done.
And sometimes, a jeweler will look at the thing they’ve pulled together and think...you know, I could sell this.
Raise your hand if that thought has ever crossed your mind. Well, the good news is that people do this every day in the jewelry industry. The less good news is, if you decide to take this leap and try to bring your tool to market, you’re looking at more work, paperwork, research time, legal issues, marketing costs, development costs, and, to be honest, the chance that, no, you can’t sell it. But the rewards can include an expansion of your business, a fresh revenue stream, and a way to help further the art of jewelry.
The mantra of invention in any industry is, “There has to be a better way.” In jewelry, that line of thought comes up often, and perhaps more often than usual in jewelry classes. That’s how the jewelers in this article all came across their salable ideas. They were trying to keep students from running out of the building in frustration.
“Often the tools that you buy are more like prototype tools,” says New York City jeweler Jeanette Caines, owner of Jewelry Arts Inc. “They need significant modification to really serve your purposes. We found that students were using tools without the modifications they needed because they didn’t know how to modify them. They found it intimidating and stressful. Why should they have to struggle? Why can’t you get something that’s good right off the bat?”
San Diego metalsmith Jay Whaley often works with people with no jewelry background or vocational interest at all, like the couples who attended his workshops to craft their own wedding rings. “What I found out pretty early on was that tools that are set up so professionals can use them are just not adequate for people with no experience,” he says of his start in toolmaking back in the 1980s. “So I had to figure out what made things work a bit better for students.”
Modifications specific to certain processes are common as well. One size doesn’t fit all, as Jayne Redman, a jeweler and educator in Falmouth, Maine, discovered about the venerable bench pin. “I needed to supply students in my workshops with a rotational bench pin,” she says. “It was necessary for teaching them how to cut blanking dies, which are sawed on an angle. At the time, I was working with a bench pin that was much smaller and the turning mechanism was problematic. My workshops needed a tool with a broader sawing surface and that was easy to use. I decided to make one of my own.”
Tool modification is just a fact of jewelry to Portland, Maine-based artisan Kate Wolf, whose product line in-cludes Wolf Wax Carvers and Wolf Wax. “My motto is, blame your tools,” she says. “If you’re having a problem, maybe your tools could be better. For the years that I was teaching people to carve wax, every workshop would start out with students roughing out six tools. I would end up finishing the tools for them. Whenever I showed those tools to people, they’d say, ‘You should market these.’ And my answer was always, I don’t have the capital to start a tool company.”
Luckily, as Redman discovered, that’s not always a requirement in getting a tool to market. Because the one tool you always have at your disposal is your professional network.
The chances are very good that although you have the skills to create an exciting new tool, you don’t necessarily have the funds, time, or capability to knock it out in large numbers. But someone does—and that someone might be a person or company with whom you already do business.
When Jayne Redman wanted to create a rotational bench pin with a broad sawing surface for her students to use while learning to cut blanking dies, she relied on two local manufacturers she knew to produce the bench pins in volume as well as to warehouse them for her.
“I was very fortunate to have two manufacturers within half an hour of me and I’ve been using them in the past few years,” says Redman. “Any time I have an idea, I can drive right to their shop and talk. The first person I worked with was Bob Eaton of Eaton Woodworks. He had made all of my showcases when I was exhibiting at wholesale and retail art markets. My metal person was a friend who had a CNC machine shop. I took the metal parts of the bench pin to him, and he said it would be easy for him to do. He was also kind enough to build my metal parts in volume and warehouse them for me.”
When Whaley was working on the first iteration of his Whaley Sliding Hammer, he was teaching at the University of California San Diego. He found help among the faculty there. “I had made some friends at the University’s machine shop,” he recalls. “There was a guy I’d go to, and I’d say, ‘I have an idea for a hammer and I want to do this...’ I’d sketch out something on paper, then come back in a couple weeks and he’d have a prototype done. I’d pay him for his work, then try it to see what still needed work. Then I’d sketch another idea, and he’d do another proto.”
Getting a prototype made is one thing. Getting finished products, in multiples, is another. Your network can also be valuable in taking the burden off of you to find someone to do that work.
“Find someone you’re already doing business with, who you trust, to recommend you to a manufacturer,” says Caines. “I reached out to a wholesaler who does business with tons of manufacturers and factories, because they’ll know who to go to for which project. One manufacturer may be great at A or even A and B, but they’re not going to be great at everything. Every manufacturer is going to tell you they make the best stuff the cheapest. So for us it was more about finding someone who knew the manufacturers and could help us choose the right one.”
It has to be said that at this stage, from manufacturing through distribution, trust plays a huge part. You may be going into something you don’t fully understand, and you’re relying not just on someone else’s expertise, but also their honesty. As they say: Trust everyone, but cut the cards.
“Make sure you have contracts for everything,” Wolf suggests. “For so many years in our industry, everything was done on a handshake and a smile. That’s not enough anymore.”
She talks about a situation where trusting someone with her product line backfired—a setback she’s still in the process of recovering from. “We had a verbal agreement, and it worked until it didn’t. We parted ways and I lost half my product line. Luckily, I had a letter of non-disclosure that acknowledged that the Wolf Wax Carvers were mine.”
This encounter has changed the way she goes into her business arrangements, and she suggests others follow suit. “Definitely have a non-disclosure agreement that says, I’m showing you this idea and you have to promise that you’re not going to make it, distribute it, or sell it without my permission.”
Intellectual property can be a tricky thing. In a world with a plethora of modified pliers lining catalog pages, there’s bound to be some similarity here and there. And in jewelry, “similarity” can be somewhat synonymous with “knockoff.” Therein lies the double-edged sword of being known as a marketable tool innovator: People may want your take on their ideas. And once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it.
“Many times a month, I have people contact me to show me their ideas that they want to take to market,” Wolf says. “I won’t look at anyone’s ideas now, because I’ve twice had people show me something where I had already designed a similar tool but hadn’t taken it to market. I don’t ever want to be seen as ripping someone off. If someone has a thing in process, I tell them I don’t want to see it, but I’ll direct them to this person or that person.”
Even with your network working in your favor, the money for developing your idea still has to come from somewhere. For some, it becomes another expense within the budget; others find alternative solutions.
Jay Whaley was working on the first iteration of his sliding hammer while teaching at a nearby university. He turned to friends who worked in the university’s machine shop to turn his sketches into prototypes.
“We pay out of pocket to produce our prototypes, and in many cases we make them ourselves,” Whaley says. “We may go through five or six prototypes, which we test in the studio, before we present the product to the manufacturer/distributor for production.”
Redman works closely with local artisans and companies throughout the development stage and is able to pay them for their work as the process goes along rather than incurring up-front costs. Wolf has found success in partnering with a manufacturer that agrees to pay for prototypes and production costs, which they then amortize into the product’s final price.
If you haven’t been scared off yet and you’ve made it to the point where your tool idea is off to be manufactured, congratulations—you’re just getting started. This is where you need to get comfortable with the fact that you’ll be looking at a fair stretch of time before you’re holding a salable piece in your hands. And between now and then, it’s still going to keep you busy.
“It can take sometimes a year,” says Shawn Albert, tools product manager for Stuller Inc. in Lafayette, Louisiana. “A lot of the time, you’ll be dealing with a company overseas to get the cost right. Then going back and forth to get the product right to your specs takes time as well. In our experience, for us, it can be six months to a year, depending on the complexity of the tool.”
Caines says that getting the setting tools she currently has in production to market has taken about 10 months so far—and reminds potential toolmakers that patience with manufacturers is mandatory. “Your project is not the only one they’re working on,” she says. “If I was to give one piece of advice, it’s that this is going to take a while.” One strategy she has employed at Jewelry Arts is to space out their product creation schedule. “We didn’t design our entire line and try to bring it all into the marketplace. We will pick one or two tools at a time, go through the entire process to make sure they’re exactly right, and then release them. Then we go on to the next couple of tools.”
With the setting tools, Caines has implemented quality control checks at every step of the process. It’s important, she says, when in the long run it’s your name on the tools.
Acknowledging that creating a new tool and bringing it to market takes a great deal of time, Jeanette Caines devised a product creation schedule. She selects just one or two tools to focus on at a time, bringing them through the creation and production stages. Once those tools are right, she’ll launch them and then get started creating the next set.
“Right now we’re going through getting the right handles,” she says. “The right length, the right color, everything. Ultimately, we’re going to ask for a final set of samples with the tools exactly the way we want them, and if there are any changes to be made, we make them then, before they go into production. As much as it’s painful to wait, you can’t rush it. You need to be able to see what they can produce consistently. Because what good does it do if the stuff gets out there with your name on it and it’s crap? That’s just embarrassing.”
When it’s time to get your tool into full-on production, the question becomes, how many? This is when you’ll want to look at unit prices, any discounts offered based on volume, and the matter of what happens if you end up with unsold goods.
“When a part is ready for manufacture, I’m given pricing based on the number of parts ordered, with price breaks for higher quantities,” Redman says. “I look at the price breaks initially when I am first developing a tool. I choose a quantity, and commit to purchasing all parts by a year from the inventory order date. If a part sells well, I can reorder higher quantities with a better price break and make more money on that part. If it doesn’t sell well, then I have to purchase what is left in warehouse inventory at the end of the year.”
Wolf says she tends to hedge on the lower side at first. “First orders are always small, as I want to make sure production is perfect,” she says. “So I usually order 100 to start with.”
Whaley hands the responsibility off to his manufacturer, trusting their experience with running the numbers. However, he says, he also keeps his initial numbers low. “It’s usually a small initial order—say, 100 pieces—in case adjustments need to be made in the tooling or design. Once those tools are on the market, the demand drives the future production.”
And all of this, of course, has to be fit into your typical workday, which means your workday might get longer. Or, as was the case for Redman, your priorities might shift. “Back in 2008 when everything was going south in the marketplace and galleries were closing, I needed to find multiple streams of income,” she says. “It was around then that I started taking on more workshop gigs, and I decided that necessity meant I needed to develop my tool business, too. So I had teaching, some jewelry work, and the bench pin. I’ve been finding with tool development, I can be just as creative, in a different way, as I was with my jewelry. It really feels like it’s fun to be working on the tools and the other two aspects of my business support that.”
Your tool is not going to do you any good sitting in the shop or in a warehouse somewhere. When it’s ready to wow the world, you need to find the right channel to get it out there. Tool companies are always on the lookout for new items to add to their lines, and it’s our friend necessity that drives their searches as well.
“I look for gaps in my assortment,” says Albert. “Customers call looking for tools. If we don’t have it, I contact vendors and say, I’m looking for x, y, or z. If they have it, we add it to the line.”
Albert says that while it’s not common, the company does find products through jewelers at trade shows or at large buying shows such as Hong Kong and Vicenza. But before it gets past the “I have this idea” stage, he says, there’s one important question. “We ask if they have filed a patent or have a patent pending,” he says. “I ask them to file for the patent before we go any further. Doing this will help protect both parties down the road.”
Having learned the hard way, Kate Wolf stresses the importance of having a non-disclosure agreement in place before discussing any tool ideas with anyone. After a verbal agreement she had with someone she trusted fell apart, Wolf lost half her product line. Luckily, a letter of non-disclosure spelled out that the Wolf Wax Carvers were hers.
As Redman found out, however, a patent is not always required. In speaking with a patent attorney, she learned that because nothing in her bench pin product was more than basic engineering, it didn’t need to be covered under patent. And although she has seen other products that perhaps clearly build off her own, she hasn’t seen the need to patent or copyright it. “They say that patents and copyrights are only as good as your ability to enforce them,” she says.
Bear in mind, too, that tool suppliers aren’t just looking for a whiz-bang idea. Just as you don’t want to have your name on a shoddy finished tool, neither do they. “People want to try to make a tool that’s super cheap, and I tell them not to go that route,” Albert says. “You want to make a nice tool that will last. I’m not into the cheap stuff. I look for quality. I’ve run across tools that are likely to fall apart in a month, and I want the product we deliver to our customers to be good quality.”
And one last note, just in case your idea is...well...consider the conversation Whaley had in trying to garner interest for his hammer: “I went to see Rio Grande last year trying to get this hammer off the ground. I met with one of their tool people, and the first question out of her mouth was, ‘It’s not another pair of pliers, is it?’ Everybody thinks they’ve got a new idea about pliers, but pliers are about done.”
Many jewelers look to make their mark on the industry. For some, that mark is going to be indelibly made by a new tool that their peers bring into their everyday operations and tell others about. It’s a worthy endeavor, but you have to go into it understanding that it’s more than holding your invention up with a hearty “Ta da!”
“You have to be prepared for this to consume a big part of your life,” Albert says. “It’s going to take time and it’s going to take money. One thing you also have to realize is that you probably won’t be able to retire on this either. Unless you come up with something the mass market loves, then maybe. For the most part I don’t see that happening.”
“It takes quite a few products in your line to make a living at this,” Wolf says. “The margins on tools are so low compared to what people think. If I sold a piece of jewelry to a gallery, they would double that price and sell it. Tool markup is much smaller. It’s a volume business.”
The determination of said markup is sometimes a combined decision made by the designer and their partners, be it the manufacturer or distributor. “My wholesale markup averages around 35 percent,” Redman says. “I let the wholesale purchaser determine their own markup for retail.”
“Our manufacturer/distributor determines the markup needed to make production versus sale profitable,” Whaley notes. “We work on a royalty-based agreement, and stay out of pricing and manufacturing details, which has worked well so far. That said, we do suggest pricing for our tools.”
For Whaley, it’s the continuation of the craft that lies at the heart of the tool-making matter. It’s part of what keeps him at it. “There’s something about coming up with an invention that helps other people be creative,” he says. “That wish to make something that can make other things...there’s a higher goal in mind there.”
A jewelry tool is only good if a craftsperson can use it as needed, day in and day out. And when you’ve created something, you may not have the sort of stand-back-and-observe subjectivity that’s needed to see an idea’s flaws. If you want to know if people will like your tool, you need to let them take it for a test drive, and then listen to what they have to say.
“Get honest opinions and feedback,” Albert says. “That way, you can go back and correct what you need to. We do that here sometimes. A customer may send us something and ask us to try it out and tell them what we think. We have 1,200 employees here, including bench jewelers. They check these things out and might say, yes, it’s good, or it could do this or that better.”
While not everyone has access to that many opinions, any feedback is valuable, both for the input and that factor of gaining some distance. “I’m in a nice spot here because I’ve got all these students who are like a beta test site,” Whaley says. “If it’s just you using the tool, you’ve got your own process and your own way of doing things. Even if it works for you, it may not work for anyone else.”
Keep in mind that feedback is only useful if you’re willing to consider it. “The most important thing is being able to take that feedback and do something with it,” Albert says. “Not to just say, ‘no, you’re wrong.’ You have to be open.”