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Why handmade costs so much . . . and is still a bargain

Nearly every artisan I know has fielded the question at least once, and most of us have been confronted by it frequently:  “Why is your jewelry/glassware/painting/pottery/woodwork so expensive?”  For those of us who use “found” materials, there is a special twist:  “If you just picked it up off the ground, how come you’re asking fifty bucks for it?”

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The “how come” is called cost accounting.  When I was studying for my two-year degree in accounting at Ivy Tech in Fort Wayne, IN, the one branch of accounting everyone hated was cost accounting.  Well, everyone except me.  I loved it.  And it has turned out to be most applicable and I think most valuable to a self-employed artisan.

So let’s look at all the costs associated with making a piece of jewelry from a “free” rock picked up off the ground.

First of course is getting out to the ground where the rocks are.

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This is a Google Earth (r) satellite shot of my Chevy Blazer and me out rock hunting on 30 December 2014, about 100 miles from my house.  Out in the middle of the desert.  Where the “free” rocks are.

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After collecting my rocks and bringing them home, I have to clean and sort them.  Though they may all look like just lumpy blobs of stone, they really are different types.  Did I mention it has taken me nearly 30 years of going out into the desert, collecting rocks, sorting and processing them to learn which ones are right for which applications?  Well, count that learning into part of the cost of the jewelry!

Once I’ve decided which rocks to use for jewelry, they have to be cut.  The saw is a Lortone 8-inch trim saw ($715) purchased new in 2015.  It uses a diamond-rimmed blade  ($16 from eBay) and about two quarts of lubricating oil ($12).  And electricity.

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The slices of stone are cleaned of oil by soaking overnight in a bowl of kitty litter, and then they are washed in water and dish detergent to remove the final remnants of oil and dirt.

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Slices like those pictured above will become my signature Angel Feathers.  That means they will spend the next six to seven weeks on one of my two Lortone tumblers, going through a series of progressively fine silicon carbide grits, then a pre-polish, and finally a polishing cycle.  That’s six to seven weeks, 24 hours a day.  The tumblers cost about $110 each, and you have to add the cost of the grits and polishing compounds, plus of course the electricity to run the machines.

Not all the stones I find “for free” are suitable for Angel Feathers.  These are usually larger slices that are trimmed some more on the saw to an approximate shape — called a blank — which is then ground on a diamond wheel to the next stage or “preform” before being domed on the grinding wheel into its final cabochon shape.  In the photo below, the brown jasper and white agate blanks have been marked with a template for the preform shape.

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Depending on the material, I may put the cabochons through the same tumble polishing process as the Angel Feathers — though this will only take about four or five weeks for most cabochons — or polish by hand on grinding wheels that are progressively finer down to polishing compounds similar to what is used in the tumbler.  By hand, it can take an hour or more to finish a single stone; by accumulating 40 or 50 preforms for a tumbler batch, I can process more at one time and save a lot of hand labor, as well as freeing myself to work on other tasks.

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Here are two of those white agate blanks after preforming, cabbing, and tumble polishing.

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At this point, the stones are done, but they still aren’t jewelry.  For that they need precious metal wire, tools, patience and experience.

I use solid sterling silver and 1/20th 14k gold-filled wire. with only occasional fun and inexpensive pieces using copper wire.  None of the wire I use is plated or “silver-tone” or “gold-tone.”  As of April 2016, sterling silver and gold-filled wire in the gauges I commonly use both run about $1.25 per foot, and a single pendant can easily contain four feet of wire, or more.  I use several different tools to twist, bend, wrap, and secure the wire; and a fairly complex wrap like this below can take two to three hours to complete.  The stone may have initially been free, but my time and labor are worth something!

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Yes, this is the stone from that first picture of slices; it sold at the first show at which I displayed it.

Making the jewelry, of course, is only part of the process, and part of the cost.  To sell it I also have the expenses of show fees and display equipment such as tables and table covers, packaging, transportation to and from the show.  If I sell online through a third party e-commoerce venue such as Amazon, there are listing fees and commissions to be paid; even my own website costs $25 to $30 a month plus payment transaction fees and of course the time to maintain it, such as writing this blog about how much it costs!

Would it be unreasonable to charge $100 for that Angel Feather?  Probably not.  I’ve often been told my prices are too low, but to be honest I don’t want to price myself out of the market, and I want my pieces to remain affordable for real people.  People like me, who don’t have a whole lot of extra money but still like and appreciate nice things.

So why, if there’s all this time and labor and material and equipment and everything else that goes into the making of a handmade piece of jewelry. is it still such a bargain?

Well, you can get a gold electroplated druzy quartz pendant made in a Chinese factory for a couple dollars.  The gold plating will wear off in a week or two, and the quartz may or may not be dyed.  The first few times it is worn, it will look pretty flashy, but after that, not so much.  More than likely it will be thrown away in six months, or taken to the thrift store.

Hand-made is much more personal.  If you come to know the maker, in person or even just through an online conversation about your order, you’ll probably learn that she or he really cares about their work.  They take pride in it and want you to be happy with it, not just for one or two wearings but for many, many years to come.

The same is almost always true regardless what the product is.  A quilt, a leather purse, a lathe turned wooden bowl, a hand painted gourd holiday ornament, a crocheted scarf: these are the things people make because they love to make them.  Because they’d rather crochet or paint or weave than sit in a cubicle at a magazine subscription call center all day.

If you’re interested in the inexpensive, the kind of thing you’ll use or wear a few times and then move on to the next cheap item, hand-made isn’t for you.  If you’re interested in the unique, the unusual, the made one at a time, then you’ll understand all the elements that go into creating that item, and how money alone can’t buy them.

Is hand-made expensive?  Maybe.  Is it also a bargain?  You bet!