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Consider the owl. Not the actual bird, or the caricature that wears glasses and a graduation cap. Consider the owl on that necklace you bought at Urban Outfitters in 2007, the one that signified you as the sort of girl who, well, wore necklaces with owls on them. You can thank Erica Weiner for that third kind of owl. The Brooklyn-based jewelry designer, now the owner of two New York City boutiques, a spacious studio, and a worldwide cult following, was “putting a bird on it” long before “putting a bird on it” became a Portlandia punchline.
In 2015 she's celebrating the brand's ten-year anniversary, a major milestone for a business without outside investors and whose founder was, at one point, living off of unemployment benefits. But there's another reason why Erica Weiner Jewelry's story is special: its success is intricately tied to Brooklyn's transformation from merely a borough of New York City into a commodifiable brand of its own. And while its ethos — handcrafted, socially conscious goods with an aura of twee — has by now been commercialized ad infinitum, the only people who were in the business of selling the Brooklyn brand in the early 2000s were actual Brooklynites.
"Now we're all old, and when we get together we're like, ‘Remember when we were the only ones putting owls on necklaces?'" Erica jokes, referring to a small class of designers who are still in the game today — the women behind Brooklyn businesses like Mary Meyer, In God We Trust, and Catbird.
As her aesthetic has matured into the realm of engagement rings, vintage-inspired diamond jewelry, and European antiques, Brooklyn's economy has changed along with it. And it's since become increasingly more difficult to find financial success as a jewelry designer. The question remains: Have today's young local entrepreneurs hoping to build an independent business from nothing but talent and sheer drive missed their chance?
"Now you're going to ask me questions about how to do it now, right?"
"It was so long ago," she sighs. "I just don't know."
To hear Erica describe it, Bushwick in 2005 sounds a lot like what people who've never been to Bushwick think it looks like now. "All my friends and I lived in this giant loft, and we had these massive parties every weekend," she recalls. "I was on unemployment and had no money, just like everyone else. I didn't have my parents supporting me, and it was really important for me not to take money from them. I had a full-time day job, but worked more than full-time and was paid nothing, and still went out and partied all the time at night."
Today, Erica looks the part of a born-and-bred Brooklynite. When I meet her, she's wearing minimal makeup and has that unfussy brown hair you see on particularly cool thirtysomethings, the kind of women who've long since found "their look" and have wisely stuck with it. Her dress, prim and 40's-esque, is rather noticeably ripping at the shoulder, but is so cute that I ask where she found it in practically the same breath as "hello" (it's vintage, of course).
We're sitting in her Greenpoint studio, which is lovely enough to make one consider quitting a job in, say, fashion journalism to become a jewelry designer. Spacious and sunny, it's filled with oddities like beetle charm-filled Mason jars and mood boards with vintage photographs of kittens in Halloween costumes. There's even the New York rarity of a charming courtyard she shares with a neighbor. The beloved thrift store Beacon's Closet and the trendy Five Leaves café are each just a block away.
She's telling me about the origins of the brand, a story she's repeated many times over the years and can at this point deliver with a robotic briskness. It goes something like this: Born in Park Slope, Erica was raised in the New Jersey suburbs, knowing she'd eventually end up back in the city to pursue a career in either fashion or theatrical costuming. After trying both, she'd managed to cobble together enough technical skills and a knack for collecting antiques to start making her own jewelry, and eventually began to craft charm bracelets and necklaces to sell at local flea markets. Thus in 2005, Erica Weiner Jewelry was born.
As it happened, 2005 ended up being a particularly lucrative time to launch an indie Brooklyn brand: Artists & Fleas had debuted in 2003, the Renegade Craft Fair had just expanded into the borough that year, and the Brooklyn Flea was only a few short years away. "The age of crafting was just starting," she says. "I made all these necklaces, took them to Artists & Fleas every weekend, and tried to figure it out. It was a crazy, crazy amount of work." But by that point, the wider world was starting to pay attention to what was happening in the DIY circuit. "They were starting to get the message that small, handmade Brooklyn stuff was interesting," she says. "So they found a few of us who were doing that and were like, ‘We want to hitch a wagon to you. We want you in every store to show how cool and hip we are.'"
"[Big brands] were starting to get the message that small, handmade Brooklyn stuff was interesting."
Erica was 26 and still living on her sister's couch when it finally happened: Anthropologie, the grown-up sister brand to Urban Outfitters, had placed an order for one of her necklaces worth a quarter-million dollars. "Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. This is the dream," she recalls thinking when the order came in, though fulfilling it would end up involving Erica borrowing $15,000 from her dad, maxing out two credit cards, and enlisting her friends — regardless of whether they knew what they were doing — to help actually make the necklaces. The pieces happened to be an early iteration of the twee, animal-heavy aesthetic that Anthropologie and its ilk would favor for years afterwards: eighteen inch-long brass necklaces, with two vintage charms made of motifs like owls, birds, and anchors, retailing for under $40. "They wanted ones that were sort of idiosyncratic and whacky," she said. "2006 was, like, the year of the whale."
It's still the largest order the company has ever had to date. The money allowed her to hire her first business partner, Lindsay Salmon — one of the friends who helped make the necklaces — and to move operations out of her kitchen and into a Lower East Side studio. While never ordering in quite so large amounts, a new crop of stores around the world sought out the same cutesy vibe, which kept the wholesale business busy with up to seven orders a day. A retail store in New York City was the logical next step, though neither Erica nor Lindsay had any experience running more than a flea market booth.
It was Shana Tabor, the funny and equally candid founder of Greenpoint-based clothing and jewelry label In God We Trust ("It was one of like, three cool stores in Brooklyn back then," Erica laughs), who acted as a cheerleader and mentor, encouraging them to settle on Elizabeth Street in Nolita in 2010. But it became immediately clear that a store was a wholly different beast than a booth: Real estate tax, insurance (extremely expensive for jewelry stores), and burglaries (of the three times it happened, luckily no one was hurt), are all part of the game.
Despite the difficulties of retail, Erica says 2010 was one of her business's best as demand for her quirky charm jewelry continued to soar. But in the years that followed, Erica's target customers — much like Erica herself — were starting to grow out of the "cheap and cheerful" jewelry she'd built her name on. (I ask her if she feels about them the way a musician feels about that one hit single they always have to play in concert. "Exactly," she replies.) So like any other artist, Erica evolved. The 1909 Collection, her higher-quality line of vintage-inspired jewelry, launched in 2012, ranging from around $100 for small stud earrings to up to more than $3,000 for art deco-inspired diamond rings.
The financial success of the business also paved the way for a second store in 2013, this time in Brooklyn — but not in the increasingly fashion-saturated Williamsburg, where neighborhood rents weren't worth the clientele and high competition. Opening a store in Boerum Hill posed its own risks, however. "It wasn't as successful in the first year as we expected," she says. " We thought we were always going to grow by 50% a year, because that's what we'd done. And then over the past two years, it's leveled off. It shook me up."
This is where the toll that comes with running a small business, where you're not only responsible for your own livelihood but those of others, becomes clear. "Money got tight for a while," she admits, and I can hear her getting emotional. "I had to fire some people, and it ruined me. I couldn't sleep. I felt like a mom.
"And then we were bored," she sighs. "Really, really bored. My business partner and I were crabby at each other, and I found that a lot of what I was doing was finding ways to avoid coming into work." That was only last year.
If this all sounds hopeless, you haven't been following the story closely enough. Not Erica's, but Brooklyn's. "It's Time To Stop Thinking About Brooklyn and Queens As Cheap," one recent headline reads, though it could have been written at any point in the last five years. As of this month, just like the month before that, and the month before that, rents are more expensive than they've ever been, and a far cry from what they were in 2005 (the average Williamsburg home cost $491,000 then; that figure has nearly doubled as of last year).
In short, it's a difficult time to be a small business owner in Brooklyn. Not only are rents rising at record rates, but the barrier of entry into artistic professions — attending a good college, accepting unpaid work and supporting yourself in an expensive city until someone hires you — increasingly favors the privileged. "Back then, you could live in Brooklyn pretty cheaply," Erica says of her time in Bushwick. "To intern, you didn't have to be the richest of the rich kids. You could still start from nothing." She pauses before admitting, "I don't think you can start from nothing now."
Shana, from In God We Trust, agrees: "The opportunity I had to start my own store would never fly now."And for an ethically-minded small business owner, one who isn't interested in moving production to cheaper facilities on the West Coast or in Asia and prioritizes her employees' livelihoods, the pressures are even greater. "My girls need health insurance," Erica says. "Seven years ago, you could live on $25,000 a year. It's inhumane to ask them to do that now."
Seven years ago, trendy and affordable jewelry was also a far less crowded market. Now that fast-fashion giants like J. Crew, Madewell, and H&M are producing tons of it quickly and cheaply in Asia, no doubt with an entire team of trend forecasters to ensure they'll sell, independent brands can't compete with the prices. Even in Brooklyn alone, this arena is saturated to an unprecedented extent. Perhaps that's in large part due to the success of borough pioneers like Erica herself, who proved there was a demand for items that were special simply because they came from a designer in Brooklyn.
But what happens when innumerable jewelers, all in the same city and all making pieces for the same discerning upper-middle class hipster, are all trying to make a living? "I mean, we're awesome and make incredible things in thoughtful ways, but I'm not sure we would have had the same impact now as we did in 2005," Shana says of her label. "The popularity of being a jeweler right now has blindsided us all." That market saturation, coupled with the availability of cheap, trendy jewelry that maybe looks like it's from an indie jeweler, has contributed to a kind of "Who cares?" sentiment among consumers, Erica believes. "A couple of years ago, I thought Etsy was going to totally screw us over," she says. "Nobody cares if something's ‘handmade in Brooklyn.' I care, but you can't just be like, ‘But look at this whale necklace — we started it!'"
Which brings us back to the question: Can Brooklyn's indie businesses still boom? Though it may not always be a matter of skill or business sense, Erica's got plenty of wisdom to impart on her fellow jewelers after ten years. The most important first step? Finding a partner. "Going at this alone will break you," she says. Forging a unique identity among the crowded market is also essential, as is having a strong presence online. "I think online is a place where people can start a business from nothing," she says. "You can't just set up shop and put up an ‘Open for Business' sign."
"Seven years ago, you could live on $25,000 a year. It's inhumane to ask them to do that now."
There are, of course, plenty of emerging designers making genuinely fresh pieces and succeeding financially. Erica mentions Wing Yau, the designer behind Greenpoint-based WWAKE jewelry. "Her business is only a year and a half old, and I could see a real fire in her. I'm seeing her business growing really fast, and I remember when mine did."
As for Erica Weiner Jewelry, the secret to her success lies in her passion for art history. Today, she spends the bulk of her energy on the 1909 Collection and selling actual antique jewelry. Though working with diamonds is a far more complicated than brass charms (it involved Lindsay getting a gemology degree), the higher-quality products reflects Erica's new kind of customer. "Now, they're closer to their thirties, they have a little bit more money, they want to invest in pieces like I am. I don't know how to design for a different kind of person. I live in New York City, and my friends are pretty goddamn cool and have really strong tastes. That's where I'm getting ideas."
She also recently hired the brand's first outside consultant, and over the summer, relaunched her website. With the help of business professionals and web developers, it's now up to Erica and Lindsay to decide what they want from their business, and not the other way around. "We've been talking a lot about how to make the business work for our lives," she says. "We realized that unless we got some huge investment or took the business to China, which we don't want, that we're never going to get mega-rich. But what we do get to do is have the lives we want to have."
For Erica, that means traveling to Europe to meet with antique dealers, employing her staff on a livable salary, and running two beautiful stores. And as she's leading me out the door of the studio and into the little courtyard, it seems like a pretty great place to be.