This article was first published in Metal Clay Artist Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 1; 2010.
Selling a piece of art jewelry is an act of romance. To be worth spending the money, the customer must love the piece, and feel the piece is giving them something in return. It’s not just a purchase, it’s a relationship; and it’s your job as the creator to provide the introduction.
We all have a few pieces of jewelry that have special meaning for us. Your engagement ring will bring up memories of how your husband proposed to you. A funky pair of earrings bought at a flea market in Mexico will remind you of a fun trip you took over Spring Break. A faded cameo brooch will bring to mind the beloved grandmother who gave it to you. The intrinsic value of these items is completely irrelevant when compared to their value as mementos of our life’s story. The more detailed and personal these stories are, the more we treasure the physical reminders. Sharing these stories gives us great pleasure and is an elemental way in which we connect and bond with each other.
One of the ways you can enhance the value of your work, and improve your sales, is to offer not just the jewelry, but the story that goes with it as well. When your customer buys the piece, they are also buying the privilege of telling the story that goes with it. It’s “added value” at its very best.
So what makes a good story? First, let’s define what a story isn’t. It isn’t something fake you make up to manipulate a customer. Whether they are conscious of it or not, people can sense an act. At their heart, the stories you tell must be true.
One story might be how the piece was made. I think jewelry artists fall back on this one most often when asked about their work, and while that may be of great interest to the customer, it’s probably the least effective with regards to making the work personal. The “how” of a piece will usually apply to all your work relatively equally. It doesn’t make one piece more special than any of the others, nor does it set your work apart from other artists using the same methods. I’m not suggesting this is a bad way to talk to customers. Any story, even one about how a piece was made, is far better than no story. Talking to your customers about your work in any way will make it more personal and create a connection. But there are other ways of taking it a step or two further; ways of making specific pieces stand out and increase their desirability.
Does the piece itself tell a story? I made an enamel pendant with an alien flying a space ship over a planet. A clear story is built right into the piece itself. When I talk to people about the piece, I tell them it’s “Flerg, the space alien, hot rodding around the universe in his sporty red space ship”. I talk about the various adventures Flerg has had along the way to this piece, and what might be in store for him down the road.
The representation of Flerg is very literal of course, but there are other ways to let a piece tell a story. An intricate piece of stone set in a piece might bring to mind a desert landscape or peaceful mountain valleys. Let your customer know what you see in a piece and what your thought processes were when you designed a setting around it.. Ask them what they see in it. Anything that draws them into the story and makes them a participant.
Is there a story about how the design was developed? For example, one of my favorite pieces is my Chinese Poetry Box.
I tell my customers about how the idea evolved over time. I began making box pendants about 4 years ago, but never felt they were fully realized as a concept. There was nothing in the box. The idea to put tiny books inside the boxes came a few years later, but I still wasn’t sure what the books should contain. More recently, while looking for examples of Chinese calligraphy for a different project, I ran across a website devoted to ancient Chinese poetry. After reading several samples from the Tang dynasty, the complete design concept was born. My box has an image on the front inspired by the imagery of my chosen poem, the poem itself is inscribed, in Chinese, on the inside of the lid, and the tiny book contains the English translation. The story of how all the elements of the poem come together in the piece not only makes it feel special and unique, it also reveals something of the process of design development, which can be very mysterious to non-artists. This conversation will increase the perceived value of the piece.
There are countless stories, each as unique as the artists who create them. Maybe you acquired the materials in a unique way, such as traveling to distant lands to collect special stones, or maybe a serendipitous studio accident led you down a new design avenue.
Another question, of course, is when and where to tell the story. If you are a production artist, it’s unlikely you will have a story for every piece you make. Reserve your story telling efforts to the high-end “showcase” pieces. Even if the customer can not afford these pieces, it will create a personal connection and make them want to take home a memento of the encounter, possibly in the form of one of your less expensive pieces. It will also increase the chances of that customer talking to others about you and your work, and coming back at a later date for the higher end piece.
If you’re displaying your work at an art show or trunk show, where you are physically present with your work, story telling is no problem. But if you sell your work through galleries or boutiques, or other venues where you are not present, it becomes a bit more of a challenge. Write up an artist statement, print it out on nice paper, and sign each copy by hand. This can be included with each piece sold. You can take it one step further by preparing a special artist statement for your showcase pieces that include “the story”. For my Chinese Poetry Box, I not only have a special signed statement that includes the story, I did a quick sketch of one of the design elements at the bottom of the page. Handing out artist statements is a benefit both for you and the stores selling your work. Casual buyers can be cultivated into collectors and repeat customers.
If you sell over the internet, consider including a version of the story along with the product description. Yes, people want to know what the materials are and how big it is, but what makes them want to by this piece rather than that piece? What makes one more interesting than the other? That’s where the story can have an influence.
Go out there and tell the stories!