Award-winning jewelry designer Karin Jacobson has been creating covetable cocktail rings and gorgeous gem-encrusted necklaces, bracelets, and earrings for over almost 15 years, and I’ve been an admirer of her work from the moment I clapped eyes upon it. Karin’s sleek, bold aesthetic hits me right where I live, and I’ve even had her redesign and re-set my engagement ring, as well as custom design my crown ring, both of which get daily wear.
Karin is as smart and kind as she is talented, and has worked her hiney off to create a successful business entirely on her own. Let’s hear from Karin!
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How did you decide to become a jewelry designer?
My decision to become a jewelry designer was part choice and part luck. When I was in high school at the Perpich Center for Arts Education (Minnesota’s public, state-funded arts high school), I took a couple of jewelry classes and very much enjoyed them, but by no means knew “instantly” that I wanted to be a jewelry designer – I just knew that I loved art and design. The jewelry teacher my senior year was a visiting artist who had a studio in Minneapolis, and since we got along well, I wrote her a letter asking her if I could be her apprentice. I actually had no idea if this was how it was supposed to work or if she even wanted an apprentice, but she decided to take a chance with me and hired me to be her apprentice for the summer. It worked out so well that she said I could continue the next school year and in the end, I worked for her for about 6 years, attending college at the University of Minnesota in the meantime. (I graduated with a BA in History.)
Despite these 6 years, I still wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a jewelry designer – it was only after taking a break from working in the shop that I realized how much I missed it and that I wanted to keep doing it. My former boss had moved away to New York state, but a mutual friend of ours took over her old studio here and mentioned to me that if I wanted to pop by and use the studio now and then, I was welcome to do so. I was happy to have the opportunity and thought I’d work on a portfolio of pieces that I could use to apply for jobs with other designers.
In the meantime, I was still in touch with a former coworker at the jewelry design studio who had moved on to the Walker Art Center Shop. I wanted to get her opinion on the new work I was making. We met for lunch at the Walker and she liked the work so much that she said, “I think we should show the buyer – is that okay?” And of course it was okay! Much to my surprise, they picked up my collection and that was the start of it all. I had known that I eventually wanted to have my own design business, but hadn’t thought it would actually start then. I thought I’d be working for someone else for awhile longer first.
As I am collapsing those years into these paragraphs, it all sounds like it went smoothly and flawlessly, but of course, that was not the case. I still had to work as a waitress at first, and then after quitting waitressing, worked as a clerical temp here and there to make ends meet when months were slow. I also learned a lot of things the hard way, by trial and error, because I hadn’t spent more time in the industry working for other designers. But ultimately, it did finally turn into a bona fide full time job – and now it feels like a job and a half!!
What were some of the obstacles you faced when you struck out on your own? How long did it take for you to feel like launching your own line was the right choice?
I’d say the biggest obstacle was just plain not knowing what I was doing and feeling too intimidated to admit that to the people who might have been able to help me. I didn’t know all that many people in my industry and I was nervous to admit to most of them that I felt so clueless about industry-specific issues. (For example – what trade shows to do, how many, what to expect in terms of sales, how to work with galleries, etc.,) I did have one mentor who was very helpful and who I could ask these questions, but he was so successful and so far ahead of where I was that I kept trying to follow his lead without realizing that there were about 100 intermediate steps between where I was and where he was.
The thing is, I guess no one ever knows what they don’t know, and the only way to find out is to stick your neck out and fail a whole bunch of times. One thing that I have learned in the years since I started is that almost anyone who looks like they were a success overnight were probably doing what they were doing for about 10 years before anyone noticed, and that anyone at all who is successful most likely had a string of failures in their past that they were able to learn from. I think that it is a shame that in our culture where entrepreneurship and individual risk taking are so lauded, that we very rarely say out loud not only that it isn’t bad to fail, but that it is important to fail. Especially when starting a business, we should be looking at the things we do and the choices that we make and expecting 9 out of 10 of them not to work. We should expect it and therefore be able to plan for it. I think that the worst thing we can do to ourselves and others who are starting businesses are to create the expectation that every risky thing we try should work out, or that if we fail at any one thing, that we are “failures.” The people who ultimately succeed in business are not the ones who never fail, but the ones who learn from their failures and keep trying new things – they’re the ones who don’t feel like failures but are able to say, “Well, that didn’t work. Moving on. Next idea!”
As for how long it took for me to feel like launching my own line was a good idea … I don’t know! Was it a good idea? I have no idea what I’d be doing now if I hadn’t launched my own line, so maybe it would have been better or maybe worse. There are lots of right decisions and I do think that I made one because I’ve been happy doing it, even as it has been hard and sometimes very stressful. So maybe the answer is that it always felt like the right choice … and also sometimes, like other “right” choices might have been easier!
What are the forces that inspire or influence your work the most often?
As much as I enjoy looking at fashion and other jewelry, I kind of try to avoid it when designing a new collection. It is so easy to spin off on whatever trends are fashionable at the moment, even if you are trying hard not to, and I am trying to make work that isn’t stuck in a time period or a trend. When I am designing new work, I like to be inspired by things other than jewelry, so I often visit an art museum or the public library or even go to a movie. It depends on the basic idea that I have. But, for example, I saw a beautiful Chinese painting of a lotus flower and wanted to create a collection which had that feel. I ultimately ended up finding a book filled with vintage Chinese textile designs and lots of them featured variations of lotus flowers. After sketching and drawing the shapes over and over in my notebook, I came up with some pieces that are recognizable as lotus flowers (lots of people make this observation, so I feel I can safely say that they read as lotus flowers), but which don’t look like either the painting or any of the specific textiles. I just played with them and kept some of the basic shapes and they still have that Chinese style lotus flower feeling, while looking modern and also looking like Karin Jacobson designed jewelry.
You use traditional metals and gems when you design, but also utilize lab-grown gems and materials like recycled gold and palladium. Do you have a favorite medium, gem, or metal?
Favorite gems and metals. Ah! It is so hard to say – they are all so pretty! My favorites are always ones that are ethically sourced, so recycled metals and fair trade or synthetic gems. I currently am very into yellow gold – it is so warm! (And although I’ve been saying for awhile that it is making a comeback, I’m still not seeing lots of it around, which maybe makes it even more appealing to me.) And for stones…sapphires! The jeweler in me loves them because they are so durable that they can be used for anything and the artist in me loves them because they come in so many colors. People generally think of blue when they think of sapphires, but they come in pink, yellow, orange, green, white, purple, red … almost every color and tons of shades of blue. I made my own engagement ring and chose a “fancy color” (meaning pretty much anything but basic blue) sapphire, which is from a fair-trade mine in Malawi and set it in recycled 18 karat yellow gold. The color of the stone, depending on the light, ranges from blue-green to blue-grey and for that reason reminds me of the ocean every time I look at it. I just love it!
What is jewelry’s role in personal style?
The thing that I love about jewelry’s role in personal style is that I think people feel pretty free to try anything when it comes to accessories. I occasionally have clients who love or hate earrings that big or dangly or whatever, or people who think they look better in yellow or white metal, but it does seem like an area where people are comfortable experimenting. I can’t tell you how often people say, “I never thought I’d buy a ring in (whatever color) because I can’t wear that color, but now that I try it on, I just love it!” Personally, I look pretty terrible in bright kelly green and generally don’t wear it next to my face, but a ring, necklace or earrings that color work just fine. I also think that pretty much any body type works well with most styles of jewelry, so people really feel free to experiment. I love that anyone who comes into my studio can try on pretty much any style of jewelry and they look and feel great in it. And no one ever says, “Does this ring make me look fat?”
What advice would you offer to anyone interested in becoming a professional jewelry designer?
In addition to what I mentioned above about embracing failures and trying to learn from them, I would also recommend embracing other people’s failures and successes by talking to other people in the industry and trying to find out what has worked and hasn’t worked for them. And this is not so that you can follow in the footsteps of other businesses and copy their models, because this rarely works. It is to just get more ideas of the multitude of ways that things can be done. There is no one business model that works for everyone so you have to see what things work for you, integrate those things into your business, and discard the things that don’t work for you. (And sometimes, you can let yourself discard things that don’t work for you just because you don’t like doing them. This is okay!)
The other single best piece of advice that I was once given regarding the actual designing of jewelry is to make sure that your work looks like your work. Meaning that it is great to experiment and try different styles, but you still want someone looking at any single piece of jewelry to say, “Hey, that looks like Karin Jacobson Design jewelry.” (Or, obviously, whatever designer.) If you try to follow all of the trends and make whatever people are into at the moment, not only will you not cultivate your own “designer look,” you will also not be making anything interesting or memorable. I have tried (and hopefully to some degree am succeeding) to make a collection consisting of lines that are different from each other, but still look like my work. And I sometimes have clients tell me that a stranger saw their one-of-a-kind custom ring and asked if it is a “Karin Jacobson piece,” and I just love to hear that! Its the best compliment!!