Former costume designer Cathy Pope discusses what inspired her "accidental" jewellery business and what it was like doorknocking on potential suppliers in India when she was first getting started.

A brief description of the business
Cathy Pope Jewellery is a boutique jewellery business. I design everything here in New Zealand and I manufacture offshore, mainly in India, for women who like jewellery that's a bit different. I started the business in 2013, and aim to put a modern twist on to more traditional styles of jewellery.

What inspired you to start the business?

I'm a costume designer - I've been working in film and television for 20 years - and also a dressmaker, so I guess design is not very foreign to me. I didn't really like the jewellery available in the shops so I just started making my own.

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When I started wearing the jewellery I'd made, all of my friends liked it and wanted some, so growth was all very organic - not an intentional business.

How big is your team?

It's really just me contracting people. I have a part-timer who helps me with putting the jewellery together, and then I contract most of the other work, so I have people doing some of my social media, newsletters, marketing and manufacturing, in India.

You manufacture and source your gems from India, tell me about that?

The stone comes from all over the world, but most are from India. For my chunky chokers - which are the more iconic range - I source gems from all over the place. I get a lot from South America, I've got a supplier in New Zealand who sources for me, and also a lot of them are custom cut in India by a stone-cutter who I met in Jaipur. I also buy gemstones from the trade fair in Hong Kong. With the rest of my jewellery, when I design the piece of jewellery with the stone exactly as I want it, then my jewellery manufacturer gets that custom cut in India.

How did you go about building relationships with suppliers in India?

The biggest challenge I've found is reliable supply and finding suppliers I trust, those who would send me what I needed. At first I made a lot of mistakes, and I wasted a lot of money buying things off the internet that couldn't be used, so I jumped on a plane and went to India.

I went there two years ago, doorknocking on factories. I wanted to inspect the factories' work conditions, talk to managers and get samples made, to look at the quality. When I got back to New Zealand, I decided - based on that research - what I'd do. Six months later I went to India again and sat with the manufacturer I'd chosen, in the factory for two weeks. We worked through a process of sampling to build our relationship, and for him to get to understand what was important to me, what my standards were, and now I have a really fantastic relationship with him.

Sketches drawn by Cathy Pope.
Sketches drawn by Cathy Pope.

The doorknocking trip was my third trip to India but it was still quite daunting because India is not a very easy place when you're by yourself. I was there only eight days, but in eight days I achieved quite a lot. Jaipur is where a lot of my suppliers are from and I knew that it's the gemstone capital of the India, so it was the best place to go. It was like opening Pandora's box because there was so much to choose from. [Jaipur] has an industrial area, where everything is closed off, so I had to dig around and get underneath the surface of the tourist part.

Does India inspire the jewellery you create?

I like working with colour and India is an incredibly colourful place. When I'm there I get excited about the decorative form of art in India and about being exposed to the possibilities. It is a country where there are endless possibilities for creating beautiful things. When I'm sitting in my studio it can be one dimensional whereas when I'm in India all my senses are totally brought to life by everything around me.

Talk to other people who own small businesses and bounce ideas off them. Always be curious - asking questions is really helpful.

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What does your jewellery design process look like?

I spend a lot of time researching, on Pinterest, and try not to focus on what other competitors are doing. There's a pressure in the fashion world to keep up with trends, what's in and what's not, but that's not where I position myself.

I research old fashion jewellery, historic collections, heirloom pieces and spend a lot of time in antique and secondhand shops. First of all I collate images I've collected and start sketching. I let things mull in my mind for a while so closer to the time of getting samples done I refine my sketches. The sketches are what I send to India, and occasionally photographs. Often I'll get a sample made by a New Zealand jeweller and if something is tricky I'll get a gemstone cut out of perspex and a setting cut made of silver, or brass, and send it to India to make a casting.

Cathy Pope, designer and owner of Cathy Pope Jewellery.
Cathy Pope, designer and owner of Cathy Pope Jewellery.

What's the biggest hurdle you've had to overcome?

I've been self-employed for 20 years so I'm pretty good at managing money, but going from a service-driven business to a product business was a massive learning curve. There are a lot more components when dealing with products, especially when you're importing. The biggest hurdle for me would be working on a large scale with international suppliers, it's challenging working on varied time zones.

What are your long-term plans for Cathy Pope Jewellery?

I'd really like to be in a work-from-home situation where I have a retail shop and studio in a centrally located area where we live above or behind it but there's a street frontage. I don't really want to be huge and mass producing, I like keeping the authenticity of what I do. The basis of my business is it is boutique jewellery for women who don't want to wear mass-produced labels.

What advice do you give to others thinking of starting a business?

Starting a business when you're a little bit older means you can bring wisdom and experience. Talk to other people who own small businesses and bounce ideas off them. Always be curious - asking questions is really helpful.