While Laura had always loved creating with her hands, and had worked in the arts for many years, it wasn’t until midlife that she rekindled her teenage passion for making jewelry and crafted a profitable business out of it.
Tell us a little about your background…
I currently live just north of Chicago in Evanston, IL with my husband Andrew and twins Georgia and Tanner (16), who are both juniors in high school. We also have two dogs and two cats (evidently we like things in pairs!). Andrew and I met at the University of Pennsylvania, where we were both on the rowing team. We graduated together in 1990, were married in 1991, and had our kids in 1999. The 90s were busy years! We are looking forward to celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary in 2016.
I grew up in Santa Barbara, California, the only child of an artist and a doctor. Both making art and looking at it were big parts of my childhood, as I was always doing art projects and going to gallery openings and museum exhibitions with my mom. My Grandma Dot was my style icon and favorite partner-in-crime. Wickedly funny, she had the most amazing collection of jewelry, fabulous shoes, and gorgeous clothing from the 1940s and 1950s. I loved to look through her closets and I will always treasure the pieces she gave me (not to mention the satin stilettos I trashed in high school…!). She loved fashion and even customized her own hats, and I often think that she passed down her passion to me in some way. If she was born into our generation, I know she’d be doing something amazing in the indie fashion world!
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been enchanted by and loved creating tiny things by hand, whether miniature furniture for my dollhouse, elaborate clothes for my paper dolls, or handmade beads. I started designing and making my own jewelry as a teenager, initially because I had to customize my own earrings with clip-on backs before I could get my ears pierced. That led to making my own beaded earrings and, after taking a metalsmithing class in high school, I even had some early success selling funky enameled earrings and safety-pin bracelets in local stores.
While I loved many things about growing up in Southern California, I was determined to go to college on the East Coast. I majored in Art History at Penn with the aspiration of either working in the museum world or becoming a professor. After graduation, I landed an internship at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Andrew and I got married shortly thereafter and moved to Germany, where he was stationed with the Army. Even though being so far from home and living on a military base were both huge culture shocks, it was a great experience to have the opportunity to live in and travel around Europe for several years.
After we returned to the States, I went back to graduate school and received an M.A. in Art History at the University of Southern California. Andrew also started his new career in advertising and marketing in Los Angeles. Our next move was to Cincinnati, where I worked at the Cincinnati Art Museum, developing educational programs for children and families. I took a hiatus from working outside the home after our twins were born, and then Andrew’s job took us back to California, where we lived in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area. In 2002, we returned to the Midwest and settled in Evanston. Almost fourteen years later, we love Evanston and Chicago more than ever, especially Lake Michigan, the restaurants, museums, music and theater, but most of all the friendships we have made here.
Tell us about what you are doing and what you love about it.
I founded my business, Laura Tanner Jewelry (LTJ) in 2006. LTJ is a small, independent jewelry company dedicated to creating understated artisan jewelry that is both modern and timeless. My mission is not only to design and produce unique handmade jewelry with the utmost attention to detail and quality, but also to keep my production based in the United States, to prioritize sustainability, and to give back to my community. Handcrafted with gemstone beads and precious metal chains, my designs are influenced by my years of studying art history and by my ongoing fascination with global cultures, art, and design. Blending California’s coastal chic with the urban sophistication of Chicago, I always have my customer in mind when I am working on new pieces. I want her to be able to build a versatile LTJ collection that can be added to and treasured for years to come, and know that my jewelry designs will look as beautiful together as they do on her.
I also love that my studio is located only a few doors down from my home, which is even better than when it was inside my home! It works out really well, since I am always running back and forth from the studio to walk my dogs or be around for my kids (even if they don’t like it!) after school. It’s also very important to me to keep production in house so I can both oversee all aspects of the design and fabrication process, and I value providing employment to the artisans and designers who work for me. I also love supporting other local woman-owned businesses as much as I can for my photography, design, printing, and accounting needs.
I’m also fortunate to be able to give back to my community through my business, and often donate jewelry to a diverse range of local and national nonprofits whose efforts primarily benefit women and children, education, social services, medical research, and animal welfare. I am grateful that my jewelry gives me an avenue to give back to these important endeavors.
My jewelry is carried in over forty stores nationally, and I love working with my retail partners to customize LTJ collections that are carefully selected just for their stores and customers. You can also shop online on the LTJ website. During the holiday season, you’ll find me at gift shows in the Chicago area, including the fabulous One of A Kind Show in Chicago and the Cornucopia Gift Fair at the Woman’s Club of Evanston. When you follow me on social media or subscribe to my newsletter, you can also keep up on local events, special sales, and check to see if there is a retail location near you.
Why did you choose this next act?
After a long hiatus, I started making jewelry again when my kids were young, and I realized that it was what I really loved doing. I chose this next act because not only do I love making jewelry, but I also find it very fulfilling to be able to create a product that makes other people feel good when they wear it or give it to someone else.
Since I started selling my jewelry wholesale, I have also really enjoyed learning about that side of the business and working with store owners and buyers to carefully select collections just for their store and customers. I have also really enjoyed the process of growing Laura Tanner Jewelry from its origins to where it is today, and I value everything I have learned along the way.
What other options did you consider?
About the same time as I was starting to experiment with designing and making jewelry again, I had also developed an early childhood art curriculum called Monday Masterpieces with my son’s amazing kindergarten teacher, Randy Heite, and another parent, writer Patti-Sherry-Crews. We considered pursuing publication, but ultimately decided we had enough commitments between our kids, day jobs and other interests (although Randy is still using the curriculum a decade later).
At that time, I also considered going back into museum education and looked into a few openings in Chicago. Although a return to a museum career would have been rewarding, I realized, as the jewelry business started to take off, I realized that I found making things with my own hands even more fulfilling than writing about them. I also value the independence and flexibility of being my own boss. It’s very important to me to be able to adapt my work schedule to my family’s calendar as much as possible, even if it means saying no to some great opportunities right now.
How did you get your business started?
The evolution of my business from a hobby to a full-time career was more of a gradual process than a sudden plunge. I realized that LTJ had potential as a business in 2005, when I teamed up with several friends of mine who also made handmade accessories and home decor, to host a holiday trunk show. I was blown away by the response from customers, and the success of that first show was what really inspired me to launch Laura Tanner Jewelry in 2006. I found that I loved the immediate connection to my customers, and it was so exciting to have such a positive response to my designs. It was so gratifying to have people walk away from that first show having chosen a piece of my jewelry for themselves or as a special gift.
In the early years of LTJ, I was working out of my attic and had a good friend, Natalie, who also made jewelry and helped me out part time for several years. I was lucky to start up my business in the early days of today’s huge do-it-yourself and craft movement, so the timing was good as the market was expanding via trunk shows and craft fairs. The popularity of handmade items was exploding, as were the quantity and quality of resources to do your own promotion through social media and email marketing. I really learned about starting and running a business while working on it, and in many ways, I wish I’d had more preparation. The first few years, I only worked on it more seasonally and part-time, until I realized that I could not keep up with customer demand and expectations and meet my own goals for the growth of the business, if I kept up that slower pace.
There has also been an amazing amount of growth and change for small, independent designers since I started my business. For example, there has been a huge increase in the number of craft shows both in the Chicago area and nationwide, as well as online marketplaces for handmade goods (like Etsy, Artfire, etc.). The explosion of social media, email marketing, mobile technology, web-based printers, and other services for small businesses has also made it much easier to promote your business yourself. Plus, there are many new, out-of-the-box technologies and resources that are incredibly user-friendly and affordable. That said, I think all those resources can make it seem deceptively easy to make something and turn around and sell it to the public. It is important to educate yourself and get help in sorting them all out (see below for some of my favorites), since there are so many options out there and it can be overwhelming to know where to invest both your time and money.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family and friends have been amazingly supportive of my business over the years. My dad passed away two years ago, and it always meant a great deal to me that he and my mom were my biggest cheerleaders. He always insisted on buying jewelry from me to give to my mom (even though I would’ve given it to him for free), and my mom is a great spokesperson and model, too.
Both my parents and my husband have been very generous to support me investing our family funds in helping me start and grow the business as well. And I think my daughter was particularly supportive of me expanding and moving my business out of our attic, so she could turn it into her own teenage lair!
Last, I have been really fortunate to have friends who have been big supporters of my jewelry since the early days. And, at this point, I’m pretty sure they aren’t wearing my designs just to be nice! One of my favorite things about being a designer is seeing friends, family (and strangers) wearing my jewelry when I am out and about in my community.
What challenges did you encounter?
In October 2008, there was a huge drop-off in business from one month to the next after the stock market crashed. Prior to that, my customers would usually buy several items, such as a gift and also something for themselves. During the recession, customers were understandably spending less and were very careful about their purchases. I felt honored and grateful when they consciously chose to purchase jewelry from me instead of buying a cheaper, mass-produced piece from overseas. As the economy has improved, my sales have been on a consistent upswing since 2012. I had my best year to date in 2014, and this year is on track to surpass the last by a significant margin!
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
About five years ago, there was a period when I realized I either had to commit to doing this full time and hire more help, or accept that it was a hobby and return to my previous career path. My husband was also traveling a lot internationally for business at that time, so I often had to put LTJ on the back burner to take care of family obligations. In 2010, Andrew left the large company he had been working for since we moved to Chicago and started his own business, Abundant Venture Partners. Fortunately, his company is thriving and does not require a major amount of travel. We both love that we can plan our calendars together around each other’s work commitments and the kids’ school schedules.
In 2011, I hired my first assistant, Sarah, after years of having part-time and seasonal help. I was fortunate to find an amazing young woman who helped me take my business to the next level. Having someone else coming to work with me on a regular basis has also really helped me stick to a consistent schedule, organize my processes, and create a better separation between work, personal, and family time.
In 2012, we had outgrown my attic and moved into the current studio space, which also helped tremendously to give me more balance and separation between home and work. I now have two fabulous full-time assistants, Kari and Lisa, working for me in both administrative capacities and jewelry production, and I could not run LTJ without their talents, dedication and hard work.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I have learned that I have quite a bit to learn about running a small business! I have also realized that I really enjoy educating myself, both about the business end as well as about the constantly evolving processes of jewelry making and design.
I have also learned that as I get older I need to prioritize my own health and well-being (with the help of my good friend, Ann Baker of Essence Health) and set limits on how much I work and push myself. I find that focusing on my own goals and successes, and not constantly comparing myself to others, brings me much more joy and satisfaction.
I have also benefited from joining a wonderful group of jewelry designers called Flourish & Thrive, which promotes community over competition. Having those connections and the support of other women around the country who are running similar businesses has been invaluable. I am very grateful to be part of the group and have learned so much not only about running a jewelry business, but also about myself because of it. Last, I am still in the process of letting go of my tendency towards perfectionism, and, to “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good” (via Voltaire).
What advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
I think midlife is a great time to reflect on what you really have to do, what you love doing, and what you really want to be doing with the next phase of your life. If it’s not realistic for you to quit your current job and start a jewelry (or artisanal cheese, handmade scarf, baby clothes, etc…) company, I think there are many different ways to explore things that captivate and delight you and see where they lead.
Having an all-or-nothing or perfectionist approach can really hold people back, and the great thing about midlife is that in many ways we stop caring so much what people think of us and start embracing our real passions.
Last, I think that if you are seeking to reinvent yourself in midlife, part of that is being kind to yourself and making your own self-care a priority. So many of us have spent years putting others first, and midlife is a great time to step back and focus on our own goals, dreams, passions, self-care and relationships. At this point in life, it is very liberating to decide to be who you want to be, not who you (or others) think you should be, and to surround yourself with people who uplift and support you.
I find the best resource for women who are thinking of shifting careers in midlife, or reinventing themselves, is to talk to other women who have done so. I’ve really enjoyed reading the stories about other women pursuing new directions and achieving their dreams here on this blog.
I also love anything by Brené Brown, who writes so beautifully about taking risks and being vulnerable, both of which are critical aspects of putting ourselves out there on a new path in midlife or at any point. I recently read Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead and found it very inspiring and affirming, and I also love her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.
I am really looking forward to reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Last, Gay Hendrick’s The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level is an inspiring approach to overcoming roadblocks that have held you back not only in business but also in personal relationships.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
First of all, I would make sure that not only do you really love making jewelry (or any other handmade product), but that you have a solid understanding of what it takes to transform a hobby into a business. I would also recommend writing a business plan going into it, no matter how small; your plan can be pretty basic and is a constantly evolving document.
And recognize that although when you start out you may want do everything yourself, you can’t if you want to succeed and not drive yourself into the ground. Decide what you can afford to outsource or delegate, and then focus on the things you do well and that energize you. The first few years, I tried to do my own bookkeeping and tax prep (not a wise idea for an art history major!), but I soon realized that even with a small business like mine, there was enough going on to warrant outside assistance. It was also a huge time and energy drain which took me away from what I loved to do — design and make jewelry, market my products, and work with my wholesale and retail customers. And once again — don’t get bogged down by perfection!
What resources do you recommend to these women?
The Boss of You: Everything A Woman Needs to Know to Start, Run, and Maintain Her Own Business, Emira Mears and Lauren Bacon.
Profiting by Design: A Jewelry Maker’s Guide to Business Success, Marlene Richey
Marketing and Selling Your Handmade Jewelry, Viki Lareau
Jewelry Business: Flourish & Thrive Academy
Handmade Design Business: Designing an MBA
Online Small Business Resources:
PR and Marketing:
Get Media Happy
Online Store Hosting and Marketplaces:
Inventory and Invoicing:
Jewelry Designer Manager
Sue McTague/Bridge The Gaap
Photography (Chicago area):
Elemental Photography (product photography)
Katie Kelly at Sunrise Hitek
What’s next for you?
I currently really love what I am doing, so the next few years will be spent on continuing to run and improve my business without any major changes. In two years, my twins will be off to college, and I will be turning 50 shortly thereafter. I imagine that will be an interesting time of adjustment, growth, and exploring where the next act of my life will take me. I am looking forward to having more flexibility to bring Laura Tanner Jewelry to wholesale trade shows on the East and West coasts, and to expanding my retail locations to those areas of the country.
Personally, I am looking forward to being able to travel more with my husband, spend more time at our lake house in Michigan, on the ski slopes out West, and to visiting friends and family more often, including my kids at college!
Contact Laura Tanner Swinand at email@example.com or 847-563-8858
Founder & Designer, Laura Tanner Jewelry
Website (sign up for my email list and get 15% off your first website order!)