career karma – Ryan Taylor of FTJCo

I became aware of Ryan Taylor through the magic of Twitter – besides being an incredibly active philanthropist and organizer of successful fundraisers such as HoHoTo, he is an entrepreneur who is transforming a storefront in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighborhood.  His company, the Fair Trade Jewellery Company, is dedicated to creating customized jewellery using materials that are sourced fairly. Ryan is an enthusiastic and passionate individual who is keen on sharing ideas, space, and galvanizing the community around him.  You can learn more in this video. I asked him some questions about his vision for a jewellery company with a difference.

You use a CNC machine and software to design and prototype your customized jewellery. How does your equipment affect the way you design?

I have two answers .

1. For our collections and my personal design process it doesn’t affect me at all. Computers and rapid prototyping are no different than a hammer, torch, or file, each a tool in my bench.

What it does do is affect the way clients engage the design process. Traditionally water colours are/were used to illustrate a concept, then wax models produced by hand. People still employ this process today, the challenge is who pays for this time? Visually translating from paper to physical model is difficult for some people which means the process is often repeated (at a considerable cost) until the client is happy. For our clients we don’t charge for the custom work because these tools help me reduce both time and labour. The entire process can be completed during a single consultation, or over a few emails. The wax model is an exact replica of the photo realistic renderings which significantly reduces any confusion, and even if there is a change remaking it isn’t a problem.

It’s worth noting that there are a lot of faux-cad suites on counters in Jewellery stores, these are generally fool proof stock computer models sales people are trained on to give the illusion of ‘custom design’ and improve margins. Others may offer CAD but it’s simply a process of emailing a doodle to China, which can become expensive if multiple changes are needed. True custom (CAD/CAM) allows for infinite design possibilities and the ability to add special details like a finger print, illustrations or complex architectural detail – the options are endless. It’s my job to guide people through this exiting process, and resolve any technical restrictions.

Despite using a machine for much of the modelling process, jewellery is still finished by hand. Here the new world tools meets the old, it’s one of the reasons I love what I do.

2. A common goal amongst designers who use CAD/CAM

This would depend entirely on the mandate of the company or the project. The ‘holy grail’ for most designers, in any field, is to really create something so perfect a human hand couldn’t reproduce it. But the most common goals would be: improving production capabilities, and cost.

Building the point of difference of your business on the notion of a higher standard of ethics is certainly admirable. Is building a truly “fair” for-profit business achievable or just aspirational?

Totally achievable. Because we’re already doing it. The biggest risk we face isn’t consumer demand, or the supply chain but the Jewellery industry itself. Getting up the nose, and facing off with the PR agencyies of multinational corporations is not a matter of if but when. The industry itself needs new thought leaders, they (will) see us as a threat to the status quo. What they should understand is; we don’t want to take the establishment down we want to reform it, preserve it, save it from itself, and by doing so also change the communities and regions affected by it.

Have you ever encountered a moral grey area where two ethical priorities (say, labour versus environment) compete? What would you do in such a situation?

Not yet. If I can’t deliver I’m honest with the client. This type of conversation often happens around coloured stones because there isn’t a body that independently certifies the supply chain(s). And there may never be, but clients are always receptive to education about the product, and bit of transparency.

Another question clients ask that I’ve always been reluctant to accept is the idea of ‘recycled metal’. How this idea could be marketed without question really illustrates how desperate the industry is to preserve their commodity model and how lazy the green movement has become. Jewellers, Goldsmiths, Manufacturers have been recycling fine metal for centuries, there isn’t a landfill for old jewellery. Branding it and selling back to consumers as some sort of ‘green strategy’ is quite brilliant in some ways. When I began searching for ‘recycled’ options I called one refinery because they advertised ‘eco metal’: I asked “Are you 3rd party certified”, answer: “Yes”, “Great who certifies you?”, reply “We do”. This interaction sums up the current industry pretty well, another case of foxes guarding the hen house.

That’s not to say a solution didn’t exist, we found one. To fulfill requests for Platinum (currently limited supply from our partners in Colombia) and Palladium (not available) we found found a parter who is certified by: SCS http://www.scscertified.com/ this allows us to offer a post consumer 3rd party verified product with a minimum of 88% (18% post-consumer 70% pre-consumer) recycled content without any moral dilemma.

You’ve alluded to a change of direction for FTJCo in 2010. How has your vision for the business changed since you began?

The vision remains the same. We’ve responded to feedback already by getting sample product in showcases, scaling our production ability, improving availability, and did a bit of a flip-flop on how we offer custom. These are all boring operational refinements though.

My greatest disappointment was not being able to offer the 10-15% of retail as an investment back into the communities of the Choco. I believe this to be temporary set back, as we generate more business and refine our financial model I hope 2010 is the year we achieve this goal.

What have you learned from the process of “soft-launching” a business?

  1. People entering a “jewellery store” are always on the defensive. And understandably so. I despise going into Jewellery stores.
  2. No one knows what an atelier is.
  3. Education not sales.
  4. Honestly above profits.
  5. Admit you were wrong.
  6. At whatever the cost “Make it Right”
  7. Love your community(s)

What designers and entrepreneurs do you admire, and how do they inspire you?

For a designer I only have one answer. Goldschmiedemeister Karl Vigelius. My mentor and friend. His work is elegant, technically brilliant, and he has shared the world with me. 50+ years experience, formally trained in Germany – he is a rare find. We spend every Tuesday together it is the highlight of every week.

Entrepreneur. Steve Jobs. I can identify with him on so many levels, I even haz a Woz 🙂

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