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Commentary: The Business

Jewelry Designers Can and Should Guide the Custom Discussion

T Lee’s personal style isn’t stifled by client demands.

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OVER THE YEARS, I’ve done trade shows, trunk shows, craft fairs and more. In the beginning, any piece of grass or pavement would do to pop up my shop and schlep my jewelry. I was always looking for the same thing: someone who would pay me to make the jewelry I wanted to make and to make it the way I wanted to make it. I thrive on variety and novelty, so doing custom, one-of-a-kind jewelry was a perfect fit. Most of the wonderful designers I met during this time, though, did not share my love for the custom process.

I’ve had high profile jewelers say to me, “I could never do custom because I don’t want customers to tell me what to do.” But I feel that I do my collection exactly the way I want it when I do custom work. Does it matter to me whether I use rose gold or yellow gold or platinum? Not so much! Ninety nine percent of the time, they come to me because they like my design sense. Very few come in with an idea that has nothing to do with my aesthetic.

I cut my teeth on a lot of different designs, which was a good thing. It’s like shopping for a coat. You try on 15 different styles before you discover, “This is my style.” But you can’t make a career of making other people’s styles; eventually, your own voice as a designer develops and starts to mature. Now, if they want something that looks like T Lee, they come to me.

In nearly every custom appointment, I offer design choices within what I think works, and they make the decision about what their favorites are. Together we decide things like width, height, what color gemstones to use. But it will always end up looking like my work — because it is!

Occasionally, a client will suggest something that I consider kind of, well, “off.” Usually, if I give a reason or two why it’s not a good suggestion, they yield. Like a woman coming in to make a pendant with Grandma’s diamond (the little one), Mom’s diamond (the medium one) and her own diamond (the biggest), and she wants them stacked smallest on the top to largest on the bottom. I say, “That would work, but I guarantee that eventually you would see a snowman in this grouping. We are Northerners after all! How about we arrange them like this instead?” I wish I could tell you this has only happened once.

Be true to your own design calling, because you’ll gather a group of fans who like your work and want to make a few decisions. But as far as completely reinventing it, it doesn’t happen often! Being a custom specialist doesn’t mean you never get to do your own designs.

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T Lee’s title is ring leader at T Lee Custom Designer Jewelry in Minneapolis.

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