CUSTOM ©Andy Cooperman 2006
I think a lot of us begin our metalsmithing careers w/ the hope or goal of making a living from the one of a kind work that we produce. At some point we realize that this goal may be unrealistic, especially if our work is visually challenging, too political, too politically incorrect, too confrontative or suggestive, too large, too small, too sharp, too expensive, too dark, too whimsical, too serious, or just too different. Some abandon the field altogether and some persevere, building what they believe in when they can, and putting food on the table by some other economic means. This may take the form of some outside job: like CEO of an international conglomerate, Boeing engineer, or barrista at some well-known coffee chain. Or it may just be the pursuit of some other facet of metalsmithing. Teaching jobs that generate any reliable or tangible income are tough to come by; employment in a trade shop can offer invaluable experience but after time can leave the person w/ a decided distaste for jewelry (hardly the aim here); subcontracting from another artist can be good experience and generate an income. But sooner or later most feel the need to strike out on their own. This leaves two popular choices: production and custom.
It seems that most people choose production. This is a fine choice and offers a lot of advantages and some decided disadvantages. While your design decisions are circumscribed and dictated largely by the marketplace, the work is still your own and bears your name and sensibility. More importantly, what the customer sees is what the customer gets. No speculation, no anticipation, no disappointment. On the other hand someone has to make these things over and over (you often make your money through volume sales)-- or manage the people who do, someone has to represent you --or you have to deal w/ the public yourself, and some one has to keep the line fresh and design new pieces -- the fun work in the first place. Some people thrive in this environment. I've tried this route and found it to be unenjoyable. To be sure, I could certainly have done it smarter and I do, on a very limited basis offer a small production run today. But by and large I've chosen to fill that economic gap with custom work (and some repair). To my mind, there's a lot to recommend it.
To begin with, each piece is different from the last. Techniques and approaches vary w/ each new client. Secondly, the basis for this business is not necessarily volume. Each piece usually generates more income, so you need to sell less. Custom design offers a refreshing respite from the stagnant breezes of the Art Doldrums. This is the place where you feel that you have nothing important to say, no new ideas to talk about and no area in which you feel competent to contribute. Custom design isn't necessarily concerned with personal dialogues or issues of self-expression. The aim of the custom process is clear: please the client. Your job is to communicate; to listen to the information that the client has to offer, distill what's important to them from it and to offer them options based on it. You have to function w/in the clearly defined parameters of the client's needs. In exchange for the pursuit of purely personal concerns and statements you are free to pursue the mechanics of your craft, to hone your technical and design skills and to approach the creative process from a different side. This can be liberating! With clear parameters established your task becomes obvious: Build it.
There's not necessarily an abdication of thought or imagination here. Indeed, I've often viewed a custom job as a study for future one of a kind work. By presenting the client with a concept that I've been interested in within the framework of their needs, I've had a chance to try out some things that I couldn't justify doing otherwise-- with the carrot of a paycheck at the end. Surely, you must begin to think in a different way; but you're exercising a different part of the same muscle. And this, you can carry back to your personal work.
Now that I've made my bid for the custom process, they're are a number of things to keep in mind:
Above all be honest. Don't be afraid to let the client know of the limitations of the medium. Some materials may be structurally or contextually inappropriate. They may love the look of copper but should know that it is very soft and may react violently with certain people's chemistry. (Rose gold may be a more appropriate material.) Inform them as to what your strengths are and what they can expect from you. If they have their heart set on something that's not in your bag of tricks--platinum, for instance-- feel free to refer them elsewhere. Find a tactful way to suggest changes in designs that they may have brought. By informing the client of techniques with which you are conversant you may steer them down a path that they may have not at first considered. They leave with a product that they love and one which you've been comfortable building.
Keep the client informed. The custom process takes time. Don't let too much time lapse between communications. Remember that one reason many people choose to have a custom ring built is because they want to be part of the process. If you can’t make appointments or deadlines let the client know
Get the job done fast... The longer it stews and sits w/ the client, the less your chance for reality to match the virtual object that they've fantasized in their minds. For potential clients a word of advice: avoid the phrase "take your time", or even worse, "No Rush". This is the kiss 'o death friends. Let me tell you what the custom person hears when you say "No Rush": he immediately pictures a shelf or bin, or maybe just a desktop on which sits a stack of job envelopes. Your job, now labeled "take your time", has moved from the front of this pile, off the desk itself and deep into the recess of a dim, dusty, possibly septic bottom drawer. From the jeweler's point of view, I want to get the job out, while I'm excited by it. A reasonable length of time, depending on the season, is two to three weeks from final okay of the sketch, design or model to completion of the piece. (As I write this I'm painfully aware of the existence of those of you whose custom work I may not have produced in concordance w/ this tidy timeline ... or what may have seemed like no timeline at all. To you patient and saintly folk I apologize. ) This time frame, of course, is subject to the cooperation of the maker AND the client. The client must fulfill their end of the bargain: show up for scheduled appointments and accept responsibility for their decisions.
Charge what you're worth. Under bidding leads to resentment. The art of bidding can be daunting in that you're dealing with an intangible. It's acceptable to give a "ball park" estimate at first and then a solid bid further along in the process. Give yourself some wiggle room, a cushion to cover the unexpected. By compensating yourself correctly you can keep the custom process enjoyable for everyone.
Don't become obsessed w/ fears of disappointing a customer. At some point you will let a client down. But remember, they came to you because they've seen an example of your work, have been referred to you or are interested in something out of the ordinary. Remember, as with all things, you learn as you go. The first few jobs will make you nervous, but it gets easier. Perhaps the key here is to lose the fear of failure.
Don't be afraid to walk 'em. Some people have something to prove, an axe to grind or have come to you in the hopes that you'll build what they saw in the mall --much cheaper. You'll be working with these people closely and meeting with them on several occasions. You should enjoy these interactions. Do you really want an unpleasant person in your face and in your space? After time, most people develop a sense of who "feels right". On the positive side, custom work can and often does lead to friendships.
These are just a few caveats regarding the custom process. There's much more that could be addressed. My intent here is not that successful production folk should abandon their booths or gallery affiliations. If you're happy with what you're doing why change? But it surprises me that more people don't consider custom work an option, seeing it at best as a necessary evil-- a gallery customer wants a new piece based on an existing piece of yours-- or dreading it out right. I simply submit this for consideration as an option: another element that you can add to your overall economic picture.