"Why not my size?" Sizing as a barrier to innovation in body jewelry

The demand for jewelry to adorn stretched piercings has never been higher. With that demand comes a marketplace hungry for new work and innovation, both aesthetically and technically. I believe the largest hinderance to that progress is the immense number of sizes at which people expect to be able to obtain similar styles.

T-shirt companies work in an average of XS-XL with the occasional larger sizes. If you make necklaces, your only real concern is chain length. If you make rings, you’re primarily working with as many sizes as there are fingers plus half sizes, but it’s likely that someone is there to try on that piece for fit. Shoe companies have a slightly larger range.

My business regularly produces jewelry in about 50 sizes with a full range of over 70, and we custom make a nearly unlimited number of in-between sizes and combinations of wearing length and flare size. Our choice, however limiting, is to do it by hand one at a time because we believe there is value to the customer, maker, and to society in hand work.

I regularly get asked why a design originally conceived for and most suitable for a size like 3mm is not available at 16mm, or why an inlay or carved design that is most aesthetically pleasing at 19mm (or larger) cannot be made at 5mm. I have had people get mad at me for refusing to make a style that I did not believe would do justice to the design or my company at a drastically smaller or larger size. I am happy to accommodate requests and work with anyone to achieve their body modification goals, but as a maker it is my job to understand what will or will not work for a given material or design and make a call that is best for my business and the customer.

This tension between market demand and the realities of both the materials we use (all natural) and the designs we carry is a force for innovation but also a serious barrier to profitability and the continued long term success of business in this market. If we introduce a carved design, it is necessary to establish a range of sizes in which it will work and stock them all. The nature of natural materials is such that there is always a certain amount of loss from warping/cracking/things going mis-sized over time. If we introduce an inlay style, we have two production options. The first option is to create a size of inlay for each and every size of jewelry available, which is just not economically feasible. The alternative is to group ranges of sizes to a size of inlay with the understanding that each size will look slightly different due to the space around the inlay, which is what we do. Unfortunately, some customers are not comfortable with that variability and expect an exact aesthetic.  Because we hardware set all of our inlay projects without glue, it has been necessary to spend considerable time engineering different ways of achieving the same goal in different sizes. We love the challenge, but this is an example of time and dollars that many customers may not understand is happening behind the scenes. In fact, many of our smaller sizes cost us more to make than the same item at a larger size because they are considerably more time consuming and complex, but we’d have a hard time convincing someone to pay more for something that is cheaper at a much larger size.

As far as material limitations, many people are unaware that horn, bone and antler only grow so large, or that reliably obtaining dry wood in very large sizes that will not shrink or split shortly after production is a near impossibility. Materials with pattern of course look drastically different in smaller sizes where only a tiny portion shows, and there are stones that occur in layers or nodules that simply will not work for larger sizes.

What are the solutions to these problems? Short of limiting sizing to popular sizes or specializing in a specific size range or style of jewelry (ie, hanging styles in small sizes, weights, only plugs, etc) there really aren’t many options. With growing international demand for body adornment jewelry and different measurement systems and methods for stretching, limiting output to a niche within the market could drastically limit potential profitability for a business.

For Onetribe it has been a matter of working with our customers as closely as possible and establishing a relationship and dialogue that allows us to create as much jewelry as possible in a made-to-order or custom fashion. This ensures that customers get jewelry that fits and that we have the largest possible range of sizes available, but it comes at a cost. The production time involved in customization and the time involved in customer correspondence both result in considerably higher overhead, which of course limits profitability. We know that other independent makers in our industry have chosen the same route and of course face the same barriers, and what’s more, we’re all doing it while competing with lower quality mass produced items. For many of us, it is a labor of love and we will continue to do it as long as we can feed our families.

So what’s the point of this? Well, if you are a fellow maker, you may have been thinking this as well and I just want to tell you that we are right there with you. If you are a customer, you now know more than you did about my business and the issues facing small maker businesses in the body adornment market. What should you do with that information? Love your favorite makers and know that the feeling is mutual, and just understand that you are the reason we do this. Despite the difficulties, our joy comes from the process and from seeing you truly happy with your body adornment journey. I do have a request though: please be understanding if there are size limitations to a particular item, and if we say something is one of a kind, please don’t tell us you would have bought it if it was in your size. Instead, contact the maker directly and start a proactive dialogue about receiving something that will be uniquely yours.

Jared Karnes, Onetribe