Allison York sits behind her torch and carefully twirls a small glass bead on a rod. She has to heat the tiny dot of glass she has perched on top of the bead, but not so much that it all melts into mush. The end result should be a bead with crisply differentiated features and good color contrast.
To hone her craft, York has been coming to these beading classes at Beadology in Iowa City several times per week since September. Guiding her is Karen Kubby, co-owner of the store and a long-time teacher.
York says creating the beads give her a “zen” feeling for the rest of the day. “The discovery of the material, seeing what they will do,” is what motivates her to keep at it, she adds. Karen is an encouraging teacher. “I’m really glad you feel free to take your time,” she tells York.
Beadology offers classes for beading and other crafts, and regularly opens its doors to all types of artists who want to create in a commons space. For the store’s Open Flame Studio, anyone who uses flame in their art can work there for a lower than usual fee.
The business point of the artistic outreach is to bring in customers eager to work on their hobbies. At the end of the session, customers settle up with the store for any supplies they purchased for their project. “I like to think of it like your local pub,” says Kubby with a chuckle.
Kubby and other instructors show clients how to use the tools and materials that the store sells. In this way, stocking decisions are driven by what the classes need.
Beadology is less concerned with stocking all the new bead trends, and instead tries to narrow it down to the products that offer the most flexibility for crafting, according to Kubby.
Carole White, a partner in Voices of the Stones in Woodstock, New York, is another bead shop owner who has found that diversifying is the key to staying in business. In White’s experience, bead stores are now surviving on teaching, crafting demonstrations and community services that move the product.
“There’s a deep culture of creating with beads,” says White. She adds that running classes also gives customers access to the process, not just a product. “It’s very therapeutic,” she adds.
Bead suppliers are keeping up with one trend that has been strong for about six years, according to White, and that’s “gemmy” beads of sapphire, ruby, emerald and tsavorite. White had several samples at a recent trunk show, which demonstrates demand for them across a broad range of retail jewelry.
A quick internet search makes clear that bead shops are indeed closing nation wide, but that doesn’t indicate even a rough percentage of bead stores that are in trouble. The cited reasons for bead stores shutting their doors include the economic crash of 2008 and how Internet wholesaling direct to consumers is eroding brick and mortar businesses.
It’s hard to quantify the beading industry along the rules of retail supply and demand that define most other business sectors. That’s because the beading industry is analyzed as a craft, which means statistics focus on how many people are buying supplies and crafting for their hobby, not what’s selling at the retail level.
The Association for Creative Industries, which puts beading in one of several crafting categories, has noticed a decline in ranking for the beading category over most of 2017, according to Kristen Farrell, Manager of Marketing and Public Relations. By contrast Edible Arts and Painting & Drawing are two categories that have held their place at the top in recent years, as measured by percentage of spending on supplies for those crafts.
Yet there appears to be one hopeful statistic for brick and mortar bead stores. According to the ACI report, just over 91 percent of purchases for craft supplies in all categories are made in an actual store and not on the Internet. If those figures apply to bead stores as well, it’s an indication that bead stores’ investment in diversifying into teaching the bead craft has paid off.
The Association partnered with the survey firm MaritzCX, which collected data using an online random survey. Survey samples were collected from late 2015 and extended through the third quarter of 2017.
The Craft Industry Alliance published a report in January 2017 that cited a $14 billion increase in creative industry spending over the course of five years, from 2011 to 2016. The report shows that crafting overall has grown as an industry, but doesn’t focus on any one category. Craft Industry Alliance Report.
Beaded jewelery certainly does have a foothold at the high end of jewelry retail as well. Denise Betesh uses fine quality beads in her hand worked 22 karat gold pieces.
Carole White, the bead seller from Woodstock, says the recent popularity of mala beads used for meditation created some demand for a while. In terms of retail picking up on bead trends in a big way? Likely not. “It has its own channel of fashion that’s happening,” White says of beaded jewelry. “But you don’t see it at the Golden Globes.”