Maker Profile: Natalie Joy Miller, Owner of Natalie Joy Jewelry - Portland, OR
Hi Natalie! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Natalie Joy Miller, designer and owner of Natalie Joy Jewelry. We design and fabricate mixed metal jewelry specializing in minimalist statement earrings, and produce a small line of plant inspired mobiles and wall hangings.
What was your first job?
My first job was as a “sandwich artist” at Subway when I was 16. Honestly, I kind of loved it. It was my first taste of independence and adulthood. I barely made enough money to fill up my gas tank each week, but those dollars earned and spent were some of the most rewarding.
What led you to begin your own jewelry company?
When I went to college my immediate focus was on ceramic and metal sculpture. My obsession with smaller detailed work emerged after taking a metals class called “Working Small” that focused solely on creating small-scale sculptures (but not jewelry). I found it deeply satisfying to transfer what was in my head into these tiny worlds that could fit in the palm of my hand. When I graduated it was the beginning of the recession in 2008. I was super fortunate to find a job working at a jewelry manufacturing company. It was then that I realized small-scale sculpture was not so different than jewelry. I worked there for five years learning the ins and outs of running a business. All the while chugging away at my own designs in the evenings (sacrificing my walk-in closet for a mini metals studio). After two years of treating it as a hobby, I took the leap.
How does your creation process work? Do you come up with an idea and make it or do you strategically plan out your designs?
My inspiration comes in waves, and the waves can last days or even weeks. It’s both an exciting and agonizing feeling. I can only relate it to having something on the tip of your tongue and being unable to recall or articulate what you want to say, but feeling like you’re really excited to say it. When this happens I have to have a sketchbook and a pen on me at all times. There’s a sense of urgency when an image or shape pops into my head. Almost like a dream, where you know if you don’t write it down it will fade away and be gone forever. I’ve never designed a collection without filling up at least two entire notebooks with sketches. They aren’t detailed. It’s more about capturing a general idea in a fast and loose way. I like to draw the same shape or composition over and over until it sort of morphs into something that works. After sketching a general concept and collection of shapes I cut them out of brass sheet and start collaging them together to form individual pieces. There’s this thing that happens when I know I’ve gotten it right. I call it “the glitter feeling” and it’s never let me down. I can make an earring that is just fine, but if I don’t get the “glitter feeling” it won’t make the final cut for the collection. At the end of the day, it’s about evoking a feeling, and a mood around the object and not simply creating something that I think will sell. This is really important to me. Especially at a time when way too many products are being made for fast consumption. I don’t want to make a collection because the industry pressures me to put something out there twice a year. I want make something that resonates with me, and will feel relevant for a long time.
Where do you look for inspiration for your pieces?
My favorite place to draw inspiration is from paintings and textiles. It makes sense, because my pieces tend toward the two-dimensional as far as construction. I always find myself looking at works by Anni and Josef Albers, Hans Arp, Ellsworth Kelly, Victor Vasarely, and of course Calder and Matisse. I also turn to more recent works by painters like Paul Kremer, Mattea Perrotta, Caroline Walls, and Claire Oswalt.
I find minimalism endlessly fascinating whether it’s fine art, interior design, or a way of life. The amount of energy that can be packed into something so simple and (seemingly) straightforward inspires me. Because of this, my design process is also an editing process. I ask myself what is absolutely necessary to maintain the essence and feeling of this design? What can go?
How do you connect with your customers and community?
Craft Shows are a great opportunity to meet my customers and other makers that I’m familiar with through social media. It’s a great feeling seeing a Natalie Joy item in the wild, and so special when women tell me how they feel while wearing Natalie Joy. I’ll never stop selling at craft shows for this reason.
I also have a group of jewelers in Portland that I meet with regularly to talk shop, problem solve, share successes and commiserate with (while consuming lots of wine). They’re amazing and I feel really lucky to be a part of a community that lifts each other up.
What are some brands/designers that you are excited about that we should know of?
Textiles by Soft Century, and Ersa Fibers. Pottery by East Fork, Gabrielle Silverlight and Pursuits of Happiness. Shoes by Bryr Clogs, and Zou Xou. Housewares and sculptures by Lane Walkup, her work has a great sense of humor.
Why do you think it’s important to shop small and support local makers?
Shopping small and locally means your money makes a direct impact on your community rather than being spread among large companies whose practices are bad for our environment and bad for the people who actually make the product. We have to learn to be patient with our buying practices. I believe if there’s a hole in our wardrobe, we should be saving the money to buy it from a sustainable source, or taking the time to hunt it down second hand. This year I’m making a major effort to do this, and it’s been so fun! Gratification doesn’t have to be instant.
What is your favorite thing about your workspace?
Last December I moved into a studio that I had the opportunity to design, customize, and act as general contractor during the building process. After working in our tiny basement for 4 years, (complete with the noisy washer/dryer and our cat’s litter box) it was a dream of mine to turn our detached 1914 garage into a proper metals studio. Moving into our new light filled studio with proper ventilation and french doors that open into the garden has been one of the most epic experiences in my career so far. It has allowed me to comfortably fit my two employees and have designated stations for every step of our process. Sometimes I just sit in there and soak it up. Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for this beautiful space.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
As long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for creating things with my hands. It’s almost a meditative act for me. If I weren’t making jewelry or selling a handmade product, I would be working with my hands no matter what. I feel truly blessed to have turned this passion into my career. I also feel passionate about our jewelry being made in America, employing two women, and contributing to the sustainable fashion movement.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you faced when starting your business?
There are so many challenges in starting a business. My first challenge was learning how to let go and put my work in the public eye. My jewelry is an extension of myself, and putting it out into the world to be bought and sold was a really vulnerable step for me. It has been 14 collections now, and my relationship with that part of being a designer has changed so much. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t deal with insecurities and doubts now and again. It’s a part of the process.
More recently my challenge has been growth. It’s funny how your business sort of becomes it’s own organism, and decides how and when it’s going to grow. Last year was a really incredible year for us, but I didn’t have the systems in place to handle how quickly it was growing. I had to step away from making the jewelry and take an entire month to change the way we were handling production. It was such a game changer. Now every aspect of Natalie Joy has an organized approach, and we’re able to take on so much more! It was a real lesson for me as far as being a business owner. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day duties, but in order to be successful I have to pay attention to the business as a whole, create sustainable systems, and hand off the duties that aren’t the best use of my time and energy.
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?
In my experience, our society has conditioned women to feel like they are in competition with each other. When I started my business 7 years ago, I was so ashamed of my failures, and embarrassed of my accomplishments because I was worried it would push other women away. I’m so happy that things have changed. We’re all part of the same movement. There is enough for everyone, and if we learn from each other’s mistakes and build confidence from each other’s successes, it makes us stronger as a whole. This is especially true among designers who place importance on sustainability and the slow fashion movement. It’s time for us to celebrate each other and build a huge community of support so we can make a real impact on the fashion industry as a whole.
What have you learned from owning your business that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
I’ve learned it’s a constant state of evolution. Nothing is permanent. Failures won’t end you, and successes won’t make you. It’s committing to the process that means it will stand the test of time. The longer you do it, the better you get at it.
What are you looking forward to in the coming months?
We are about to release a new collection of our hanging plant vines, and I can’t wait to debut them at West Coast Craft in June! Expect to see some fun florals.
Would you like to share any of your long-term creative aspirations?
People often assume that makers and designers want to become huge. For me, success means that I am able to keep putting my art into the world while supporting my employees, and making enough money to live comfortably. Aside from making jewelry that women feel excited to wear, I’d love to branch out into making larger scale sculptures on commission. Last year I was commissioned to make an 18’ plant sculpture and it challenged me and inspired me in a whole new way.
How do you manage a work/life balance?
Working from home (even though the studio is detached) is a challenge and a blessing. My partner also works from home, so we get to see each other throughout the day and make a point to eat our meals together. That’s been really special for us, because we’re both workaholics and tend to work really long days. It took me a long time to realize that working 7 days a week isn’t healthy. Now I make sure to give myself at least one day off a week. Ideally I spend that day outdoors or prepping for the week ahead. Balancing work and life is a constant learning experience, and my limits and needs change pretty often. As long as I pay attention to where I’m at mentally and physically, I think I’m doing a good job.
What are some of your favorite places in Portland?
Portland is such a fun city. I love Guero for fresh flavorful lunch, Navarre for local and constantly changing menu items, and Sweedeedee for the best brunch ever. My favorite places to shop are Palace for great vintage and designer items, Appetite for pre potted plants and fun furniture, and Woonwinkel for unique gifts. For lounging outside, Mt. Tabor is perfect. It’s surrounded by old growth trees and huge reservoirs, and has a great view of downtown Portland. Any summer night, you will find a crowd of people sitting there to watch the sunset.