Ruth Barzel Jewelry was born in 2005 out of two things: a desire to make cool stuff and a desire to have cool stuff. Both still motivate me, but a lot has changed since then.
I grew up in an artistic family. My mother is an artist, and my parents encouraged creative pursuits. I always assumed I would do something creative with my life, but I wasn’t sure what.
I studied creative writing in school and spent my 20s working on short stories and novels. I published a few pieces in obscure literary journals. I even got a personal rejection letter from The New Yorker once, which might not seem like much to boast about, but the fact that it wasn’t just a form letter made it a high point of my fiction-writing career; I can still remember the exact words of the editor who signed it. It wasn’t long, though, before I understood that a fiction writer’s life wasn’t going to be my life. The search for a way to express my creativity resumed.
I tried various things—including other forms of creative writing—but none of them were right, and after a while I always abandoned them. Meanwhile I made a living doing freelance writing and editing and later as a full-time health writer and editor. I got married and had my daughter Maia. Life got busy, as it does. But I never lost the feeling that a piece was missing. I wanted to make something.
Soon after Maia was born, I became interested in designing jewelry. I’ve always loved fashion, especially accessories, so between that and my artistic background, it was a good fit. I began taking metalsmithing classes and spending all my free time honing my skills and developing my style. I became obsessed, then discouraged. I stopped and started more than once, had another kid, got busier, and lost myself in the joyful, exhausting, amazing, and frightening rollercoaster ride known as motherhood. Making jewelry fell off my radar screen.
When my son Miles was 2 and Maia was 10, I signed her up for an after-school jewelry-making class. On the first day, I took Miles to pick her up, his warm little hand tightly gripped in mine. I knew too well what would happen if I let him loose for even a minute in a room full of tables of slippery beads in small containers. I had him under control, but I’d forgotten about myself. One look at all the tools and supplies, and I was back in.
This time, I found my groove. I was creating things I felt good about and getting positive feedback about them from others, too. It hadn’t occurred to me that this hobby would ever turn into business, but I soon had so much jewelry that I decided to try selling it. I placed some pieces in a local store and then another. I opened a couple of Etsy shops that failed and then one that didn’t. I launched a few websites that failed and then (recently) one that didn’t. I participated in shows and events; some bombed; others were successful. I reveled in the successes and weathered the disappointments. The time I had to work on my business was limited, but I kept trudging along—learning new skills, creating new designs, figuring out ways to let potential buyers know I was out there. My business slowly grew, and so did I.
What was once a simple wish to create pretty things and to have new jewelry whenever I felt like it began to connect me to the world as well as to myself. I’m an introvert, but I was getting to know other designers and creative business owners. Some became friends, and we learned from and helped each other. I observed how other business owners—ones I admired and ones I didn’t—conducted themselves, and I started to figure out what kind of business owner, and person, I wanted to be.
My sense of my own identity had always been shaky. Before starting this jewelry-making journey, if you had asked me to tell you who I was in a few sentences, I would have had a hard time answering. This began to change. In the process of connecting disparate stones, bits of chain and cord, and pieces of wire and to each other to create something coherent, unique, and whole, I began connecting the pieces of who I was with each other to create a better-defined self. I was someone who made things. Who worked toward a goal every day, even when I could find only 10 minutes to do it. Who didn’t give up when I was burn out—or burnt, both of which happened multiple times. Who overcame obstacles and conquered fears. (I’m shy, and the first time I went into a store “cold” to try to interest the owner in carrying my work, I felt like I was going to vomit or pass out, but I did it anyway. The store owner wasn’t welcoming or friendly, but a while later, I tried another store; my work is now carried in several stores.) Although I still doubted myself often (who doesn’t?) and spent unproductive time dwelling on personal flaws and weaknesses that limit me, I gained confidence.
Meanwhile, I was thinking about how I could leverage my small success into something more. I still loved both making and wearing jewelry as much as ever, but I wanted to grow. I started donating a portion of my sales to a local organization that helps refugees and asylum seekers. Then, I launched a collaboration with an organization that rescues, rehabilitates, and finds permanent homes for dogs abandoned on the streets of Puerto Rico. It’s amazing and gratifying that my business is doing well enough to allow me to use some of my earnings to support causes I believe in.
Although I accept that writing to sell is necessary for anyone running a product-based business, it’s not a type of writing I find particularly rewarding. For a long time, I’ve been looking for another way to write about my business: to go back to my writing roots and share my thoughts about being a maker, a mother, and a person navigating life in the world. Recently I’ve started to figure out. Writing truthfully is frustrating, scary, and hard! But, it’s also incredibly satisfying, and I intend to keep at it. I’m not sure where this is going, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
Whether you’re a lover of handmade jewelry, a maker, a mother, a business owner, or anyone who’s intrigued by the idea of connecting bits and pieces of disparate things together to create something meaningful, I hope that my musings may be relevant to your own life and pursuits, too. Thank you for joining me on the journey!