Valerie Nethery is the founder of LilyEmme Jewelry, an eco-friendly artisan jewelry studio. Although she began making jewelry as a hobby, she soon turned that hobby into an amazing artisan business. Based in Seattle, LilyEmme products are sold online and at various stockists around the country. We caught up with Valerie to learn the latest about LilyEmme, discover how she started her business, and hear her advice for creative entrepreneurs.
How did you get into jewelry design?
My career as a jewelry designer was not intentional. I was in college studying environmental science when I started making jewelry as a hobby. I used to make beaded bracelets and wire-wrapped earrings during my study breaks because I needed a creative distraction. My hobby started to pick up after I began selling my pieces to friends and family and I also opened up a small Etsy shop. I was becoming a bit obsessed with jewelry and I wanted to advance my skills so I invested in a metalsmithing class at my local fine arts center. I fell in love instantly with the process and it really sparked an increase in sales of the new types of jewelry I was able to make. I started getting requests for bridal jewelry one day and it really catapulted me into learning new techniques for higher caliber jewelry. Today I continue to design fine jewelry primarily for engagements and weddings but I also make jewelry for all kinds of occasions.
Was there a moment when you said to yourself, “Ok, now I’m a full-time jewelry designer” or was it a more gradual process?
Looking back, my jewelry hobby turned into a business before I even knew that’s what was happening. It was a gradual and very slow process until suddenly one day it wasn’t. When I had my original full-time day job I was also working another 4 hours each evening filling jewelry orders, messaging with customers, and designing new jewelry as well as another 12-16 hours on weekends doing the same. I was starting to burn out! I got to a point where I had to make the switch to supporting myself full-time with jewelry and that was July 4 2014. I’ve always looked back on that day as my own personal Independence Day.
How long does it take to design a custom ring? It seems like a very involved process requiring sketching, wax models, CAD, and much, much, more.
I often tell my customers that custom jewelry has many moving parts and that’s why it takes so long to create a custom piece. The process usually requires 4-6 weeks for more intricate pieces like custom rings because there is sketching, digital rendering, wax modeling, sourcing materials, casting, stone setting, and polishing to do. It’s a long process but the custom pieces I design are usually engagement and wedding rings that the wearer gets to enjoy for many years to come so I want to make sure all of my design intentions and quality are preserved and reflected in the final product.
Never undervalue your work.
Are your products mainly a reflection of your own aesthetic, market and design trends, or both?
My products are definitely a reflection of my own style. I think that’s why the brand resonates with so many of my fans. My personal style is to not wear a lot of jewelry or accessories but I usually have on one piece that is simple, subtle, and modern feeling. I do try to keep current fashion trends in mind, however, I view them more as suggestions and not obligations. If I wouldn’t wear the jewelry style myself, I won’t make it.
What role does social media play in your business?
I couldn’t be where I am today without the help of social media. Instagram in particular has helped me reach thousands of new people who might not otherwise discover my jewelry. Since Instagram is such a visual platform, it has allowed me to connect with potential customers who instantly understand and share my brand’s aesthetic and and foundation of eco friendly practices. By using Instagram I have also received such great feedback from those customers who I get to personally interact with as they ask questions or let me know how much they are loving their jewelry.
I had to make the switch to supporting myself full-time with jewelry and that was July 4 2014. I’ve always looked back on that day as my own personal Independence Day.
What advice do you have to someone starting their own artisan business?
Everyone’s business path is so individual and circumstantial but I think one struggle that unifies all business owners at the beginning is properly valuing your skill and products. Self-doubt plagued me for a while in the beginning and I wasn’t giving the best value to my work. I think someone starting their own artisan business needs to know that as a creative entrepreneur, you’re going to set your own pace and your own rules and how you value your skill set and products will help determine how comfortable you are going to be, both financially and professionally. Never undervalue your work.
How have you overcome the challenges of expanding while maintaining your high quality standards?
My biggest challenge of expanding has been time. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have enough it during this crucial time when my business is growing. But quality is so important to me and I knew I had to keep quality a top-priority so I hired a studio assistant and it’s really helped me to make better use of my time. I now have more time to spend on those area of jewelry making that really require more patience and skill.
Your work is sold at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. How does it feel to have your work stocked at such an important institution?
It is such an honor to have my jewelry sold at the NMAAHC. My fine jewelry is being sold with wares from many talented black designers and I’m so proud to be included as a representation of other Black creatives. There aren’t many minority fine jewelry designers but I want to bring some diversity to the table. My Black and Mexican roots have always made me feel different in a positive way and I’m glad that I’ve carved a small path into fine jewelry that hopefully other brown designers can follow and join me on.
What are the most common misconceptions people have about being an entrepreneur?
A lot of people might be surprised to learn how much time is really needed to run a small business independently. Aside from the jewelry that has to be designed and made, there taxes that have to filed, social media posts that need scheduling, materials to order, photographs to take, lots of emails to answer, and lots of little jobs and errands to run in between. I feel lucky that I even have all of this work to do and also that I’ve had administrative positions in the past that help me feel comfortable with this type of busywork. Self-employment is great but you’ll never work harder than when you work for yourself.
What is next for LilyEmme Jewelry?
LilyEmme Jewelry is still an exciting and burgeoning new business that I’d like to see excel in the busy world of e-commerce as well as our newest venture which is wholesale. I love shopping local and I have many customers who share the passion. If I can partner with retailers around the country, I can connect with more buyers who can still support their local economy by shopping locally.
As LilyEmme grows, I will continue to refine my jewelry collection, especially in the bridal sector. In my daydreams, I think of how wonderful it might be to have a small brick-and-mortar shop of finely curated gifts and jewelry for women but that’s still just a daydream for now.
Be sure to visit LilyEmme Jewelry online to find out more or purchase some of her great works of art! Stay updated with Valerie’s latest updates by following LillyEmme Jewelry on Instagram and Twitter.