Life & Business

Three Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition

by Quelcy Kogel

3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

I recently caught up with one of my close friends from architecture school. We reminisced how our school years were simultaneously the most challenging years of our lives and the most fun. We reflected on how our collective studio environment was both intensely competitive (cut-throat even) and collaborative. We were all fiercely committed to our studies, to bettering ourselves and presenting work of which we could be proud, but we were also nearly dependent on each other for encouragement and constructive feedback. In talking with my friend, I realized how much I still seek that balance of collaboration and competition in my professional world and how difficult it is to find.

Jewelers Sharon Zimmerman, Corey Egan and Christy Natsumi are three independent business owners who have managed to strike that balance. Each woman has her own brand, but they share a San Francisco studio and showroom. As Christy explains, “In an industry that is traditionally secretive and competitive (not to mention male-dominated), we’ve found a way to work together as torch-and-hammer-wielding metalsmith businesswomen. In fact, we spend so much time at the studio together that we’ve started calling each other ‘studio-wives.’ We hope our way of working can be inspiring and helpful to [the Design*Sponge community].” Below, Sharon, Corey and Christy share their tips on collaboration and creative work, as well as glimpses of their stunning, sustainable jewelry designs. —Quelcy

Photography by Ryan Leggett

Image Above: From left to right, jewelers Sharon Zimmerman, Corey Egan and Christy Natsumi in their shared studio. Sharon and Corey originally teamed up with another partner to create the downtown studio in 2014. When that partner moved out, they reached out to San Francisco’s tight-knit jewelry community, and as they hoped, Christy expressed an interest in joining them. As to working in the same space, Corey says, “We realize we have more to gain by sharing resources than we do by working in secret.”

3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

Design*Sponge: What are the challenges and advantages of teaming up? From a business perspective, how do you explain teaming up with your competition?

Christy Natsumi (left): “We’ve all been in business long enough to understand that it’s hard work, so when something good happens to one of us, we all share in it. It’s proof that it can happen to any of our businesses. Also, a lot of our work tends to be done alone, so it’s invaluable to have two others who know what the work entails and can share in the daily ups and downs.”

Sharon Zimmerman (center): “Aesthetically, we each have very different styles, so there isn’t a lot of competition among us. And the benefits of sharing a studio — seeing your friends every day, getting to see our work come to life, and having two other business owners there to answer questions or offer help — far outweigh the risks of being close to your competition.”

Corey Egan (right): “We openly share information about our vendors and our methods. At the same time, we also respect each other’s privacy. If I find a new app that makes my project management easier, I’ll eagerly tell the others about it. But if I track down a vendor for a very specific component, my shop mates recognize it’s proprietary.”

3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

What is your favorite aspect of your workspace?

Sharon Zimmerman (above):  “The light! Working inside all day without a break can be rough, but we get lots of direct sunlight in the jewelry production room, which makes the long days go by easier. And someone is always bringing in snacks.”

3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

How do you support each other? What do you do to build a workplace culture?

Sharon Zimmerman: “Lots of ideas crop up during the day, and when we need to work on projects together — hanging shelves, installing equipment, coordinating studio photo shoots, etc. — we set aside time to work on them together. Also, when we look for assistants to work in our studio, we keep in mind that it’s important for everyone to have a harmonious space.”

Sharon at work in her jewelry design station.

3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

What’s the best piece of advice you were given when starting your business?

Sharon Zimmerman: “A fellow business owner once dropped a truth bomb on me with this little bit of time-management insight: ‘Tasks expand into the time that you allot them.’ Mind. Blown.”

Ring designed by Sharon Zimmerman. The architecture of San Francisco inspires the more geometric aspects of Sharon’s jewelry designs, while “the natural beauty of the Bay Area subtly informs [her] organic, abstract designs.”

3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

What aspects of the traditional business approach to the jewelry industry are you defying?

Sharon Zimmerman: “I’m proud to work with local vendors, many of whom are also women-owned businesses. There’s no benefit to them if I’m secretive about who I work with; their businesses need referrals just as much as mine does. When we elevate them, we elevate ourselves. This bucks decades of a trend in our industry that kept this information secret.”

Sharon’s jewelry designs at her work station.


3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

How does sustainability factor into your respective jewelry businesses?

Christy Natsumi (right): “We think a lot about beauty, not only in creating beautiful products, but in making them in a way that enhances the beauty in the lives of everyone who comes in contact with the materials. When you purchase a product from any one of us, you are not only supporting skilled craftswomen and men in San Francisco, but also a network of vendors who are committed to celebrating and respecting the earth’s resources.”

Sharon Zimmerman: “Each of us has made a commitment to using recycled precious metals and gems in our work. It’s important to us that we work in a way that’s sustainable.”

Corey Egan (left): “We’re in the process of having each business become a California Certified Green Business. This takes into account not only the materials used in our work but also the shared studio practices.”

3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

Christy Natsumi: “Because we see each other every day, there’s a level of trust and camaraderie among us that you wouldn’t otherwise get. We also structure studio tasks to our strengths: Corey is great with researching and finding new technologies to make our lives easier, Sharon has a breadth of knowledge with tools, and I like to think my organization skills help make the physical space run smoothly.”

Christy’s jewelry designs at her work station. One of her favorite things to do is to make jewelry for special occasions. “Being part of a celebration of love in my own small way is one of the most fulfilling parts of being a jeweler.”

3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

What’s the best piece of advice you were given when starting your business?

Christy Natsumi: “My grandma, who had her own business for 20 years, told me when I first started that I was working too much. At the time, I was a bit offended, but now I think I’m starting to understand what she meant. So long as you’re committed to growing a business for the long-haul, there will never be a point where you’ll stop and say, ‘Now that I don’t have to worry about the business, I can take that vacation.’ The true success of running a business is allowing space for your personal growth and relationships outside the business to flourish alongside it. There’s no medal for being the busiest or the most stressed-out person.”

Christy at work at her jewelry design station.

3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

Corey Egan: “We try to bring a level of transparency about the jewelry industry to our customers. Whenever possible, through our social media accounts, blog posts, and in-person studio visits, we try to pull back the curtain about what’s happening in our shop and the industry as a whole. We want to dispel the notion that jewelers are secretive and just looking to up-sell.”

Corey at work on her jewelry designs. 

3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

Corey Egan: “One thing that’s been really useful is a shared calendar we keep to compile all of our appointments, so our visitors don’t overlap. We also use it to block off times we need to work together. Since we started using the app Asana, we set up a project just for our studio, where we map out goals, such as events and sample sales, and we plan our studio upgrades.”

Corey’s jewelry designs begin with her hope that customers will feel “equal parts beautiful, edgy, and entirely individual.” 

3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

What’s the best piece of advice you were given when starting your business?

Corey Egan: “‘Put in the extra effort to appear a little bigger than you actually are.’ I reflect on that advice when I have trepidations over my next move or if an opportunity might cost more than I’m comfortable spending. I ask myself, if I was making this decision two years from now, what would I do? And then I act on that.”

3 Jewelers Choose Collaboration Over Competition via Design*Sponge

What is your advice for someone wanting to enter the jewelry field?

Christy Natsumi: “If you’re someone who’s passionate about creative work but not equally excited about the business side of things, then either learn to love it, hire someone you trust, or carve out the time to pursue your creativity while working a related job. It’s a myth that working for yourself means you get to do whatever you want. You will always have to balance your creative vision with time and financial constraints, as well as your client’s vision.”

Sharon Zimmerman: “Have a clear vision, even if you aren’t sure it will align with everyone. You don’t have to please everybody. The clarity that you’ll bring to your business will help you find your customers.”

Corey Egan: “Make work that’s true to yourself. Don’t chase trends simply because it’s what everyone else is doing or what you think is selling. But also don’t steer clear of an idea simply because it’s part of a current trend. Do a gut check as you design, and ask yourself if what you’re making is true to your heart and embodies what you want to share with your audience.”

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  • I love this! As an up and coming jeweler myself I find it really difficult and lonely knowing how hush hush other jewelers are. But luckily I’ve been able to find many more who are open to help in any way they can. I, myself, have even devoted a huge amount of time sharing my knowledge as a jeweler and handmade business owner through a separate blog, on top of running my jewelry business full-time. I just feel compelled to help! #communityovercompetition < 3

  • Thank you for sharing a peek inside your workspace! I truly loved hearing the stories, and getting a glimpse into the hearts/souls of three amazing artists. I look forward to buying my first piece of jewelry which I know will be amazing! Will you have a website of your finished pieces or how do you plan to post for purchase in the future? Thank you so much, and love/ success to all of you ❤️

    • Hi Jane!

      Yes indeed! In the second paragraph, each of our names links back to our individual websites and all of us are set up for online sales. Let us know if you have any questions :)