Metalsmithing and jewelry making has a rich history. Kelly Conner, a Kansas City artist, has been creating custom one-of-a-kind pieces at MeritMade. An independent artist, Kelly started MeritMade around 2014, after working in the corporate sector for almost 10 years. With a dream and mission, Kelly set out to be a maker full-time. We speak to the talented creator on how she made the move.
Before working in the corporate sector, Kelly received her BFA for metalwork at the University of Kansas. Ranked highly for their program, Kelly graduated and received her apprenticeship at Kizer Cummings Jewelry. She learned how to work with more stones and gold pieces, but the need of a steady paycheck called and she put her tools in storage for 10 years.
It wasn’t until someone asked her if she could teach her about metalsmithing, that Kelly took her tools out of storage. Kelly started teaching her lessons while familiarizing herself with the craft. As she was rediscovering her trade, Kelly decided to build her brand. With the mission of ‘quality over quantity’ and using traditional metalsmithing techniques, she built her website, custom work and took $20k she saved up and set forth.
She told herself though that, “if you can make it till the end of the year, you can keep being a metalsmith. If you don’t, you have to go back to work.” She made it through the holidays, and then January hit and realization sunk in. The buyers had quit buying and she had to come up with something. “What can I sell to people they don’t really want to buy, but they want to buy?” That’s when her workshop idea came in.
Kelly discovered that there was an audience who wanted to learn how to make jewelry and create one piece. At MeritMade’s workshop, class sizes are small (6 people) where it’s best suited that they receive individual attention. The workshop helped keep her running and she met her goal. Her business paid for her expenses but through the years she keeps building and has gone from making 12k the first year to 75k this past year. As her company grew, so did bigger plans. Kelly hired an assistant who does her baseline. The next market she’s getting ready to tap is the Esty shop.
Kelly has a few pieces of advice for makers trying to go out on their own. “As a small business, you have to find a way to talk about yourself and your business. They have to buy into your business and story. In my case, if they love your story, they’ll buy your earrings.”
If you’re a maker, and want to make money, there is a rewarding feeling that comes with that, but be smart. Kelly has this advice for makers, “if you’re not good at something, hire someone to do it. Especially if you want to do it full-time. Running and owning a business, is much more than making.” Know what you’re good at and what you’re not. For example, are you really good at posting on Instagram or selling at an event? If not, that’s fine, but who can you hire to help you do that or find a way to be better at what skill you are lacking.
Another option for makers, is maybe not running your own business, but reaching out to designers if all you want to do is make. “I like talking to people but my assistant would rather sit, headphones on, hands making.” Kelly told me, “she’s not out there selling herself, doing the taxes, etc., but she’s still making good money creating. Figure out where your interests lay beyond the concept of making and what you might be good at in that outer sphere.”
MeritMade is in a shared space with other designers, artists and makers, which has helped her immensely. Networking with other makers at makerspaces is obligated and you get a lot of information for free. It breaks down comfort walls and will make a big difference. Artists have helped her business, such as photographers and others in the metal smithing community. “I can’t do everything, so I will ask questions and ask if they can make something for me.” And as many makers are more introverted, makerspaces help with opening up and having you speak about your business.
What was Kelly’s mission as she started MeritMade? She asked herself, what do I want to see in the world of jewelry? “A lot of the fine art jewelry out there is almost overly embellished in my opinion. I wanted to make stuff that I wanted to wear, which was simple, clean quality.” The types of custom jewelry you’ll receive from MeritMade is an heirloom you’ll pass to your children. When Kelly conceptualized the company, she didn’t want her name to be tied to her brand and came up with the name, quaility, wearable, and Merit came to her. Branding came from her aesthic, across the board.
If you’re interested in commissioning a custom piece visit her portfolio here and take a look at a selection of her work. Her jewelry is built on sustainability and gets as close to the source as possible. From the recyclable packaging to the personal connection she has with her stones, Kelly conceptualized her company step by step. Visit her site MeritMade and not only will you be supporting a local maker, but a global community.