Jewelry Design: Good Career Choice?

by Judge Josh on November 30, 2010

Forget world travel. Lydia wants to stay put here in the U.S. and design jewelry for a living. But does that make sense? Will you be able to support yourself and possibly a family with that job in the coming decades?

Hey Josh,

Your blog is wonderful, I think it’s so great for someone to put so much time into helping students.

Thanks! I’ve been a real slouch lately when it comes to my daily posts, but I am officially back on track as of today. :)

So since your willing I’ve got two questions:

Go for it.

Background Info: I’m in community college now doing my core classes and good thing cause after a bunch of traveling to Switzerland, Israel, and Egypt I decided I didn’t want to travel that much the rest of my life doing International Business.

jewelry-design

As long as hip-hop rules the charts, there will be demand for jewelry designers.

OK. Still, I’m jealous of your globetrotting.

So flip flopping aside I have pretty consistently wanted to do Jewelry Design as a career which leads me to my two questions:

Uh-oh. I’m painfully ignorant about the jewelry design business…looks like I have to do some actual research today instead of just shooting off at the lip.

1. Is this a supportive career?

If you mean, will you make enough money to support yourself, then sure — as long as you can find a job. Can you support, say, a family of five? That’ll be tough, from what I’m gathering. Here’s what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says in its 2010-2011 outlook:


Median annual wages for jewelers and precious stone and metal workers were $32,940 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $24,370 and $43,440. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $19,000, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $55,130.

Most jewelers start out with a base salary, but once they become more proficient, they may begin charging by the number of pieces completed. Jewelers who work in retail stores may earn a commission for each piece of jewelry sold. Many jewelers also enjoy a variety of benefits, including reimbursement from their employers for work-related courses and discounts on jewelry purchases.

Plenty of job opportunities?

This definitely depends on your definition of “plenty.” It’s definitely a niche industry, but — again, from the BLS:

Prospects for bench jewelers and other skilled jewelers should be favorable; keen competition is expected for lower skilled manufacturing jobs, such as assemblers and polishers.

Is there a good website to check something like that?

Yes — here are the ones I used:

Bureau of Labor Statistics — Jewelers Outlook

Payscale.com’s snapshot of jewelry-design jobs data

FabJob Guide to Becoming a Jewelry Designer (sells an eBook…I have no idea if it’s any good, so buyer beware).

2. If I did go to school for it I have a couple of school options in my area. I can either go to a university in North Dartmouth (Umass) or RI (RISD) or a pretty prestigious trade school (North Bennet Street School) in Boston. What looks better on a resume a trade school or a university?

Well, according to the BLS once again:

  • About 54 percent of all jewelers and precious stone and metal workers are self-employed.
  • Jewelers usually learn their trade in vocational or technical schools, through distance-learning centers, or on the job.

So, since I have no experience with the business of jewelry design outside making rings and bracelets for my kids out of Silly Bands, I’m going to trust the government (mark this day, you won’t hear that from me very often) and say that a trade school may be your best bet.

The second one is a little more important to me cause I’ve already done some research on the first. So if you don’t get to it no worries.

Thank you for your time,
Lydia

Of course, and thanks for asking — I learned a lot from this one myself. Before your note, I would’ve guessed that there were only a handful of jewelry designers in the U.S., and that most of the work was farmed out to Chinese factories.

Because of you, Lydia, I’m just a little bit less full of shit today than I was yesterday. Thanks!

— What about you guys? Got any advice for Lydia? Let us know in the comments below!

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Gaby November 30, 2010 at 4:57 pm

I did a 2 year jewellery program and I’ll be honest : It is a tough industry to break into. I don’t what it’s like for the U.S. but here in Canada it is a rather small industry and it’s more like who you know that will get you the job. I have l have to give it up and return to school elsewhere after failing to land a job in the industry after graduating in April.

I don’t want to scare you Lydia, but you need to make sure that you love jewellery and that you will have to be fairly realistic about it. Otherwise if you do feel you can handle it, go for it.

Good luck

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Gaby November 30, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Have had to** Sorry for the typo

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Knows nothing, but shoot! November 30, 2010 at 5:41 pm

I don’t know a thing about the jewelry business, but it would seem to me that some form of apprenticeship would probably be the way to go. That way you build a network, develop your style, learn techniques, etc. rather than getting out of school and having make a niche. Talk to local jewelers and find out if any of them would be interested in taking you on.

One thing for sure with jewelry, though? resume isn’t nearly as important as portfolio.

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Core November 30, 2010 at 6:20 pm

@Lydia

My advice, is, don’t plan on having kids anytime soon, and go check it out. Maybe call around at some jewelry shops, and try to speak to people who actually do jewelry modification, or the owners of said business. Ask them what they would want a potential employee… to know? Ask them about how much they make?

I can only imagine, a jewelry person in a smaller town would make less than someone in a big city.

So that’s my advice to you.

@JudgeJosh
“I?m going to trust the government (mark this day, you won?t hear that from me very often) and say that a trade school may be your best bet.”

Well, its good to know you have some sense about you. Although from what all I have studied… I wouldn’t even trust them..

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Abby November 30, 2010 at 6:45 pm

I know nothing about the jewelry business, but I have been to a few expos with my mom who does beading and stuff as a hobby. I suspect when she retires, she’s going to be selling a whole lotta bracelets and necklaces.

I also think your best shot is trade school, because you’ll probably be working with people who are either in the field now, or were in it before deciding to train people. From what I saw at expo I went to this summer, Jewelry making definitely relies on how well you’re known and how well people like your designs. The more connections you have, the better.

Hope you find success!

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Ronnie November 30, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Like Josh pointed out, BLS states that 57% are private ownership. It is virtually impossible unless you are an entrepreneur offering a niche that no one has ever decided to offer. You will be competing with major jewelers that outsource their products overseas. I have seen many jewelers that are struggling financially just to survive and they don’t have very many customers. If you decide to enter this field, you will need to have a business degree to know your ins and outs of the opening up your own business. You will not be able to enter into the jewelry field since most of them are handed down the family and typically inventory is sold off after the owner dies. This is one tough field that you will not be able to compete in with major wholesale dealers selling at below cost (such as Blue Nile) and then you have others that just don’t have a need for a jeweler like the big chains. They only have maybe one or they send it off for repairs. You really need to think this out carefully since its hard to break that barrier when its restricted. It may be a great hobby for you and that would work out. You can sell to friends and family as a hobby but you need something to support you since its not going to be a quick way to make money. You can always become a jeweler but you need to have a skill that can support you until you can break that barrier.

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Kat November 30, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Hey there Lydia,
If you love jewelry, and I mean if you do really really love jewelry, GO FOR IT! The money will come, if it’s really and truly your thing.
Like most of the others, I don’t know that much about jewelry. But I *do* know 2 women who made good careers in “less likely” areas: beading and glass-working.

Take a look at this website: http://www.rachelnelsonsmith.com/
This woman’s thing is beading– beading is her life and she’s brilliant at it. Now, she makes some of her money by creating elaborate objects which only a few people can afford and which those folks’ll wear only to a few venues. But she makes another part of her money with teaching beading, and writing books about beading! I think that you can see in this example that if you get into jewelry, there are actually many angles you can take to go about making money! If you make a big business selling online, make yourself a website, get yourself some followers (again I apologize if my lack of knowledge of the jewelry business is making me step way out of line-of-sight and causing me to make presumptions, but I mean in general this kind of thing happens and is totally doable these days if you’re committed) And people do buy books about crafting/making, if you go that route.

I also know someone who made a good career in glass-working, by opening up a shop in an arts colony– and she made her thing work by offering a wide variety of services: stained glass, mosaic, vases, decorations… So she had alot of variety of customers. And she also taught classes.

Alot of voices here want to let you know that the path of the arts/crafts isn’t easy and I think it’s good to hear that side– I’m just trying to show the optimistic side– and by that I mean, that I believe that if you really plunge after jewelry and are serious about it, there are just so many ways you can succeed.

Oh, learn about business as you’re learning about jewelry– just read a book about business in between your jewelry work. It’ll help.

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Sam November 30, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Lydia,

Perhaps you could take a class or two in jewelry repair as well? Every jewelry store I’ve been to has a person that repairs/alters jewelry so it might be easier to start there. Meanwhile, you can create your own designs or business or try to get your foot in the door to where you really want to be.

As an art school student myself, I would suggest taking a good look at the individual 3D Design/Jewelry/Metals programs at each school. Try to see what their students have produced and talk to the teachers in your major. The school’s name on the resume isn’t really as important as the actual portfolio you produce, so keep that in mind!

Good luck!

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Leeja December 1, 2010 at 12:07 am

I’ve been an accountant for 20 years. This wasn’t what I chose to do, but what I went into out of necessity (long story). About 8-9 years ago, my ex-husband and I got really interested in collecting loose gemstones, and sold a few of them using prefabricated castings to create rings, earrings, and pendants. The more we got into it, the more convinced I was that I wanted to go to school to be a graduate gemologist. The best school to go to for this is offered by the GIA. They also offer a jewelry designer’s program, which is offered at either of their campuses, in New York City or Carlsbad, California. The program is $5250 and lasts 9 weeks. However, the more comprehensive program is the Applied Jewelry Arts program, which is $15,395 and takes 6 months to complete. If you’re serious about this, I honestly wouldn’t go anywhere else, and here’s why: GIA is one of a handful of the most recognized and respected gemology and fine jewelry organizations in the world. You would learn from world class instructors who (maybe more importantly) have the connections to promote a truly gifted jewelry designer to the “big time” when they come across them.
Now for the practical advice. I eventually abandoned this dream, and there are several reasons why. First, I realized that my marriage was coming to an end and I had to be able to support myself immediately, so school had to wait. Second, this is not something that can be done just anywhere (mostly only in the biggest US cities), and good designers and gemologists have to travel quite a bit for trade shows, technical conferences, and continuing educational classes to keep them on the cutting edge of the industry. Three, the money just isn’t there, even with the education, unless you hit the big time.
If you want to get to know the industry, you’ll have to know about gemstones and jewelry design. One free way to learn a lot about it, and what the trends are, is to watch Jewelry Television, which is available on Direct TV and lots of cable systems, or online at http://www.jtv.com (go to the bottom right of their home page and click on “watch us live”). I would also subscribe to Lapidary Journal/Jewelry Artist Magazine (http://www.jewelryartistmagazine.com/), where you can look through the Gemmy Awards and consider whether you feel you could ever compete with what you see there (talk about serious competition).

Whatever you decide to do, good luck to you!

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Dee December 1, 2010 at 12:20 pm

You should always pursue what you love to do when it comes to a career choice. Enroll in a jewelry design school and get going with what you enjoy doing! If it doesn’t end up leading to a full time career, you can still have fun doing it and make money on the side with it.

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Donald December 1, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Design, art, music and entertainment are difficult industries to break into. Unless you are extremely talented and lucky to be spotted like this girl, I would honestly think you stand a better chance enrolling into a school and if affordability is an issue, you can always pick up jewellery design as hobby on the side, get your feet wet without getting drown. 😉 Choose your school carefully, a good school can not only equip you with the right fundamentals of jewellery design, it should also connect you to the industry, what you have designed must appeal to the market, ie your consumers, the big retailers. It’s a long road and can bring immense rewards if your talent is mixed with the right amount of hard work and opportunity!

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Kip December 2, 2010 at 6:41 pm

I’m a jewelry/metalsmith student at standard university and I find that there are several catagories to jewelry design one being Studio Jewelry. I don’t know if that is the type of jewelry design you want to go into but I can suggest a school that can give you some expert training and some networking possibilities. It is called Penland School Craft in NC. They have spring, summer and fall programs that will sharpen your skills and broaden your portfolio. Also look at jewelry sites like VelvetDaVinci.com and klimt02.net these sites will give you an idea of what is out there in the world of jewelry design. Good Luck and just stay strong.

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Gigi December 7, 2010 at 4:58 am

Hi Lydia,

I went through the stages of wanting to design… learn and even thought my aesthetic judgment superior…. at times. If I could do it all over again, I don’t know how I would go about it. It’s been a decade since my need to floss and I want to study law and economics. Kinda a 180 from toying with trinkets… (granted- some very sparkly, expensive trinkets, but still….) One can never learn enough and the jewelry industry is so vast- do you go stones or metal, costume or fine, wholesale or retail, production or sales, management, sole proprietorship, brand ambassador, findings or fabrication? All of the above and more?

As far as schooling goes, GIA is bar-none the best in the industry. They have campuses all over the world- and as Leeja says above- they provide you with the most comprehensive program, a full rolodex of contacts and have classes to focus on what you want. I did the full meal deal there, GJG, design, and almost every extension course available. I didn’t know what I was doing- learned tons- had fun and now continue to owe for the aid I am thankful to have gotten…
Had I some real sense I would have either taken my profession/skill more seriously or invested the aid in more universally recognized diplomas/degrees. Instead I settled down and bred. I still mess with jewelry & gems, but do not have my mind wrapped up with fashion and somehow am not driven by the lust for accessories…

I have amazing friends all around the world- and most of them are still working in the industry, successfully- in a manner of ways.
The industry changes so much- new stones, new cuts, new styles- and all based on volatile trends, economy & politics. It has become more affordable for shops to own laser solderers and other high-tech equipment and computers. To be a successful designer, I think that it is integral to have a very sharp business sense, an artisan’s flair or a total understanding of how to market yourself, your product, cost efficiently, productively- a step ahead of everyone else.

I suppose in simpler terms: If you want to be focused in only Gems and Jewelry then go the trade route. Coming from having done only that…. I would recommend a University. Going to a University would allow for a broader scope of learning, more choices for the other areas of life that exist. GIA- (for lack of better trade schooling) provide people with an INTENSIVE course curriculum. They pack in the study and lab hours that colleges give people years to acquire- into 1/4 to 1/2 the time. The costs are comparable. when you total up the bill…… They brush upon logistics but you wouldn’t be able to take a logic course…. They brush upon the Eras of the Arts, but you couldn’t take an art history class….

I loved my teachers, am in contact with several *dig that facebook…. and had the best time of my life… made the best friends ever…. *really dig that facebook…. and walked away with some useful knowledge- but I do not focus working in the field for one reason or another.

Good luck- whichever way you go. Education is the most important thing you can do for yourself. No matter what!

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Nattan January 16, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Consider starting a business around this instead of being an employee. It’l be hard at first but in long run you’ll earn more (you keep the profits) and you’ll have more creative freedom. You’ll have to learn something about business and particully your type of business. You won’t have to learn too much about business and probably mostly about your type of business but it gives you so much freedom. The only case where I would not suggest this is you’re a person can’t get yourself going and are not seriously committed to your art.

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Manali March 6, 2011 at 10:42 am

i want to learn jewellry design but i belong to middle class family but jewellry designer is my dream can u little mean how to i am laern and any scholarship for help suggest me something?

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Manali March 9, 2011 at 9:47 am

can u reply me anythink plz

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camille April 3, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Hi Lydia,
In this business, building your network is really important so a residency after you graduate from your training would be a good choice. I did a craft studio residency at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto (Canada). There are jewelry, ceramics, glass and textile studios. For a small fee you get a shared professional studio that is open to the public. Down the hallway is a store that sells your work. We were exposed to workshops by master crafts people, a curated show each year and lots of opportunities to do shows and commissions with other craftspeople and to teach in our studios.

Good luck Lydia, if you are really passionate about jewelry, you should definitely pursue it. I left the craft world and am now on an academic path but thoroughly enjoyed my years as a craftsperson.

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