Forge and Finish: Strength in Collaboration
I had met Carly, Desiree, and Emily, the lovely ladies of Forge and Finish, a few times before I sat down to interview them. For years I had been admiring their work, but during this conversation, I gained a new appreciation for them as dynamic business ladies. I was inspired to hear about their democratic process and how, through trial, error, and analysis they were able to grow their business. They are a group of down-to-earth creatives, who value teamwork and collaboration. I liked that they created their own rules, but work hard to make sure every aspect of the business runs smoothly. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed talking with Forge and Finish.
- Before you guys got together you all had your own collections along with experience working with other designers, tell us a little about your history before Forge and Finish?
Carly Mayer: As a young child I considered myself a primitive artist. I had no academic training in fine art or the crafts, but I was inherently drawn to 2-dimensional mediums. I attended Tyler School of Art with the goal of harnessing my painting skills and becoming an art education teacher. By Sophomore year, I began dabbling in large-scale sculpture, working with steel, and learning to forge and weld. This was empowering to me, and I decided to take an introduction to jewelry course to experience the material on a smaller scale. After that, I was hooked. I realized that painting would always be my first love and that if I was going to pay for an education I wanted to learn a new trade. To gain experience in the field I worked for a jewelry company, creating an in-house jewelry collection for 5 store locations for nearly 6 years. Additionally, I apprenticed under a leather smith, which helped me to develop my craft, think outside the box, and learn to be more resourceful. In 2009, I started my own jewelry line called Bombita Designs, which focused more on creating one-of-a-kind pieces. It was not until I joined the Forge & Finish Collective in 2014 that I began to really hone in on my designs to start building a product brand.
Desiree Casimiro: Growing up with an innately talented artist for an older brother, I mainly kept to a scholastic path, but always admired and envied his skill. Throughout my childhood my capacity at attempting to create art was average, but my propensity to seek design aesthetic in art, fashion, music, dance, and my natural surroundings formed a vast collection of vivid moments and inspired emotions stored into the corners of my imagination. Words became my first creative outlet. I was an avid reader from a young age, and I can remember always having a book on hand. Eventually, I took to journaling and writing stories to further my personal quest. These initial curiosities and discoveries remain core to my character and approach to life. Though the arrival of my current livelihood was a wavering path, it’s no wonder how once I became more steadfast on the path to making jewelry that I felt an instant bond. I learned that the desire to be a maker and to design was always present. It took the culmination of my life’s experiences and explorations to prepare me to harness the artistry that I once admired and envied in my brother. Once I began to create tactile wares, a floodgate opened up and I’ve never looked back.
Prior to the inception of Forge & Finish, I worked for a furniture company called BDDW for 4 1/2 years. I garnered a plethora of manufacturing skills in a high-end, fast-paced production setting working predominantly with wood and leather in the finishing and chair departments. I received a great deal of education working with hand/pneumatic tools and a variety of large-scale machinery. My experiences there refined my work ethic, craftsmanship, and aptitude to work under strict deadlines with precise standards; they taught me how to successfully work with and train others, and they gave me insight behind the development of a business founded and operated by a small group of friends. I simultaneously kept active in my private practice and exploration of working in metals and designing jewelry. The juxtaposition of both my work and studio experiences formed the maker that I am today, and I continue to apply them to Forge & Finish’s current operations.
Emily Kane: My parents where both artists and business owners. There was no question in my mind that I would be an entrepreneur. I saw both the freedoms and stresses of this path, as it certainly isn’t the easiest life choice. Almost everyone in my family is creative and I was really encouraged to spend my time drawing and making from a really young age.
My interest in jewelry started in high school while working for Dandelion, a small jewelry business. I started in sales, moved into designing and later running the house brand. When I went to art school I initially intended to study metals, because Tyler has a super competitive jewelry program. After one class I ended up switching my major from jewelry to sculpture. Switching to sculpture really broadened my scope. Though Tyler was some of my most formative years in terms of learning about myself as a maker, my overall hands-on work experience was the most invaluable in formulating my skills with Forge & Finish.
It’s a little crazy but I worked for the same company for 13 years. I’ve pretty much only worked in the jewelry business since I’ve started working, other than running a cafe out of the sculpture bay at Tyler for a little while.
- After sharing a studio and becoming close friends you decided to go into business together and Forge and Finish was founded, how did this come about and describe what that time was like?
The leap to becoming our own bosses started as a mutual dream, as each of us had a growing desire to devote more time to our passion projects in our joined studio space. We worked tirelessly to balance enough time between our day jobs and studio practices. This time period was grounds for defining our individual brands and design aesthetics, as well as, a testament to our endurance and determination to live as craftswomen alongside each other. Eventually, push came to shove and we left our day jobs behind to form Forge & Finish.
The beginning was much like making the decision to go skydiving. Proposing the act alone is intoxicating. You board the plane filled with exhilaration and jitters, hopeful for a new adventure that will be metamorphic and rejuvenating. Despite the glaringly huge risks at stake and the fact that your stomach is doing flips, you look to the people beside you for a reassuring smile to validate your decision to jump. The nods from your best friends don't quell the butterflies, but their wills to dare to take the chance with you without knowing the absolute outcome is enough to go all in. You decide that the unnerving fear of the unknown isn’t so scary when you have the support of friends that are willing to step into the unknown with you.
With nearly 5 years under our belt, we’ve come to realize that we still don’t know the absolute outcome of any endeavor, but what we do know is that we are a team and we’ll figure it out together. Success has been holding out a steady hand for each other no matter the obstacles that come our way-much like the promise of a marriage. We’ve strapped into an emotional rollercoaster, and we’ve vowed to build a future together-sacrificing our independent selves in order to make room for the other’s strengths and trusting that our partners will nourish the union.
- You started off with a business plan, but in those 4 years your business has changed, what were some of the things that evolved over time?
Originally, we held onto our individual brand identities and operated like a collaborative group under one name. 2 years in, we realized that the “design house” model was not financially stabilizing or sustaining, and the separation between brands was negating a true union and the ultimate goal to design together. We decided that change was needed to create an even playing field, and we re-emerged as one brand. At that juncture, releasing our individual brands lead to a more defined identity to our audience, and steered us more toward forming an equal partnership.
- You had one year when you saw tremendous growth, what were the elements that created that and how did it help your business?
Forming the LLC was an official marking of our partnership. Becoming financially bound was a serious step to legitimizing our business. This pivotal shift has since proved to put Forge & Finish on an exponential path. The roles we originally designated based on our natural strengths began to fully take shape, as we learned to be more efficient at juggling our workloads, prioritizing, and completing tasks. Each of us was becoming more informed about the trials and tribulations that arose in and between each department. We learned from making many mistakes that collaborating with each of our roles and communicating on a regular, scheduled basis was absolutely necessary. Having a couple years of firsts and revelations to reflect upon helped to mature our business infrastructure, organization, and record-keeping, which has enabled us to carve harder lines in a more purposeful path for the brand.
- You guys are a team of three, you all design but you all do other tasks which keep the business running, what is it like being both business partners and close friends?
Being both business partners and close friends certainly has its perks and challenges. On the perks side: going to work and being able to be 100% yourself-whatever that looks, sounds, smells like-is an awesome freedom. This makes the work environment a liberated place, where you don’t have to be concerned with pettiness and judgment. We work hard, we play harder. Thankfully, we went into business together knowing that we are all hard workers, so we don’t need to worry about slacking on the job. Being our own bosses gives us the freedom to incorporate recreation into our work, which we feel very fortunate to have. On the flip side, the challenges occur when things get too real. Think of how you treat a friend and how you treat your family. The dichotomy between the two types of relationships carry many pluses and minuses. When a friend becomes more like family, boundaries get fuzzy and slowly become non-existent. Combining being business partners and close friends has definitely made us more like family. Does this mean we’ve become closer than ever-yes. Does this also mean that we’ve crossed the threshold of biting tongues-yes. Have we mended from that emotional and challenging spouts-yes. We’ve learned that for better or for worse, that maintaining open communication is our lifeline. So long as we continue to respect each other’s limits and needs and accept each other fully, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell put it best, “Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough.” That’s love.
- When you were first starting out there is a big learning curve, how did you figure out who your customer was and how you were going to reach them?
Trial and error. We learned an immense amount of knowledge from direct retail. Face-to-face interaction has always been our strong game. We have explored various settings and cities over the years doing retail markets. Each market undergoes a recap session, where we value the success based on criteria such as financial margins, quality of vendor curation, market’s organization, location, type of consumer, etc. Recording and quantifying our experiences have narrowed down our customer, but it took time and a lot of unsuccessful outreach to gather the information needed to form viable analytics. Aside from our own ground research, we constantly network and ask questions of our peers, family, and mentors. Without the expertise and outside opinion of others, our business would become insular and stunted. Networking within our community has gained us solid support systems and friendships over the years. Just as we value communication within our company, we equally value the power of sharing knowledge with our business associates, friends, and new acquaintances. Other tools for determining our customer has been our stockists. Each store that carries our jewelry allows us to test markets based on sales, customer feedback, the owner’s feedback, and location/demographics.
- Your brand seems very community oriented, both with the local Philadelphia maker’s community along with helping the larger community by donating a portion of your sales back to non-profits. Let us know how you work this into your business and creative practice.
Our motto has always been to elevate our peers, especially in the Philadelphia community. Our consistent presence at craft markets over the years has enabled us to foster relationships with the community of fellow artists and small businesses, embracing collaboration over competition and pushing to establish a real sense of community between artists, neighbors, and collectors. Being accessible has opened up many opportunities to participate in various local events and charities. Forge & Finish continually intertwines business with philanthropic ventures by donating funds and/or jewelry to different benefits. One of our favorites over the years has been the "Good Karma Sale,” an annual alternative to Black Friday Sales. This movement spawned from the creators of spiritual publications and products called The Wild Unknown. Kim Krans and Arjan Miranda used their brand to lead other artists and maker friends to donate portions of their sales during the holiday season to charity and has since grown tremendously spreading amongst a multitude of brands, stores, and designers worldwide. Following suit with movements from small beginnings like the “Good Karma Sale” is embedded in the Forge & Finish brand’s responsibility to partner and collaborate with other small businesses to raise social awareness and support vital charitable causes that uplift society’s standards. This year we’ve released a special collection that extends our charitable donations beyond an annual giving by pledging a percentage of profits with every piece sold from the collection.
- You guys design your collection, but also make the pieces yourselves (with your own hands!) tell us what that process is like, and how you all work together to produce your collection.
There are various ways in which a collection comes to fruition. Some collections show an evolution from previous motifs derived from earlier designs and expand into new collections. This approach applies intent with a whim of organic flow by examining an older design and exploring various dimension and/or orientations or adding components.
Another approach to design begins with an individual prototype. One of us presents a new piece. The piece may or may not be intended for production, but will naturally undergo group analysis. The piece is worn, yielding market/violence testing data. Based on the market responses, the piece may go into a small-run production to test at markets or in stores. Here, we take direct consumer response and act accordingly.
Yet another approach to designing a collection begins with a concept, material or other constraints. This approach, if nothing else, serves as a good exercise. We’ve developed multiple collections in this manner, of which only a portion of the line has prevailed successfully into full production. We feel that this is a natural process that applies to our collections as a whole-“only the strong survive.”
- If someone is thinking of launching a jewelry collection what advice do you have for them?
-Link up with a mentor/seek apprenticeship
-Be resourceful with materials and tools: share studio/work space
-Research your ideal industry resources (brands, shops, artists), introduce yourself/make a connection/offer to work for trade (i.e. we offer studio hours and access to our tools as compensation for our interns)
-Make a business plan (google a layout) and form your ideas in writing; remember this isn’t permanent, you can always alter and tweak your notes as you go along; use the plan as a reference point to reflect on
-Start by making a small jewelry collection with focus on cohesion and presentation; beginning stages of branding
- Tell us about your newest collection?
Our newest collection, “Ripple,” was a combination of all three methods. First came the individual prototype, whose material stemmed from an existing piece in production-a deconstructed ring transformed into two earring styles. Secondly, came a cardboard sketch for a ring later fabricated in bronze. The earrings and ring in juxtaposition struck a similar design aesthetic relating to a fluid form. Thirdly, a photoshoot highlighting the earrings on a model against a vast lake and cloudy backdrop connected the earring’s design to look like moving water or ripples in water. The word ripple stuck along with a campaign collection that would aid in proceeds to protect our nation’s water. The combination of design theme coupled with the right charity took flight into production mode. After various deliberations and prototyping, another ring, a necklace, and cuff would flesh out the collection, and Ripple was completed.
Forge & Finish is sharing the responsibility of protecting our nation's clean water laws by teaming up with the reputable organization Clean Water Action. Since 1972, they have made it their mission to educate and bring awareness to the public of what we can do as individuals to ensure clean water accessibility for generations to come. We admire the immense tenacity with which their team continues to build a clean water and clean energy future through outreach, organizing, advocacy and policy action at local, state and national levels. To show our gratitude, Forge & Finish presents a new jewelry line--the Ripple Collection--and pledges to donate 10% of its proceeds to the great people behind Clean Water Action. Its wavy, luminous texture designed to symbolize the movement of water combines metals and varies in shape and finishes. The collection serves as a daily reminder for its wearer of the effort put toward the continuing education and preservation of our most precious life source. We encourage those who wear the Ripple Collection to share the powerful purpose carried within its beauty. For every bit of our history and future relies on a story told, so let this essential one echo far and wide.
Let us know what upcoming markets you are doing and where we can shop these lovely pieces.
-Saturday, May 12, 5-8p James Oliver Gallery Opening for “(S)extra Bait & Switches” by Heather Raquel Phillips
-Thursday, May 17, 5:30-8:30p Lobo Mau Trunk Show Benefitting Books In Homes at Bok Building Suite 501
-Saturday, May 19, 12-6p Trenton Arts Festival & Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby