If a metalsmith from the Middle Ages visited Juneau jeweler Angie Lawlar’s work space, he would have little trouble getting down to business. Her compact wooden jewelers’ bench, tucked into a windowed alcove on the second floor of her home, holds an anvil, hammers, a torch, mandril, saw, drill and files — updated versions of tools that have been in use for thousands of years. Even some of Lawlar’s designs, which include antique iron barn nails forged into rings and inset with rubies, could make a leap into the past without creating too much of a splash.
All evidence of the past vanishes, however, when it comes to Lawlar’s business transactions. With the exception of a few brick-and-mortar locations that carry her jewelry, such as Juneau’s Kodiak Coats, more than 90 percent of Lawlar’s sales are done over the Internet, primarily through Etsy, a site designed specifically for artists and craftspeople to disperse their handmade work to a widespread audience. Earlier this month, Lawlar’s shop, Steampunk Funk, was highlighted in the featured seller spot on Etsy. This is no small feat, considering there are more than 800,000 sellers on the site competing for visitors’ attention. Etsy staff selects a different featured seller every few days, based on “ingenuity, well-made items, interesting descriptions and top-notch item photos,” according to the site.
For Lawlar, who was already doing pretty well, the featured spot has brought a tidal wave of new business.
“It’s been massive,” Lawlar said. “I’ve gotten 75 orders in the past week. I didn’t expect it to do this well.”
Lawlar opened her Etsy shop in 2010, not long after moving to Juneau from Spokane with her husband, Rusty, and their three children. Since putting her work online, she has caught the attention of buyers as far away as Russia and New York, and now has a substantial waiting list for wholesale orders, as well as custom pieces. Her work is also featured on Emmaline Bride and Refinery 29, and gets a lot of attention through Pinterest, a site that allows members to share images they like with other members.
Part of what sets Lawlar’s work apart is her focus on recycled bits of history, such as the antique round railroad markers that she uses in her rings, or the old tools and hardware that she wrangles into one-of-a-kind bracelets backed with leather. On the other end of the spectrum, Lawlar also makes delicate silver rings set with precious stones.
Lawlar said thinking up new uses for old things and working with elements that have a story behind them is one of the fun parts of the work. She loves scouring junk shops for raw materials to work into her pieces, particularly when she’s visiting her parents in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. She traces her interest in recycling and repurposing to her childhood experiences in Cairo, Egypt, where she lived with her family from the time she was 10 through her high school graduation.
“That’s where a lot of my reuse-reduce-recycle comes from,” she said. “Most of the people there have very little, and they learn to reuse things, so I think that’s kind of where that passion came from.”
Also influential was her first jewelry teacher, who encouraged her to be creative with her materials, particularly in terms of reusing old elements.
“He would say, ‘Here’s a box of stuff, make something,’” she said. “(I) would have two hours to come up with something.”
Lawlar didn’t take her first jewelry class until she was 30, just a couple years ago. Her first college experience as a younger woman was put on hold when the demands of motherhood intervened. She eventually re-enrolled and began pursing a degree in photography, and ended up taking the jewelry class almost on a whim. She said she was hooked after the first day.
“Walking into that first class it was just an ‘aha!’ moment,” she said. “I walked into the shop and saw all the power tools and I thought, this is so fun, I could live here.”
Her interest in photography, though now on the back burner in terms of her artistic focus, is another thing that she thinks helped her land a featured spot on Etsy.
“Etsy is all about the photography, it’s all about getting on to the front page. It’s all about the image and how it looks.”
High-quality, interesting images catch the attention of Etsy staff, who then recommend sellers for the front page or for the featured seller spot — a huge advantage on a site that deals in such high volume. Etsy, which also offers vintage items and art supplies, logged 1.23 billion page views in June.
Etsy began in 2005, and was the brainchild of Rob Kalin. Kalin wanted an online venue for his paintings and photography, but found other e-commerce sites too broad in their focus and quality. After only three months’ work, Kalin and two others, Chris Maguire and Haim Schoppik, launched the site in June 2005. Their stated mission is to “empower people to change the way the global economy works” by finding a way for tiny businesses to have more sway in shaping economies.
Sellers pay 20 cents per item listed, as well as a 3 percent transaction fee. Etsy also takes 3.5 percent of the total sale. The most recent figures provided by Etsy indicate sales for 2011 were $525.6 million.
Lawlar said that though she’s been very happy with Etsy as a platform for her work, she eventually hopes to have her own website. She currently has a blog, Steampunk Junk, which chronicles her daily life as well as her adventures in jewelry making.
Recently, part of the blog has centered around a central issue in the lives of the Lawlars: their adoption process. Lawlar, who has kept her childhood connections to and affection for Africa very active, is committed to adopting a child from a specific country there (adoption rules prohibit mentioning it directly) — a longtime dream that is now shared by her husband.
“I thought, back then, that I wanted to adopt one day, but I had to wait until Rusty was on board,’ she said with a laugh. “He was the one who said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Lawlar is directing all the money from her Etsy sales and other jewelry accounts into paying for the adoption.
“All the profit I make is going directly into an account for our adoption — and it’s paying for it.”
Lawlar, who worked in orphanages in Africa when she lived there, has other ideas for reaching out to kids in other countries as well, perhaps through teaching them her trade. She’s also looking at trying to teach classes locally.
In the meantime, she is hard at work on keeping up with her online orders — not to mention her three young kids. This balance, she said, is one she has “yet to master.”
Getting out to enjoy what Juneau has to offer is also a huge priority for the whole family, Lawlar said. The group recently made the trek up Thunder Mountain, an all-day adventure that reinforced their belief that they have landed in the right place.
“We love it here, oh my gosh, we have so much fun,” Lawlar said. “We love being outdoors and I don’t know of a better place to be outdoors than here.”
After spending an hour with the bright-eyed Lawlar, it’s easy to believe that joie de vivre has also played a role in her success.
To learn more about Lawlar and her work, visit her blog at steampunkjunk.blogspot.com. To read her interview on Etsy, featured earlier in July, visit /www.etsy.com/blog/en/2012/featured-shop-steampunk-funk/.
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