Interview with Rachel Whitehead, winner of JewelFund 2018
Jeweller Rachel Whitehead was one of the jewellers awarded the JewelFund grant for 2018. We caught up with her to find out how it has impacted her business one year on…
You make simply stunning jewellery, how and where did you learn to make?
I've always loved making things and knew I wanted to have a creative career since I was small. After studying Textiles at A level I went on to do an Art Foundation in Brighton. I enjoyed the course but didn't get much closer to a specific discipline I wanted to study at university so I chose to do Three Dimensional Design at Manchester School of Art. I got really into working in the metal room there and in my final year I decided my hand-making skills weren't up to the quality I wanted them to be (always a perfectionist) so I taught myself CAD Design. I've worked around the country as a CAD designer and use it in my work today.
How did you make the decision to make this your business?
I've always wanted to make things. I probably would be happy making anything but there is something special about jewellery - I love the treasure-like quality to it.
I've always wanted to be self employed, no job I've ever had has stretched me or kept my brain working for long enough. I've sought out the feeling of accomplishment and challenge from a day job for a number of years and it's always ended in the realization that to reach my potential I'm going to have to go it alone.
It was important to me to learn as much as I could by working for different kinds of employers doing lots of different kinds of jobs so I'd stand the best chance of being successful when I started my own business. I never thought starting my business straight from uni would be a good idea for me. I needed confidence, experience and a roaring fire in my belly to escape the 9-5!
Did you ever have any doubts about becoming a jeweller and running a business? How did you overcome them?
I have small doubts every day! I think it's really important to be as realistic as possible when starting out - money is tight, time is short and making decisions to quickly without really evaluating the problem can sink you before you've even got momentum.
But, deep down, I've never doubted that my business will be a success, ever. It'll take time. So much time! But good things come to those who wait, right?!
What has been the highlight of your jewellery career so far?
Getting John Lewis as my first stockist in 2016 was a bit of a surprise. I remember standing in the queue at the post office and reading the email. At first glance I assumed I hadn't got it and told myself "oh well" then I re-read the email. I got it! It was one of those eyes popping out of your head moments!
What things do you hope you achieve/ what are your jewellery dreams for the future?
I want to make a business that employs people and excites people. I want to support my future family by doing something that really sparks deep joy and passion in me.
What are your favourite pieces from your current collection?
Anything bee related! I really like the bee coins, they're super easy to wear everyday but don't scrimp on detail and uniqueness.
How do you make your work (not giving away trade secrets!) what types of processes do you use?
So I'm a CAD designer by trade, I still do it part time now so I feel most comfortable on my computer getting really detailed about measurements and details. Once I'm happy with a design I'll have it 3D printed by a company up here in Birmingham, once I'm happy with he model it'll be moulded and lost wax cast just like a hand made master model would be.
I've enjoyed using 3D scanning to take textures into my CAD software and I even 3D scanned a real strawberry for one of my necklaces - that was fun (and messy!!)
Your first stockist was John Lewis (which is amazing) how did this happen?
I didn't have a website at the time and had been making jewellery from home, I knew I wanted to push the jewellery further but I was struggling with confidence and direction.
A new John Lewis store had just opened in Birmingham and they were looking for local jewellery designers to be stocked in their store. I heard about it really close to the deadline through a friend and applied on a whim.
I had no expectation of getting it - I had literally made the jewellery I had from my bedroom in a shared house. Once I got it the shock really set in. I needed to make 100 pieces of jewellery in a short space of time whilst working full time. It was a big challenge, and one I'd manage completely differently now - my boyfriend at the time was not happy with the flat being taken over by my jewellery! But it was a great opportunity, I made sales to real people I had no connection to, got some great feedback and it was a real kick up the bum to make a website and start thinking seriously about how I was going to make my jewellery business a reality.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I love the summer time. I grew up in the Highlands of Scotland and then on the Sussex coast so being outdoors and expanses of open sky have always been hugely important to my happiness. The summer makes me feel free and full of opportunity and I want to celebrate than in my jewellery. Most of my pieces are inspired by the flora and fauna of the warmer months, florals and bumblebees are reoccurring themes.
What was it like to win JewelFund?
A dream! I had no idea I would be chosen so receiving the email was such a shock. I've always self funded my business from a day job so it's always been tight. I knew the quality of photos can really help sell jewellery so in my proposal I told Jess I'd like to invest in some lighting kit. I also wanted to start introducing an engagement ring collection. Prototyping, moulding and casting can become really expensive when you're looking to create quite a few new pieces so I asked to put a portion of the money towards making silver samples of my designs.
The money has been such a helpful investment into my business. It would have taken a long time to get to the point of having spare cash like that to invest in it myself.
The money has been brilliant, but really, the mentoring has been incredible. Speaking with Jess every month or so has kept me on track. She really keeps you accountable! I've started to take my marketing and social media more seriously in the last few months and talking through my plans with her has really helped.
I had always been making at home and felt very isolated but after a relationship break down I moved into a shared workshop just before Christmas. Building a small community of creatives has been one of the best things for me and my business, speaking regularly with Jess has been a really important part of that.
What was it like completing the application?
So straightforward. If you're thinking of applying take a look at the form as early as you can, I always write out my answers and marinate on them for a few days (if I have time) because you always remember new things to include.
Think hard about what would really help your business right now. Where would you like to be in a years time and how could mentoring and a bursary get you there? Don't be afraid to think big!
I think the team are looking for applications that have had obvious thought and time put into them so give yourself plenty of time.
As part of winning JewelFund you had some mentoring sessions with Jess, how did you find those?
So incredibly helpful. Jess is so experienced, insightful and friendly! She's honest about how much work it's taken to get her to where she is and she's so generous with her suggestions. I always come away from our chats with a huge list of things to do, but I don't feel daunted, I feel excited. It's a really safe space for getting all your worries out and realizing you're in control of your future and that's the most exciting feeling ever!
How has your business changed since winning?
I've moved into a workshop which has done wonders for my happiness and productivity. I feel really confident about my plan for the next year and that's brought with it a really good feeling of calmness. The business is still very little and there's a long way to go until I get anywhere close to my end goal but through talking and planning with Jess I feel really prepared to work hard and get to where I'd like it to be.
What one bit of advice would you give to budding jewellers out there?
Be a sponge, drink up all the information you can! Read books, follow jewellers you admire, read blogs and magazines. Learn! If other people can do what you want to be doing you can do it too!
When money is tight try to keep the minimum viable product in mind. We're jewellers so by definition we're perfectionists and that can be a real hindrance when you're struggling to look as professional as you'd like, I've spent far too much time being paralysed by the fear of not being good enough. When you're small very few people have heard of you, so embrace the fact no one's watching, this is the time when you can really get to grips with who you are as a designer. When you're sending emails to a handful of people it doesn't matter if they don't look like the big brands. When you're tiny you can experiment with your Instagram captions and what you want to say. When you only need to hold stock of five pieces you can afford to design something a little bit different.
Celebrate your smallness and have some fun!
What is your favourite course or resource in Jewellers Academy?
Anything on photography and marketing! The classes on Instagram have been so helpful!
Where can people find out more about you?
You can find me on Instagram at @rwhiteheadjewel and on my website at www.rachelwhitehead.com
Thanks for taking part and I can’t wait to see where your business goes in the future!
All the images and designs featured in this blog post are copyright Rachel Whitehead 2018
Are you inspired by Rachel’s story?
Would you like to be awarded a grant of £1000 to spend on your jewellery business? JewelFund for 2019 is now open for applications.
Applications close on 31st July 2019 and it is free to apply so there’s nothing to lose!