By Lee Havlicek.
All photos courtesy of Caitlin McNamara | Blue Dot Jewelry.
Meet Portland-raised, Brooklyn-based Caitlin McNamara, founder, designer, and maker of Blue Dot Jewelry. If you recognize the name and gorgeously detailed, delicate but durable, nature-inspired pieces, it might be because she’s currently featured in Handful of Salt’s 2013 holiday guide, or because she’s front and center on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden homepage as one of their Gifts Made in Brooklyn makers, or because you’ve been to one of the growing number of shops, fairs, or markets around the country (and websites, too) where you can find Blue Dot. But if Caitlin’s work is new to you, get excited. You’re about to discover your new favorite thing.
A favorite piece of jewelry should be something that can be lived in. It should feel so seamless and comfortable that you almost forget you have it on, but it should also make you feel a little more like yourself. Each Blue Dot piece feels exactly this way. The pieces feel so personal and truly special that you’ll want to wear yours every day, and the great thing is: you actually can. Unlike so much jewelry, these pieces are made with exactly that in mind.
No matter where you are or what you’re wearing, Caitlin’s pieces never feel out of place or showy, they just feel beautiful. The reason? They’re not made to match some trend or outfit or occasion—they’re made to match you. Somehow Caitlin manages to make her pieces feel this way to the wearer, and so, they always look and feel just right, fitting in perfectly but adding something, too.
And with a growing array of beautiful pieces, you’re sure to find the perfect ring, necklace, pair of earrings that you didn’t know you were missing. But if you’ve got something else in mind, luckily for you, Caitlin also takes custom orders and she executes them just as skillfully and creatively as she does her own designs.
How did you get started making jewelry? Jewelry is something I came to just a few years ago. I’ve always enjoyed making things, but I was a serial dabbler. I liked making things with paper, such as decoupage and collage, and making cute things out of Sculpey clay to give as gifts. Since a young age, my inspiration has come from nature, and that part hasn’t changed.
How did you reach the point of starting Blue Dot Jewelry? About two and a half years ago, I came across a reference to silver clay. I had a feeling that it might be the medium I had been looking for, the thing that was so exciting that I [would have] trouble putting it down. It seemed magical that anything I could make in clay would be converted to pure silver by a trip through the kiln.
A cousin who teaches silver clay classes in New Mexico gave me the opportunity to put my hands on the clay for a day, and with that, my life changed. Making jewelry became my creative outlet, and then beyond gifting what I made, I saw there was an opportunity to sustain it as a business. In the beginning, I had to remember to put it down to eat and sleep. I loved working with it so much.
What defines your jewelry across all pieces in terms of style? I find much of my inspiration in nature, often making molds from actual pieces I collect outside, and the beauty of nature, of course, is in the details. I capture the richness of those lines and textures as best as possible. I want them to make sense from a distance, and then reveal much more up close. My jewelry is detailed, durable, and crafted for everyday wear.
Having grown up in Portland, Oregon, does the Pacific Northwest play at all into Blue Dot’s nature-inspired aesthetic? Yes, definitely! Portland is beautiful and lush, thanks in part to its famous rain. [My sisters and I] grew up on the edge of Forest Park, which, I only learned after moving away, is the U.S.’s largest natural forest within a city. We were also roughly an hour from Mt. Hood, from the Oregon coast, and from one of the tallest waterfalls in the country. It’s an amazing place to grow up. It’s certainly made me who I am and continues to influence my work.
Do you make all of your pieces yourself or do you have other staff working with you? I make and package everything myself. I’ve had heaps of moral support, though. My husband is great when I need an extra hand. If he’s around, he helps me close my packages because it goes more neatly with two people. That’s a funny ritual we have, and also a time when we talk about the packages’ near and far off destinations. My family has been generous in sharing their feedback and insight with me.
What was the process like for figuring out where and how to select and procure your materials? This has been one of my unexpectedly favorite parts of turning Blue Dot into a business. I’ve done quite a bit of research and experimentation, learning what works and what doesn’t work so well.
I source materials mainly from three online shops, all of which offer many shiny, tempting tools and gadgets, but I’ve found the basic, unglamorous tools to be the most indispensable. Pliers, a needle tool, my X-Acto blade, a mini rolling pin, a tiny paint brush, files, an electric candle warmer to dry the clay, and lots of water. However, I surprised myself with how much I loved working with a Dremel rotary tool to expedite polishing. Whenever I discover a tool that solves a specific problem, I’m very grateful.
You work only with silver. What’s the reason behind that? Each precious metal clay has different firing requirements, requires a separate set of tools, etc. When I started out, I was eager to use diverse metals and ordered copper, bronze, silver, and even a little gold. I soon found it was important for me to be as efficient as possible in the space that I have, and then in the time that I have, and that has meant streamlining with the metal that I was most drawn to. I’m at the point where I plan to add new metals in the [coming] new year.
That’s really exciting! So, speaking of your workspace, where do you make your pieces? I work in my home in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. I have a small desk with many storage drawers in a corner at the sunny end of our living room. One of the benefits of working in silver clay is that the whole outfit is relatively small. My kiln, which is about the size of a microwave, sits on the floor next to my desk and beneath the window for ventilation.
However, during the times when I have many orders, I have projects at different levels of completion on every surface in our apartment, sometimes even including the bathroom. Did I mention my husband is a very patient guy?
In addition to having patient husbands, bunkmates, etc., do you have advice for anyone who might be trying to start a similar kind of business from their home? I would say… If you are selling goods from home, you need a clean, user-friendly website. This is your face to the world. It is the way you will sell yourself as a professional and start to build brand recognition. Your photos need to be as beautiful as your work because those photos are the first and sometimes only impression of your work to a client.
Have patience with yourself. You can’t do everything in a day! This is where a business plan comes in handy. Read, comb the internet, absorb everything you can about what you want to do. But don’t wait too long to jump in. I’ve found that doing is the best way to learn. Even mistakes can help move you forward.
How did you figure out where and how to start selling your work? I first opened my shop on Etsy, which can be such a valuable platform for new artists. A few months after launching, I was contacted by the Brooklyn Museum about carrying my jewelry in their newly remodeled gift shop. I was blown away, giddy at the opportunity, and that first wholesale order helped me gather the courage to approach other shops.
The shop owners I’ve met and partnered with have been enormously friendly and supportive of handmade work. The key has been connecting with shops that are aligned with what I have to offer—those that value handmade, locally made designs (and those made from “local wildlife,” like mine). I’m so appreciative that boutiques and larger shops alike are creating these opportunities.
What are the processes like for designing new pieces, both custom and those that you create on your own? Custom work is all about understanding what the client is envisioning and figuring out how to make it happen in clay. This can be a fun challenge, thinking about structural integrity and the comfort of a piece. I always enjoy the opportunity to add new animal pendants when they come as custom orders. This is how my sheep, jellyfish, bird and whale designs came to be. I design them in Sculpey clay before casting them in silver—back to my roots!
For my own designs, sometimes I work from sketches and sometimes I see where will the clay will lead me. Often, project ideas take on a life of their own once they are in progress.
Is there anything you do or anywhere you like to go for inspiration? I go to Prospect Park and Brooklyn Botanic Garden if I’m feeling curious or lucky about what I might find on the ground. For example, different things are knocked to the ground after a rainstorm, and the seasons bring changes, too. When I’m outside, I keep an eye out for interesting leaves, twigs, stones, and other bits to inspire jewelry.
What sorts of new things coming up for Blue Dot Jewelry? Other than online, where can we find you next? I’ll be a Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s garden shop for their holiday trunk sale from 1–4 p.m. on December 14th. 2014 will be about expanding into new metals!
Do you have any rituals or things you like to have with you while you work? My not-so-secret guilty pleasure is that I work best with Netflix on in the background. If I have something playing, like a T.V. show, then I’m calm and zen and buried in my work.
Blue Dot Jewelry
You can also find Blue Dot Jewelry at:
New York shops
Owl & Thistle General Store: 720 Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11238
Fuego 718: 249 Grand Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211
Brooklyn Botanic Garden: 1000 Washington Avenue, New York, NY 11238
Brooklyn Museum: 200 Eastern Pkwy, New York, NY 11238
Eidolon: 233 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215
The White Weathered Barn: 41 Front Street, Greenport, NY 11944
Pacific Northwest shops
Lark: Batavian Bank Building, 319 Main Street, La Crosse, WI 54601