Life As a Self-made Artist
I met Molly Rahe at the tail end of a First Thursday event in early spring. She was exhausted but exuberant, coming off of the adrenaline rush of the season’s first show. Standing 5 foot 10 and blonde, she was visible across the bustling patio of a row of shops in the Pearl, packing up her wares with the deft purpose of a woman who has done it a thousand times—be- cause she has. Molly Rahe is somewhat of a phenomenon amongst Portland’s jewelry crafting community. Over the past 17 years, she has gone from selling wire-wrapped jewelry at a friend’s garage sale, to being a jewelry provider for the Rose Festival Princess Court—all the while being a bustling one-woman business that supports her family. She is a leading seller in Made in Oregon shops across the state, participates in 100 shows a year, and still makes it home for dinner.
This particular event featured the debut of her newest artistic muse—creating casting molds using a 3D printer. While the designs were still in plastic form (the same material LEGO pieces are made out of ), the creative direction of her upcoming line was manifest. The evening was focused on showing off her designs, asking for feedback, and discussing the possibilities opened up by 3D-jewelry
making with her customers. Of course, many conversations launched deep into the way 3D technology will help the larger world—but even those discussions were the point. Molly Rahe may be invited to shows because of her craft, but she’s there to forge real, human connections—and she does.
For Molly, making jewelry is a vehicle for connecting with people. Her jewelry line, Elizabeth Jewelry, is named after her daughter because as she puts it, “She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever made.” That personal connection is some- thing she manifests with each of her customers, whether it’s in her lifetime guarantee, or helping them create their own sentimental pieces through her build-your-own stations at shows. It’s also a means of connecting with community. She volunteers with various charities, all because her small business has provided her with the means to give back. She enjoys the fact that Portland has numerous crafters and artists with which to share a common goal. Molly considers them all a family, and she loves supporting and sharing with them.
When the time came for Molly to sit down with me for our interview, we tucked ourselves into a small shop as the other vendors cleared out. Even after a full day of work, she was excited and articulate in discussing her work, her inspiration, and her purpose.
You seem to be a busy bee when it comes to handcraft shows in Portland. What’s the benefit of a show?
I do close to 100 shows a year. For me, it’s all about taking care of my family of customers; it’s such an incredible privilege. I get to meet a person, listen to their stories, see what they’re about. It’s like watching a 5-minute video of their life—they’re with their girl- friend, they’re with their mom, they’re stressed, they’ve just experienced something amazing. When you are vulnerable and authentic with people, they open up, and before you know it you’ve had a real human connection that has nothing to do with selling a product. I have a deep, meaningful connection at almost every show.
It sounds like that feeds you.
It does. And it feeds them. Jewelry pieces are just widgets—they’re just things. But a lot of people live in them. It becomes an extension of who they are. It’s so much more than a fashion statement—it’s a connection between them and the person they’re thinking of when they buy or make it.
Tell me about the build-your-own-necklace stations you have at each of your shows.
It’s a collaborative process. I put all my different gemstones and charms out—each of them handcrafted individually. Most people start out with an initial, or I can hand stamp words that say anything from “Love,” to unique first names. Once they’ve picked a starter, I ask what month the person they’re thinking of is born in, which inspires a gemstone choice. They usually pick it up from there—their loved one has an affinity for the ocean, so a certain color reminds them of that, etc. Together, we complete a personalized neck- lace.
Your work seems full of so much soul. Has making jewelry always been such a source of personal expression for you?
It started in 1988, when I took my first job selling for an international jewelry brand in a major department store. What ended up happening was I became the store’s number one sales person—and I was only 18. I didn’t understand it. I thought it was just my basic work ethic. Apparently, that was appreciated in the world of retail. The thing is, selling is just a side effect of enjoying people. When I got into the jewelry department, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I started opening up drawers and I started seeing product, so I’d take it out. I started playing, I started talking to people—and it worked.
What inspired you to make the shift from selling jewelry to making your own?
When I was pregnant with my daughter Elizabeth, at about 4 months I was having complications and was put on bed rest. My mother, sensing my boredom, gave me a hatbox full of colorful glass beads, a how-to-make-jewelry book, and said, “Have at it.” I had bent serrated pliers from the garage, wire from home depot, and I sat there and wire wrapped, and read the book cover to cover and almost memorized it. I literally spent 8 hours a day wire wrapping. I make beaded curtains worth of wire-wraps. Elizabeth came out full term. The reality was, she was always fine—God just wanted me to learn a new skill.
How did you handle the ramp-up to running your own business?
I started off with a cardboard box and a pillowcase at a garage sale, where I pinned up the earrings and necklaces I made when I was pregnant. I sold the necklaces for $4 and the earrings for $1.50. For less than $7 of investment, I made $70. Then I reinvested it into real sterling and gemstones. Within a couple of months, I had enough products to present to stores. I got a phonebook, looked up the numbers for boutiques, sent out 50 letters, and followed up on every one of them. I was in 27 stores within 3 months.
From then on, it was about humility. They’d ask for my invoice and my packaging and I just told them honestly, I need to be educated on this whole process. People were so good to me. I literally didn’t even know how to write an invoice. I am living proof that you can have zero money, starting off with zero investment, and if you keep persevering, and keep reinvesting, it’s possible to support a family.
What was the most important thing you took away from the time you spent working with more established jewelry stores?
The excellence of the product is paramount to success. Each of the stores I worked for had lifetime guarantees, which I also do with my line. If your cat breaks it, knocks it off the table, I’ll replace for free—lifetime guarantee. I’ve done that for 17 years. I also learned how to merchandise, and learned what a line was—you need to have form, a look—which were all helpful when I started my own business.
For those who haven’t seen your work, how would you describe your line?
Elegant, timeless, classic, everyday wearable, more traditional, and sentimental.
What’s your starting point for coming up with new designs?
I think of a woman, and I think of what she wants to wear—what she physically wants it to look like, what purpose it will serve her. And then I build backwards. This is what they need, this is the design and sourcing based on that need. I then purposefully work at trying to make it affordable—99 percent of my earrings are under $30.
How do you keep the integrity of your artistic vision in line with affordable price marks?
You can always make something simplistic and affordable. The stuff women wear 80 percent of the time is probably going to be small and affordable. When we go out to a formal event, we buy fancy items—more stylized and pricey. But the reality is we do that once or twice a year, so only about 20 percent of my work has to be for that outfit. I stick with the everyday reality of jewelry wear, and it works. Integrity is in executing it well.
What does an average day look like in your world?
My world is divided up in two parts: it’s studio production time, and then I’m at shows, getting to be with people and learning about their world. I work out of my home, so I’m up early doing emails, then I flip the laundry, then I’m working, then I get to run an errand for my family. I do everything in assembly-line produc- tion. For the build-your-own station, for example, I hand fabricate each of the pieces—sand the edges, hand stamp the letter, oxidize and buff it, dapple it and do a high polish. It’s labor intensive, but it’s worth it. I’m listening to books on tape. I’m in a rhythm. Am I working at 10pm at night sometimes? Yes. Do I still have time for my friends and family? Yes. I have the flexibility I need to make it all happen.
How do you keep a healthy work/life balance?
The key to having it all is a good sense of wellbeing. I’m very good about not over committing. I’ve learned how to say no. I also know how to ask for things now, because I’ve gotten over a fear of rejec- tion. I get to have it all because I get to choose what “all” is. And sometimes that means taking a day to nestle in with my teenage daughter and we paint our nails and share stories about our lives. And guess what? Emails don’t get answered for 24 hours, and it’s cool. I predetermined that.
Do you ever collaborate with other artists on your work?
Yes—I love collaboration. We feed off each other, and we encourage and support each other. There’s a core of us that work together often, about six of us that are all established business people as well as artisans. So we’re going to be collaborating and hiring a sales rep. It’s taken me 17 years to hand off my baby to someone else, but we’re working with someone who can rep the whole flavor of our lines as a coherent, Northwest aesthetic. We’re very exclusive. We’re going to hire them and they’re going to be representing us as individuals under a sort of umbrella brand.
How has your work transformed over these past 17 years?
Creativity flows like oxygen, like breathing. I started off with mostly beaded wraps, and then I moved on to metals, which shifted into the build-your-own station. Now I’m experimenting with 3D work. What’s consistent is that I’m in tune with what I’m doing. When I’m actually looking at the metal—they tell me what they need to be. I’ve made fully formed pieces in my dreams, and I wake up and I make it. As long as I follow the flow, it works.
Tell me about your new work, which involves using a 3D printer.
I’m currently creating new 3D designs that I can cast in sterling. It’s an incredibly complex experience to design work with the 3D printer, and I’m just in the experimental phase. Some of them take 15 minutes to print, while others take 41 hours. I’m learning a whole new skill set—from writing the code, to writing the software, to making choices about temperature, to how thick you want the plastic to be excreted, to how thick the fill is. My machine is running 24/7 because I’m constantly trying to tweak it. It takes hours and hours to write a new file. My goal is to pick five perfect designs and do a casting run for a small batch sometime his summer.
What does 3D printing unlock for jewelry?
We’re just at the beginning. You can get new designs that you wouldn’t be able to build out of wax. I can build 20 new designs in a day, but if you hand saw it and hand pierce it, you spend a lot of time before you can actually see whether the design works or not. I still like to be more hands-on, and I probably will not sell much of it in plastic form—but for now, I’m interested in the conversations it’s opening up about the potential of this new material.
How does it feel to move from mainly handcrafted work into this technology realm?
I’m gaining new synapse connections every day. The math and logic side of my brain haven’t been worked this hard in a long time, and it’s invigorating. When you exercise one side of the brain, it enhances your whole being. I actually feel healthier.
What’s your favorite part about what you do?
What I really enjoy doing is educating people. I love experiences like the Oregon State Fair—I have a huge booth in the Artisan’s Village. I absolutely love it. I’m constantly making and building jewelry, and I’m showing people how to do it. I like to be able to encourage others to follow their passions. I think everybody’s an artist. It’s just a matter of how much they embrace it within them- selves.