Back in Time: An Evening with Vortic Watch Co.

When I first announced my transition from fine jewelry retail to 3D printing tech, the responses varied from a tentatively supportive “sounds… interesting” to something like “tech? But what about jewelry?!” and even “does that mean you’ll wear jeans and t-shirts and use words like ‘bandwidth’?” (yes, no, and yes, for the record).

The truth is, I’ve been even more involved with the jewelry industry since I took on this role, and it’s been the most amazing experience to have the privilege of meeting people like R.T. Custer, co-founder and CEO of Vortic Watch. He had the brilliant notion to take US-made, early-20th-century pocket watches that were sitting around unused and unloved, and convert them into chic, industrial wristwatches.

What does this have to do with me? Well, the original pieces he produced involved serious Solidworks CAD skills and some impressive wrangling of a little old 3D printer. R.T. and his business partner Tyler Wolfe (Vortic COO) have grown this original Kickstarter into a full-fledged business, producing custom casements and reviving an American watchmaking tradition many believed had died off in the post-industrial era.

Vortic Watch hosted a special event last weekend at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, which houses an incredible collection of historic pieces from the American Industrial Revolution. They were kind enough to invite me as both a representative of the technology used to bring these magical devices to life, and as a jewelry and watch nerd who seriously can’t stop using their design tool to play with the custom watch builder options.

There are few things that appeal to me more than a seamless integration of old-world style and modern techniques, so this company truly hits it out of the park. From their tough-but-elegant styling to the significant history behind the movements, these timepieces absolutely belong both on the wrist and in the enthusiast’s collection.

Take a look at a few highlights from the event in the slideshow below!

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Who Broke the Crystal Ball?

There are a lot of things to like about my job: intelligent and talented colleagues, innovative and fast-moving core industry, free food and booze… y’know, the usual expected combination of perks at a tech start-up.

But the very best parts of my day revolve around the conversations I get to have with jewelry industry folks. They come from a huge range of specialties — retailers, designers, manufacturers, students, teachers, artists — and once we get to know each other a bit, many of them are willing to take a few moments to chat about the general state of the industry.

These conversations have given me both deep insight into the inner workings and relationships within the network itself, and a bird’s eye view of the US (and often global) jewelry industry as a whole. Useful and interesting stuff.

In a totally unscientific way, I’m been taking notes on these discussions and keeping track of what people seem to be saying. Here’s an overview of some of the most common topics and their subsequent commentary:

“The industry is changing.”
This is by far the most popular statement. It seems that nearly everyone is in agreement about the state of flux and evolution, keeping in mind that anyone talking to me right now is probably already embracing a certain amount of technology and the momentum to implement it.

But I perceive a certain level of apprehension mixed in there as well, particularly when some of the smaller shops are considering their long-term business plans. Comments such as “I’m buying this because my son/daughter thinks we need it” and “I hope you can teach an old dog new tricks” imply an understandable hesitation, but they also address the larger climate of uncertainty in the market.

“Nobody buys X anymore, they only want custom.”
If you’re handy with CAD or a designer-in-training, prepare yourself for desperate job offers and high expectations — but not necessarily an understanding employer. There is a definite skills and knowledge gap happening here, and it’s what I refer to as Magic Box Syndrome.

This tendency to demand good/fast/cheap/easy from technology is frustrating both for the people who don’t understand why it isn’t perfect, and for those of us trying to convince users that it’s still pretty darn good. That expensive computer program with beautiful renderings can’t make you a better designer if you don’t understand the fundamentals of jewelry construction (including CAM, casting, and at least some benchwork). Our little orange box can’t magically reproduce something your designer dreamed up if it’s unprintable, uncastable, and probably unwearable.

And what happens when, inevitably at this time of year, the conversation turns to the holiday season?

I’ve learned to brace myself.

While the majority of my clients are buying a 3D printer to expand or improve their businesses, I come across the occasional purchaser who is simply trying to save it. Three separate shops in the last week have lost their CAD people, and are trying to catch up on CAD/CAM themselves before the rush. Two other businesses I know are about to begin casting their own work, because outsourcing takes too much time (and therefore money). And of course, my manufacturing clients are facing increased labor and metal costs, high demand for fast turnover, on custom pieces and a huge uptick in small-batch multi-unit orders that will probably end up as quick mountings for engagement season.

“We’re in for a wild ride,” they say.

But the saner voices — less panicked, more curious and optimistic about the future — are predicting a time of general change toward custom or customized jewelry in a way that might just save the entire industry from itself. As I’ve mentioned once or twice, adapting our old business models to the new wave of consumers is the only realistic way to preserve the beauty of treasured jewelry pieces and still grow as an industry.

It is my good fortune to be in communication with such a wide variety of interesting people, and to hear firsthand how many of them are keeping their eyes on the prize and working to turn this big old ship around. I can guide and support them through at least a small part of that process, and hope that their eventual successes will pave the way for others.

Vegas: The Starting Gate

Rounding the final corner! Down the home stretch! Hitting his stride! Photo finish!

I blame it on my birthday** but I’ve always appreciated horse racing metaphors. There’s something so universally appealing about them, so evocative of a brief but heart-pounding excitement shared by a crowd that seems to hold its collective breath until the race is over.

That’s a bit like how I feel about Jewelry Week, hosted annually in Sin City and attended by thousands of industry professionals in a business and social whirlwind. It’s a fast-paced week, requiring immense amounts of energy and serious willpower to both get stuff done and have fun doing it.

For those of us on the non-retail side of the booth, the connections and sales generated at this show can make or break an entire year’s worth of business (but y’know, no pressure). It’s an opportunity to meet with clients in person, announce new and exciting things (!!), and yes, scope out the competition.

Buyers who attend are also on a mission: spend well, spend wisely. The glitter of the show is an easy distraction for the spendthrift store buyer, as it washes everything in an enticing aura of beauty and incites a covetous round of gotta-have-it fever.

This is, of course, the point. Any show is only as successful as its revenue generation — in this case, not for the show itself, but for the sellers who attend it — so a careful eye is kept on the general mood throughout the week. Trends are spotted, new and innovative offerings are critiqued, and dollars are measured.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the changes facing the industry right now, including questions about what retailers in particular should do to attract consumers of all ages and levels. It makes me wonder: what can both buyers and sellers learn from this show? What makes it so successful as an event, and how do we generate that kind of madhouse, leave-your-inhibitions-at-the-door vibe in our own businesses?

Something else to consider: the show has added a new area to the already-crowded floor, dedicating a space to what was once “crossover” and is now called simply “bridge” jewelry. This category consists of sterling-and-gold pieces with fashion and trendy appeal, at prices intended to be higher than basic fashion jewelry but lower or just approaching that of the fine category. It’s the stuff millennials buy for themselves (in theory), and it’s a popular but ever-moving target.

I’m interested to see the category perform in its own arena and not as second fiddle to its bookend price points. I will also be curious to learn if this one-size-fits-most approach feels like a fresh idea that just might save the middle of the market, or simply a rehash of the “entry level” model we see in the housing and auto markets. The former inspires repeat business, self purchasing, and aspirational purchases down the road. The latter sets buyers up for disappointment and frustration, stalling momentum and causing sales to drop. We’ll see which side wins this coin toss.

And as usual, there will be a significant amount of M-word (Millennial) dropping in the exhibit halls. This ties in directly with the two ideas I just mentioned, and the prevalence of a heavy generational focus has helped me formulate a kind of consumer theory I’ve been kicking around: shifting the focus too far onto the fashion/bridge category could hinder the long-term, aspirational level sales, preventing sellers from converting the $500 spenders into $5K+ consumers. I have found that when someone is sold on “good enough,” it can be all the more challenging to grow them into larger or more frequent purchasers.

So as the flag is raised on this year’s show, I’ll be keeping in mind these questions (and other thoughts) to revisit after the fact. Here’s hoping it won’t be heavy going for attendees, and that everyone will have free rein to buy and sell and enjoy themselves. I know I’m chomping at the bit to be on my way!

 

**Kentucky Derby Day. Every year without fail, my father-in-law (a horse racing fanatic) asks me to name the winning horse, who also happened to be one of only three fillies to ever win the Derby.

The Missing Mentor

Conventional wisdom states that in order to be successful in business, a person with little experience should seek out a person with lots of it, in order to obtain some sort of magical guidance/tutelage/oracle cocktail that will propel the budding young star into a galaxy far, far away.

Or something like that.

The truth is, long-term mentoring relationships are both rare and difficult to come by, particularly for anyone working as a minority of any kind in his or her field. Those partnerships take time, patience, and dedication to build and manage; the mentor and mentee need to feel equally invested in each other in order to sustain a mutual professional bond.

As a writer, I’m fortunate that many of my role models are relatively accessible people, at least in the sense that some of them are public figures and active industry leaders — I can always find their work, and with a bit of effort I can occasionally meet them in person at trade events. This doesn’t make them mentors in the traditional sense, but it provides some building blocks for my career direction that I wouldn’t otherwise have.

In addition, I find the good folks of the jewelry industry to be pretty forthcoming with advice, all things considered. There is the sense that a rising tide will lift all boats, and as I make forays into the realm of connection-building with an earnest desire to learn, I’ve received mostly warm welcomes from both men and women. (Mostly.)

Unfortunately, my immediate work sphere has no such people available. First of all, are exactly zero female “higher ups” at my current company of about 150. Nada. Goose egg. I work in an environment that is totally dominated by Category: Straight White Male, Subcategory: Privileged Millennial, and it shows.

You’d have to be fortunate enough to live off the grid in order to escape the genderized buzzwords of the modern tech world. I can #PowerPose, #LeanIn, #AskHerMore, and go #AllInForHer to my little heart’s content (I could even be married to a man who’s #HeforShe), but would Tweeting any of those get me closer to a tech exec? Unlikely.

In an odd twist, I’ve had about a half-dozen women at my own company go out of their ways to discuss this very issue with me. Keep in mind, I don’t work in HR or People Operations. Either those power poses are really working, or I’m simply much more outspoken against the downright absurd lack of women in general and in leadership in particular.

(True story: when I paraphrased The Notorious RBG’s famous quote about the number of women on the Supreme Court it will take to satisfy her — all of them — I got laughed at. Actually laughed at for daring to argue that all-female anything is not a crazy idea.)

So what’s the deal? There are many theories, but right now I’m eyeing the thoughts laid out in this post. Essentially, we might need to rethink our approach to the mentoring function entirely. While building a solid connection with a few select people should still be on the radar, it may be more beneficial to “create mentoring moments right around you.” This means paying attention to the people who are most easily accessible — yes, including your peers — and seeking out a more impromptu mentoring dynamic, easing some of the pressures that come with long-term relationships. This advice is founded in a pragmatic approach to the ways and means of business today.

My personal preference is still to pursue a more lasting bond, one that must be built on developing trust and a deeper understanding between the people involved. But perhaps it’s in my best interest (and the interests of women everywhere) to take the growth opportunities when we can get them.

P.S. The header photo is proof I’ve been Power Posin’ since 2008, folks.

MJSA Expo Recap: Spring Forward

Hello, NYC. We meet again! Your trains were under construction, your Ubers were late, and your weather threw a hissy fit… but your bagels are delicious, your architecture never fails to impress, and your impact on business was trending positive. So altogether, thanks again for confirming my love/hate affair.

This show was my second opportunity to stand on the other side of the counter, and I’m happy to report that it changes my love of trade shows not one bit. I managed to speak with some fascinating people, meet digital friends in real life, and even make progress in some personal goals — a successful outing by any standard.

One of my favorite things to do at shows is walk around a few times, sometimes stopping to say hello to old friends and make new ones, but often simply to observe how exhibitors and buyers are interacting. You catch some interesting things by casting a wide net, not seeking any particular insight.

For example, it seems that companies who make it their business to fully educate and build relationships (real ones) with their clients have a much more welcoming atmosphere at the booth, even when they’re swamped with people. When I watch a sales rep turn to a lurker and tell them, “I will be happy to explain this further, and you’re welcome to listen to what I’m saying to Ms. Smith here, just please give me a few more moments with her” I see an immediate change in that lurker’s body language. They adjust from a defensive, stop-ignoring-me-you-idiot posture into a polite and attentive listener, willing to wait because they’ve been prioritized.

On the other hand,  I myself stood at a booth full of reps for 4 minutes (yep, I counted) before my presence was even acknowledged. My badge was not immediately visible, so they had no way of knowing if I was a buyer, a competitor, or someone lost on her way to the food court. When someone finally came over, I was reading a piece of literature and he planted himself directly in front of me, crossed his arms, and said (I kid you not), “is there something you want?”

I’m not sure how successful that is as a sales tactic, but you can bet it didn’t go over well with me.

Like I said, you learn a lot walking the show and observing. I felt the overall pace was upbeat and sustained, despite some sleepy eyes on Day 1 due to the nation-wide inexplicable loss of an hour’s sleep. In speaking with a few well-respected and longtime industry salespeople, I learned that interest in a new and improved approach to doing business continues to grow.

It’s always nice to see nodding heads when I talk about integrating updated technologies with time-tested techniques, but I’m starting to see designers and retailers walk the walk. Many visitors to our booth had at least two generations in attendance, and more than one “Jr.” could be heard emphatically arguing in favor of the latest CADsoftware and CAM instrument while “Sr.” looked a little worried, a little confused, and not a little proud.

Spring forward: yes, it was a good trip after all.

 

Happy Trails

Everyone is familiar with the old chestnut, “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” Usually it’s used in the context of loss — a person, a thing, a relationship — but I’d like to turn that around and apply it to losing a feeling.

Stress.

Of course, I knew I was stressed. I talked about being stressed, feeling stressed, and Oh, the ache in my shoulders! Everyone around me expressed concern, sometimes with sympathy but often with increasing frustration at my inability to truly grasp how unhealthy my life had become.

I was allowing the things in my life I hated most to completely control me, and I let it happen for far too long. I got so accustomed to the weight of the world on my shoulders that I couldn’t imagine daily life without it, so I stopped trying.

But no more! To paraphrase a truly terrible pop hit, I can breathe for the first time (yeah, yeah). Now that I’m moving past the horrors of leaving a job, moving, and starting a new job in the space of two weeks (not a path I recommend, by the way), the realization that I am in control of my life again is dawning. That weight has been lifted and it feels damn good.

In related news, prepare for a focus shift on this here blog. I still consider myself a member of the jewelry industry, but my attention will be directed toward the advancement and adoption of new technologies and how we as a group can move forward into a new era of creating, buying, and selling.

You’ll see the hashtag #womenintech popping up, alongside #jewelrypeople and of course #3dprinting. I’m still working on some sort of jewelry-tech hybrid hashtag (#3Diamonds?), and genius suggestions are welcome. Find me on other social channels and please do say hello! I’m busting out of the retail box and I’m ready to forge ahead, blazing new trails.

There’s a lot of hard work and excitement headed my way. Carpe opportunitatem!

 

True (Blue) Tech

Now that I’ve covered the philosophical angle of my recent life changes, it’s time to begin introductions for my exciting new focus: technology & jewelry.

If you’ve asked me about my industry at any point in the last few years, you probably got an earful about my frustrations with jewelry people’s tendency to ignore, withhold, refute, squelch, circumvent, or otherwise deny the demand for the adoption of new technologies. Everything from mining and manufacturing to sales and advertising is in desperate need of an update, of the kind that will integrate all the good stuff of the “old” ways — personal service, strong relationships, gemological & bench expertise — with the many benefits of the new and forward-thinking.

This is not to say that the industry doesn’t already utilize some of the wonders of today. Advances in laser welding, gemstone treatment, pearl farming, metallurgy, CAD/CAM, and e-commerce have been adopted to great effect, though not as universally as I would like. We’ve come a long way, but there is far to go.

Today’s customers are rapidly losing interest in a world they see as a paragon of by-gone ideals, and nostalgia only opens the wallet to far. I want to see an engaged clientele who demand excellence in service, quality, source transparency, and storytelling… you know, all the things we do best.

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Top to bottom: castable resin, rough casting, polished ring

So I have joined a company that is “new tech” to the core, with the goal of bringing their fresh-eyed approach to the world of jewelry. These people are smart, savvy, and looking to make an impact on how we make stuff (all kinds of stuff), which will have a massive impact on how we design, create, advertise, and sell stuff. Replace “stuff” with “jewelry” and you have my full attention and dedication.

What does this mean for my daily life? Well, more denim and flats (and fewer diamonds), for one thing! It means I can turn my focus to the building blocks of the industry, perhaps helping to affect change and influence the direction we take in the coming years. I want to see the jewelry industry emerge from years of tech denial and embrace the power of doing things in new ways in order to achieve long-term stability and growth. I want more people wearing beautiful things that are made well.

Buckle up, people. No more hiding behind half a century of how-it’s-always-been-done. Wake up and smell the lasers, folks — I’m coming for you.

 

 

Travel the World, Pantone Style

Remember when I wouldn’t stop talking about color, and you thought my posts would never end? Well, you were right. But with the latest announcement of 210 new colors from Pantone, the Be-All-End-All Final Word on All Things Color (or so they seem to claim), can you blame me?

Of the approximately 10 million colors the human eye can see, the 52-year-old company has named, numbered, printed, collated, and collected a total of 2,310 colors including the newest additions. A drop in the proverbial bucket to be sure, but impressive when you consider the level of standardization they must achieve in order to standardize these colors. The highly consumable formats — cards, swatches, folders, books, etc. — are used by fashion and interior designers (and many others) to quickly and accurately describe colors.

Many of the new shades are intensified versions of familiar faces, with major expansion in the pink and orange categories. I sense a lean toward the exotic, with lots of richness and food-relevant hues that play well both with each other and as standouts with a neutral. Credit is given to the worldly and well-traveled Pantone creative team — and they do indeed spend time in countries around the globe, noting the color trends in food, fashion, and even technology. However, I’d like to think that a more globalized palette is simply long overdue in such a connected and visually-focused age. These beautiful new additions simply reflect a more complete view of the world as we see it.

As a kid who came of age in what I call the Crayola era, I grew up surrounded by such delicious-sounding color names as “macaroni and cheese”, “wild blue yonder”, and “razzmatazz”. Anything called “pink flamingo” or “fuzzy wuzzy” was just irresistible to me, and I pleaded for box after specialty box as much for the creative names as the vivid colors and gently pointed tips each new set would bring. The colors could transport me to favorite book settings and faraway places long before I later traveled there myself.

These days, the Pantone colors will set you back a bit more than your average ten-year-old’s allowance. It’s worth noting that these two prismatic powerhouses have never officially collaborated, though many color-savvy stylists will often reference both names of a similar color in order to evoke just the right shade. But perhaps, like a page from a coloring book, this newly-expanded array of colors will carry you away to a favorite childhood memory… or even a whole new destination, right from the comfort of your living room.

Show Me Your Creds

Credentials.

Did you cringe when you read that word? If not, yours are probably more than sufficient to command respect in your field (or you simply don’t have any need for them). If you did, then welcome to the club.

We all know that in most businesses, it’s not just who you know and what you’ve done that matters. From your hiring manager and CEO to your own client base, people will grant you an automatic jump in trust and confidence if they see some form of alphabet soup on your business card. Often these suffixes designate levels of education completed or certifications received, which do have a certain amount of credibility attached — a doctor without the MD just isn’t a doctor — but they are rarely proof of talent or ability.

Growing up in a heavily academic-oriented household, I have always been aware of a singular fact: your credentials may get you a seat at the table, but they won’t help you keep it warm. Everyone has a story about Dr. So-and-so’s total inability to fill out an intake form and write the proper dosage of a prescription despite thirty years’ experience, two doctorate degrees, and a wing in the new hospital named after him. Yes, we nod sagely, he obviously looks great on paper, but he doesn’t really have what it takes.

In contrast, I feel that the Dr. So-and-sos of the world are the exception that proves the rule. Going through the standard educational pathways shouldn’t be considered merely as minimum qualifications, but as a starting point to a greater discussion about knowledge, practical application, and person’s developing interest in a field or fields.

Obviously this topic is on my mind as I work to pursue my own degree pathway, but it also factors into my current position as gemologist-in-training. Customers will occasionally ask what the “AJP” after my name means, usually followed immediately with “oh, does that mean you’re a gemologist?” Alas, I tell them, I’m in the midst of my studies and training, but haven’t yet achieved the coveted Double-Gs. When friends or family are doing the asking, I go into greater detail about my passion for evolving an industry that is at times stuck in its own past, my interest in learning alongside the great tastemakers of the current age, and my desire to make positive contributions to the industry as a whole.

Phew. That’s a whole lot of lofty goal-setting to combine with a GG and a current full-time job. But as I inch my way there, I keep the thought of earning my chair — and keeping it warm! — forefront in my mind.

A Little Reminder

One of my primary roles here at work is to manage the inventory: accurate entry, tags, pricing, photographs, re-orders, show orders, invoice processing, etc. It’s a job that can be tedious from time to time (ahem, the Popular Bead Bracelet Brand era) but is usually rather interesting because it appeals to my inquisitive, detail-oriented brain and allows me to get my hands on every single piece of merchandise in the store as it arrives.

I also attempt what I call a self-inventory every so often, taking stock of my life and its various components and running down a list of places to improve, discard, or enhance. Recently my mind has been occupied with family, health, summer plans (golf lessons, new hiking boots), and of course my gemological studies. I tend to continue mulling over my educational material long after I’ve put it away for the day, which causes a disproportionate mental emphasis on the very technical details I’m currently learning. I end up totally engulfed in the bloodless and unromantic side of this industry, focusing all of my energy on numbers and figures and diagrams.

That’s great for test-taking and fundamental progress, but is ultimately useless in my day-to-day job until I work to distill it down into something I can use on the sales floor. I’ve been feeling waterlogged with minutiae, unable to climb onto solid ground from the watery bog of information overload.

So it was with genuine pleasure that I found myself on the business end of a diamond engagement ring sale just this week — and not a moment too soon.

The gentleman was polite and earnest; his female “helper” lived up to her job and was supportive but not pushy. We discussed settings & styles, diamond sizes & qualities, and priced out a few options. A brief lunch break on the sunny restaurant decks (them, not me) later, and a ring was born. Hooray!

This was not a “big” sale, or a tough one, or a thank-goodness-that’s-over interaction. The clean simplicity of selling a meaningful object to a happy and eager buyer was exactly the refreshing reminder I needed when terra firma seemed very far away. Clearly I required this experience in order to remember what we really do, what the purpose is behind all the numbers and calculations:

Joy. Happiness. Excitement. Love. Hope.

That’s our real business, our own small contribution to the betterment of the world. I am a facilitator, nothing more, as I gently nudge people toward an object that stands to represent all the best emotions we could ever want. And amidst the structure of carbon atoms and lengthy history of mining, I needed a little reminder about why I do it at all.