In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Los Angeles-based jewelry label J. Hannah is certainly more substantial than what we typically refer to as an "Instagram brand," but there's no denying that founder Jess Hannah's content game is on point. I'd noticed her minimalist, vintage-inspired jewelry on a few of my favorite e-commerce sites like Need Supply and The Dreslyn, but it was her chicly designed graphics and beautifully shot imagery on social media that really drew me in.
Her 14k gold and sterling silver rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets are designed to never be taken off: They're substantial but understated, timeless but distinctive and are all handmade to order in Downtown LA with ethically sourced materials. Just like the content — which she considers a priority as a primarily direct-to-consumer brand — a lot of thought goes into every piece. (And like a lot of brands with a strong social media presence, they often get copied.)
Though she studied graphic design in school, Hannah always had a passion for jewelry making and studied it as a hobby long before she thought she could make a career out of it. After struggling to find a job post-college (due in part to being a tad "delusional" — her words) and a brief stint as a personal style blogger, she managed to build a steadily growing brand that now encompasses nail polish and an inclusive, sustainable line of bridal rings, with more to come. Read on to find out how she did it, her nuanced perspective on knockoffs, and what's next.
Where are you from? Were you always interested in a career in jewelry?
I was born in Canada, but I grew up in Sacramento. And then went to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo for school, which is when I got more interested in jewelry. I actually studied graphic communication as my major, but was kind of bored in school, and I started taking metalsmithing classes with a local retired jeweler. I started becoming more and more interested and spending more time doing that and acquiring my own tools, like in my bedroom just trying to put together a bench setup. And then in my spare time I would watch YouTube videos on different processes, or try to teach myself stone settings. I would spend any money or gift opportunity that I had to ask for tools. My Hanukkah gift from my parents was a mini torch.
I was making stuff for myself and for my friends, and then I graduated from working with that retired jeweler. I ended up taking courses at Revere Academy in San Francisco. Then,I continued to build the skills on my own and would make jewelry and sell it on Etsy, but it was never really a super serious career path for me at that time, while I was still in college.
So you didn't see jewelry-making as a career?
I felt like what I was supposed to do was be a career graphic designer, or work for a magazine. It never occurred to me that this could be more than a hobby until after I graduated. I was applying for jobs that I supremely wasn't qualified for, because the things I was qualified for that — entry-level, design-related positions — seemed boring to me, and I think I was a little bit crazy. What's the right word here? Delusional? I'm applying for junior art director, or things at magazines that I have no business applying for, so I didn't get a job after I graduated college.
I ended up getting an apprenticeship with two local jewelers in San Luis Obispo. It was less than a year. But I think it gave me an idea in my head that, 'Oh, this can be a real job.'
Was the jewelry you made then similar to what you make now?
My style was different. I was making really dainty jewelry, thinner bands, little settings. Also, the method in which I made jewelry was quite different because I did hand fabrication. But within jewelry, there is a lot of different ways to arrive to similar conclusions.
I was working with metal, rolling it into wire, making that into the ring, and then hand-making bevels for stones. Whereas now, we do CAD, and do a design on the computer, and then print it. And then, we make molds and cast that every time, so a lot of the work now is finish work.
When I did start doing it more as a career, I realized how limiting making stuff that way is. But I think it was really important to do it that way, because I feel like I learned all the fundamentals of what is possible, and how to speak in millimeters.
What did you after apprenticing?
I was getting a lot of compliments from friends. I would post things on Instagram and people would want to buy them. That's when I was like, 'Okay, I'm going to make a website and I'm going to do this.' I made a logo, I started making a website, which, because of my major, I knew how to code and edit templates and stuff like that. I mean, looking back, my website was pretty heinous. But at the time, in 2014, it was an accomplishment that I shot everything myself and made the website logo and everything. I was still doing other things on the side. 2016 is when I started doing J. Hannah full time.
Was it a conscious decision to say, 'I'm going to dedicate all my time to this,' or did it more gradually snowball as you were doing it on the side?
Well, I had a style blog. My style blog was starting becoming really popular, more so than the jewelry. And when I decided to really quit that was when people were writing articles like, 'Style bloggers and their successful side businesses.' I can actually pull up that article. It was a wake-up call for me, that if I don't like doing this other thing, I shouldn't be doing it, because J. Hannah could be really taking off, and I'm not putting all my resources there. But also, with that being said, the style blogging aspect was great because I made a good amount of money doing it, and was able to funnel that money into J. Hannah to afford a new website and better quality shoots that a brand-new business wouldn't be able to afford without funding or a loan. It was definitely a great launching pad for my business, and it also got me more visibility.
Was there anything major that you had to figure out or learn in order to make it into a real business that you hadn't already?
Because I did this right out of college, I didn't really have a quote-unquote 'real job' before that. So, almost everything other than the jewelry itself was a learning process — everything from shipping processes, to how to hire your first employees, how to write a contract.
You give yourself an opportunity to figure it out and think strategically and critically without following rules, and I almost feel like that's when businesses really can succeed, and you have a great working culture, and employees that are really happy to be there. And also, just in terms of marketing and overall growth strategies, you're not following the same thing everyone else is following. You can forge your own plan, and it's often better because it's different.
How did you start selling?
I started selling online only. This is kind of funny, because it's not like I set out to be 'direct-to-consumer.' I didn't even know what that term meant at the time. Because I started out that way, I think it really worked in my favor when I did start wholesaling, because I was really selective about it. I was able to build an audience more based around the brand and not rely on wholesale partners.
Now, we do have quite a lot of wholesale partners, but it's still a much smaller part of our business, and we don't really let that dictate how we run things. Our business is like 75 percent direct-to-consumer, and so we focus a lot of our efforts on creating really great content, and great relationships with our direct customers. And I think, even though I didn't originally set out to do things that way, the way it unfolded was greatly beneficial for the brand.
Speaking of content, all of the imagery on your site and Instagram is so beautiful and inspiring. Is that something that you dedicate a lot of time and resources to, and what do you think is the payoff of that?
Yes, absolutely. We really want to create content for our customers that connects them with the brand. It's more than just like, 'Here's a picture of this ring. Buy this,' because a lot of it is classic pieces, and a lot of it comes from historical inspiration. We really want to pay homage to where those things are coming from, and not be like, 'Oh, well we invented the signet ring,' because we didn't. I think with social media, especially now, there's just so much content to be consumed. I feel like with brands it's especially hard. For me to be interested in following a brand, they have to give me something a little bit more than just, 'Here's my product and a pretty picture. Buy it.'
Is it challenging to keep up with Instagram and all the content brands have to churn out these days?
I do have a team, and I have someone who works directly on helping me with content ideas. I mean, it is hard to keep up, but I feel like we are a content-first brand. That's a lot of what we think about. So I feel like for us, it's our competitive edge.
How did the nail polish come about?
We started the nail polish in 2017. I get my nails done a lot because I'm showing people my hands. I just would find that, at nail salons, it would be very typical, like fire-engine red, and every shade of pink. But the way I dress is quite neutral, so it would be nice to have colors that compliment that. It just didn't seem like I could find the colors that I was yearning for. So, it kind of came from that personal need, and not so much a business decision.
Like many designers, your work has been copied and I thought your recent Instagram post about originality and copying was really interesting and nuanced. What prompted you to post that and address it in that way?
That person had reached out and it's a conversation that we have in the office a lot because we have had situations of blatant copying, which one of them was called out by that person, but we didn't want to make it public on the internet. A lot of our styles are really classic pieces and a lot of them are inspired by vintage stuff. We want to use our Instagram as an outlet to start those conversations with consumers in the hope that they can become more informed to make conscious decisions about who they are buying from, and why they like something.
We're in the trenches of this work, so to us a lot of things are really clear. But to the consumers, it's not always the case. We plan to start more conversations with our consumers about a lot of different things, mainly sustainability, because that's a word that gets thrown around a lot that has many meanings. We're going to do that tactfully as it's quite a large conversation.
Why did you decide not to name any of the infringing brands?
I feel like there are ways of dealing with those things, and we can do our best to contact them directly. I mean, that is what we did, and no change happened from it. If you're doing something good, it's going to get copied. It's kind of inevitable. And as much as I would love to call someone out, I just don't think it's a good look.
Do you think Instagram has a lot to do with how rampant copying has become lately?
Yes, 1,000 percent. It not only contributes to it happening, it also makes it more visible to the person it's happening to. You feel like you're being bombarded with all this stuff. I think it's just like everything on social media: You have to choose what you pay attention to, and what you let go of, or the accounts that you follow. Try to follow people that inspire you and not accounts that piss you off and are copying people.
What's your approach to the whole influencer marketing thing?
We don't do a lot of it, just because we have a higher price-point product. I mean, we do gift a lot of nail polish to people. But with jewelry, if there's someone we find particularly inspiring, we'll reach out directly and see if they're interested, but it's not really a big part of our marketing effort.
Tell me about your bridal line, Ceremony — why did you want to do it and how is that going?
It's a direct consumer line of rings that aim to celebrate love of all kinds. It's essentially many different kinds of rings and bands. And yes, we can call them engagement bands, but we typically avoid that term. We wanted to create a platform where people can choose rings that align with their values. Whether that value is a brand that supports inclusive marketing, or if it's because they have certain sustainability values that they want to make sure the ring follows. For example, we use recycled gold and recycled diamonds and ethically sourced gem stones.
We've seen a really great response to what we've been doing so far. I think there definitely was a space in the market for it and we're continuing to work on growing the brand.
What other plans do you have for the future?
Just continuing on a really steady growth path. For me, it is really important to have a sustainable business in the sense of keeping your employees happy and well-paid and enjoying their work.
Growth doesn't always mean good things, and I think that it's become so trendy to talk about VC in a way that people are like, 'Oh, in our series, we raised like a bazillion dollars.' But that doesn't necessarily mean good things for every individual that works there, or a mindful use of funds in a way that's sustainable.
I'm not opposed to those things. For J. Hannah, unless we wanted to open 10 stores, that's not where we are right now.