A couple days ago, we received a comment on one of our Instagram posts the which said, “Have you guys considered making a version of this that is not quite so cost-prohibitive? Medusa is fantastic and I would love a necklace of her, but am never going to spend a student loan payment on a single piece of niche jewelry. 🤷🏻♀️ something in the $100 range?”
You can see my initial response above, but it got me wanting to write up a longer explanation of just what goes into making ethical jewelry, why we pay more for our materials and workshop, and how that affects you as a consumer.
How direct-to-consumer companies changed the jewelry game
The revolution in e-commerce and direct-to-consumer brands has changed the operating model for many jewelry companies. Where once there was a middleman like a department store taking a big cut of the profits, DTC companies are now selling directly to you via their websites, enabling them to lower prices. This is great in theory, and it’s what we do at Common Era too. It enables us to fully control our brand and never submit to the whims of a bigger company.
However, the DTC model is a double edged sword - it’s good because consumers pay lower prices, but it’s a problem for the industry as a whole because it makes it hard for small companies to compete with mass-manufactured DTC products. Those companies can operate on razor-thin margins because of the huge volume of sales, just like Amazon does. Newer, smaller companies don’t enjoy those economies of scale and simply cannot match those prices, especially if they are committed to ethical and sustainable practices.
Where it’s made matters
Most of the jewelry made today is mass-produced in factories throughout China, Korea, Thailand and India, where ethical regulations are lax or ignored, and sustainability is of little concern. We know, because we looked into factories in all of these countries. That isn’t to say that there aren’t fantastic, ethical factories in all of those places - there are - but on the whole, it was difficult to find a manufacturer that aligned with our values.
In the end, we chose to produce our jewelry in a family atelier in Istanbul, a city that has a history of goldsmithing going back thousands of years. The workshop there has been hand-making 24k gold jewelry for more than 20 years for fine jewelry designers and is regularly audited and inspected for security, ethical labor, and safety practices. They have an on-site doctor (because working with hot metals is a dangerous business!) and pay all their employees a living salary as well as overtime pay and at least two weeks of vacation, and four weeks after a number of years on staff.
Sure, we could pay 80% less, but it's not who we are
When we did our research on where to produce our jewelry, we learned that we could pay 80% less by producing in a different factory, plating on cheap brass instead of on solid silver, and using ethically-questionable gemstones. Yes, that means we could sell it to you at a lower price and also make a much bigger margin. Instead, we pay over $100 just for the materials that go into each of our mythology pendants.
Gold is expensive, and recycled gold even more-so. Gold is even MORE expensive in times of political turmoil and uncertainty, because people start putting their money into gold bullion as a safe investment. So, let’s just say that the Trump/Brexit era has not been good to jewelry companies.
How we set our prices
We are a small business. A really, really small business. We haven’t even come close to breaking even and probably won’t for months or even years.
We priced our jewelry competitively and in line with the rest of the market after doing a lot of research. We tend to be right in the middle of the price range for similar pieces, though our ethical practices and commitment to quality mean we make a smaller margin than most. For example, one competitor's coin pendants cost a little less than ours but they are plated on brass, not solid sterling silver.
On top of material and labor costs, there are huge shipping, legal, marketing and software costs that are always higher for a small business than for a big company.
We believe emphatically that small, ethical businesses can change the industry and force bigger companies to shift their business models. I hope you will join us.
Torie Tilley, Founder + CEO