The Price of a Bead February 27, 2021 20:48

It’s so much more than just the cost of material.

I chose an art medium that has high overhead. It doesn’t seem like it when you start. You can buy a Fireworks kit from Hobby Lobby for $100.

Down the Rabbit Hole

I started down the lamp work rabbit hole buying the Hobby Lobby kit. You get a small torch, an assortment of glass rods, a few mandrels, some bead release and a thermal blanket for the beads to cool slower after you take them out of the flame. I still have my first two beads I made with this kit.

Very first bead blobs

But this isn’t enough to make viable glass beads. These beads will likely break. The next step is finding someone who has invested in a kiln and garage annealing those beads that cooled in a thermal blanket in the kiln.

Playing with glass introduces you to chemistry and the need to learn some of those chemical properties so you can make a viable product. In the case of glass, you begin to learn about the properties of glass. The reason glass will crack without properly annealing them is because glass expands while heated. When you take the bead out of the 2,000 degree (Fahrenheit) flame, the outside will start cooling and shrinking quicker than the inside. The quicker this happens, the more unstable the bead will be. Slowly cooling the bead down to room temperature through the use of a temperature controlled and timed kiln is the key to annealing the glass. My first kiln cost $600.

Pricing Beads - 2017

I started making glass beads back in 2007. The first six months was learning to make a log of really ugly beads and nothing was salable.

The ugly phase

I did sell a few beads after six months. I continued to sell beads off and on over the years depending on whether I was able to create a lamp work studio for myself. I was able to dive back into making glass beads in 2017 and made 18,000+ glass beads over the course of three years to sell at the Bead & Button Show in Milwaukee.

In 2017, I based my pricing on what many artists were charging for the spacer: $1 per bead. Most lamp work artists sell their spacers as an add-on to the decorated bead. Some sell the spacer as part of their business model. Because each rod of glass is a different price, and lamp work artists can often use many different colors in a single bead, the common wisdom going around in 2007 was to charge about $60-65 and hour. Or charge approximately $1 per minute for any bead produced. If it took 45 minutes to produce a bead, charge $45. Some artists sold their work via auction on eBay and were able to command prices up to $75 for a single bead. I paid over $50 for a a few stunningly artistic beads that are part of my collection.

Bead & Button 2017, Milwaukee, WI

Unfortunately, based on quick price comparisons with what artists are charging now, the common wisdom is the same in 2021 as it was in 2007 when I started even though costs of materials, overhead, and wages have risen since then.

A pricing conundrum

Something never set right with me about that formula for pricing. There is so much more that is behind the price of the bead you are selling.

Education: some go to college for their art, others do apprenticeships with master artists, other just dive in and teach themselves and make a boatload of garbage before getting to something worthy of sale. Many continue to learn by taking lessons from other teachers and artists. Most artists continue to experiment and break rules and make more garbage as they progress through phases and styles. In any case, there is an investment in learning and advancing the craft and art.

Corrina Tettingers book and other supplemental booklets

A healthy studio setup: my early studio setups would have made safety conscious people shudder. I didn’t have appropriate ventilation, my chair was an uncomfortable stool, and probably other things that I didn’t even think of. A healthy studio setup for me involves an excellent ventilation system above the torch, a dual fuel torch (using propane and an oxygen concentrator), and a kiln. I purpose built a shed with tile flooring to handle any shocking glass that popped off from the torch and air conditioning/heat so I could work in the extreme temperatures of Florida. A good workstation is essential for long periods of work. Learning how to work ergonomically is important. If you make things by hand, the repetitive motion has the potential to be very hard on the body.

Safe studio setup

Cost of Materials: Then let's talk about the cost of glass. The glass resellers have passed along the price increases from the glass manufacturers. I buy soft glass manufactured in Italy (Moretti/Effetre), Germany (Lauscha), and China (Creation is Messy). When I started making glass, I bought the glass that ranged from $7-$35/lb. I shied away from the more expensive glass like the hot pink that uses gold (and was $50+ a lb) or the silver-rich glass that created stunningly beautiful beads but cost over $70-100/lb. I have a significant investment in soft glass and re-tooling to use borosilicate is just not what I’m interested in doing. Plus, although there are borosilicate glass manufacturers here in the US, it is also a much more expensive glass as well ($50-100/lb) as much more time-consuming to make the beads from the glass (up to 10 min per spacer). My philosophy is that we’re a global art and I enjoy using global manufacturers.

My soda lime (aka soft glass) investment

Then there are your labor costs if you pay yourself a living wage, business overhead costs, and dare I say profit? All of those should be considerations as you price your work.

Commercial manufacturers theoretically make their profit on selling in volume. But how realistic is it for a human to make items in enough volume to make a living? I made 7,000 beads a year from April - June in preparation for the June show. I don’t have the stamina to make beads for 40 hours a week day in day out for an entire year. The kind of repetitive motions needed for making beads will sideline you real quick.

Rising costs

Since 2007, the cost of living, cost of materials, and a living wage have all risen.

For me, in the case of the glass I buy, tariffs happened. I’ve been working with the Creation is Messy brand since shortly after they started their business. They are an American-Chinese partnership with the US-based partner doing the marketing and sales and the China-based partner developing and producing the colors. The glass manufacturer is a small, family run business with a few employees who are paid fair wages. Kathy also supports them with safety gear and equipment not readily available in China. With the 50% tariff on the glass causing some of the colors like Cranberry pink (which was already expensive at $60 per pound because it contains gold to produce the striking pink) are now $100. The softer pinks like Paris, Venus and Gelly Sty went from $40 to $60 a lb. (The flip side of buying glass at this price is that now I’m primed to buy the more expensive glasses I had been avoiding. I digress.)

 

Currently $35 per pound. Used to be around $22.

Mass Production Culture

While those are more recent developments, even before the tariffs went into place, I was frustrated with the prevailing attitudes toward pricing artwork and the tendency to devalue our work just because the cost of materials is theoretically low. Yes. The actual material is sometimes just pennies. But what was particularly frustrating is because most people are indoctrinated with the current commercial culture of mass-produced cheap goods that drive prices lower and lower. Many would compare my fairly priced, handmade, small batch, unique items to mass produced commercial items.

However, I also admit I understand that mindset because we've all been indoctrinated with the commercial manufacturing culture. When I was younger, I had limited funds so I chose my jewelry carefully. Usually dainty, inexpensive pieces. As I cultivated knowledge of the handmade world, my understanding of the process and what goes into making art and handmade items has changed as well as my willingness to value the effort, uniqueness, and artistry and therefore pay the higher price tag. And with that, I've also been making the effort to make sure the people I buy from are  fairly compensated for their work.

The Voice of Sanity. Logic. Reason.

But, as I mentioned, the pricing mindsets even in other makers/artists can be discouraging and even frustrating. Then I discovered Megan Auman and her Artist mentorship group Artists & Profitmakers. I’ve known about Megan Auman for several years. I was aware of her when she created Crafting an MBA. She changed the name to Designing an MBA. I started listening to her addictively a few years ago on Creative Live and reading her emails and books. Lately pretty much every Designing an MBA email she sends out speaks to me LOUDLY. I also joined her Artists & Profitmakers artist community not long after I read her Try it and See book. Right before I joined APM we exchanged a few emails on the subject of pricing and that clinched my decision to join APM. She also had some very relevant posts about the value of our work as artists. (The Cost of a Cozy/Cuff, The Cost of a Cozy/Cuff Part 2.)

You see - she believe artists should be paid appropriately for their work. As in a living wage. Not selling their work at a discount because that’s what people expect or that's how the current commercial manufacturing world has designed it. How are you able to make a living if you can’t cover your expenses? Artists should charge enough to make a profit as a business, be able to pay themselves a living wage and be able to make enough to have a savings, take a vacation, and buy other art to support other artists. This was so logical. Finally, someone was making sense!  (She has some pretty good rants on this subject. I love a good Megan rant because she always has very salient points to make. Worth listening to!)

Pricing Beads - 2018

After a single email conversation with her, I raised my prices. Nearly doubled them after my first conversation with her. My sales actually increased in 2018.

Bead & Button 2018

Pricing Beads - 2021

I’m about to raise my prices again for the reasons mentioned above. Even though I doubled my prices in 2018, I still had a gut feeling my prices still weren't covering all of the expenses. This year, I went into  a much more scientific and detailed tracking of how much it costs me to make a bead: figured out the cost of materials, cost of labor, added my overhead of running a business, manufacturing waste, added a little bit of profit and arrived at a wholesale price and retail price I need to sell my beads to make a living. I also want my retailers to make money selling my work. While my art business is part time, I want to support other artists who need to make a living by charging appropriately to cover costs and make a profit at making my art.

I do constantly second guess myself and with struggle with cultural or community expectations. I've actually freaked myself out a little with how much I was undercharging for certain shapes and sizes. But the numbers don't lie. The cost of living is at at certain level. The price of supplies are what they are. The cost of running my business is minimal but it still exists. And the overhead of a studio and all the learning that went into my craft - well those are sunk costs that I didn't mind spending while learning as a hobby. But this is a business now, even if it is a part-time business. I realize I don't necessarily owe an explanation for the price of my beads or the current increase. But I thought it was worth posting for those who were interested in understanding the bigger picture. For some who have been indoctrinated into the commercial consumption patterns, this won't resonate or it might even irritate them. I have to be fine with that. My costs are what they are. As I mentioned, I went through a mental transition when it came to appreciating handmade. I thought this type of post would help those who are interested in that bigger picture. My pricing is derived from careful tracking and real numbers. I price by logic not magic.

The REAL price of a bead

Beads for the Seashell Collection

In this post, I only spoke about the strict mechanics and specific costs. It's also more than just the material costs, a living wage, overhead, manufacturing waste, and profit. Whether it's glass, polymer clay, base metal, semi-precious metal, or precious metals, it's so much more than the cost of materials. It's also the eye and aesthetic of the artist who makes it. It also means developing a healthier thought process outside of the commercialized over-consumption of mass produced goods that are driving prices cheaper and cheaper. I never understood how this model was profitable. And now we have the consequences of overconsumption of cheap goods and a lot of these retailers are declaring bankruptcy. So it wasn't a sustainable business model after all. I was indoctrinated with this thought pattern too and it was a process for me to understand what goes into making art and handmade items and eventually that did affect how I value the effort, uniqueness, and artistry and therefore pay the higher price tag. There is a whole different level of conversation on the subject of valuing handmade and art work. I recommend checking out Megan’s conversations on her Instagram and her blog. They’re worth listening to and they make sense. I’m sure I’ll have more musings along this line in the future. It took me a month to gather all my thoughts on this subject and turn it into this long post!