Podcast

Sarah Swift

Sarah Swift_Sarah Swift Jewelry

I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah Swift at an event in New York City. We were both in the audience, and we got to talk after the panel. When I told her about Chapter Be, she said, “That’s me!” and explained that she had transitioned from working at the University of Oklahoma Weather Center to being a jewelry designer. She moved to New York City in 2012 to pursue Sarah Swift Jewelry and make it her full-time reality. Her designs are “haute rock’n roll heirloom jewelry” that she hand-makes in New York.

Her story over the last two years has not been without its trials and challenges. She found herself in situations where she doubted her decision, but she came through it learning more about herself and what it takes to run a business. She is currently creating her wholesale line, and will be photographing the wholesale catalog soon. In October, she participated in Chapter Be’s panel discussion, Create Your Own Path, held at Makeshift Society Brooklyn where she openly shared her honest story to becoming a jewelry designer. Video to come, but until then read on to learn more about her courageous path…

I know you had always been interested in making jewelry, but could you talk a little bit about your trajectory to get here?

It’s not that I’ve always been interested in making jewelry. It’s that I’ve always had a strong love of fashion. I have always had a design sense, and I don’t think I really realized how that connects until recently. I never tried to pursue that, really. Well, at one time I did. I was getting my undergraduate degree at NYU at the time and I decided I was going to design some dresses and try to get into FIT. I designed them and didn’t get in. I was like, “Well, that’s that!”

Sarah Swift_layered necklacesI finished school and was in advertising, PR and marketing, but I always felt like I wanted something else. I just knew there was something else in there. It was very frustrating to me. I very much wanted to find it. I didn’t know that it was being creative in an artistic way. That is not what I was searching for necessarily, but I knew that there was something else. I worked in PR at the University of Oklahoma Weather Center, which is where all of the top storm researchers are in the country because of the tornadoes. I ended up taking on this big branding project to try to bring all of the various entities together. It was super exciting and one of the most fun things in my life. I loved it completely but I never felt like it touched an artistic side of me.

I left that job, and I had another opportunity at a PR agency. I found out that I do not like agency work. It is not for me. I just crashed and burned at that job. I didn’t like it, and wasn’t a good fit. Some people can produce in that fast paced way, but my way is much slower and relationship oriented. That didn’t work out, and I was pretty devastated because I had a really amazing career. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a long time. I did know at that time that I didn’t want to work for anybody else. I just couldn’t find my thing and was tired of just doing things for other people’s things.

That’s a really difficult place to be and is not uncommon. Having the desire to work, create and produce for yourself, but not knowing what that would look like. What did you do to get out of that space?

I had made a decision that I was going to go back to school to get my MBA, because I had started an MBA and thought I’d go and finish my MBA. So, I started taking courses for the GMAT. I guess the reason I think this is an important part of my story is because just the action of moving myself in a direction sparked other actions. I decided to take a jewelry class, and I didn’t really like it that much because I don’t like metalworking. I’m not really into that at all, and I don’t create from a place of scratching away metal to make something.

I took the class and then in my kitchen started to take my own jewelry apart to see what I could do with it. I remember that the very first night I made a necklace and thought it was cool! I ran over to my friend’s house to show her what I had made. It was really rough – I used house pliers! I started to go to flea markets to get materials. It wasn’t because I cared that they were vintage, but because of all of the variants in the way that they look. You don’t get that in brand new stuff. Now I’m into all kinds of art, but I didn’t understand in the beginning why I was drawn to it. I understand way more now, and I think it is interesting how my artistic context works.

So, did you end up get your MBA?

Sarah Swift_selfieI started my MBA in August 2010, about 6 months before making jewelry. I sold my first piece from a friend’s store. I was like, “Oh my god!” So, I just kept making stuff. I would get my supplies at the antique stores. Antiques have color going on that you don’t have in anything new. Also, it was cheap, and I didn’t have any money! I was going to flea markets and digging through dollar bins. I didn’t really know. My jewelry back then was not the best quality. It was okay but not the quality that it is now. I’ve learned a lot. The good thing about vintage pieces is you get to see pretty much how they age.

 

Did you find things online at all?

I’m kind of a control freak about what something actually looks like. I just started ordering off of eBay and so far so good. I won’t order unless there is a picture that makes me so sure. If it’s like $10 or something I’m fine, but if I get something and it’s not the quality I want then I am so mad.

In the beginning I just used all vintage because it was available and cheap. I did an art market and made a few hundred dollars, like maybe $500, and I was so excited. It was so fun. I really enjoyed being with the jewelry. I felt passionate about my jewelry. I felt passionate about the whole thing. When I started my MBA my whole plan was to do finance, so that I would have the degree and could go into management. I really wanted to stay in science and knew I wanted to work in the science administration at a high level. If I had an MBA they would just have to listen to me!

When I started the program it was so intense. It was a compressed program for a year and a half and I’ve never done anything that intense in my life. It was hard. It was math heavy, and I started to back pace. I thought, “Wait, the big payoff to this is to stay in, most likely, corporate jobs and everybody’s Plan A here is actually like my death wish.” I’m like, “I don’t want to do that! No!”

Sarah Swift_up closeI’ll never forget that I was in the student lounge with this girl, Melinda, and talking to her about it. I told her I felt like I really had to choose because it seemed like a now or never thing to me. I thought if I went off to the corporate world (and at this point I wasn’t thinking of science. I was trying to be realistic and think of corporate jobs) then I was not going to do work on my jewelry, too. It was unrealistic to think I could do both. Maybe some people could do both, but I could not. So, I made a decision. I thought, screw it. I’m going to change my direction and do this for my life. So, I made a decision that day and I started that moment. I switched my focus to entrepreneurship.

I credit my school so much because there was definitely no one at the University of Oklahoma who was a jewelry designer. So, I changed to entrepreneurship development. I asked and they really helped me. They put me in touch with people who helped me find my way. I feel like I had a lot of support and then in the summer of 2011 I won a scholarship. I worked my ass off. The scholarship was the whole goal of me going to school, even before I knew I wanted to pursue jewelry, because it’s a scholarship where they send you to New York for the summer. They pay for you to live and then you intern. I found my own internship at an accessory showroom here and convinced them that they needed to train me, because I was different and they needed me.

How did you find the accessory showroom?

By sheer determination! I asked everybody I came in contact with. I was annoying as hell. I was like, “Do you know anyone in New York in the realm of this?” People really tried to help me and then finally this guy who owned a store in Norman, Oklahoma told me that they work with this storeroom in L.A. that just opened an east coast one. He called her, and she was like, “Yeah, I’m interested.”

I called, and we had a short conversation, and she was like, “Awesome, let’s do it.” It was set. It was unpaid, but it was what I wanted. I came in the summer of 2011, and it was three finance students and me. It was so amazing. After that summer I was like, that’s it. I want to be in New York! So, when I graduated it took me about 6 months, and then I moved here. I brought my jewelry with me.

So, you were making jewelry while you were in school?

Sarah Swift_necklaceYes, it was insane. I don’t know how it happened. I was smoking cigarettes at the time, and I went through a lot of cigarettes. I would stay up really late and slept in the middle of the day. I made a lot of jewelry, and I was in shows and really trying to get it out there and show stuff.

Did it help having an MBA (or working toward one) in regard to being able to apply what you were learning to your budding jewelry business?

I’m not going to say that I would necessarily recommend getting an MBA. They are not really, truly focused on someone who wants to start their own business. It has entrepreneurship elements, but I think they are way more for people who want to make a career out of like pitching businesses. At least that was my experience. I am mostly traditional in that area, but even entrepreneurship programs are designed for corporate people who maybe have an entrepreneurial angle. There are so many people who go online and create something that they can sell for $1 million. Which is fine, and good for you, but that wasn’t my goal in any way. I wanted to be an artist, really. I didn’t know that at the time.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that having and going through some kind of program is awesome, like getting a small business certificate or an economic development program. But, an MBA at this point is truly designed for big business where you learn about capital finance. I feel like I got a lot out of my accounting course, because it really started to make me think more about profit and gross revenues and all of that. My friend who has a successful business in graphic design here did some kind of mini-MBA that was like however many weeks and I think it really helped her a lot. I think that kind of thing is really good. I was already in the program when I made this decision so I thought, let’s take this and make it part of my experience. So, I did. It doesn’t have to be that way for everyone, though.

I’d imagine having a background in PR, communications, and business is extremely helpful when running your own business. I talk to so many people and they talk about how they struggle with the marketing and PR because it is not in their skill set. The fact that you have both of those is probably an amazing asset – yes?

Sarah Swift_What Not To WearIt is, definitely, but it’s still tough for me. So, I don’t know how people who don’t have any clue besides their art do it. I don’t know how you do it without a partner that knows these things. I am lucky to have these skills, but what is successful for you in Oklahoma is not necessarily successful in New York. That is a current thing I have learned. It is cool though, it’s a project and I feel like I am really finding who I am now as an artist.

Did you come to New York because this is a good place to be for business or did you do it for you?

At the time, it was really based on things that were starting to make me realize that this is where I needed to be. This is where things were happening. It’s funny because it’s totally different than I envisioned. I wanted to live in Manhattan. I had this whole idea (and I don’t know what kind of idea this was) of living in Manhattan and being in high fashion. I was doing that in Oklahoma. I was going towards meetings with Bergdorf Goodman. It was super cool, and I loved it but things have shifted a little bit. My brand is different. It is actively, right now, going through changes.

You learn that as you go – that you always have to be adapting and pivoting!

Absolutely. Also, if you think about it, I’m beyond sensitive with the artist side of me. I think there’s an important difference between this shade of red and that shade of red, you know? So, if you are that kind of sensitive then, obviously, your surroundings are going to have an impact on your art and design. So, it makes a lot of sense that as my life has unfolded in New York, it has changed.

What were some of the first steps you took as far as how you approached being a small business owner in New York City?

I moved to New York in June of 2012. It’s so weird. It feels like a lot longer, because I have gone through so much in the past two and a half years. The summer I was here for my internship I made a friend who became my business partner. The first thing that happened when I moved back was realizing that the partnership wasn’t working. We had been in business school together. The main thing I found out about that is to trust yourself. It was a really intense thing for me, because we were really good friends. I had a really hard time with that, and we are not friends anymore. Maybe one day we will be. I don’t know. Sarah Swift_b&wShe is really an amazing girl so I would hope so. Maybe I was already starting to go a different direction when I got here. I don’t know. That happened and that took all of my focus. I had to find a lawyer and an accountant here, and I was trying to decide how I was going to organize my company.

I had been doing was a lot of side show stuff. I did a lot of those. When I first got here I did trunk shows and that’s how I made money. It’s not always a really good way to make money. I had a really rough patch with it at one time because jewelry and fashion has a very specific cycle. Most retail products have a really slow summer, so relying on these certain shows was tough.

How did you find people who were open to doing a trunk show with you?

I’m actually a really good networker. I hate that word, but I’m good at it. Often I would talk to someone, a friend or whatever, and then maybe they would have a show. I’d get other leads at the shows that loved my jewelry. There was always somebody who was very drawn to it. They would turn around and then I would have another show.

So, you are probably always on the lookout. It’s so different than having a 9-5 job. How do you manage that?

Yeah, the world is a customer and a friend. You have to think of it as both. That is how I found the shows primarily. I think that I have learned a lot about different types of marketing. I have some things that I am very sure work, so I try to get as many trunk shows lined up as I can. I’m going through a lot of change right now with what I want for my brand.

The only way I have able to do it is to drastically cut my personal expenses. I mean I had to. In the beginning I think it’s very helpful to have other income, like a part time job, to keep you afloat so if you know you have something coming. I tried having a full time job, and it was really too much. I can’t have a full-time job and be an artist. I don’t have creativity after a day like that. I don’t know anyone who does. It’s not what I want, let’s put it that way.

Sarah Swift_birthstone necklacesThere is definitely something to be said about the wisdom that comes with age and recognizing how you want to live your life and being perfectly okay with that.

Absolutely. Also, when I moved to New York I met a guy, which was not really what I expected to happen. It was a bit of a love roller coaster for a while. Maybe if I hadn’t had that things would have been even smoother, but I think those experiences contribute to who I am and my art. Now we are together, we live together, and so that is super important to me. There is no way that doesn’t contribute to my art.

Where are you now? Can you talk a little bit about how your brand is changing and what projects you are working on now?

I am right in the beginning of that answer. I think it’s the most important thing I am learning. You have to make a decision at some point, if you are an artist, whether you are going to stay in your specific art where I make this thing that way, or if you are going to make something reproducible in order to make money. You have to figure out what’s your product that is going to sell and why, and how is it going to make money? It needs to be able to be reproducible. It needs to be not too expensive to make for the right price. It needs to be something that is a niche’ and something that is needed in the market. Artists don’t have to make something that is needed. They can make whatever they want. You either like it or you don’t.

Right now is I am creating my wholesale line. I am very excited. We will be photographing the wholesale catalog soon! You have to think of your competitors. You have to think about what is going to make you different. Why is someone going to buy your piece over this other piece where they have already been buying? It’s a much different way of thinking, because when you are just being a strict artist then you are pulling out your taste. You are making this thing, and you are really putting your heart and soul into it. I’ve been advised to think about what is reproducible. So, I was thinking about it and it’s finding something special and bringing it out. Yet, executing a concept is 100% different than the concept, you know?

I know you love to travel – do you do any buying while you are visiting different places?

Sarah Swift_IndiaYeah. I would really love to be buying stones throughout the world. That is really one of my goals. I’d love to go straight to the source.

I imagined this time of year, the holiday season, is probably one of your biggest selling times?

Fifty percent of jewelry sales are done at the holidays. With big companies that is where their revenue comes in. Holidays are good for me. I have a lot of good times. Summer is challenging. It is tough for everyone in every industry. It’s been a very intense year, but I think it’s really important. If you can just hold on in those times when it is really tough and tight then you get more clarity and more refinement about who you are and what you are doing.

If there is someone who is sitting in an office job right now and they are very artistic by nature and they really don’t want to be at their job any more, what would your advice to them be?

You know, it’s kind of tough. I had to lose those things in order to be willing to try. That was how it was for me. I’m sure some people have the confidence to take a leap. If I would have had a 9-5 job, I don’t think I would have started it on the side. There are definitely calculated risks. There are people who can run and jump and be less fearful. I am not that. I am less fearful than most people, but I am not that. I cannot go a little ways, it is on that path and it is full commitment.

I think that is a really important part of knowing yourself and knowing what you are comfortable with. You might not be comfortable with a big leap, and if you try you could crash because it is not in line with your comfort level. It is that balance of knowing yourself, but also pushing yourself.

Sarah Swift_Chapter Be EventExactly. I am not comfortable with big leaps. I feel like maybe I go slower than what some people would, but I just don’t feel comfortable acting until I feel really sure. Now, that being said, there have been plenty of times I have had to push myself, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was very outside of my comfort zone, but I really wanted to try to go this direction and so I found the steps to do that.

I try to have a lot of faith that things happen in the time they are supposed to and that things are going to come back around. I don’t know. Also, I’m always open. I’m always looking for things that connect. I think I have strong intuition and I try to follow it. I’ve had a lot of personal things to work out, like adjusting to living in New York, figuring out my foundation here, and all of these things that I found to be important. I’ve made a really strong foundation here. I have some really good friends, and I’ve only known them for a short while. I met the love of my life and that doesn’t really happen to most people right away.

That’s what I call an unintended consequence. You came to New York for one thing and then all of these other things began happening. It probably never even entered you mind.

Oh, never. Being open isn’t always easy but it’s really necessary if you want your life to be bigger than you can make it. There are so many things that have happened since I moved here. I didn’t have it planned. Ultimately, and it has taken a long time, my eyes have been opened and my perspective has changed completely. It’s changing my whole aesthetic as an artist, too.

Your process sounds very organic – like it is just a part of you. A lot of people I talk to follow a path that they think they should follow instead of listening to who they really are. I think you are such a great example of finding the path that is true to you. I’m sure it feels like work, but your creating is just so much a part of you.

Creating is like breathing. The reason the branding stuff at University of Oklahoma was so fulfilling to me is it just came organically. None of it was coming from training. It was grass roots and organic and that is why I was so comfy. It wasn’t reaching an artistic spot in me at all, though.

My environment and my experience with it inspire me. I’m absorbing it, but also my reaction to it. For example, in Oklahoma all of that dusty, crackling plains and the trees in the country look wiry and they are greenish, yellowish and brown. There is a lot of open road. I found a lot of inspiration in the idea of being in that environment but also artistically wearing that type of environment around your neck. Then you can be in a t-shirt and wear that and you are making a statement, right? How something effects your body is important, and I think about that when I create my jewelry.

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Notes of Reflection:

  1. Sarah makes the point that our business does not equal our life. She talks about the fact that meeting friends, re-learning New York City, and dating and eventually marrying her boyfriend were all just as important to her as starting Sarah Swift Jewelry. She came to New York to make her business happen, but that does not mean that she doesn’t have other areas of her life that deserve time and attention. Remember that your business is just one part of you. It does not define you. Therefore, it is important to give time to other areas of your life, as well.
  2. Turning your artistic love into a business is going to require tough choices. Sarah came to realize that making one-of-a-kind and custom pieces were not going to sustain her. That is where her passions lie, but she recognized that she was going to have to supplement those with wholesale pieces and pieces that could be reproduced. This does not mean that she is giving up a dream or her vision, but instead being flexible and open to the fact that if she wants to have a business she has to be willing to expand her business model.
  3. Take the time to know who you are, what you like and don’t like and what is realistic for you. Every story on Chapter Be is different, which I hope shows that your story can be different, too. Sarah realizes that taking big leaps of faith does not work well with her comfort level. She is more comfortable taking calculated risks. If you aren’t someone that is good with the unknown, then factor that into your business plan. Also, try to find people to work with who compliment you and might push you a little in this area. Be okay with your decisions, but also be open to getting nudged out of your comfort zone from time to time.


Reading List:

  1. Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil
  2. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  3. According to the Rolling Stones by The Rolling Stones
  4. Anything by E.E. Cummings
  5. Trading Up by Candace Bushnell
  6. Lee Child‘s books
  7. Robert Ludlum‘s books


*Images via Sarah Swift and Jennella Young 

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