What is your inspiration when you are working on a piece? Do you ever think of a movie or a song, etc that inspires you to make a necklace look a certain way?
Well, the creative process normally starts with me in a store, looking at different stones, pulling things, mixing and matching them, twisting stuff together. My mom came with me once and was like, “You don’t like to talk to anyone. You go to the stones and you have your moment.” So at the time I am actually pulling different pieces, I’m just sort of visualizing stuff. Then when I get back to my apartment, I’ll either put on the Rachel Zoe Project or I’ll start listening to music.
I always have colors in my mind. I’m constantly thinking of ideas for stuff and making little sketches on post-it notes, etc. But when I am creating pieces, I’ll normally have a good sense of what I want the end product to be, but I do often play around. For example, I will throw stones on my desk and mix and match, especially with the colorful pieces. But I tend to be so focused that I am just blocking out everything around me, except when I am stringing stuff, and in that case, I need to have music on or watch something.
You mentioned that you like to have the Rachel Zoe Project on as background noise sometimes. Why this show in particular?
I first started becoming a fan of Rachel about 2 years ago. I thought her aesthetic was just so fantastic—the way she combines accessories and clothing and the colors she uses. She’s also quite a character. I started watching the Rachel Zoe Project when it first came out and just found it really entertaining. I love that she has all these couture gowns all over the place and that her studio has hundreds of shoes, lots of jewelry all over. It was just so inspiring because she has all this stuff to play with. I love watching it when I am putting together pieces because it’s both entertaining and very visually stimulating. You’ve got these incredible pieces and then when the show goes to fashion shows, you see just true art walking down the runway.
I know you do necklaces and bracelets, but looking at the cool blue ring on your finger, it makes me wonder . . . are rings in the works?
Rings are difficult because you need to have the customer’s exact size. Rings are also just really hard to make, period. I can’t do metalworking yet, although I’m hoping to take classes this summer. It also requires lots of materials, and I don’t think I could solder in my apartment [laughs]. Although it would be funny if one of my neighbors came in and I had on one of those masks and a torch! [laughs] Though I have been told you can actually use the crème brulee torches from William Sonoma (which I have always secretly wanted even though I can’t cook!) [laughs]
But to get back to rings, it’s not that metals are that expensive, it’s just that gold right now is really expensive. Sterling silver is actually not that bad, but I would most like to have to have someone else manufacture it. Part of the fun for me is making the pieces and getting to say that it’s all handmade by me. So rings are something I am thinking of for the future, but not now. And again, the sizing is an issue, and as a person with a really random ring size, that it’s almost impossible for me to find things for myself, so I’ve been a little discouraged from going down that road. But I really would like to expand to do cufflinks and stud earrings (not just the ones that dangle).
So you do earrings as well?
I do. This past summer, I took a wire wrapping course because you really have to have that skill in order to make earrings. I didn’t wear earrings in the past because I tend to just wear pearl studs every day, but then I started realizing that there was a market for it and that it would be great to pair them with a piece to make a better gift set. I’ve sort of stepped away from making bracelets because I find that they’re not as durable because people are constantly on the computer or doing something with their hands. Everyday wear bracelets don’t hold up as well when you have semi-precious stones because they’ll crack or they’ll break. So that’s why I moved to earrings.
How would you characterize your target audience or your biggest buyer?
That’s actually something that I keep rethinking. Initially, I thought my age group, but I am beginning to realize that people in lots of different age groups wear my pieces. Whenever I go to a store that sells my pieces, I always ask if they remember which customers bought things (i.e. their age group). A lot of young mothers buy my pieces. My pieces are still youthful, but more sophisticated, especially the pearls. You can wear my pieces with a plain blouse by day or you can wear them out at night. A lot of my customers are in that age range. I do want to expand though, because I’d love to have a younger market, and I think that my colorful pieces especially would do so well there. I got a lot of great feedback at my trunk shows, though I have noticed a lot of people will buy things for their moms, especially the pearls.
So I have been trying to target more age groups. I considered actually doing stuff for kids, and using more plastic beads and fun colors while keeping the prices really low, but that’s really hard in terms of sizes. That’s something that might be in the cards for later. As I mentioned before, I also want to go into making men’s cufflinks. My boyfriend has been particularly encouraging, though I think it’s because he just wants me to make stuff for him! [laughs] But it is something I would really like to start doing with semi-previous stones. Most cufflinks are boring. They’re just silver or gold or something with your monogram, but a nice gemstone would make an outfit pop.
For our age group and/or those who have more of an edgy, darker style, is there a way that some of these pieces by way of other metals or beading could target that group?
Yeah, definitely. The thing is is that I just love colors so much and metals are not really conducive to being brightly colored. I could mix the two, especially with pearls or something to make it a little more monotone, but I love color so much that I don’t want to lose that aesthetic.
If someone asked me to custom-make a piece, I’d do whatever they wanted. I try to keep myself in the piece, but if a client wants certain colors, I am not going to say, “No, I won’t do that.”
So how can one get a custom design?
They just contact me. I had someone ask me to do the earrings for her bridesmaids this past summer, and we worked together for about two months on it. It was a lot of fun planning it and seeing the dresses then coming up with designs for her. She had no idea what she wanted and she was also finding that pieces were just so expensive in the stores. I was able to make them basically at-cost because it’s great publicity for me. I actually think it’s a lot of fun. I really like the creative process and sharing it with other people. I sent her samples of different stones and took photos of different color schemes for her then matching it with the flowers . . . it was a lot of fun!
I make a lot of pieces for my mom too, actually. I don’t charge her for them. She gave birth to me, so she’s allowed to have a couple of necklaces! [laughs] That’s also a lot of fun for me because she’ll say, “Oh, I am going to this event and I want to wear xyz, can you make a piece for me?” and of course, I’m like, “Absolutely! As long as you let everyone know that your daughter made it!” [laughs]
I’ve also had a couple of people tell me there we going to a specific occasion and their price range, and I put something together for them. This too was a lot of fun for me, and kind of a challenge.
Are you able to take home a little bit of a profit?
[laughs] I still haven’t broken even. I just figured out the numbers for last year, and I definitely made a lot more than I have in past years, but I also spent a lot more. That’s just how it goes at this stage. Every penny that I make, I just put back into my work and buy more stuff. I’m hoping not to have to buy more materials for a little while because I have put together a lot of different pieces. I am not sure of how many I have here, but I have at least 20 in stores right now and I am constantly switching them.
I also have a lot of extra materials that I’ve built up over time. I find that it’s easier to be creative when I have a lot of stuff. It’s like. . . Rachel Zoe has to have about ten gowns to pick out one!
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I hope she buys one of your necklaces after all this!
[laughs] I know!!! I would die! Michelle Obama’s another life-long goal.
It’s funny that you mention that. When I saw all the pearls and then you mentioned you were a government major, my immediate thought was, “First Lady!” It would tie it all together nicely.
Yeah. I have actually always admired Hillary Clinton’s necklaces that she’s worn. That’s another person I’d love to have wear one of my pieces. She’s not the biggest fashion icon, but the last time she was in Vogue, she wore a few semi-precious stone necklaces, which made me think, “I could do that for you!” [laughs] Also, Michelle Obama I might not actually want to wear my things because I might actually die of a heart attack if she wore one of my pieces. So I might not even live to see her wearing it! [laughs] I think her style is just phenomenal. Looking at photos of her really inspires me.
I love looking at magazines. Every month when my Vogue and Elle and all the other magazines come, everything just stops for the day. That’s all I can do—look through them! [laughs] I don’t get that much inspiration for the necklaces from that, but it’s good to just know what’s happening, for example, at one point neon was big. It’s one of the trends I loved because I am actually obsessed with neon and was really excited to incorporate it. Normally, I like to make more classic pieces that aren’t just for one season because if they don’t sell, then great. [sarcasm] New York Magazine is another one I love. The Michelle Obama Lookbook is one of my favorite things.
So going back a bit, why the name Yellow Socks, LLC?
My grandfather used to wear yellow socks every day. It wasn’t something that we were really conscious of until later. When he passed away, we were cleaning out drawers and saw that he had all these yellow socks. We have no idea why he picked yellow, especially considering most people wear white or argyle in New England. It was just . . . what he did. It just became special for us. My mom and I always wear yellow socks on days when we need extra good luck. When I took the GMATs, I wore my yellow socks [laughs] I wore them when I took my finals in college. It’s always been something very special to us.
When I was coming up with a name, I didn’t just want to name the company “Katie Bartels” because that’s kind of boring. “Yellow Socks” seemed very unique. It also was special for me to name it after my grandfather. Although . . . people ask me constantly whether or not I make socks! I would love to put pearls on socks maybe, but no, no socks! [laughs] People sometimes don’t understand what it means, but it means something to me.
You mentioned the GMATs, but aren’t you going to school to study gems right now?
Yes, business school is definitely down the line. I’ve always been good at the creative aspect of all of this, but I am not the best at promoting and marketing my goods. I’ll make a piece and wear it. There’s my marketing campaign. [laughs] So I want to go to business school to really learn how to run a business. I am hoping that it becomes something a lot bigger than it is now. My real goal is just to get interns! [laughs]
I finish my gemology degree in May. Then this summer, I am going to be doing some online learning. My school, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) has their main campus in California and a satellite campus in New York. Most of the programs are out in California, but I can’t just uproot my life and go out there. So they offer distance learning. Through that, I’ll do classes in pearl grading and accredited jewelry professional, in addition to taking some classes at FIT this summer because that’s really the best way to expand on this.
This is a whole new realm for me. As I mentioned before, my educational background is in government and has nothing to do with marketing, jewelry design, or anything like that. Then in the fall, I am going to take the jewelry design program at GIA. I didn’t think about it because I said, “Ok, I already know how to put together colors and stuff like that.” I didn’t think I needed formal training until I saw all the things they were putting together. The drawings were just amazing, and if nothing else, just learning how to make sketches would be beneficial. It will also allow me to really think more about the creative process and putting things together. Every now and then, I’ll make a piece and I love it, but there’s just something missing. I’ll play around with it, but thinking about it more critically in the beginning is very helpful.
So in short, that’s sort of the 6-month plan. Then after that, I’m not quite sure, but that will take me through November. Also, I am going to work on expanding my business. Then business school will be in the fall of 2011. but my overall goal is to keep expanding, but at a pace that I am comfortable with. There was some jewelry designer who was interviewed and they asked, “If Oprah called you up and wanted you to be in her magazine, what would you say?” to which she responded that she would say “no,” because that would create such a rapid expansion.
I never want to lose my creative touch in this. For example, Kate and Andy Spade just had their company sold about a year or two ago to Neiman Marcus and then to Liz Claiborne, and the brand completely lost their artistic vision. I never want to have anything mass-marketed. Granted, if everyone in New York had one of my pieces, I am not going to cry! But I really want to preserve the individual, one-of-a-kind quality.
Where do you see Yellow Socks, LLC in the next year?
I really want to expand the number of stores I am selling in. That’s my first priority and that’s what I am going to focus on this summer –visiting friends who live in different states who have stores that they know my pieces would fit well with, then going there and meeting with the different store owners, etc. I really want to try to expand that way because that’s really a more “grassroots” approach, where I go into the different stores. I am not at the point where anyone would know my name brand by any means. I want to expand on online sales as well. I’ve sold stuff on Etsy, but it’s always been friends contacting me saying they really want a specific piece or that they want a piece but want it tweaked, so I really want to start getting more of that market going.
Have you noticed that your pieces on Etsy do better at different times? Is there any way for you to monitor your sales there closely?
I’ve noticed that my summer pieces do really well, especially the corals. One summer, I pretty much sold out of all my coral and pearl necklaces, and I was stunned. Though it varies. I haven’t seen any distinctive patterns. I’ve noticed that certain designs sell much better, and that’s why I am constantly making new pieces, because I really just want to see what works and what doesn’t. I’ve seen that my bigger, sparkly pieces take a while, but they do ultimately sell. I’ve three necklaces like this, and it’s taken a while. They might be in a store for two months before they sell, but eventually, they do. I’m trying to track patterns. It gets difficult because I am not actually there when someone is buying the piece, so I can’t really analyze who’s buying it, what their thought process is or what they’re planning on wearing it to. That’s why I do trunk shows because people will often explain why they are buying something. I would really like to spend more time in the stores, just hanging out and observing. Knowing that information really helps a lot.
My goal is to be in some pretty big stores in five years, though not Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman Marcus. I’d love to be in Barney’s in 10 years, but they also take a huge percentage of sales. Because I’m not marking my stuff up that much, if you ask for 15%, then I am losing money! [laughs] Right now, I am buying from middlemen, and I’d like to one day be able to buy directly from the source—whether it’s in India or Brazil, etc. I have learned where the mines are through my program, and I would also just love to go to a mine and see it, put my little hat on . . . [laughs]
I know I am paying more than I should. It’s not like I am buying diamonds, but still. If I could save $100 a more a year, even though that’s not a lot, that means more pieces I could start buying. I’ve started buying in bulk, which means I am spending a lot less, but at the time of purchase, it really hurts to say, “Ok, here’s my credit card. Maybe I won’t eat for the next week!” [laughs]
Saying I buy my stuff in Connecticut makes people wonder whether or not it’s really expensive. Granted, I get a lot of discounts, but still, I’m not going to locations where I get amazing deals. Then you also have to worry about whether or not it’s real or synthetic, but fortunately in my course, we’ve learned to identify synthetics.
Good. If you go to Brazil and need a translator, give me a call!
[laughs] I’m actually dying to go to Brazil and go to the different mines there because most of my precious stones are from there. The quality varies, for example, but best quality amethyst isn’t in Brazil, it’s found in Africa, though at least Brazil kind of has . . . everything.
But from working on this, I’ve become a much more conscious shopper. Especially now, just knowing what goes into it and what things actually cost. When I go into Barney’s, I refuse to buy jewelry. I usually only wear my own stuff, but just seeing the markups sometimes is shocking. It’s like, “Um, I made that piece for $400 and you’re selling it for $16,000!?!?!” It’s crazy!
I’m constantly looking at jewelry websites, and I was on the Tiffany’s website the other day. Just seeing what they are selling things for is ridiculous. People are actually just getting ripped off, and I never want to do that with my pieces. Even if I become a huge name brand, I would never want people to spend $500 on something that only cost me $10 to make, and that’s what Tiffany’s does. I understand that it’s a huge corporation, but I never want it to get to a point where I am shortchanging the consumer.