It's pretty much a universal truth that female musicians (not counting major pop stars here) are just really cool. Often times they become just as admired for their style as their musical talent, and I think part of that is because there's an authenticity to their style that a lot of pop stars and actresses lack. They wear clothes; clothes don't wear them. Florence Welch, Alison Mosshart and Lorde are all good examples of this, and they all happen to be fans of a small New Zealand-based fine jewelry line called Meadowlark. Lorde (also a New Zealander) in particular -- she's rarely seen without a pice of the brand's jewelry on her neck, wrist or finger.
Designer Claire Hammon and her husband Greg Fromont run the line with the aim of making timeless, unique pieces their customers will keep forever. Having launched eight years ago, the brand has already grown exponentially. Though, launching a jewelry line in New Zealand is not without its challenges. Read on for our interview with Hammon about how she's making it work.
What is your background and how did Meadowlark come about initially?
I left school quite young, I was 16. I started a streetwear brand and I did that for about eight years and we sold the company. I had learned to be a graphic designer at that time as well. I worked as a graphic designer for a while, then I met [my husband] Greg, and Greg had trained as a jeweler and we started Meadowlark eight years ago.
Was jewelry something you had been interested in before or was it mostly Greg's idea?
I had done a jewelry course when I was 18, so that was an interest of mine, but we were talking one night over dinner and we were like, 'Oh we should do something together' with my design side and his jewelry side, and we did it. We weren't that serious about it, but we made a collection and sold it.
What was that first collection like and how did you get it into stores?
It was probably about 10-12 pieces and there were no rings when we first started. We did a collection and made a little lookbook and we went to all the stores in New Zealand that we wanted to be in, and most of them took it straight away. New Zealand stores are really good at taking risks and they want something new and exclusive, so it was quite easy to get into all the good stores.
Where did the name Meadowlark come from?
We couldn't find anything we totally agreed on and Meadowlark came from a quote by a wordsmith called Ambrose Bierce and the quote is, "The metallic note of the meadowlark."
Lovely. How did you fund the line initially and how are you funding it now?
We funded it ourselves, and we continue to fund it ourselves. When it started, each thing that needed to be paid, for we just put in our own money. And when we really started needing more cash, I put in a little bit of my savings from the sale of my previous business, but it wasn't much. We didn't pay ourselves until about three or four years ago, and we both kept working part-time.
How has the line changed and evolved over the years?
It's always growing. We do a lot more rings now, we didn't do rings at all at the start -- I'm not sure why. Back then, there was a bit of a trend of layering lots of necklaces, so that may be why. We've moved into bridal recently. The last collection we did was a range of 30 rings and you can make lots of combinations with them and they can be used as wedding or engagement rings. Really not traditional.
It seems like more people are looking for non-traditional wedding options these days.
There's definitely a big change going on because lots of brands have started to do it.
What one or two pieces would you say you've become known for or are your biggest sellers?
I would say the Protea cocktail ring. It's a really big seller for us. It might have been the first cocktail ring we did actually.
Is it challenging working with your husband?
It's good, we work together really well. I guess the challenge is that, when we come home, we still talk about work a little bit so it's quite hard to switch off; but when we're at work, we don't work in the same space so we don't see each other all day long. He's usually in the workshop or in his own little desk area, and I'm usually in the office or the showroom space with everyone else.
How big is your staff?
We have eight staff not including ourselves. There are four full-time jewelers. We make almost all of the jewelry in-house.
How much of your business is e-commerce versus third party retailers?
Off the top of my head I think online is about 1/6th of our business. If you consider it its own store, it's definitely the biggest store. It makes more money than all of our stores do. It's growing rapidly.
Are you trying to grow the business internationally?
That's our main focus, we just got PR in New York and 25% of our online sales go to Australia at the moment and internationally it's growing everywhere, but aside from Australia, the most activity has been coming from New York.
So many cool musicians wear your jewelry, most notably Lorde -- is that something you pursue or has it happened organically?
Some things that happened were just natural friendship connections, so when we gave The Kills some jewelry, that was through a mutual friend and it was just a casual, 'Hey, you might like this,' and then they chose some things and we made them for them. With Lorde, obviously New Zealand's quite small, so we had a bit of a personal connection to her too, so we approached her and gave her some jewelry. We give her jewelry every now and then and she just seems to choose us every time, which is awesome -- but we started to give her jewelry long, long before she would have been heard about in America.
Have you gotten more attention since she's sort of blown up?
It's hard to know. Over here, there's not a lot of press attention because people are more concerned about what clothes she's wearing rather than accessories. But I think her full-on fans know about us and we've definitely had direct sales -- sales from America where they're like, 'I want what she's wearing. What is it, sell it to me,' but it's hard to know how much is coming from whom.
She even wears it in editorial shoots, which presumably have stylists.
She brings it, it's all her own. She owns all of the stuff she wears and I guess stylists decide with her to leave it on or take it off. If she's wearing other jewelry brands, it's probably the stylist choosing it.
Where do you get inspiration?
It's all over the place, it's had to pin down. We don't really do mood boards, we tend to come across things here and there and then we just expand on it. I'm thinking about the range we've just done and we were kind of thinking of really ancient royal jewelry and different cultures and put our own spin on it. We don't tend to be influenced so much by fashion, but more by architecture and interiors and nature and science and stuff like that.
Do you follow trends?
I don't think we do; I think we sometimes do without realizing, but we try not to be a trend-based brand because we want it to be really long-term. I think when we design a range we try to just do what we want and hope people will like us.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge in growing your business?
There's a few. I'd say keeping up with the demand is really hard because we're making it ourselves with our jewelers, which means they can only produce as much as they can produce. They work really long, hard hours and so it's keeping up with demand but also having enough jewelers. We've kind of grown out of our space so we're in a position now where we need to get more staff but we don't have the space to put them in, so that's the biggest challenge.
Has there been a milestone or moment when you felt you had finally "made it" or realized this had become a real business?
I don't know if there's an exact milestone, but I guess looking at it now and seeing how many staff we have that we can pay for all these people's lives, it's quite a milestone and quite serious and makes us feel like it's a real business -- which makes it a whole lot more stressful. [We also had] a real brand crisis. Until about a year or two ago, I wasn't sure where we were going or what we were doing and I just didn't feel like what we were creating visually -- not the jewelry itself, the jewelry's always fine -- but the campaign, the branding and packaging. That's something I've spent the last two years totally getting right and that feels like a pretty good milestone. For me, it feels like it's exactly where I wanted it to be and it wasn't quite before.
Do you do all of the branding and marketing yourself or do you have outside help?
I do all the brand managing and marketing and stuff, and I work with a bunch of different people. I am a graphic designer, but I decided quite a few years ago that the brand was too close to me for me to keep designing for it, and so I started working with a graphic designer. For the campaigns, we work with a stylist based in New York, and we work closely on shoots and choose all the models together. We do all our shoots in NYC -- New Zealand doesn't have quite enough talent. New Zealand brands don't tend to get noticed outside of New Zealand. It's not that New Zealand doesn't create quality campaigns, it's just that we don't have an amazing pool of models or photographers or anything like that.
What advice would you give to an aspiring jewelry designer?
I would say it's really hard work and it's a long time before it starts paying off. I guess the biggest advice I would give is to never do consignment if you can help it.
It's probably quite different in the States than it is here, but you have to pay for everything and it just sits there, and you're hoping that it sells... I just don't think you can get ahead like that. So when we started, because I knew from my previous business how hard it is to manage consignment too, right from the start we had a policy of no consignment. It takes up all your cash flow.
Where do you see the brand five years from now?
I'm not very good at looking ahead. I hope that we can establish ourselves internationally more and have the commerce grow a lot more -- we've only got one and a half people managing online. Some great press would be good. [I'd like it to be] just kind of how it is but hopefully less stressed. Even two years ago I wouldn't have thought we'd be where we are now, but it's impossible to imagine where we could end up in five years.