From boutique chocolate makers and small greeting card print shops to handmade jean companies, the consumers are enjoying a renaissance in artisanal entrepreneurship. But what’s behind the handmade movement? Is it a response to mass production, a push to return to simplicity, a desire to find greater meaning and creativity in our work?
Maybe it’s a phenomenon that could only occur in the perfect storm created by new economic challenges and the connectedness of Internet age. Small businesses and independent craftspeople can now reach the masses and communicate their product, brand and vision with nearly as much polish as the big boys.
Sites like Etsy have capitalized on this zeitgeist by featuring the creativity and artistry of a broad range of sellers. Etsy’s forum showcases the work of nearly 300,000 craftspeople from all over the world and connects them with a community of devoted buyers who want something more than what the mass market offers.
But Etsy is just part of the story.
This wave of independent artisans is on Main Street, too. It stretches from coast to coast in the U.S. and touches nearly every nation on earth. Disparate, but growing, the movement connects buyers and sellers in a way that conventional business struggles with. There’s something inspired and romantic about knowing who made your child’s new doll and knowing the story behind the design and materials. People are drawn to the idea of putting a face with the brand on their handmade leather boots or understanding what inspired the artist who painted the piece that hangs over the sofa.
Let’s explore a sampling of unique artisanal shops and see how these veritable Davids differentiate themselves in marketplace of goliaths.
Mast Brothers Chocolate
Brothers Rick and Michael Mast founded their small chocolate factory in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. They approach chocolate making like vintners approach wine making—through understanding the unique characteristics of the cocoa bean that vary based upon region, climate and growing techniques. Their small-batch chocolates are crafted with beans from a single farm not only for consistency and flavor, but also to pay homage to the region and culture represented. Mast Brothers craftsmanship produces a chocolate that’s free of emulsifiers, butter, oils, soy, vanilla and preservatives. Even the packaging is a labor of love—chocolate bars are hand-wrapped with high-quality paper that feature designs produced by friends and family.
This English denim company is all about handmade. Its jeans and jackets are crafted from raw, unfinished, heavy-weight denim that’s woven on small looms in Japan. In the true spirit of artisanal craft, owner William Kroll attends to every detail, such as hand-dying each garment in metal barrels behind his shop in Norfolk, England. Even the buttons and buckles on his garments don’t go unnoticed; Kroll has them forged of solid brass in England using the ancient “lost wax” casting method. The result? Heirloom-quality clothing that conforms to their owners’ unique shape and lifestyle and only gets better with age.
According its website, Archive Bags is a one-man operation located in San Franscisco, California. These durable bags are handmade one at a time and the full product line includes bike accessories, backpacks, tote bags, wallets and cell holsters. Archive Bags devotes a large part of its website to a blog that caters to the urban cyclist and speaks to the lifestyle that inspires its products. Archive’s approach to engagement is important to note. Artisans offer an organic connection with the customer by making the commercial activity secondary (or at least seem so). Web-based proprietors create a lifestyle site that’s genuine and the products themselves become an adjunct to the celebration and enthusiastic exploration of it.
Is there room for some artisanship in your business?
The challenges facing any artisanal business—fluctuating income, the long process of developing a following, juggling all the aspects of launching a business with minimal staff—are balanced by some very real advantages. Businesses that are part of the handmade movement tend to have closer relationships with their customers and can respond to changing demand, experiment with new products and do custom work. They’re driven by the immediacy of the consumer feedback and, like all businesses, use it as a source of innovation.
If there’s one principle that seems to unite most artisans at work today, it’s the idea of quality over quantity—the notion that not only is bigger not better, but bigger may necessarily be worse. Most members of this cadre of craftspeople aren’t hoping to grow their cottage businesses into global empires. Instead, they’re mindful of the golden mean of success—sustaining their craft without sacrificing their joy, creativity, and freedom.
Kentin Waits is a freelance writer and marketing specialist based in Portland, Oregon. His work has been featured in US Airways magazine and top-rated blogs such as Wise Bread, the Consumerist, and MSN SmartMoney. When he's not writing, Kentin runs a small online antiques business.