Small Business Profile: Sarah McGuire, Jeweler and Owner of Sailor - Chicago
Hi Sarah! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m Sarah, owner of Sarah McGuire Studio and Sailor. I started my jewelry business in 2003, not long after I moved to Chicago from New York City. I opened my retail store, Sailor, last fall.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I went to Parsons School of Design for fashion but fell in love with sculptural metalwork during my foundation year and then somehow ended up with a degree in graphic design. I’ve always made things and I’m that person who wants to learn how to do everything. Some circuitous path put me back on track.
When did you begin making jewelry? Was it something you always anticipated doing?
I was working as an assistant art director at the time and my days were spent in meetings and at a computer – it just wasn’t fulfilling for me. I had been interested in metalsmithing since art school and I really missed working with my hands. There were some great jewelry programs available in New York, so I started taking classes. That was really all it took to get me hooked. I kept taking classes everywhere I could. When we moved to Chicago, I did freelance design work for a couple of years to support the fledgling jewelry business and was able to make the change to full-time jeweler in 2005.
What does your design process look like? Do you always have a clear vision of what you want to create?
I keep multiple sketchbooks. They’re everywhere – on my desk, on my workbench, in my bag, even in my car. That way I can sketch whenever I have an idea. When it’s time to work on a new collection, I revisit all the sketches and start making. Many pieces are developed out of the making process. It’s the physical act of manipulating metal that I find most exciting and inspiring.
Was opening a retail space something you had planned on? What led you to open Sailor?
Retail was always in the back of my mind and I had been making plans for a shop for a few years. I was looking at storefronts around the city when the 2016 election happened. I was angry, and sad and overcome by this horrible sense of inertia – I just put the whole project to rest for a few months. Then a realtor I know sent me a listing for what is now our space on Damen. I knew the corner well and the space had good bones and great light. Though I was reluctant at first, I started to feel really hopeful and excited and wanted to keep moving forward. The shop was an opportunity to put the books, art, music, and craft that I love in front of people and spark a conversation.
How do you source the items that you have in your shop?
I wanted to create a space that was simultaneously cozy and spare – part gallery and part living room. Many of the things in the store – Michele Quan’s ceramics, Michael McGuire’s artwork, Garza Marfa textiles – are made by people whose work I have collected in my home and studio. It made sense to start there. With the jewelry, I’ve tried to assemble designers whose work sits well together but doesn’t compete, and who have a point of view. I do my best to buy pieces that really represent who a designer is. And I firmly believe you should work with people you like and with businesses you want to support.
How do you connect with your customers and community?
One of the biggest reasons for opening the shop was to meet and connect with the people who actually wear my jewelry. To see work on the body and get direct, unfiltered feedback. I love being in my studio, but that life can also be somewhat isolating. As a wholesaler, you are one step removed from the customer. And the experience of your work, your brand, is filtered by the store selling your work. They pick the pieces and determine how they are displayed and what they are displayed with, so they control the conversation and sometimes the perception. Sailor is my opportunity to tell a story. The shop is a direct reflection of who I am as a designer and as a person.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I find inspiration everywhere – I think the key is getting myself into a mental state where I’m open to experience and able to be inspired. That said, there are certain themes that will always play a role in my work. Nature, particularly the ocean, provides endless inspiration. I’m a native New Englander and I grew up on the shore. It’s all the raw edges of things and eroded bits that I find most intriguing.
What are some of your favorite makers/brands that we should know of?
M. Quan is amazing – I love everything she does. Her lexicon of patterns and shapes and repetition of form – it’s all so good. Sarah Van Raden of Notary Ceramics makes strikingly minimal pieces that are beautiful and functional. And Winter Session makes the best damn bags and leather goods. 57th Street Design and Hedgehouse are two Chicago-based furniture makers who are doing seriously beautiful, well-crafted woodwork. I have pieces from both companies in the shop and people ask about them constantly. What I’m most attracted to is honesty – an honest use of materials, attention to detail, lasting quality. But I also love to see people take a tradition and turn it inside out. My friend Lori McLean recently introduced me to Grainne Morton’s jewelry, which has so much magic in it.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
I love what I do so it’s not hard to stay excited about it. I know that sounds hokey, but seriously, throughout history, people have given jewelry to mark life events like marriages and births, and to celebrate friendships and memorialize loved ones. People visit the shop to select pieces to celebrate a new job, a promotion, a graduation – or as an amulet to get through a particularly difficult time. The objects have permanence and they are also steeped in the memory of a significant event. As a designer, I get to make those pieces and as a shopkeeper, I’m involved in the selection process. That’s exciting.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face in your business?
Everything about running a small business can be challenging. In a larger organization, there’s more shared responsibility and often more resources (human and financial). When you’re small you have to be really creative and resourceful and resilient and flexible and motivated. It can get exhausting to be designer/salesperson/marketer/bookkeeper/shop girl/cleaning crew/boss lady. But it’s also amazing to be so in control of your own situation. It’s definitely not boring. And I get to use every part of my brain. I honestly can’t imagine going back to work for someone else at this point.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
Beginning in high-school, at almost every job I ever had, I worked for men. They owned the companies and they were my managers. But when I started my business, I started to meet so many women who run businesses and that was new and inspiring. For 11 years (since I hired my first employees) I have had an almost entirely female staff in an industry that used to be completely dominated by men. It’s exciting to see and be part of that shift. My sales reps are women, the majority of the shopkeepers I work with and buy from personally are women. More than ever, I believe we need to support the things and the people we believe in – with our emotions and our wallets.
What creative women do you find inspiring?
How do you manage your time?
This is a really hard one for me. Because the shop is new, I’m constantly working. I’m in my studio Monday-Thursday and in the store Friday-Sunday. When I was younger, I was definitely not a morning person. Now I get up early and I love it. I make coffee while I take care of emails and make lists for the day. Then my husband and I walk the dog and I go to the gym. I don’t get to the studio until 10am but I’ve usually gotten in at least two hours of uninterrupted work by the time I arrive. The studio can be really chaotic and full of distractions, so sometimes those two hours at home are the most productive of my day.
How do you deal with moments of self-doubt?
I just push through. I try to remind myself that I’ve felt that way before and keep pushing. And when all else fails, my husband talks me off the ledge. He’s my best friend. We’ve been together for 20 years and I often think he knows me better than I know myself.
What are you trying to learn right now?
I’m working on self-care. I might see a day off in my future.
What tools or resources have been most helpful for you in creating your business?
What are some of your favorite places in Chicago?
The lakefront and the modern wing at the Art Institute. The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, the Driehaus Museum and the Monadnock Building are amazing peeks into history–each one is like a time capsule. The Farnsworth House in Plano is spectacular. In the summertime, I love going to hear music in Millennium Park and Ravinia. The store opens at noon on Sundays, so I’ll try to fit-in brunch at Cellar Door in Logan Square. For coffee, I love Loba in Roscoe Village (Val makes the best pastries); Gaslight in Logan Square and La Colombe in Andersonville. For cocktails, I really like Larry’s in Uptown and Income Tax in Edgewater. This could turn into a really long list, so I'll just cut myself off here.