EC Design, Minneapolis, MN
URL: ecdesignstudios.com; OWNER: Emily C. Johnson; FOUNDED: 2008; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2014; AREA: 900 square feet; BUILDOUT COST: $10,000; EMPLOYEES: 1 part-time; ONLINE PRESENCE: 1,210 Facebook likes; 1,027 Instagram followers
EMILY C. JOHNSON WAS a university art-school graduate constructing window displays for an Anthropologie store when she was hit with a quarter-life crisis. Twenty-five years old, creative, restless and willing to take a leap without a net, she asked herself: what would I do if I didn’t have to work?
Jewelry design had always been her passion. In the fifth grade, she would impress her BFFs with her crafty friendship bracelets. As she got older, she moved into wire-work and bead-weaving. After high school, Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in sculpture from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
Realizing that selling jewelry required a different skill set than making jewelry, Johnson did her homework. Quitting her job at Anthropologie, she went back to school for metalsmithing and then took a position with a high-end custom jeweler in Minneapolis where she could learn the industry. “Everything was with the intent to start my own business,” she said.
EC Design opened in 2008 primarily as a wholesale operation, with Johnson selling her contemporary raw hammered metalwork and gemstone designs to stores and galleries. She moved into a shared studio on the top floor of the Northrup King Building, a red brick warehouse built in 1917 for a seed company and now filled with workspaces for more than 200 artists. Across the Mississippi River from downtown Minneapolis, the building is part of a vibrant arts district, a neighborhood of chic galleries, bars and restaurants housed in former factories.
Johnson lives across the railroad tracks from the building. “I usually walk to work, unless I am carrying lots of precious materials with me,” she says.
Initially, EC Design was by appointment only and relied on referrals for custom pieces from local retailers and from clients who discovered Johnson’s work during monthly art openings. In 2014, she expanded into a renovated storefront on the second floor of the building, and in 2016 began having regular hours for walk-in customers on Thursdays from noon to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m., as well as by appointment.
With just one part-time employee who helps on the bench, Johnson said the limited retail hours make it easier to manage her schedule. “Before I had regular hours, I was at the studio Monday through Saturday, making jewelry and doing custom ring consultations and then going home to do the accounting, advertising, graphic design, website maintenance, emails and, of course, customer service,” she says.
To help with the workload, Johnson hired a photographer and web designer on a contract basis. “It ends up being 50/50 for me, making jewelry versus running the shop,” she says.
Wholesale remains an important part of the business, so her assistant typically works on pieces for those accounts while Johnson does the custom work and helps customers.
Outfitted with custom cherry wood and glass cases and filled with natural light from large south-facing windows, the shop is set up as one-third retail space and two-thirds workshop/office. An open design lets customers watch as Johnson hand-fabricates rings, bracelets, earrings and necklaces. The cases act as the entry way between the gallery and workshop and allow customers to see that the designers truly do hand-make all of their jewelry right there. “We don’t hide our cluttered benches or our scraps of inspiration,” she says. “Customers can ask for a tour and get a sneak peek at in-progress work.”
That sneak peek often helps her clients find inspiration. Custom bridal design is about 75 percent of Johnson’s business. “I fill a little niche market because people come to me who say they’re not jewelry people. I convert them into jewelry people,” she says.
Johnson’s specialty is mixed-metal bands with geometric accents and modern engagement rings with rose-cut and brilliant-cut diamonds and sapphires. Her primary metals are 14K red, green and yellow gold, and 18K yellow gold and palladium. She also makes a lower-priced line with sterling silver with 14K red or yellow gold accents.
“My clients are not fussy or flashy; they just want something cool,” Johnson says.
Gay and lesbian couples looking for wedding rings are a growing part of her clientele. “I hear a lot from them about how uncomfortable they felt in a regular jewelry store,” Johnson says. “Lots of times, they’re looking for something more design forward, still beautiful and personal.” Johnson recently took out an ad in an LGBT magazine called Lavender.
In general, she doesn’t advertise much. Most of her clients find her, she says, through a Google search for custom wedding rings and word-of-mouth referrals. “I don’t do anything with Google AdWords,” she says. “I try to be very up to date on my website, and my website is very search-engine optimized. A lot of customers also come from word of mouth from other galleries.”
While she likes Instagram, Johnson finds that her Facebook page, which has 1,210 likes, drives more business. “When I deliver a couple’s custom rings, unless it’s a surprise, I like to post it on Facebook with the hopes that they’ll share it with their friends. I don’t use the customers’ full names. I’ll say, ‘Adam and Lisa’s rings.’ I send them an email inviting them to share it.”
Many of her clients are couples, but most of Johnson’s work is not gender specific, and she encourages clients to try on what appeals to them. “They say, ‘Are these the men’s rings?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know? Do you want to wear it? Do you love it?’”
PHOTO GALLERY (7 IMAGES)
Five Cool Things About EC Design
1. Show-stopping artwork. The shop’s walls are covered in original artwork by local artists. “People are always trying to buy it off me,” she said. “I say ‘no’ and send them away with the artist’s name.”
2. Passion for plants. EC Design has large south-facing windows, which have prompted Johnson’s “succulent obsession.” She built shelves on the window frames to hold the plants in locally handmade ceramic pots.
3. Assistants learn on the job. None of Johnson’s assistants have been jewelers. “They had a taste of it in a class and loved it like I did, but they came to me fresh and eager to learn,” she said. “I trained them all on soldering, sawing, forming, annealing, finishing, gem setting, sales. It’s a lot of work, but totally worth it for a wonderful, loyal assistant.”
4. Craft mecca. The shop is located in the Northrup King Building, a former warehouse-turned-artist-studios. On the first Thursday of every month, the building holds an open studio event. “For our big, building-wide events, I always have a guest artist or two in the store as an added treat, usually a local ceramicist,” Johnson said.
5. Bench with provenance. Johnson’s first jeweler’s bench was given to her by nationally known jewelry artist George Sawyer. “It was originally given to his daughter and then me, and I promised to pass it on to another up-and-coming jeweler when the time came for me to upgrade,” she says. “My apprentice now sits at that bench.”
Thomas Mann: The beginnings of a beautiful thing. Needs to spread her wings as a designer and business owner.
Bernadette Mack: The space is so sweet, so personal and so artsy/industrial. I love the authenticity and craftsmanship that EC Design offers; the style of the store is perfectly aligned with the owner’s vibe.
Monique Breaux: Very hip! Cool, trendy vibe!
Josette Patterson: Beautiful space, great handmade feel. Eclectic tools and displays.