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Overcoming Fears to Kick-Start a Jewelry Career

Colleen Schwarz_Halstead Book


The Halstead Grant is an annual competition for emerging jewelry artists working primarily in silver. Applicants are asked to submit answers to 15 business questions, in addition to design portfolios, for the opportunity to kick-start their jewelry career. Since 2006, the grant has enabled entrepreneurs to find their place in this challenging industry by helping them to develop a strategy for successfully managing a new business.

Among those applicants for 2019 was BFA-JEM alumna Colleen Schwarz, who found herself as a Top 10 finalist and the recipient of prizes including a cash grant, trophy, and a Halstead book feature with the other winners. Since graduating from the Academy in 2014, Schwarz has remained proactive in gaining a foothold in the field by setting business goals and building on the vast knowledge she acquired from past opportunities. Continue reading below to learn about her experience on the grant application process and her advice on overcoming hurdles to start the next chapter of entrepreneurship.

The thought of applying for the Halstead grant can be very daunting, especially when printing out the application and looking at all the overwhelming questions. These questions, though, are some of the most important questions you will ever answer when starting a jewelry business. Whether you decide to apply or not, these questions are crucial. Since graduating from the Academy of Art, I would print out the application year after year. I would begin answering the questions, and when I got to the last few questions I would think, “hmm, I don’t think I’m ready for this.” Over time I realized that stopping there was not because I didn’t have an answer. There was just a ton of fear preventing me from writing it all out! Once I overcame that fear, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made to propel my jewelry career. I highly encourage all jewelers wanting to start a business to begin applying for this grant. Even if you never finish it; even if you finish it and never submit it. The process of formulating solid answers to the application’s pertinent questions should be your goal.

I made my first floral gem piece while attending the Academy. It was actually a homework assignment. I suddenly found that I enjoyed the endless possibilities of what could be done with acrylic. It was a fun way to create my own gem when I couldn’t afford actual stones. Time passed and I did not revisit this style until later on. When applying for the Halstead grant, it made me step back from all of my experimental work and pick the style that I felt was the strongest and most cohesive. Being more of a creative than business-oriented mindset, this grant helped me really think of the image and a cohesive style that I wanted as a business. I’m sure a lot of creatives can relate to not wanting to think about the flow of the work as a whole and just be in the moment, creating. While in school, this is the best time to formulate your work as a style line, one that is unique to only the artist. Explore different styles and materials. Once you find that style, stick with it, constantly evolve it. When it comes time to apply for the grant, you will already know the body of work you want to show.

I felt that it was super helpful, during my senior year, to find other jewelers in my area and reach out to them. I immersed myself in the community. I emailed a dozen jewelers and got a few responses. From those responses, I was guided to some great opportunities. I got an apprenticeship before graduating and then found another opportunity as a production assistant. While working for these businesses, I got to see what it was like to own your own jewelry business. This helped me realize how I would want to run my business, and reassured me of my career choice. When writing the grant, I touched back on the knowledge I gained from those businesses. I was able to be realistic when writing a three-year plan along with coming up with business strategies and financial outcomes. Other resources that helped me with my plan were podcasts such as Thrive By Design and Being Boss.

My last bit of advice would be to find a mentor that believes in you and your work. Ask this mentor to hold you accountable for deadlines you set for yourself. This person can be someone you already know, but keep yourself open to new people who come your way. Ask questions, ask advice, and keep at it. Call on this friend, when you need reassurance on days that you don’t feel so confident. This support was so crucial to me in this process. There were days I just thought I’m not ready for this and my work isn’t where I want it to be. Having someone reassure me and validate my work gave me the confidence and determination to follow through. Lastly, just have fun with it! You’re setting aside time to dream and envision yourself as a successful business that you create, and only good things can come out of that!

Colleen Schwarz_Trophy

Schwarz with her 2019 Halstead Grant Top 10 Finalist trophy. Photo courtesy of Colleen Schwarz.

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A special thank you to Colleen for sharing her thoughts with us! To see more of her stunning, sustainable handmade jewelry and to support her business, visit: https://www.colleenelizabethdesigns.com/.