Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.
– Coco Chanel, French fashion designer
Carmela Rose grew up in a farming commune in the small town of Summertown, Tennessee, where its school emphasized the arts, including painting and pottery. When she was eight years old, she got hooked on Native American weaving and beading. One day, Carmela and her friend made earrings out of seashells that were part of her older sister’s crafting supplies. When someone suggested that the two girls sell the earrings, they pinned them to a board, went door to door, and sold nearly all of their creations. Thus were the beginnings of the designer and businesswoman behind Carmela Rose Designs.
Taking a leap of faith
Fast forward to 2005 when Carmela moved to the Bay Area after leaving her job as bead store manager in Sacramento and being hired in a jewelry department of a downtown San Francisco department store. When she was undergoing training, she realized that there was a conflict between her day job and her three-year-old, part-time jewelry business. During this time, Carmela had registered for the Los Angeles Gift Show, whose entrance fee was nonrefundable. “If there was a time to take that leap of faith, that was it,” she recalled. She had some savings set aside and already had clients who were selling her jewelry in their Bay Area shops. Ultimately, the demand for her jewelry fueled her decision to become a full-time jewelry designer, and the financial cushion helped with the transition.
Carmela built up her early business doing guerilla marketing, “hitting the pavement” to show her jewelry and distributing printouts and business cards when she had the money, as well as having her website built to draw business. Sometimes she would call stores ahead of time; other times, she would get up early in the morning, drive to a location with a good shopping district, and select stores with a good fit. Carmela looked for stores that had a good location and whose products were aligned with her jewelry’s aesthetics. She works with sterling silver and gold-filled metals, so she looked for stores that didn’t sell jewelry with plated metals or faux finishes, but rather focused on stores that specialized in natural fibers and simple, elegant, and classic styles. “Sometimes I would get really lucky and the buyer would be there and take the time to look and buy on the spot,” she said. While it doesn’t happen as often as it used to, at the time the economy was growing.
While the economy has picked up in the last year, Carmela still does guerilla marketing. “It’s not something I’ll ever stop doing,” she said. She also participates in approximately five trade shows annually, including the San Francisco gift show, which is smaller than the Los Angeles gift show, an apparel show, and the sample sale trade show that takes place in October in San Francisco.
Back in 2005, Carmela met Jen Komaromi of Jenny K in El Cerrito at the sample sale trade show. “At trade shows, you sometimes instantly click with a buyer,” she said, of their meeting. “They look at your stuff and instantly know they can sell it. I got the sense that I could trust her. We had this instant ability to communicate. I felt comfortable enough to push her to buy two pairs of earrings.” And that’s when Jenny K began selling Carmela Rose jewelry, and that’s when I began my Carmela Rose collection.
Relying on valuable marketing skills, overcoming challenges
Carmela gained valuable experience managing and marketing in her previous job at the bead store, and had already worked in many trade shows by then, traveling and meeting different buyers. “It gave me the skills and confidence to put my own larger creative goals into motion, because I’d been a part of that whole experience,” she said. “I was already skilled at marketing other people’s creativity and the ideas and personae of other designers more than my own.”
Marketing is the broadest challenge from day to day, and responding to customers’ needs is critical, according to Carmela. “You have to find new ways to do things and spend the time and energy to market,” she said. Figuring out how to measure one’s success is a skill that is also needed on a daily basis. “You have to assess whether something is working or not, and that’s often hard to do if it’s something that you’re passionate about; it’s hard for a lot of designers,” she noted.
Carmela weathered the economic recession, thanks to a few loyal clients. New shops and new interest in her jewelry opened up last year, at the same time she was contemplating starting a family. “It worked out really well – having a home business and having a baby,” she said. “That’s my new direction. Things are looking really positive again.” While business not as booming as it was in 2005 and 2006, Carmela feels that she is moving in the right direction. “The most pleasant surprise is how supportive people can be, and all the wonderful people I’ve gotten to know – whether collectors, colleagues, clients or friends over the year,” she said. “Knowing some amazing and inspiring people have helped me get through the tough times.”
The joys of designing jewelry
Carmela enjoys the freedom of being able to create something tangible out of a flow of ideas over any given time, and then releasing it to make room for the next creation. “And then to make a living out of it is unbelievable,” she said, with a quiet sense of awe. When pressed to name favorite pieces that she’s made over the years, Carmela is hesitant. She has cataloged everything she’s made, and while there are many pieces that she has enjoyed designing, her philosophy is to create something and set it free in order to make room for new pieces. “I’ve always felt that holding on too tightly to something would hold me back creatively,” she explained.
Having been in business, both part-time and full-time, for a decade now and coming out of the recession stronger and assured, Carmela knows a thing or two about designing jewelry and making a business out of it. The ability to form and maintain sound partnerships is the most important trait to staying in business, she said. Ultimately, at the end of the day, she advises aspiring designers to “be true to yourself but also make it your goal to make really good products that other people enjoy.”
Post Script: Rave review
As you can see, I’m one of those Carmela Rose collectors. One of the things I’ve appreciated through the years is watching Carmela’s style and designs evolve and change, from the freshwater pearls, glass beads, and labradorite pieces to the vintage lampwork beads pieces, to the vintage metals. From delicate to statement to delicate. Simple to elaborate to simple. I have a very soft spot for the earlier statement pieces, as well as the reclaimed vintage jewelry. If I’ve converted you with my collection, check out Carmela’s jewelry at Jenny K’s (6927 Stockton Avenue, El Cerrito, 510.528.5350), where she usually has trunk shows during the holidays and special events such as Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, which happens to be next week!