Good Life

Amid sea of disappointment, small-town jewelry-maker finds pearl

Staci Egan, owner of Contempo Jewelry, works on a sterling silver tree necklace on Thursday.
Staci Egan, owner of Contempo Jewelry, works on a sterling silver tree necklace on Thursday. nmark@centredaily.com

The Instagram photos were the first sign that something was amiss.

When Staci Egan thumbed through Bakery Square’s feed two weeks ago, she spotted artist after artist who were doing pop-up shops similar to hers. But in her eyes, they weren’t the same: They were better.

“I had convinced myself that it was OK,” she said, “that these people were going to move forward.”

Her dream of making it to the next round of West Elm’s local competition came with tempered expectations. She had been rejected from the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts for a fourth-straight year after being there for the previous three. An application for a similar competition with Macy’s seemed to have fallen flat. Her brick-and-mortar store in Boalsburg, which she had operated for three years, closed last summer.

At times this year, she asked herself if she should go back to finding a regular job. She quit hers about eight years ago to focus on her business full time.

For the self-described realist, just being in Bakery Square was enough. She was selling her handmade earrings and necklaces, brought with her from her Port Matilda home, in the trendy urban center of Pittsburgh’s East End, the home of a Google office and a short bike ride away from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. The opportunity itself glittered like her wares.

“Everything I saw was more beautiful than the next,” she said.

Making it into Bakery Square’s social media queue was a telltale sign of success, she thought. She waited for a share, a like, a comment — any small gesture of confidence in Contempo Jewelry, her 17-year-old company that had let her artist’s whims breathe and wander, but had seen disappointment puncture hope with unyielding contempt. One share, she thought, would suffice.

None came.

She steeled herself for the inevitable. From what she had heard, West Elm, a home goods chain that specializes in sustainable products, had never before sold jewelry. From the company’s emails about the competition, which was open to artists and makers around the state, she sensed a softened yet forthcoming blow. She watched and listened as the buyer, the owner of the West Elm store there, made her rounds to each of the other vendors, leaving looks of disappointment in her wake.

Egan was last in line. She was expecting to hear the same thing, she said.

But then came the meeting. When the buyer told her the good news, it was almost a formality, a conversation so perfunctory in nature that it had left Egan nonplussed. What had glittered before had now been gilded. All it took were a few nods and a trading of smiles.

“I was definitely secretly jumping up and down inside,” Egan said, “because she went to every vendor there and spoke with them and I could hear the conversations. I knew where they all stood, and when she got to us I was expecting the same thing.”

And just like that, the string of disappointments was cut in one clean stroke. Even her husband’s wood furniture, which he had crafted only a few months previously, caught the buyer’s attention.

Now Egan and her husband are on to the corporate round. In about three months, she’ll find out if her jewelry will be sold in the three West Elm stores in Pennsylvania and if they’ll be included in the company’s catalog for handmade products. With some luck, her freshwater pearl earrings and necklaces, bedecked in semi-precious stones, may find their way to more consumers looking for a glint of local flair. For now, she knows the Bakery Square store wants to sell her jewelry, most of which retails for less than $20 on Etsy.

Through Etsy, Egan estimates she’s had more than 3,200 sales.

“I think people who buy handmade or Etsy, they really do want to support people and not like a big business,” she said. “So almost daily, I’m thanking the universe for just the kindness of people.”

The mother of two worked as a server at Zola Kitchen and Wine Bar in State College before committing to Contempo full time. When her children were younger, she’d stay at home during the day while her husband, a quality assurance manager for Siemens, was at work. When evening came, they’d trade places.

In 2007, she started her Etsy shop. It took another five years until she started to see results.

At shows, she felt adrift. When a rejection missive returned from one show in New York, one she had set her heart on, Egan questioned if she should change her aesthetic. Eventually, she decided on sticking with what she loved to do: making the jewelry she wanted to make, idiosyncrasies and all.

With the positives from the West Elm competition, Egan has put the previous setbacks behind her. Things continue to sparkle for the small-town jewelry maker. The Bakery Square buyer, for instance, wants Egan to eventually host classes in the store.

As for Instagram, it brings good tidings, too. Last Sunday, a pair of Egan’s blue, cat-shaped earrings posted on her feed carried with them a glowing review. “Beautifully made! Perfect size and absolutely adorable,” the buyer wrote.

“It’s amazing that sometimes you just have to take a risk,” Egan said. “I’m happy I did.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy

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