I had the opportunity to meet Marla Aaron at a pitch event that was hosted at Story last fall. I was standing outside afterwards taking pictures, and she approached me to ask if I was a maker pitching a product. Once we got talking, I learned that she had a pretty amazing Chapter Be story to share.
Marla had jobs in global communications for over 20 years, including being the former head of public relations for Mondera.com, and serving as the director of marketing for Departures magazine. Yet, she found herself bored and creatively uninspired. She started to teach herself different jewelry techniques as a hobby and found that she was connecting back to something that she had loved as a child. She started taking classes at the Jewelry Arts Institute and the GIA, and found that the she wanted this love to be more than just a hobby on the side. Marla is now selling her jewelry in seven retail stores and hopes to continue growing. To learn more about how she got to this point, though, read on…
So – tell me a bit about your story before you started making jewelry full time. You were working in communications and what about communications did you gravitate towards? At what point did you start feeling that it was lacking something and that you were drawn to do something creatively different?
I’m going to go way back! I speak fluent Spanish, because I lived in Argentina as an exchange student when I was in high school. So, when I graduated from college, I decided to work in Hispanic media. It was a very good time for that. It was 1988 when I graduated from college and right after that was one of the worst recessions. A lot of my classmates did not even have jobs when they graduated from college, but I literally waltzed into a job because I spoke fluent Spanish and Hispanic media was just getting rolling. I became an ad sales rep for a Spanish language radio network. I was excited that I could speak Spanish at my job every day and that I had a real job, but I was incredibly bored by it.
I wanted to go live and work in Spain. I decided that was what I wanted to do and so I sent a bunch of resumes literally from the business library at the New York Public Library. If I saw someone who was maybe a chairman then I would say, “Okay, he’s getting a letter.” I wrote these letters in Spanish, and I translated my resume into Spanish. I said, “If I get five responses then I get to go to Spain to interview.” I was about 23. I got five responses and went to Spain to interview. One of the companies that I interviewed with, I didn’t know what they did. It just said, “Editorial America.” The offices were incredibly beautiful. It seemed like a very serious kind of place, but the man I was interviewing with wouldn’t tell me what the job was. That seemed kind of crazy. In this one week while I was interviewing with other companies this same man asked if I could meet him for coffee. I thought, “Oh, that’s what this is about.” I thought, well, I can handle myself and this seemed interesting, exciting, and exotic. I get to be in Spain having coffee with the CEO of a weird company that I don’t even know what they do!
I went and had coffee. He asked me about politics, about my views on the world, and our conversation was all in Spanish. His secretary called me the next day and asked me to come in. She said I would meet with everybody and would have to pretend that I was presenting a product. I said, “Okay, like what?” She asked what I did at my last job. I told her the last thing I did was to sell packages of advertising for stations in Miami. She said, “That sounds like a great idea. Do that.” I went in and there were like 3 other people. I did my little thing and walked out and then he called me back in and asked if I would like to be the Fashion Manager for Elle Magazine. I said, “I would love to do that but what do you have to do with Elle?” He said, “I’m the CEO of Hachette, did you not know that?” I said, “No, I did not know that.” He thought that was the funniest thing he had ever heard.
That was one of the happiest days of my entire work experience. I got to move to Spain. They valued the fact that I had real sales experience in America as that was very different from their profile. I really didn’t take into consideration the fact that at the end of the day it was the exact same job I had in New York. It was just more glamorous because it was a fashion magazine – and a different location. It was really challenging to have to sell and give presentations in another language, but it was still really boring. Then they launched Spanish Cosmopolitan in Spain. I was asked to leave there and go to Cosmopolitan so I had this little growing career in Spain for 5 years, but it was still boring for me.
You didn’t love the job, but you probably had enough things going on personally being in Spain. Sometimes you can kind of deal with being bored in your job when other components of your life are fulfilling you.
Right. That part of it was all very exciting. I think that is to segue way to the fact that I learned how to sell very early in my career and it was very exciting. Once you can sell in a foreign language and a foreign culture then you can pretty much do anything. So, I came home and decided that I wanted to go to graduate school. I don’t know why I did this, but I went to Columbia University to get my Masters in Journalism. I don’t know why I did this because when I came out I did have jobs but the salary was so low that I couldn’t support myself. I was like, oh, my god, I don’t want to do this. I ended up getting a job at the Marketing Solutions Group at Time, Inc. That was the first time I had a marketing job that was overseeing a lot of different pieces. That was better. I sort of flip-flopped around and went a bunch of different places but always (underneath) I’ve had a very big interest in design and product design – jewelry specifically. Always. I had forgotten how much until a friend of mine showed up at our 20th high school reunion wearing a necklace I had made her when I was 14. She said, “I am so not surprised you are still doing this.” I always had that interest.
It was always there. It was that creative energy that you maybe suppressed a bit to follow the “should” path?
Yes, and I was always deeply bored…maybe not bored…but miserable at an office job. There were things I was incredibly bad at in my office job and I’m really bad at them in my personal life, too. Any sort of strategic planning I am just really bad at. It is almost painful for me. I was in these big marketing jobs with teams of people, and I was just incredibly bad with the strategic planning. If you bring me into a meeting to idea develop, that is my thing. I am the one to bring in to that meeting. No one can get the ideas going like me. I may not always come up with the ideas, but I can get them out in the room. That is my best strength. Actually, also bringing to fruition crazy-ass ideas. Things that you might not think would be possible.
So, you enjoy the brainstorming and problem solving, but the forward thinking part is a little more challenging for you.
Yes. I think teachers are best at that. You are a teacher, right? It amazes me. I used to think about the lesson plan and think that I would be terrible as a teacher, but you could bring me in to do a science project or an art project and I would be fantastic. The idea of planning out the curriculum or how they are going to learn would be very challenging for me…and it’s still challenging.
That’s interesting. Is it very easy for you to just be in the moment?
I ask because it seems like when I talk with artists and makers, I hear a lot of the same thing where the strategic planning is difficult for them but they are very amazing at being in the moment and are inspired in the moment. That is something that I struggle with in my life journey because I am a goal-oriented person. I look to the future, and I’m very analytical. It’s being in the moment that is a little more challenging for me. I’ve seen this commonality in a lot of the artists that I talk to and interview.
I feel like I should have probably been directed into a more creative path at a much younger age, but I don’t think my family or the values within my family would have ever allowed it. I would hear at my dinner table, “Are you going to sell the flowers or smell the flowers?” It was right to be the one selling the flowers, but you never wanted to be the one only smelling the flowers. Since I was a small child this is how we were directed. I wanted to be an entrepreneur many times. Even as a teen I had ideas, but they went away very quickly.
What about your formal education? Do you feel like you ever had those opportunities to flourish?
No. It’s very interesting that I did not. I went to Syracuse University and majored in communications and didn’t even go looking for anything else. I was very focused. I graduated early from high school and then did my exchange program in Argentina for a year. The only way my parents allowed me to do that was if I was accepted at a college before I left. So, I was like, okay, and just went to Syracuse to get accepted. I don’t think I even looked around. I mean I don’t think I even considered the fact that it is freezing cold there! I didn’t want to be Barbara Walters. That didn’t even occur to me.
Yeah, but how are you supposed to know everything at 17?
You’re not. It was interesting because it has colored how I direct my own child. It’s funny because he is 14 now and he has been at a school with an artistic leaning, which is a wonderful progressive school, which I chose for him from the time he was in kindergarten. I wanted all of this creativity for him. So, guess what I got? My son is this super charging kid who if he doesn’t get the “A” he is incomplete. He wants to go to the most competitive schools.
So, at what point did you decide that you wanted to follow this love of making jewelry. It sounds like you just started to teach yourself.
I started to teach myself, but I realized I was never going to get anywhere by just teaching myself. Even if I took a course I was going to be hand making and never going to get any scale. I started meeting people in the jewelry business and getting resources for bench jewelers and people I could work with to realize my vision. I just started teaching myself and started pulling it together.
Now I’m in the classic double-edged/Catch-22 of being a small entrepreneur. I gave up a career. I ran communications for a major company that is all over the world. It was a very high stressed position, so the deal I had with my husband was that I could do this but not invest in it. So, the question was – could I sustain it?
You mean invest monetarily sustain it?
Correct. Taking a hit financially with my salary going away was enormous enough. The idea of investing money was not an option. But – I’ve done it. It is self-sustained.
So, how did you afford to buy your materials?
It all seemed to somehow work. It was literally like I wanted to buy something, and then someone would step up and say, “Oh, I want to buy that bracelet.” I was doing a tiny bit of that before I quit my day job. Then I built the website. So, I guess I did invest like $1,000 in building the website. I did that badly, though. I found someone on Craigslist to help me, and I wanted him to teach me to do it. The whole idea was that he would sit with me and teach me to build a website. I didn’t want them to just build me a site, because I couldn’t afford to just have a web designer.
You have to realize your limitations in life. He would teach me and then leave and then I couldn’t do it. I mean I completely couldn’t do them. I was totally lost. We would go through it step-by-step like 100 times, and I still would forget things. My brain just could not capture it. I’m teaching myself other new things all of the time, but this thing – I just couldn’t get. So I’m having to find another way to develop the website so that I can focus my energy on jewelry, meeting retailers, meeting editors, and that sort of thing. The website is kind of the bane of my existence.
It is hard because this day in age you have to have a website – you can’t not! I’ve talked to a lot of people about that. When you are a small business owner and it’s all on you, at what point do you know when you have to delegate a responsibility? Sometimes those tasks can begin to take away from the other things that you want to be doing and are better at doing. I think that can be a hard decision to make. Sometimes it’s hard to know when it’s time to start paying people to do some of the other parts.
Right, and I am in that quagmire. I literally taught myself how to solder and things like that all from YouTube when I started doing this years ago.
How many years were you doing that…exploring, inquiring, etc.?
Two or three. I was always exploring. I probably started exploring in 2002. It’s been a side passion of mine for a very long time. I was exploring the idea of putting together collections, and I still am in that process. First I thought I had to make it all myself, but then I realized I don’t. I could just design it.
How did you go about finding someone who would make it? How easy is it to find someone to help you with that?
I did it just by hanging around 47th Street and talking to a lot of people. Asking them if they could help and having them recommend other people. I tried people who didn’t quite work. Then I found people who were just able to do it. Sometimes having people make it and then having them decide they weren’t going to make it. It looks like hardware so some people were like, “Why do you need us to make this? This is from a hardware store.” I don’t think any of it would have been possible without the Internet, though, because I did a lot of research. When I heard about 3D printing I thought, I could have the jewelry 3D printed and then cast. So, everything is 3D printed. The locks are all 3D printed; my earrings are, as well. With my earrings you have the base but can change the stone.
So, the customer has the option to buy different stones – it gives them options. What are some of the materials that you use?
Turquoise, rose gold, sterling silver, buffed hematite which is a really funny stone.
Did it take a long time to just to learn about the materials?
I’ve loved the materials forever so I kind of taught myself about all of that over time.
Okay, so then when did you make the decision to transition to this full time?
I have two sons. My son and my stepson are the same age. I got married six years ago but we were together for nine years. I was a single mom for a long time. I was exhausted. I just had to leave my job. I was in France on a business trip 3 years ago – I was in Cannes, and I hated it. I really didn’t want to be doing it.
Right, so you were in a situation where for all purposes you should love what you are doing, at least from an outsider’s perspective, but you’re not. That is pretty telling of how unhappy you must be.
Right, I was miserable. Life is very funny that way. I have no need for it, no interest, in continuing something that was making me so unhappy.
You can’t ignore what just doesn’t fit.
So, I just wanted to just punch out and do this jewelry business. I don’t know exactly where I want to take it, but I do know what I don’t want. I don’t want outside investment. I don’t want to do a business plan and get outside investors. Ideally, I would love to have 25 retailers. That is my magic number. I feel like I could handle 25 retailers and continue to do it. I don’t want to mass manufacture. There are so many things I don’t want to do.
I would love to have a small retail shop where I show other jewelers and not just jewelry but other products that I love. That is really my vision. I think that both Made in America and American manufacturing are incredibly important. I am thrilled that there is so many more Made in America products, but I’ve also noticed there are designers that are doing things that are very derivative of other famous designers. I have a real problem with counterfeiting, this concept of counterfeiting. I see it happening all of the time. What is creatively counterfeiting something? I think about this all of the time.
It makes me think of the book Steal Like an Artist. No idea is completely original, but then when does it cross that line of stealing? At what point does that happen? I believe it is when you don’t just take an idea and make it your own but that you are literally just copying.
I believe my ideas are 100% original and nobody does anything even remotely like this. I know someone bigger is going to come along and some of the bench jewelers who have worked on these earrings…at one point I was having 3 different places work on 3 different parts of it.
Ah – so that they wouldn’t see the whole project or finished product. Yeah, how do you deal with competition? There are always going to be other jewelers, so how do you not let that overwhelm you?
There is a designer that does jewelry similar to mine. People keep forwarding it to me to ask me if I’ve seen it. I can’t think about that. I’m sure other people have thought about using a carabiner as jewelry. I don’t think everyone has shrunk them down and is doing it quite the way I am doing it. There are no truly original ideas, there just aren’t.
I think that is smart because if you start thinking about all of the little details and people who have already done it then it can totally debilitate you – if that is what you chose to focus on.
I have people in my family who are very pragmatic banker types who are like, “But there is plenty of jewelry. What are you doing that is so different? What does that cost?” I sold many thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry at that event. I could hear my father saying, “So, how much do you take home from that?” I’m like, “Dad, it’s not…” He’s like, “That’s not an income.” They love having their daughter be the harried executive that was running around. That was something they could relate to. This is like, “Is she lazy? Is she weak in the brain? What’s wrong with her?”
What was modeled for me was seeing my parents who had the same jobs for like 30+ years. So as I go on this path of trying to turn what I do into a business it feels like very uncharted territory. Everything you read says that you can expect the start of a business to last 5 years. I’m wondering how I’m going to actually make a living off of doing this. It can be really challenging.
You know, I’ve always wanted to be a shopkeeper. Always. I think that is probably what propels me. There is no way I could probably be a shopkeeper in New York. I doubt it. My husband knows. I’d love to live in the upstairs and have my shop downstairs, just like the old time shopkeepers. My husband thinks that it is so crazy. My family thinks it’s crazy. My father is the son of two generations of women who owned dress shops in Boston. I used to go on buying trips with my grandmother and my great-grandmother. But, my father and his brother watched them struggle and they ultimately ended up feeding money into the bank when they became lawyers and bankers to support these two women who had this dress shop.
It is fascinating how our history plays a part in our own path. It can either encourage or suppress us. There is so much in how we fight through that and see what is worth paying attention to and what is not. So, what do you chose to pay attention to – what inspires you?
Everything inspires me. I love the stones and learning about the stones. I’m very inspired by urban metal landscapes and any sort of metal fixture and bridges, and crazily railroads. I’m very inspired by any type of metal work. I believe jewelry and how people wear jewelry tells incredible stories. I ran communications for a Diamond company briefly in 1999. It was so boring…not the work. The work was exciting. The product was so boring because the American public loves the big diamond engagement. It’s like you are after the diamond. Like it’s the diamond or bust. I never got it and it’s really boring. What I find interesting is that diamonds really don’t look that good on most women! Anyway, that is what people like. They love the big, round diamond.
Also, I don’t think people know how to be different. It’s like, that’s what everybody else has so that’s what I want.
Yes, and I feel like the artisans and jewelry makers are so extraordinary and the history and places where jewelry making is so fascinating. I could go on and on, but how do we get people to start appreciating that? But, those are the things that inspire me.
Did you have to teach yourself computer programing or do you do hand design?
I hand design everything. I should learn Rhino, but my time is so limited. I feel like I’m in a bit of a race against time to do it, to get it done and see if I can accomplish it. I am 47, and I guess I could spend time taking a Rhino class but we have already established in this interview how terrible I am at all things computer. It’s to the point that I’m not even sure who sent me a text message!
Well – and I think “shoulds” are dangerous. Your creative process is what it is. I mean if the way you produce well is through hand drawing then what is wrong with that?
I go through a lot of hand drawing and here’s this, and what if I do this, and can I do that. I go into junk shops a lot, and I buy these really crazy pieces of junk and then I reproduce them in different ways. The main jeweler I am working with now works with a lot of big main designers so it’s crazy that he works with me but he understands that when he finishes these for me after I have them cast, it is very important to me that there is a certain way that it will close. It should feel a certain way, because that’s what makes it my jewelry even though it’s a very simple piece.
It’s finding that match where someone can take your vision, your understanding, and really make it happen. I’m sure it takes a while, as you were saying, to find that match.
Yes, I can never just accept something the way it is. It’s not hard for me to explain my vision.
I think that is a skill that not everybody has. I imagine that skill helps you be pointed and direct in your business – to be very clear on what your business is and to articulate that.
Yes, but then I get upset. I’ve been trying to break in to the Museum of Art and Design. There is a store there where it’s not your traditional jewelry sold in a museum store. I feel like I belong there, and I cannot break through. They won’t even see me. This is what I find the most disconcerting is that why can’t I come in and show you my collection? Why wouldn’t you even look at it?
That is where I think New York can be a struggle. It is all about getting your foot in the door and it’s just a damn hard process to get your foot in the door! How do you get people to know about your jewelry and understand it?
It was featured in JCK Magazine, which is a major trade magazine to the jewelry industry. It is 125 years old and part of the jewelry institution. The editor reached out and wanted to see the collection. At the meeting she said she wanted to buy a piece from me and she bought my largest carabiner. She wrote another article that next week showing her latest from Marla Aaron. You couldn’t ask for more. Guess what that resulted in? No retail. I know that the article was forwarded to the head buyer at Bergdorf Goodman. It’s exciting but nothing came of it. I’ve begun to rely on Instagram. All of my photos are on Instagram show my best pieces. I feel innately that it’s better to mix your business and personal presence on social media. I think that it creates a richer brand, but I could be wrong about that. I do these little books that I made from my Instagram feed as part of my marketing. They are called mini books.
I think it comes back to what we were talking about earlier with the website. How do you know where to put money because it will result in a cost-benefit versus this could be nothing. It maybe isn’t worth putting a couple thousand dollars into pictures because maybe it won’t result in making anything. It is making those choices that you don’t always know what the answers will be that can be difficult. So…if someone is sitting at a desk job and they are miserable, hate it and find it boring, but they are interested in something exploring a creative endeavor, what would your advice be to them as a good first step of exploring that creative adventure?
I find it very hard to do that day job and have the energy for the other stuff. I might have mentioned to you that I was doing that until about 3 months ago. I was doing very minor stuff that was routine with regular clients, and I just found it very hard to do both. I kind of ignored the retainer company I was doing contract work for at the time. Well, I didn’t ignore them but it was very difficult to do both. Now, I could direct you to people who are doing both incredibly successfully. I have a friend who has managed to get her own company off the ground while doing maintaining her management position at a company. I think she is an extraordinary case. I would tell them to not spend any money but to really evaluate what they are spending money on. I would say that New York City and surrounding areas like Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey, it’s not friendly to this kind of activity any longer. It is really a shame. Do you need to be in an urban society? Why can’t you be in Maine? There are a lot of fantastic entrepreneurial things happening in places like Maine. I recommend that you take some time to question where you are and why you need to be on this path.
Notes of Reflection:
- How do we not let the people around us influence the decisions in our life to a fault? It is always okay to get other people’s opinions, but now when it might alter your route and make you second-guess yourself. Marla if very open to the fact that many of the steps she took before starting her jewelry business were to satisfy someone else’s needs. She understands why they wanted certain things based on their own personal history, but they also lead her down a path for 20 years that didn’t make her happy or feed her soul. Listening to others is good only to a point – you have to learn how to cut out all of those voices when it isn’t serving you best.
- Know your strengths. Marla started off trying to learn everything she could, including how to program and code a website. She found that a) it was taking up too much time and b) she didn’t like it! When you start your own business it is hard to not feel like you have to know and do everything – but there is a huge benefit in coming to terms with where your skillset lies and prioritizing accordingly.
- Use social media to your best advantage! Marla has done a very good job of reaching clients and retailers through Instagram. She is an avid poster and works to highlight her jewelry pieces in a new and different light. And all for free! She shows that it can be an amazing tool and resource when you use it right.
- Quite simply – it is possible to leave the corporate world to follow a creative endeavor. If Marla did it, so can you!
- It Chooses You and No One Belongs Here More than You by Miranda July
- This Is a Book and Point Your Face at This by Demetri Martin
- The Moth by Catherine Burns and Adam Gopnik
- Horton Hatches an Egg and Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
- One Grain of Rice by Demi
*Images provided by Marla Aaron