This is an interview with Sebastian Lokason, jewelry artist and craftsperson with a full-time business on Etsy where he earns his living by designing and creating various pieces inspired by his faith. He talks about the life and practice of being an artist and a business person, how to integrate work, life, creativity and personal values, and the value and beauty of pieces with genuine stones.
How did you scale up your business over the years? Plenty of people start off making and selling crafts, how do you go from a hobby to a business? (i.e. finding customers, managing your time, making sure you’re getting enough of a profit margin, etc)
I started beading in my early twenties, and people would comment on my jewelry and I would make stuff for admirers at a very low price – much lower than what I should have been charging, but back then I didn’t know what a fair price was and I was happy to get any “extra” money at all. I started on Etsy in 2011, when I was thirty-one, as a hobbyist seller. I had literally no idea how to market my items – for example, I didn’t know you’re supposed to use tags on Etsy so people can find things – and I also had very, very few items ready for sale. I made less than a dozen sales prior to August 2014, which is when I got serious about Etsy and re-evaluated my business strategy, with help from someone who knows more about how to sell things than I do. I found a customer base through blogging about Pagan spirituality, though the time eventually came where I had to choose between blogging and crafting, and I was lucky that people who found my store via my blog mostly stuck around after I stopped making content posts – perhaps in part because my message was “be authentic to yourself, and your Higher Purpose is what you love”, and by focusing my attention on my art I was doing just that.
I didn’t start to generate a real sustainable income from my shop until March 2015, which was when I decided to post at least once a day showcasing different items in my store, and also started to make a lot of items per week. Switching from being a hobbyist to actually making a living from crafting was very much a change of my entire methodology. It meant things like having a weekly quota of new items – I know from my own experience as a buyer, as well as what my experience running my store has taught me, that people are less likely to buy from you if you only have a very few items in your store (less than a dozen), and people are also more likely to visit your store if there’s new items to look at, so having regular new items is important to drive in traffic. The switch from hobbyist to professional seller also meant aggressively promoting, because items are not going to promote themselves, so I started a blog exclusively for promoting items in my shop, and I took out ad space on Etsy as well as Witches & Pagans (an online Pagan magazine). I also stepped my game up – my style of jewelry has evolved a little as time has gone on; I’ve tried out more intricate and complex designs, and some unique ideas that I didn’t see other people doing.
The biggest challenge for me was figuring out appropriate pricing. Hobbyist sellers – which I was for about four years – are usually content to just charge enough to make back the cost of supplies, and sometimes not even that. When I was a hobbyist seller, I once sold a necklace for $20 that cost me $30 in supplies. When you intend to make a living from your craft, you can’t do that. So I had to start figuring out what was fair to myself, but still affordable for my customers. That’s been a bit of a learning curve. My formula for pricing is cost of supplies + cost of labor. For “cost of labor” you cannot afford to charge yourself less than minimum wage and be able to make a profit. I am also factoring in not just the labor of making the jewelry itself, but taking time to photograph and set up the listing, and deal with any customers. One of the reasons why my base rate for a custom necklace involving gemstones and a special pendant is $150 is because on average I’m talking with someone for approximately three hours about the particulars of stones to use, length, etc, and three hours of my time at a “fair” minimum wage ($15/hr) is $45 – this is before we get into things like supply orders for special parts, the time to make the item itself, etc. I have been accused of having “overpriced” items and the way I feel about it is, until a person runs my business for me, they don’t get to have a say in how much I charge, and people who complain about “overpriced” items are almost never those who have actually bought from me, and are almost always jealous of my success, because they don’t consider making jewelry to be a “real job” and see me as making “easy money” over here, not realizing how much work goes into making jewelry, handling customers, shipping, etc. And unfortunately, one of the things that contributes to the perception of something being “overpriced” is hobbyist sellers selling at cost, who don’t care if they make a profit or not. While I won’t tell hobbyist sellers what to do, it makes it harder for people to make a living doing this, if you are not even charging yourself minimum wage, if you are not even recomping the cost of supplies. I don’t just do this on the side as a hobby because this is my passion.
Another challenge that I’ve run into is photography. Up until very recently, I was using the crappy camera on my cell phone. In December 2015 I finally broke down and got a proper digital camera, and the picture quality between these newest pictures and pictures of older items is very, very noticeable. If you want to go pro with selling jewelry, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a decent camera and decent lighting. I prefer to take photographs in natural light, without a flash, because the flash will mess up the colors of the jewelry too much. If something is very intricate in design, and especially if you have any carved or textured beads, you really want a digital camera that can take hi-res pictures and show the detail. My cell phone’s camera takes pictures that are blurry even after going through photo editing to sharpen the image a bit, and that makes it harder to see details. It’s all about the details when you are making unique, one-of-a-kind pieces that people are going to spend a good deal of money on. I managed to make decent enough sales before I dropped money on a camera, but I also got a few comments of “you know, you could probably make even more sales if you got a better camera,” and I have noticed a more enthusiastic response to newer pieces that have been photographed with the newer camera, yes.
I notice you use real authentic gemstones (common and more unusual) in your jewelry. What do you have to say on the topic of whether people should invest in authentic stones or save by getting knockoffs?
It honestly depends on whether or not you have money to spend on authentic gemstones, and more importantly, if it’s going to be worth it to do so.
I do use a bit of higher-end precious gemstones like ruby, sapphire, emerald – but I also use semi-precious (amethyst, iolite, garnet, etc) and I also use Czech glass; I didn’t start buying precious gemstones until I’d been making regular sales for close to a year – I started off using Czech glass and semi-precious gemstones, and I have mostly gone back to that. Some of my pieces have real gemstones only, some of them have gemstones and glass, some have glass only. For the more expensive precious gemstones, it’s a bit of an investment up-front, and is not necessarily something you’re going to see a return on right away. The only reason why I was able to afford to buy some ruby and sapphire and emerald is because I had a couple of really good sales months. In hindsight, I might have invested that money a bit differently, because of my customer base.
One of the things to keep in mind with whatever you use is what your target customer base is. In my own personal case, most of my jewelry customers can afford to spend up to $200 on a single necklace, even if they have to put it on layaway. The problem is that I have some higher-end pieces where charging anything less than $200 is not fair to myself with regards to cost of supplies v. labor, so these items have been sitting for awhile. Occasionally a higher-end piece sells, but it’s more likely to sit there for awhile than something under $200. I’m at a place with my shop and the kind of volume that I do that I can sort-of afford to have a few higher-end items sit there as a “tease” – a way to draw people in and they wind up buying a less-expensive item, while coveting the more expensive item and thinking “maybe someday”. Obviously, I would like these items to sell. But I’m realistic about the fact that higher-end stuff is not going to move for awhile, with the kind of customer base that I have. For me to switch to a customer base that can afford to buy $300 emerald necklaces, I would have to radically overhaul my brand, and I’m simply not willing to do that. So I do have some higher-end necklaces, but it’s not the mainstay of my shop, and people ought to be aware of that before they invest to make a similar business move. It’s worth it in a “look what I can do” sense to demonstrate your jewelry design skills, what you’re capable of making, and every so often you may get a customer who is willing to spend extra money for something like that. But I wouldn’t recommend it as the mainstay of your shop unless you have the kind of customer base who can afford to regularly spend money on high-end pieces. I would also, again, recommend that you have a decent camera if you’re going to sell higher-end stuff, and I would suggest getting the camera BEFORE you photograph and list the higher-end stuff, so you don’t have to go back and take photos all over again to show the detail.
What are your favorite kinds of jewelry to make? What’s your process in making the more complex items?
What I like to make really depends on what kind of mood I’m in. It changes. I was really big on using pewter pendants of various Pagan symbols or mythological iconography for awhile, then I got into using handmade pendants with gemstone cabochons as the focal piece, as well as making briolette necklaces without focal pendants, and more recently I’ve started collecting Czech glass cabochons to use and will be focusing a lot on that for the first part of 2016. My process for making more complex items – like two- or three-strand necklaces – is to clear a block of time where I won’t be disturbed, clear space, and carefully string one side at a time, one strand at a time, and to regularly check the pattern to make sure I’m not off-count. Sometimes I have to re-start a pattern because my initial idea looked better in theory than it does coming out in the beadwork.
Would you like to talk about your layaway/means to make the jewelry more accessible? How do you do that and turn a profit (has that ever been an issue?)
Well, my philosophy with layaway is that it’s better to get paid, even if it takes awhile for the item to be paid off, I would rather that item be guaranteed to go to someone who can only afford to pay me slowly, versus taking a chance with the item sitting there and not selling at all. I also, having been very broke for most of my adult life, recognize that not everybody can afford to drop $200 on a single item at one time, so I consider layaway to be necessary, a pragmatic reality, if you’re selling higher-end items.
What I do for layaway is I ask the prospective layaway buyer to send me a convo on Etsy letting me know they want to set up layaway; I respond to all convos related to holds and layaway within 24 hours and usually sooner. We work out some sort of payment plan – for example, a $100 necklace can be divided into four payments of $25. I will adjust the listing by setting the price to $25 on a quantity of $4. The customer buys a quantity of 1 to make their payment of $25, and then comes back when they’re ready to make the next payment, to buy another quantity of 1 at $25, and so on, until the item is paid in full, at which point I mail the item out to the customer. Layaways comprise about 60% of my sales, and about 90% of my commissions for custom work are done on installment plans.
The only issues I have ever run into with layaway is that sometimes it takes a very, very long time for something to be paid off because the person runs into financial problems, like an emergency move or something, and they may go about 2-3 months between payments. I have, to date, never cancelled a layaway plan with someone due to financial issues – I’m willing to work with the person on a slower timetable if that comes up, because again, I feel like it’s better for me to be paid slowly than not be paid at all. I have enough layaway plans going at any given time that I make at least some money every month from it; most of my layaway customers pay me at least once every two weeks, and almost all pay me for something at least once a month. Between several different customers with multiple layaway plans, it does add up a bit.
Are jewelry or physical items of that sort especially important in the religious and cultural beliefs that inspire your work? I mean, did people traditionally wear these sorts of items to honor these deities?
Well, yes and no. Traditionally, in ancient polytheist times, you had Norsemen who wore hammers, or ornate necklaces of amber and glass; there were Egyptian polytheists who wore iconography of their gods, like Isis. The kind of jewelry that I make, is not an exact replica of ancient Pagan jewelry. Some of my pieces are inspired by various deities but are more “stealth” in the sense that they would not be immediately recognizable as a necklace for So-and-So, it’s more abstract – like an expression of the deity’s personality and energy, in the colors and gemstones I choose – and thus has more symbolic meaning to the wearer. Some of my pieces are more explicitly Pagan but are either not necessarily something somebody would have worn back in the day, or there’s a modern twist to it – like one of the Thor’s hammer necklaces in my shop has the colors of the LGBT Pride flag.
Did your faith inspire you to start this business? (I was raised in Protestant Christianity and occasionally think back to the Proverbs 31 woman, who was praised for being an entrepreneur with a sense of social responsibility. My company isn’t religious in nature but I think back to that ideal every so often).
My faith definitely inspired me to start my business. I wear jewelry of spiritual significance to me, and there were times in my life where I didn’t have much and my jewelry was pretty much all I had to remind me of my gods and my faith. I know a lot of other Pagans like to have tangible ways to feel the energy of their gods around them, visible reminders of their relationships, their purpose, etc. So I wanted to fill a particular niche. I’m not the only Pagan jewelry-maker on Etsy, but I have a unique style and there is a sort of visionary energy that I try to bring out in my pieces, that seems to resonate with people.
Why do you think people wear jewelry? What’s the appeal? Aesthetics, showing personality, etc.
I think it’s a bit of that, and in the case of spiritual-themed jewelry, it’s also wanting to have a reminder of deities or one’s spiritual work. To use myself as an example, my jewelry has to be aesthetically pleasing to me, but there are also different reasons why I wear each of the items that I do. One of my regular jewelry items is a reminder of the spirit that I’m married to, which is very “him” in terms of the colors and types of stones. Another one of my regular jewelry items is a reminder of my Higher Self – it’s not just something that’s “me” but also has symbolic significance.
Would you like to share anything about the cultural stories behind some of your pieces, or about the physical nature or the process of mining or using the gemstones?
I currently have a piece in my shop called “Thor In A Dress” which is a Mjollnir (Thor’s hammer) on a strand of rose quartz beads and pewter roses, and was inspired by a Norse mythological tale: Thor’s hammer is stolen, and to get it back, the giants are demanding Freyja as a price. So Loki convinces Thor to dress up like Freyja, and apparently Thor really rocks the dress because the giants can’t tell that it’s Thor and not Freyja. Then Thor-dressed-as-Freyja takes his hammer back. I’m also currently working on a necklace for Loki that uses a horse pendant, which was also inspired by a story in Norse mythology where Loki turned himself into a female horse and later gave birth to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir, Odin’s mount.
How do you maintain work/life balance as an entrepreneur? (I deal with that myself).
I’m still honestly trying to figure that out.
One of my problems is that I have a really strict work ethic where I can’t relax if I feel like jobs are undone so I can’t do something like start a necklace and stop doing it for the day when it’s halfway finished, and I am also a severe enough perfectionist that I have taken necklaces apart because I was off count by one bead even though it was towards the back where “no one will notice”. I am pretty brutal on myself in terms of quality control and having a quota of new items per week, and where I feel like I’m “not doing enough” if I haven’t made X amount of necklaces or bracelets by Thursday.
Another one of my problems is that my creativity does not run on a routine. It would be easiest for me if I could make myself make things on a regular 9-5 Monday through Friday schedule, but there are days when the artistic part of my brain will not cooperate during normal working hours and instead wants to make a necklace at 8 PM. I’m also chronically ill, so there are some days where I thoroughly intend on getting something done in a specific time frame, like making a supply order in the afternoon, and by the time afternoon comes around my brain fog is in full effect and I can’t trust myself to do things like math. So my schedule for making things, ordering supplies, and packing orders is very contingent on how I’m feeling that day. There may be a day where all I do that’s work-related is answer Etsy convos, and the very next day I make three necklaces and pack ten orders. And some of that is also dependent on how many orders I have to process at one time – I usually wait to pack and ship until I have at least three orders, so that way I’m not having to drag out the bubble wrap and the tape for just one thing.
Another challenge is that I can never take a day completely off. At the very least, if nothing else, I have to answer Etsy convos because not answering a convo within 24 hours means potentially losing a sale, and I usually try to answer convos as soon as possible, even at odd hours (notifications on my phone have woken me up before). A lot of my friends express envy at my ability to work from home, but the trade-off for me getting to keep my own hours and work at home from my pajamas is that my hours frequently run over 40 per week (between making things, discussing orders and layaways with customers, doing necessary self-promotion, packing and shipping, and purchasing necessary supplies which is like a job in and of itself), and my busiest days of the week are usually Saturday and Sunday because that’s the day when most people have off and tend to do things like browse the Internet and come across my Etsy store. I do not remember the last time I had a weekend to just do absolutely nothing. I think I am going to remedy that as soon as possible.
I do try to take at least one half-day a week where I go out and do something not related to my job during the daytime, like a trip to get coffee and maybe go shopping somewhere, and I try to take at least two nights a week where I’m not doing anything related to my job and I can do something like watch a TV show. But that’s still not a lot of free time. My goal for 2016 is “work smarter, not harder”, where I give myself more breaks of free time, but I am always going to have the challenges of not being able to follow a set routine, being a perfectionist with workaholic tendencies, and also needing to nail a potential sale when it comes up even if the timing is inconvenient to me.
What sorts of people order your jewelry? (locations, age groups, etc?) Any groups of people who took an interest who surprised you?
Most of my customers are from within the US, but I also get a decent amount of sales from Canada, Australia, the UK and Europe. Most of my customers appear to be under 30, with some who are over 30. Most of my customers are some variety of Pagan; a disproportionately high number of my customers are Lokean/Rokkatru, Luciferian, or demonolaters, but that makes sense considering a lot of what I make is geared towards those particular paths. I am usually only surprised when someone orders something for a family member or partner, because most of my customers are buying for themselves (or to gift one of their gods, such as by putting a necklace on an altar).
Do you see yourself doing this as a career for the rest of your life?
I do. I’m planning on keeping my Etsy shop going as long as I can. In the event that Etsy ceases to exist or decides on new buyer/seller rules that make it not feasible for me to have a presence on Etsy, I would sell directly through my website. Right now, this is my source of income so this is literally what I do to make money, but even if I got to a place where I was financially well-off enough that I never needed to sell jewelry again, I would still want to. I can’t ever see myself not making jewelry, it’s something I’ve loved doing for close to two decades. It’s not just a way to make money, but it’s something I’m really passionate about. It’s a way for me to express my soul.