Welcome to Earning Abroad! In this series I’ll introduce you to some inspiring and ambitious friends I’ve met on the road — friends who have found viable work away from their home countries.
Today’s Earning Abroad interviewee will be no stranger to Alex in Wanderland regulars. Amy is my friend, my collaborator, and a fellow entrepreneur based on the beautiful paradise island of Koh Tao. We’ve been lucky to travel together to Thailand’s wine country, to the wild festival of Wonderfruit, to girly getaways in Koh Samui and Bangkok, and even to Amy’s childhood home of the UK.
A Liverpool native who has had metalwork in her family for generations, Amy launched a workshop of her own in the jungles of Thailand over two and a half years ago, and she’s never looked back. (And a quick note to my American readers: we spell it jewelry, Brits spell it jewellery!)
This year, we were giddy to collaborate on an ocean-inspired collection that I’ve loved seeing my readers rocking! To celebrate this interview, we are offering free shipping on our Wanderland Waves collaboration until March 19th. If there’s a piece you’ve been eyeing, now’s the time to snap it up with the checkout code wanderland.
Amy once told me, when you buy handmade, you support a dream. That’s always stuck with me. Amy is a true artist and even though we’ve been friends for years, I learned so much about her through this interview. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. Over to Amy!
AB: Walk us through a typical day at your studio!
AJ: As with many people who run small businesses alone, my days vary, but they almost always start early. First and most important items on the to-do list are coffee and a thirty minute wake up / me time period. Then, I walk the five step commute to work to the corner of my house where I have my workshop.
Working in my house is one of my favourite parts of my lifestyle; having the freedom to start and stop throughout the day, being able to look a hot mess and be really comfortable all day long with no-one but my cat to judge me, and having quick access to the kitchen are all major pros of my business.
I typically spend the first 1-2 hours of the day on my computer answering emails, editing photos, looking over my Facebook, updating Pinterest, decide on the day’s Instagram. Once I move over to the bench I scan over my to-do list that I make the night before and try to get the small and easy jobs out the way first. Usually I am either in the process of making a small batch of jewellery or planning to. My time spent making stock items all depends on how many direct and custom orders I have going on, but I like to set aside a few days a week to work on collections and fun projects.
The days usually get broken up with coffee and snack breaks and – possibly more frequently — playing with my cat breaks, but I try to do 3-5 hours straight at the bench at any one time. I notice the day’s productivity goes seriously downhill if I have larger breaks to do another task, even if by the end of the day I have still clocked the same amount of hours. When I’m on a roll I am always amazed at by how much I can actually get done in one day!
As I don’t have my own shop I have to set aside time to mail orders, stop by my local retailers and meet my local customers several times a week.
Being self-disciplined is a super important part of being my own boss, especially when setting my hours. It’s always tempting to have an extra few hours in bed or to wander off to the beach to meet friends and sometimes I do both those things on the same day but overall it’s a skill that you practice and master. I’m certainly not perfect at it but I seriously love what I do so overall it’s not too difficult to stay put.
A few hours into the afternoon I start to make dinner, I love to cook so usually spend couple of hours every other day to prep meals ahead of time, and then catch up on those work hours later on into the evening. On a typical night I will work until about 9-10pm and finish the day off by writing the next day’s to-do list. Mostly I’m happy to work late and consider the day a success if I have been busy/productive for ten hours, that number is probably inaccurate most of the time with all the cat breaks – but oh well! If I decide to take a night off it usually means I have plans for dinner with friends or a few glasses of wine at my favourite bars.
How long have you been a jeweller?
Well it feels like as long as I can remember but really it’s been about fourteen years — which for a 28 year old is a long time! I started out as an apprentice in my dad’s jewellery shop when I was 14, where the goldsmith working for him at the time (and still to this day) taught me all the basics from filing and sawing to soldering and polishing. From then on I fell in love with the trade and continued to work as a ‘Saturday girl’ until I left for university, where I studied Metalwork & Jewellery.
Why did you decide to base yourself in Thailand? What inspired you to set up your business here?
I travelled to Thailand for the first time in 2012 once I had finished university and was ready to see the world. I completely fell in love with Koh Tao after spending a couple of months diving here. At that point I was 22 and had plans to backpack for a couple of years around South East Asia and Australia. Yet no matter where I went I kept coming back to this same little island over and over.
After I completed two years in Australia on a working holiday visa I couldn’t imagine heading back to England, I just wasn’t ready to go ‘home.’ So I decided to head back to my favourite place (where a boy I was VERY interested in at the time happened to live… and who is still my boyfriend today!).
After a few months back on the island I knew deep down that no matter how beautiful the location was I deeply missed being a metalsmith and designing jewellery. My dream since I was in high school was to have a jewellery workshop somewhere tropical so this was my chance. I did all my research and organised my finances and went for it.
It was always an easy decision, really, but still a terrifying one!
Once I had made that decision to start a business it still took almost a year to get it off the ground. I count some of the months in Australia, as while I was there I was already researching what type of business I wanted to have. With a computer full of costs, designs and inspiration boards I kind of hit the ground running once I was in Thailand.
Turning my ideas into reality was such a fun adventure, I really had no idea what I was doing and relied heavily on new friends who had businesses to let me know how things go around here. I had the local carpenter build me a bench from scratch that I designed myself which is now one if my most treasured possessions — and I’m so sad it wont be able to come with me when I decide to leave. There were many many tears of frustration at extortionate shipping costs for my new machinery from Bangkok.
Building my workshop from scratch and getting all the equipment and materials I needed cost approximately 250,000B (almost $8,000USD) throughout my first year. The tools I use are so specialized it was incredibly difficult to find certain things with the language barrier and almost all of it was extremely expensive to order because of my location.
How do your family and friends react to your decision?
Actually I don’t think they were overly surprised, I’ve always been the spontaneous one of the family and I have usually never stuck to the ‘convention way.’ The wild child, one might say. Naturally they were nervous but overall once I had discussed my plans and backed up my ideas with research they seemed a lot more comfortable. Having worked in the jewellery industry since I was young helped me immensely when starting out and trying to negotiate costing, pricing, sales and handling customers. This experience, along with my BA Honours degree in Metalwork & Jewellery gave them confidence in me and I think my determination put their minds at ease.
My friends… while telling them I was moving to the other side of the world to set up my own jewellery workshop in the jungle, they just laughed and said, “of course you are.”
How do you find customers?
I have three types of customers that I look for: (1) my island customers that find me at my monthly pop up shops or see my work in various boutiques around the island. (2) Friends and family or friends of friends and family etc. that see my work out and about or through shared images on social media. Finally, (3) my online customers that purchase through my website or Etsy (an online marketplace for handmade and creative items).
The way I contact or find all three at once is via the internet, I have several platforms showcasing my work, giving updates on my latest creations and places to purchase my work.
When I first started out in December of 2015 I was blown away by the power of word of mouth. I had barely made any collections and already I was getting emails for pieces, as at the time there wasn’t much to offer on Koh Tao in the way of quality handmade items. Also, it was the Christmas season.
Being on a tiny island, word really gets around fast and I didn’t have to spend too much time on marketing back then. After I built up my inventory I decided to host weekly or monthly ‘pop up’ shops, where I would grab a table at one of the beach-front dive shops for an afternoon and give tourists and locals a chance to check out my jewellery. Sometimes I would even ‘borrow’ my friend’s little bamboo juice bar when she was closed on Sundays. It was great to build up my brand and reputation this way and meet so many people who were extremely supportive.
Shortly into 2016 I set up my Etsy page, which opened my business up to people all over the world. I didn’t know what I was expecting but I was pretty shocked when I was getting sales and orders from so many different countries.
I now sell my work in FlipFlop & Treacle, Riptide and OceanSound Yoga Studio on Koh Tao. It helped so much getting permanent locations to display my designs. It became very overwhelming at one point getting requests to see work when I didn’t have a pop-up scheduled. Now I only need to have private meetings for custom orders and can spend more time creating the stock to put in the stores and online.
How do you market yourself online?
My main platforms now include Facebook, Instagram, Etsy, my website, and Pinterest. They all work hand in hand, each one giving slightly different perspectives of my brand and help customers find their perfect piece of jewellery. Each one needs its own marketing techniques as they all attract a slightly different audience.
The most important part about selling jewellery on all my platforms is having beautiful photographs that capture my inspiration, my brand and of course the piece itself. Photography has never come naturally to me and I had little to no experience shooting jewellery or models or anything really.
I realized pretty quickly the importance of this skill so I bought myself a second hand DSLR camera for $100 and started practicing. This is by far my most important marketing skill — even though I’m still a complete amateur and constantly berate myself for having no idea what I am doing with a camera. The photographs that I share with the world travel to so many pairs of eyes, it’s important for them to be an accurate representation of what I’m trying to sell.
I am constantly complimented on the beautiful backdrops of my photography, and I love that I never have to venture too far to find a stunning location to shoot so I give the island all the credit for that.
I try to make my images stand out from the crowd and share them on Facebook and Instagram 3-4 times a week to keep my followers in the loop on my latest designs. Hopefully, that keeps me fresh in everyone’s mind.
Over the past few months I have worked on a new collaboration project with none other than the wonderful Alex in Wanderland! This was a first for both of us and we teamed up and created our very own collaborated collection of ocean inspired jewellery. Being close friends on Koh Tao for a few years and a shared passion for the ocean we came up with our Wanderland Waves. It was a great experience for both of us and we definitely walked away with our list of what worked and maybe slightly longer list of ‘things we would do differently’ but overall, a success! Having Alex’s large and loyal audience was fantastic exposure for my little brand. Using influencers across the internet is so important for small businesses to get their name out there!
How much money do you make? It it enough to live on?
My income certainly is not a fixed number, the jewellery industry has highs and low seasons, with Christmas obviously being the busiest time of year. I can also say each year is definitely better than the last (nice to know I am doing something right!).
From sales over the past 12 months my monthly income varies between $2,000-$5,000, the highest being over the Christmas period. But overall my average is $3,000 per month.
If I put that in comparison to my very modest living expenses I live pretty comfortably. My rent for a house with an ocean view is $240 per month for me and my boyfriend ($480 total). I spend on average $80 per week on groceries, house supplies and dinners out and up until recently I would drink for free in my boyfriends bar — which unfortunately for me has now closed due to an expired lease. My biggest annual personal expenses are my trips home to the UK or to the US to see my boyfriends family, although I do enjoy the occasional trip here and there to ward off island fever.
Besides the fact that I don’t pay rent for a studio, my business expenses are as high as they would be if I was anywhere else. The costs of my silver is fixed to the silver spot price which fluctuates daily and currently silver is close to its all time high. I know a lot of people don’t have a budget for handmade jewellery and its considered a major luxury to many but the cost is always relative to the quality. Sometimes my prices may seem high but the cost of materials plus time it takes to design and manufacture means each piece contains hours of me. Hours inside my sketchbook, in the workshop, many trips to Bangkok to build up my gemstone collection and years of training. I always try price my work that is fair to me and fair to the customer.
What skills do you need for this job?
There is definitely a specific skill set needed to be a jeweller, metalsmith’s can decide to learn as little or as many skills and techniques they choose depending on their style and how intricate they wish their work to be.
I gained the workshop basics when I was an apprentice and then went on to develop more complicated techniques during my time at university. Some I use everyday and some I haven’t used again since. There are so many ways to form silver and every jeweller figures out which ones work for them and in time they refine their style and create their brand.
For me I love stone set pieces and chunky styles so I focus on the more traditional workshop techniques rather than any modern ways of manufacture. I love the feeling of creating something with my own bare hands, I compare it sometimes to making the perfect cake from scratch.
Aside from my workshop skills there are business-running skills I have picked up along the way. I am constantly finding out there is new things I need to know — which can be a tad stressful sometimes (all the time). Photography, as I mentioned, is an invaluable skill I have picked up and am constantly practicing and learning new tricks.
Time management and self motivation are two skills that I will forever battle with, sometimes I just want to hire someone to sit behind me and tell me to put my cat down and pick up the hammer.
Marketing is the skill I have a big love/hate relationship with, I know how important it is and not doing it can be the difference of five orders in a month or fifty. But sometimes I just want to sit in my house and make jewellery all day long without having to worry about doing an Instagram story or spending hours trying to create a captivating Facebook promotion. At the same time it can be another opportunity to be creative and I have had so much fun in the past creating giveaway offers and doing fun photoshoots on the beach!
What are the best and worst things about running a jewellery business in Thailand?
Well it would be hard to argue that the best part is working in paradise, I have a small house tucked in the hills surrounded by trees and flowers with a view of the ocean. My studio is in my house where I have my bench in the corner of my living room and my polishing and cleaning station on the balcony. I am obsessed with the relaxed way of life here, it is an amazing environment to be creative and inspired away from the usual pressures of a modern day routine. I still pinch myself regularly when thinking about my little life here, it’s been an incredible experience living and working in Thailand for these past 2.5 years.
My community here has supported me since day one. My friend helped me grow my business from the ground up. Their recommendations, spreading the word and (sometimes very unsubtly) showing off my jewellery have boosted my brand and confidence so much!
As for my business, my start up costs were low as tools and machinery is cheaper in Asia. I have the space in my house to work comfortably and haven’t expanded enough to rent a studio space. At the moment I want to focus on the quality of my jewellery and therefore haven’t rushed to stretch the capacity of my workload. My online stores and reputation on the island has kept me so busy I wouldn’t want to compromise on quality or time with my customers until I am ready to hire someone to share the workload. So at the moment I am enjoying a busy schedule with no extra rent costs!
The worst parts about being a jeweller in Thailand is not having access to reliable jewellery tool and supply companies. I have tried so hard to build relationships with some of the companies based in Bangkok but simple things like having the correct item shipped or even getting an email answered don’t always work out. We are very lucky in the West to have suppliers with sensible office hours, next day delivery and clear organised websites.
Where do you source your materials?
I only use high quality materials such as Sterling Silver and genuine gemstones. I use a mixed bag of suppliers from around the world to stock my workshop, unfortunately I never found a reliable source for my silver here in Thailand so still get all the sheet and wire that I need from a company called Cookson Gold in the UK. It is a slight inconvenience having a 2-3 week time gap between ordering and receiving but I know I get high quality metal and can order the specific wires I use for my designs.
My gemstones I get from many different suppliers but I find myself getting most gems in Bangkok. Silom is the jewellery quarter with thousands of companies crammed into a tiny area. There is an impossible amount of choice but after many trips I find myself going back to the same faces once I have established the quality and value of the gems. Turquoise is most popular stone (and a personal favourite) so I order from multiple places including companies in the US that supply Turquoise from the local mines I order with online. I sometime even auction for gems on Instagram!
What would your advice be to someone seeking to do the same?
I would say to try to find your signature style and be as original as possible. That seems almost an impossible task when it feels like everyone has done everything, but there are small ways in which to make yourself stand out. Your style and ‘flair’ reflect your brand, I believe jewellery is an expression of our inner self, so show how unique you are.
If your jewellery is very similar to that of others go the extra creative mile in how you market it! Build up your social media following! It can feel like a grueling and never-ending task but unfortunately is the most important way to get your name out. Start off with one to two platforms to really focus your energy on rather than getting overwhelmed with managing eight social medias that need constant attention.
For sales, Etsy is a great place to start. In the world of e-commerce they make it simple to show and sell work and are extremely popular in the US and building up in the UK and Australia.
Most important of all just go for it! The amazing part about having a jewellery business and working for yourself is you can start as small and slow as you like, collecting tools and skills a long the way. You don’t need to know it all before you even begin, I know many successful jewellers who are self taught. Be prepared to be constantly learning and to teach yourself the skills you need. No-one will do the hard work for you.
What do you know about Thailand that you wouldn’t have learned as a tourist?
Working here has been vastly different to any short trip I have taken in the past, spending a prolonged time anywhere gives you the chance to see the place with a different mindset. Being here for a long period of time allows you to pick and choose short trips to explore the country and revisiting favourite places can mean having completely different experiences. Going to the same place twice doesn’t mean you see the same thing twice. Having the chance to explore the country more has given me a much broader perspective on the Thai culture than any rushed trip along the backpacker trail.
The Thai culture is fiercely proud and patriotic one. Living here has shown me how much Thai people love their country and cherish their monarchy. I was here in October 2016 when the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej sadly passed and I witnessed the nation come together in solidarity to mourn their beloved leader. I was moved by the powerful wave of grief that shadowed the country and often realised how different we are in the west where I don’t believe any leader receives as much respect as the Thai monarchy.
Are there differences between working in the UK compared to Thailand?
One of the main things I love about being in Koh Tao is the lack of the high street and its large companies. I have always felt passionate about quality over quantity and am lucky to be somewhere people appreciate the handmade aspect of my business. I know that back home artisans are forever overshadowed by the mass produced costume jewellery that gets churned out, and it can be so disheartening to feel like you’re too small to be seen.
I still face the exact same competition as everyone else in the online world which is one aspect that will never change wherever I go.
Another difference would be that living in a vacation destination means I have a completely different customer base than if I had set myself up in a British city. The constant turn-over of tourists is such a great way to meet people from all walks of life. Many take their jewellery home to then recommend me to their friends and even become repeat customers. It is just such a fantastic feeling knowing my pieces are in so many different countries right now and it has opened up many doors for me. I feel like that’s been an invaluable part of starting up out here and its given me opportunities to work with people that I would never meet if I was still in England.
What are some of the success stories you’ve been able to tackle while working online?
One of my favourite experiences online was just over a year ago I was contacted by a lovely lady from the US and she sent me the nicest email a stranger has ever sent to me. She told me how she had seen my work through a friend of a friend of a friend on Facebook and had since admired my work from afar, explaining that she had initially been nervous to contact me. She went on to order four custom pieces, one being a very sentimental design that she wanted to have made for many years using vintage elk ivory – something I had never even heard of let alone used.
The ivory had to be mailed to me in Thailand, yet rather than using a local jeweller this lady chose me to make this particular piece. That to me is one of the biggest compliments! Another was a ring that she gave me full creative license of, I was blown away that someone had so much faith in me and my work and they had never met me!
So that was my first experiences with a complete stranger from another continent contacting me out of the blue. It s a feeling that’s hard to describe, besides incredible and a huge confidence booster its also kind of nerve-wracking. A big dollop of reality that real people far, far away are seeing what I’m doing and loving it. I use this to remind me to perfect my pieces, my photography, my captions, my typos. All the things that need to get done but sometimes don’t if rushed.
Have you had other experience working abroad?
Yes. I spent two years in Australia before moving to Thailand — while I was there I was only interested in making friends, seeing the country and of course the occasional party. My work there was mostly confined to the hospitality industry, I worked in several bars in Sydney and Melbourne over the two year period with the mandatory three month farm work required to obtain the second year visa.
Those two years contain some of my favourite memories. It was my first time working abroad and it was so fun to range from fancy cocktail bartender in Melbourne CBD to farm girl driving five tonne tractors round a turf farm… I can safely say there is no stranger sight than seeing a 50kg, 23 year old haul round a giant piece of machinery barely being able to reach the foot pedals.
Although I didn’t work with jewellery at all during my time is Australia I did miss it and knew I needed to get back to my tools sometime soon. Fortunately the wages in Australia are extremely generous and with the amount of savings I had by the time I left in 2015 allowed me to set up Amy Jennifer Jewellery in Thailand later on that year!
What are your plans for the future? How long do you plan to continue working as a jeweller?
I will always be a jeweller, I know that much.
I have already spent half my life in this business and still love it every day. It’s the dream to do what you love each day and sometimes I struggle to even call it work. Being able to make a living from my passion has been incredible and I cannot wait to see where the road will take me. For now I am content being a one-woman show and producing my small batches of handmade goods.
I think my time in Thailand will soon be coming to an end but I can’t see myself rushing to a city… I’m sure if you check back in a year or two I will still be somewhere sunny and hopefully with an ocean view. Me and my boyfriend both agree being so far away from our families is one of the hardest parts about being abroad and are hoping to relocate somewhere in the western hemisphere.
Many thanks to Amy for sharing her story with us — and don’t forget to take advantage of free shipping on Wanderland Waves this week!