Meet the Maker - Sydney Lynch
In our inaugural interview for the launch of the Eclectic Artisans collective, choosing an artisan to talk to was indeed a difficult decision. In the end though it was an easy choice, with the American jeweler Sydney Lynch being selected. In March 2018, Sydney retired, leaving behind a career that spanned over four decades. Who better then to talk to about how she forged her eponymous brand, balanced her life and remained relevant in an industry which can be littered with great jewelers who never quite made it. It’s a fascinating glimpse into this wonderful jewelers life.
Five Fun Facts about Sydney
1.What is your favourite gemstone? Boulder opal--it’s almost magical in its ability to attract people, and appears in such a wide variety of colors and unique patterns.
2.Your favourite food? That’s a tough one, I love to eat and cook. Summer peaches might be, as my father used to say, “the nectar of the gods.” I love a good carnitas taco, and I’m kind of addicted to a variety of cheeses.
3. Ocean, Forest or? I grew up going frequently to the beach, and while I’ve lived far inland since I was 19, being on a beach is probably my favorite place to be. When I was 64, I finally got my first tattoo, and it is of 2 shells.
4. Your favourite tool in the studio? I have a pair of chain-nose pliers, or at least I think that’s what they are: one side is rounded, and the other has a flat face on the inside. I have never been able to find another pair in this slightly bigger size. I use them for everything.
5. Describe yourself in five words
Energetic, outgoing, restless, open-minded, creative
EA. Of all the arts and crafts disciplines, why did you choose the making of Jewellery to be your profession.
SL: Since childhood I’d always loved making things with my hands, so eventually it was natural to choose art as my college major. I took my first university jewelry class because the ceramic class I’d wanted was full, so jewelry was a second choice, selected on a whim.
I found I loved the process of manipulating and transforming raw materials into a finished creation, it’s almost like alchemy. It’s really all about process-- the finished result can be satisfying, but the challenges of designing and making are what really count.
I may also have been drawn to jewelry-making because I’d always loved jewelry. My grandmother had a bureau drawer in her bedroom filled with tiny boxes, each containing a piece of jewelry which, as a child, was mysterious and exotic to me. When I was 19 and went west to Arizona for 2-months to work as a teacher’s aide at a bilingual school on the Navajo reservation, I met Navajo silversmiths and realized for the first time that making jewelry was something that people actually did. So when I began taking classes, that was a major influence on me.
EA. What was the first thing you ever made.
SL: Because I was inspired by Navajo silversmithing, the first project I remember making was a necklace composed of silver beads with a few spacers embellished with overlay representing sun, moon and star. Very 70’s hippie motifs-- I still have the necklace, it’s a horrible piece of craftsmanship and trite design! But it reminds me where I started.
EA. What or who do you think has been the strongest influence or inspiration on your work?
SL: I’ve already mentioned my initial inspiration of Navajo silversmithing, but once I began developing a more original style, shapes in nature have always provided me with endless inspiration. I spend a lot of time outdoors as a kid, and in the summers we were always at the beach in Connecticut. My mother grew up near that beach, and taught me to be a beachcomber from early childhood. When I go for walks anywhere, I’m always looking down to see if there’s anything interesting to pick up. I have dishes of shells and rocks all over my house whose shapes, colors and textures caught my eye.
Especially as a younger jeweler, I was interested in ancient and tribal jewelry as well, and would try to visit museums where I could see collections of Greek, Roman, Scythian and pre-Colombian work as well as less refined tribal jewelry.
EA. In such a competitive industry, what do you credit your longevity to?
SL: I’ve made jewelry for 45 years, and made a successful, full-time living with my jewelry for 35 of those years. I began showing at American Craft Council shows in 1983, and immediately fell into selling both wholesale and retail. That worked well for me since Nebraska, smack in the center of the US, is far from most of the craft markets, and wholesale enabled me to travel less for work.
I credit my longevity with being adaptable to change and recognizing when I needed to do that. It’s all very well to start with and idealistic view of life as an artist, but one needs to be pragmatic to actually make a living. I’ve always had both a production line and one of a kind pieces-- this balance has enabled me to satisfy my creativity and also to make pieces that sell readily.
As someone who didn’t grow up with the internet, I had to quickly adapt and create a good website. Later, with the increasing importance of social media, making sure I had a presence on multiple platforms was necessary. When the wholesale market for crafts/ art jewelry started to decline after 2008, I added the big, commercial JCK show in Las Vegas to my schedule in order to seek a new market with more traditional jewelry stores.
One of my most successful marketing efforts for the past 10 years has been a monthly newsletter/blog. This has helped me make a more personal connection with customers and admirers of my jewelry. Selling hand-crafted anything is all about communicating and building relationships-- and it’s been so enjoyable!
EA. What was the biggest challenge you faced in business?
SL: As a self-employed artist, you have to learn about all aspects of your business and still attend to your creative side. The hardest part for me was often needing a break from my multiple responsibilities, but not being able to take that break. I’ve heard many comments to the effect that, “ you make jewelry? That must be so much fun! You just get to sit around and make beautiful things all day!” HA! That’s an utterly idealized fantasy! Sometimes it is fun, and gratifying, but sometimes you don’t feel creative or inspired, so experience frustration as I imagine most jobs provide.
I had to learn about business as I went along, having no training or mentors in business. I’ve been lucky to have had good assistants who were great jewelers and fun company in the studio. My husband of the past 20 years, Craig, is also an artist, but when we got married he expressed interest in getting involved. Craig added so much to the business-- he computerized my bookkeeping, helped maintain my website, traveled to shows with me, and participated in pretty much every aspect except for benchwork. His partnership has made a huge difference in the business aspect of my work.
EA. What is the greatest piece of advice you received during your career?
SL: I can’t think of one single bit of advice, but I’ll say that I have received loads of advice over the years. Talking to fellow jewelers about either technical questions or business questions has provided a huge source of valuable advice. I’ve never been afraid to seem too dumb to ask others for advice and/or opinions.
EA. Do you have any advice for those starting out in the jewellery industry?
SL: Learn basic business skills-- bookkeeping, for one. Realize that it’s a process and that no one gets rich and famous in a year or two. Be prepared to adapt your designs to the market to some extent-- pricing has always been a challenge, and sometimes a fabulous design may be too labor- or materials-intensive to become a seller. You will probably have to experiment with a variety of selling venues: craft shows, art fairs, consignment (if you’re doing wholesale), online efforts. I’m sorry to say that I think it’s much harder now than when I started, and with so many online sites, there is a lot of competition.
The good thing is that in becoming a self-employed jeweler, there is no strict template. My peers have evolved a variety of business models that have fit their lifestyles and enabled them to survive as a business. You might like custom work, or having a retail business, or prefer traveling to a lot of retail shows to selling wholesale to stores.
Even if your jewelry-making skills are well-developed, if you have the opportunity to work in a more established studio (as my many assistants did), it’s a terrific way to learn all the aspects of business plus speed up your production skills.
EA. Most jewellers looking to expand find the thought of employing studio assistants and production staff daunting. When did you realise that you needed to venture down that path and how did you cope with that process.
SL: I hired my first assistant no more than a year after I began doing wholesale/ retail shows.
My assistant of 24 years is now on her own and very quickly realizing how many aspects of work she has to juggle--it’s too much for one person! Some jewelers would love another person to help with bookkeeping and office work. I started out teaching my assistants some basis fabrication skills and trained them to make my production designs. I’d say in general, it takes 2 years to trail someone to work efficiently and independently in your studio. Of course by then, quite a few of my bench assistants decided they’d learned enough to move off into their own careers. So then you have to start all over again training a new person!
You’ll then also have to become and employer and deal with paychecks and taxes. Get a good accountant, and DO NOT get behind on your paperwork!
Unlike many studios. Sydney's is surprisingly devoid of many of the tools we are used to seeing in a jewellers studio. Her only piece of equipment that she wishes she had purchased was a welder.
EA. What is the greatest piece of advice you received during your career?
SL: I can’t think of one single bit of advice, but I’ll say that I have received loads of advice over the years. Talking to fellow jewellers about either technical questions or business questions has provided a huge source of valuable advice. I’ve never been afraid to seem too dumb to ask others for advice and/or opinions.
EA. What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
SL: The entire trajectory of my career has been a nonstop learning process and a nonstop challenge. You can’t ever rest on your laurels because things always change, and there is always strong competition in the market for great jewelry design. It keeps you on your toes--self-doubt has always been present to some extent.
In my 20’s when I lived in Boulder, Colorado, I worked for a few different jewelry stores while tentatively trying to sell my own work. When I moved to Nebraska, the middle of nowhere, and began with the American Craft Council shows, I was instantly thrust into business.
Overall, I’m so accustomed to having a variable income and somewhat inconsistent schedule, I can’t imagine being tied down to a “normal” job. I’ve always been aware of how lucky I am to have as much autonomy as I’ve had-- I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself and the revenue dept!
Self-employment, and trying to stay creative are a constant challenge. But somehow it’s always worked out, and so I never get truly panicked about my work. My success amazes me- when I decided to retire, I couldn’t believe the heartfelt emails I received from so many people-- I had no idea that my work and career meant that much to others. It’s been a great ride.
I guess I should also say that while I’ve been successful, that means different things to different people. Craig and I have a comfortable life, we have all the material things we need, we can afford to travel quite a bit, but we aren’t over-the-top extravagant. We’ve worked hard and appreciate what we have.
EA. What will you miss most now that you have officially retired as a jeweller.
SL: It’s almost too soon to tell what aspects if any, I’ll miss in the jewelry world. Right now I’m contentedly sitting in Mexico looking out at the avocado tree and bougainvilla in the garden, and not missing anything. I’ve kept my studio set up in case I feel inspired to make some jewelry for myself, but I don’t see myself ever returning to where I was before.
What I missed immediately was the companionship and humor I’ve shared ever day with my studio assistants-- the studio feels empty and lonely.
Social media is great for keeping up with what other jewelry makers are doing, and sometimes I see images that inspire me to consider sitting at the bench again. It’s only been a month, and I’m experiencing the challenge of winding down from a long career, including realizing that I don’t always have a million things I need to remember to do!
EA. How do you plan to spend your ‘retirement’?
SL: I’ve already said a little bit about that. For the time being, I mostly want to travel. I love the stimulation of being in a new place, meeting new people, experiencing different cultures. Craig and I also love American-style road trips: get in the car and drive! We especially love the variety of landscapes in the western half of the US-- the mountains, the southwest deserts and the west coast. My daughter lives in New York, and I’d like to see her a bit more often.
My goal is to stay healthy and active as long as possible.
At the moment we are staying in central Mexico for 2 months. When we get home I have a couple of short trips planned to visit friends and my daughter. Then we will take a short bicycle/cruise trip with other cyclist friends on the Danube. In the fall, we will hit the road to visit friends and family in the upper Rocky Mountain area.
I plan to read more, and while I’m not sure what direction my creative impulses will take, at least I intend to improve my photography skills.