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How Do You Make a Living, Creative Person?

Welcome to a new series in which we talk to creative people—artists, artisans, musicians, authors, entertainers—about making a living. Email us if you'd like to participate. First up: Jeff Deegan.
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Jeff Deegan Designs belt buckles. (Photo: Jeff Deegan)

Jeff Deegan Designs belt buckles. (Photo: Jeff Deegan)

Jeff Deegan makes belt buckles. Lots of belt buckles. Really excellent belt buckles, like ones that have two alligators on them and cost well over $1,000. They are the type of belt buckles that Ron Burgundy might wear. He started Jeff Deegan Designs in 1980 and has run the Providence, Rhode Island-based company ever since—initially with his wife, Jane, and then solo since she passed away from cancer in 2006. Deegan spoke about coming up in the business, the influence of the Internet, and taking accounting classes at 8:30 a.m.

When people ask you what you do for a job, what do you tell them?

I was trained as a silversmith and worked in all different capacities, but I think I'm more of a hybrid. I came into what I am doing through a lot of different lifetimes. I really wanted to sculpt in metal but on a jewelery scale rather than a monument scale.

You started with surfboards, and then the belt buckles came out of a dress idea you had when you were working as a manager at a jewelry manufacturer. Did you have the idea that you were going to be in some type of creative/artistic field or did you sort of stumble into it?

From an early age, I knew I wanted to do something in the creative field. I definitely deal with the physical world, so I wanted to make something and connect that with selling something. I accidentally fell into jewelry and metal. I'm not from Providence [which had a big jewelry district] so there was no real exposure to business such as it existed. I had really no concept about it, although I did want to do something on the creative end.

"It's always a little dicey. It's not like having a corporate job. There have been easy months, but I would never say there have been easy years. There is a hurdle to get over to make a living as someone in the arts or creative field."

Did you have a big break or was it a gradual process?

I did some jewelry stuff in college. When I got out, I directed myself into the business so I was managing a medium-sized jewelry factory in Providence. I was trying to get as much experience as I could because the overarching idea was to go into business on my own, even to the point that in college I took accounting classes at 8:30 a.m. my senior year.

I had been working for the jewelry company for about four years, and I was plotting how or where my next move would be. I had taken some clothing design in college and I got back into it a little bit because I wanted a creative outlet. I wanted to work in something that was absolutely opposite of what my everyday life was. I made a belt buckle for a dress and showed it to someone I knew who was in the leather business. He wanted to sell the buckles. He did for a few seasons, but I didn't love what he was doing so I decided to strike out on my own. That was the inevitable next step.

How does working with a precious metal like silver that fluctuates pretty dramatically in price affect the business? Are you able to hedge against price changes by having long-term contracts with vendors? Were you affected when the price of silver shot up a couple years ago and, conversely, did it benefit you when the price went down over the last 18-ish months?

I have been in this business long enough to have lived through the first precious metal spike of the late '70s. This was when silver almost topped $50 and gold was over $800. That happened in the first year of my going out on my own, and it totally chilled sterling sales. The result of which was I had to make pieces in bronze for a few years until the sterling market re-asserted itself.

This last run up came at what could not be a more challenging time. We were a couple of years into the recession's impact on sales and now jewelers had to raise prices!

Couple this with the fact that other vendors who had kept the lid on price increases during the first two years of the recession were now unable to continue absorbing costs and were starting to pass these costs on. So it was a perfect storm of slumping demand, higher costs for supplies and outside vendors, and, for the basic material ingredient—a three-plus increase in price for sterling.

My response for the first two years [of increasing prices] was to try to hang on to market share by holding price. (There is no hedging, realistically, for small businesses.) This became unsustainable as time dragged on. Many of the cost assumptions I had formerly held were now quite off, and a tedious re-pricing was done. Interestingly, while metal is certainly a big factor, labor and supplies are also a big factor in making better quality goods. The second decision I made was to create even more expensive pieces—more detail and labor, better finishing, gold, and stones.

The recent retreat in metal pricing has helped in that the margins are finally coming back in line somewhat; something that even with passing on some of the costs in the prior few years was not possible. Also, the relative stability is so much better than the checking of the metals market several times an hour that I did through most of the previous two to three years. The drama was wearing.

You have a store online but do you also sell to wholesalers?

I have worked primarily directly with stores, so wholesale accounts. The site, such as it is right now, is geared to straddling the line between competing with the stores for my customers and selling to people who might stumble upon the site. Recently, the site was set up primarily as a resource for wholesalers and their accounts. They could look at it to make sure they had everything in their store or people could look at it but then they'd have to find out where they could buy it in a brick and mortar place. The site is going through an evolution and it's about to become a more visible retail site.

Has the Internet changed the business side of your work? I would imagine it's easier to set up a shop, but it also increases competition, too.

It's definitely made it easier. It's really hard to conceive but within the last 10 years, I had more than one wholesale customer tell me that if I put up a website, they would not do business with me. That thinking has evolved. The wholesale customers have come around. They want you not to undercut them, obviously, but as far as contact and the whole social media tie-in, it's really cool. The people who are my contemporaries who are not embracing it are missing out. My philosophy for a fair number of years now has been to jump into everything because even if it's not the next big thing, it will be the something that the next big thing grows out of or grows in opposition to. If you're not familiar with the previous platform, you're not going to understand the next one.

Would you change anything in terms of how you marketed yourself if you were younger and less established?

The indirect answer would be that you need to keep refreshing your customer base with the next generation group. I don't entirely know how to do that. The next generation groups tend to reject or look beyond. In order to keep something going a long time, you need to figure out how to make yourself relevant so you can keep customer interest going. I guess part of that is trying to stay plugged in as much as possible. I guess in the short form, that would be it: Stay plugged in. It's also great fun.

Do you think it's more difficult now to make a living as an artist than it was 20 or 30 years ago?

It's always a little dicey. It's not like having a corporate job. There have been easy months, but I would never say there have been easy years. There is a hurdle to get over to make a living as someone in the arts or a creative field. But there happen to be a lot more outlets and you can reach a lot more eyeballs these days on the Internet and on social media. The corollary is that there is a lot more competition, but you can get yourself out to many more people than you could 30 or even 10 years ago. Converting those eyeballs into some monetized end is the perennial issue.

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.