Brooke Worthington got her start in the jewelry-making business after first creating pieces for her friends and family as a creative outlet.
Others took notice and she started selling her custom-made jewelry at a local store in Nashville. One thing led and another, and her business started to grow.
Recently, she opened her own retail store in Nashville, where she sells both her own works and an assortment of curated items from other lines.
What began as a hobby is now a thriving business.
In this episode of Small Business War Stories, we talk with Brooke about how she got her start in the jewelry business, and how she continues to evolve and learn.
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A summary of our interview with Brooke Worthington of Brooke Worthington Jewelry is below.
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- What do you do and what inspired you to do this? How did you get started?
- Can you tell me more about your first design and how have you improved since then?
- What is it like to go hunt for beads and what did you look for?
- Tell me about the Diamond District. It sounds like this mythical place.
- What's your design process? How do you come up with what you think is going to be successful?
- So let's say you dream about a piece of jewelry. Do you keep a notebook next to your bed and you sketch it? How does that work?
- How did you progress from beads to other types of jewelry?
- Tell me more about your store. Why did you decide to open it?
- How do you decide what types of designs to focus on?
- What's your take on selling directly online versus selling through stores and does that create a conflict with people you distribute through?
- How many stockists do you currently have?
- Can you tell me about a time when things maybe went wrong? And what happened and how did you deal with it?
- Tell me more about the inventory piece. I think a lot of small business owners struggle with that, because inventory is essentially cash on the shelf. How do you think about that?
- What is your number one piece of advice or that you would share with other small business people?
- Where do you want to go in the next ten years?
- Do you use a lot of social media to promote your business?
- Where can people find you? If people want to buy your stuff, what are you handles on social media? What's your website?
I'd love to learn a little bit more about your business. What do you do and what inspired you to do this? How did you get started?
Brooke: I get asked that a lot actually. About five years ago I was in my senior year at Belmont University and I was in music business and I needed a creative outlet, so one day I drove to Michael's and I got some terrible beads and started making bracelets. I made some for my mom and my sister and then my friends wanted some and I started selling them and then one thing led to another.
I had a trunk show at my parents' house, and actually a woman named Martha Nemer who owned a store called The Cotton Mill, that was a huge stable here in Nashville for a very long time was my first stockist (retail store carrying my product), and it has evolved exponentially from there.
It was cool because I was still in school, so my parents were still taking care of me and I would have some fun money that I probably looking back on it should have reinvested.
What was your first design? I like the fact that you said you didn't like it because I think too many people sometimes spend too much time not shipping, basically wanting to be perfect. Can you tell me more about your first design and how have you improved since then?
Brooke: Goodness. Well, my first design was beaded and I got some stretch material and just strung some beads on to stretch material and made bracelets, so that's like Jewelry Making 101. Anybody can do that. So eventually I found different resources for beads. That’s when I started meeting wholesalers in New York City. Luckily at the time, my best friend was in grad school at NYU and I would stay with her and meet wholesalers and go bead hunting when I would go visit her.
As my business has grown throughout the years, now I go to the Diamond District and my sister lives in Manhattan, so I get to stay with her and actually walk to the Diamond District.
I want to hear more about both bead hunting and the Diamond District thing. So what is it? I've never done anything like this. What is it like to go hunt for beads and what did you look for?
Brooke: Well, my first “hunt,” if you will, I made a list of possible wholesalers and their addresses and I just sort of went down the list and X'd them off if they were bad and kept them if they were good. Beads to diamonds, beads to gemstones, and then all the other materials that are used in jewelry making. I learned to use different resources from that, but it was really just sort of trial and error… and a lot of walking.
Most wholesalers are foreign, and they are nice, interesting people. I actually have several whom still work with today that date back to when I first went on a hunt.
Resourcing has been one of the most valuable parts of my business, and also my most secretive. I'm very generous with most of the information that I've learned. But my resources are my relationships. Most people in the jewelry industry would agree with that. It's like the one part that I'm not as free to share.
Tell me about the Diamond District. It sounds like this mythical place. Take me to the Diamond District…
Brooke: Oh gosh. I mean, Manhattan, the energy in Manhattan is insane. Most people, when they walk through the Diamond District see the storefront level. But what they don't know is you get on the elevator and the good stuff is up a few floors.
It's like a labyrinth, and people are like, "Well you want this. You want that." I'm from Nashville, and as a very soft-spoken, Southern girl, I've learned a lot about myself because I go by myself when I go up there, and I just kind of pound the pavement. It was a bit scary at first, but I have learned to navigate things.
Tell me more about how your designs have evolved. What's your design process? How do you come up with what you think is going to be successful?
Brooke: Well, that's kind of hard to say because I'll dream about jewelry sometimes. It's usually a combination of something I've seen and something I want. For example, I saw a girl on Facebook and she had her arm filled with these cool beaded bracelets and I couldn't find them, so I just made them. So that's kind of my design process… if I think of something that I've never seen before, I just figure out how to make it.
So let's say you dream about a piece of jewelry. Do you keep a notebook next to your bed and you sketch it? How does that work?
Brooke: I write myself notes about a concept on my phone and I have tons of sketchpads everywhere. It's not the most organized process; my store is very organized, but my brain is not.
How did you progress from beads to other types of jewelry?
Brooke: One of the biggest parts of the evolution of my business was when about three years into making beaded jewelry, I got really bored with beads.
There's a local jewelry school here in Franklin, which is about 20 minutes away from Nashville. The school was super traditional; I signed up on a whim. I actually called the director of the school to ask a question about a resource because he didn't have his own business, so I knew he might be a little bit more generous with what he knew.
But I needed a tag for a necklace and I called out there and he was like, "Brooke have you ever thought about coming to the long program," which is a three-month intensive, like boot camp for jewelers that come in from all over the country. They stay in Franklin. Luckily I was only 15 minutes away, so I could drive in the mornings. But I signed up for that.
We did platinum fabrication. I know how to do it all and I think that really helped my confidence in design and in being in jewelry business is knowing the terminology and even if I don't do every single thing from start to finish, I know what to look for, and I know what is good and what is bad.
I graduated from jewelry school two years ago, and stayed in touch with people fro the program. One woman that is a dear friend of mine now is from California and she dropped her life and came and took this course with me and a few others. There were mostly men actually, which is very surprising, that worked in the back of like your Zales or like your local jewelry store. People were like, "Okay what's next for you now," and I was like, "Well I'm just going to focus on growing my brand, growing my line." At that point I had a website, and I had a few local stores and and a store in Atlanta that carried my stuff.
Tell me more about your store. Why did you decide to open it? Where is it? What is it like?
Brooke: Before I had the store, I had a studio in Germantown for a long time and I was always in my car. I was always taking things to stores. I was always going to UPS. I was always all over the place.
Now I have a store in Green Hills, which is very close where I live, and I have a studio in the back. It's centrally-located. The traffic is insane because Green Hills is arguably the busiest shopping area of Nashville.
My store is very pretty. You walk in, it's very minimalistic and clean and there's a little studio in the back and I try to keep it organized. I feel like I was saying the creative process is not an organized thing, so I try to keep it as organized as possible, but not too neat. It's all in one place though. And I can shut the door.
How do you decide what types of designs to focus on? You have different types of earrings and you have necklaces…are you also getting into engagement rings?
Brooke: I'm starting to get into engagement rings. There's a GIA (Gemological Institute of America) certification program you can take for diamond certification. I think it's very important to know exactly what you're talking about. I sell diamonds but they’re little bitty diamonds. To sell a bigger engagement ring diamond, I would love to learn more about that.
What's your take on selling directly online versus selling through stores and does that create a conflict with people you distribute through?
Brooke: I'm still figuring out online because I always try to think of myself as a consumer if that makes sense. If I were going to look online, I probably would want to see something in person before I spent more than $100 on it, especially if it's jewelry because that is more of a personal investment. You need to feel it, see it, touch it.
I'm still sort of figuring selling online. I have a store and I also maintain my stockists, they are the reason why I am where I am. I'd really like to try and maintain those relationships and keep them fully stocked. I went from consigning to doing wholesale when I opened my store. My accountant wanted to kill me. My bookkeeper wanted to kill me. I just needed it for inventory control.
And I now have a store, so why would I consign something if I can have it in my own store? So that has been an interesting transition, but I think I've done it pretty well so far.
How many stockists do you currently have?
Brooke: Six or seven. So it's nothing big, and one of the reasons that I opened a store was because I saw that I could either go into more stores and lose a little bit of the creative freedom and have to keep up with a collection or I can pause on the stockists, retailers, and open my own store and offer other things in my store and just kind of go wild with my creative freedom, and that's what I've done so far.
I'm really interested in learning more about how you forged some of these relationships with stockists, because this is not something that's exclusive to the jewelry business, right? A lot of people who start making things that have to start new relationships with people, and you mentioned how important those people had been to your early success. Do you have any tips, any thoughts, any ideas about how to do that successfully?
Brooke: Well, I'm pretty spoiled because I am from Nashville, born and raised. I did a stint in Alabama. Then I transferred back to Belmont, so I've been here pretty much my whole life. I've lived pretty much within a ten-mile radius my entire life, so for me, I'm very connected. I grew up here, so a lot of my first customers were friends of my parents, friends of my family members, you know, friends of mine, teachers and babysitters, so I got connected that way. The retailers that took a chance on me knew my family, so I had that one-up really. Nashville is a very encouraging environment for business owners, so I think that helped a lot.
Can you tell me about a time when things maybe went wrong? And what happened and how did you deal with it?
Brooke: What I'm learning now in this chapter of my business is that Christmas is really great, but the year has peaks and valleys. I opened the store in November, and I caught the holiday wave, which was phenomenal and did great things for my confidence. March was a little slow. What's fun about it is I have to figure out new ways to drive sales or do things to manage cash flow and design cycles.
Now I have a lot of inventory, but I'm doing an event in May. I'm partnering with a local aesthetician to do like summer skin and sparkles, so we're going to sell jewelry and do some giveaways. You just have to get creative and figure out how to make this month to meet my sales goals.
Tell me more about the inventory piece. I think a lot of small business owners struggle with that, because inventory is essentially cash on the shelf. How do you think about that? And how have you learned to do it better?
Brooke: I am currently the only employee of my store, so I see everything. I know exactly who bought what and I've got a pretty good memory. I know what's moving. I know who's typically buying it, what the demographic is, so in terms of re-investment and inventory, I'm pretty on top of it, and that's been one of the beautiful things of being there all the time.
Actually a friend of mine who owns a store in Nashville called Magpies told me it was very important for me to be there a lot, so I took her advice and I haven't hired anybody quite yet, but I think it's really important to be there and know what's going on and see what's moving.
What is your number one piece of advice or that you would share with other small business people?
Brooke: I think that having someone that can help you in areas where you are not as strong is great. I have an amazing bookkeeper/accountant who knows every password to every account, to every financial anything and she is probably my number one asset. I met her and she completely reworked the way that I saw how my entire business worked. Numbers aren't my thing; I have creative brain. I've learned a lot, but having somebody who can take over that part for me has been very beneficial.
Where do you want to go in the next ten years? It seems like you've been on a whirlwind journey. You continue to evolve. You continue to learn. How do you see yourself continuing to do that? What's next?
Brooke: I definitely want to get into more engagement and bridal. I also want to learn as much as I possibly can about diamonds and definitely have them ethically sourced. I would like to explore more with re-working with peoples' stones, for example a diamond that was your mom's and you want to put it into something new. I like that jewelry has meaning and love the idea of taking something from the past and making it into a future heirloom. I probably need to hire somebody first before I really delve into that, but that's the next step.
Do you use a lot of social media to promote your business?
Brooke: Social media is insanely helpful because it's free. Yeah, I use Instagram and Instagram Stories have been pretty helpful. It's hard not to over-inundate people with when you've got a product that you want to sell, but it's also very important to show what you've got because a lot of times people see something on Instagram, they'll come in and ask about it, or they'll call or they'll email and ask about it. But yeah, I use Instagram a lot, not so much Facebook anymore, but Instagram.
I connected with several stylists locally because we're in Nashville, so we've got music city, country music, and I've connected with a few of those stylists and had some good press with some country music starlets, so that's helped a lot to getting it out there.
This is how I have been able to get exposure on different music awards shows. Maren Morris has worn my stuff a bunch, also Martina McBride and there are a few others. I'm blanking. I think Karen from Little Big Town, too.
It’s nice for stylists to have a place that they can come pull pieces on short notice. So literally two days before the ACMs, Maren's stylist came in per usual. I love her. She's awesome. Comes in, "Here's the dress. What can we put on her?" So I'm like, "Here just take all this and sign this deal. Don't break anything. Break it you buy it." Then kind of wait and see what she ended up wearing, so that's been really fun. It's really organic. There's really not like a structured way that I've done anything, but it's been successful.
Where can people find you? If people want to buy your stuff, what are you handles on social media? What's your website?
Brooke got her start as a senior in college and was able to leverage some early success to turn her hobby into a full-scale career.
Her story is inspiring to anyone who dreams of turning their passion into a small business.
If you have any questions or comments about today's episode, please leave them below.