Starting and running your own business provides its fair share of challenges. New York native Erica Weiner has learned on the go as she successfully forged her own path in the jewelry industry. Erica Weiner’s jewelry and brand reflects her unique perspective, her drive and innate sense of style.
You were born and raised in New York …
My dad’s mom was born in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century, and her parents were recent immigrants. They didn’t speak English, and were hustling in the Jewish community doing all kinds of stuff for work. My dad was born in the Bronx and also had a lot of different careers. My sister and I were born in Brooklyn. In the 1980s we moved to the suburbs, as people did then. It was seen as the ultimate success to get out of the city.
Now it’s the opposite, if you can live in the city you’ve made it. When did you move back?
The minute I graduated. I was desperate to get back. The suburb I grew up in was utterly white and super straight. I know quite a few people who still live there and see the city as somewhere dangerous.
I never feel in danger here.
Exactly. Although the biggest concern for us at the moment is the store getting broken into. The Brooklyn store has never had any crime, but the Manhattan location has had some problems … hold ups, knifepoint, robbery … once a year at least. It’s scary, especially in regards to our one off vintage pieces. People can be very crafty. That’s the issue for this year. Last year it was cash flow.
I read in an article you were interviewed for where you talked about the issues of opening a second location …
That was a very honest article. That’s pretty much who I am though, I will share anything because reading stories about other business owners, and people I admire going through hard times helps me so much.
It’s always comforting to read about the reality of a seemingly ‘successful’ life …
These images of ‘success’ are everywhere. It’s the Instagram feeds! It’s very good for selling a brand, the jewelry looks great but that culture of perfection people are cultivating is scary. We hardly have any photos of us on our feed.
It’s disturbing. This shit now is crazy. Although I’ve heard from people in my own life that I seem to have it all together, that I make things look good. Two years ago, my life was literally falling apart but nobody knew. I just needed to maintain some composure to push through. Fake it till you make it.
Let’s go back a bit, what was it like when you moved back to New York?
It wasn’t too much of a culture shock. I’d spent most of my summers here, and my sister and best friend also lived here. I initially moved to Bushwick in the summer of 2001.
It was a couple of months before 9/11. It coincided with me being launched from a college student and a carefree child to being an adult. It didn’t freak me out, but it was my introduction to being a New Yorker. I came from a pretty high achieving environment at school, I’d seen my peers who were a little older come to New York and just nail it. They had these great educations, great connections and there were a million jobs to be had. Suddenly when I got here there were no jobs to be had. So many people I knew were getting fired. I initially got a temp job in a finance company because I thought it would be something easy for the summer before I got a real job. I ended up doing that job for a year because there were no other people hiring.
I tried to think of the last time I felt happy and safe. My childhood summer at an arts camp in Maine came to mind, where I learned to make clothes and jewelry. I realized I needed to stop temping, and managed to lie my way into a costuming job in theater. I had no experience with the exception of knowing how to use a sewing machine. The job was incredible; it was full time travel for two years with this Broadway show. I saw the world, and I learned how to work in a team.
After a while though I just wasn’t fitting in with the theater crowd so I came back to New York and did some freelance costume work. On the side I interned at any fashion house that would have me. I worked every weekend. I met some really kooky people, and did some fashion week stuff. By the time I was working during fashion weeks I was beginning to realize that it just wasn’t for me.
I basically flailed for a year, I was completely confused but had started making jewelry.
It’s portable, there were no sizes to figure out like there were with clothing. It seemed so much simpler. I wasn’t making pieces at this stage, I was essentially collaging bits and pieces together. I think I was just in the right place at the right time. It was during the huge rise of the Brooklyn craft scene. There was so much money in this at the time. I remember being at the Renegade Craft Fair in Williamsburg in 2007 and people were lined up in front of my table to buy the necklaces I was selling. I was able to do this full time, it was nuts. My business partner and I were working crazy hours, and we didn’t know anything about starting a business. There wasn’t as much competition around, Etsy wasn’t around either.
The jewelry wasn’t even stuff that I would wear. It wasn’t my personal aesthetic. I was able to make what people wanted though, I’ve always had a nose for what people will consume and getting the right pitch in terms of trends.
We got a huge Anthropologie order that really propelled us. I maxed out my credit cards to get that order done.
What was the point where you thought you could open a store?
It took almost 3 or 4 years for us to open a store because in the beginning we were just wholesale. I did not know how different retail was going to be. We’d been doing craft fairs for so long and having our own stall, so we thought we had it in the bag in terms of what it would take to run a store. Oh my god, if I knew!
We had a friend who owns the stores In God We Trust. She was one of the earlier people in my network to open a store, and I remember her telling us how much easier it was to have a store rather than hauling all your stuff back and forth between craft fairs. She was really encouraging, and sold us on it. We looked around for the right space for a while and got a tip that the location on Elizabeth Street would be available. I had always loved the space, and shopped in the store that was there prior to us. It had a good vibe. That was the one!
We moved in, set ourselves up and then realized all the other stuff we didn’t think about. For example, to get insurance, you have to get a huge amount of security equipment like a safe, cameras, glass … we didn’t have any of that. Then we got a huge tax bill for real estate tax, what? We had no idea.
It’s a vicious cycle of hurling money at stuff! But the store obviously grew, and now you have a second location in Brooklyn …
We’ve had the Lower East Side store for 6 years now, and we opened the Brooklyn store 3 years ago. We thought we had it down in terms of running a store so why not open a second one [laughs]. Having two stores is somehow triple the work!
What’s the biggest challenge you came up against?
Probably the financial stuff, numbers have always been a very weak point for me. Accounting, taxes and that stuff freaks me out. After 10 years though, I’m feeling solid in terms of knowing how our business runs and works.
Employing people has been a steep learning curve. We’ve always had really good people, but when something goes wrong with one person it throws everything off. We’ve had to hire people quickly, lay people off, fire people …
There was also a year where my business partner and I fought a lot over ownership, power, who was working harder … it’s better now though.
How can you not have that when you work with someone for over 10 years? Do you spend a lot of time in the store now, what are your roles?
My partner deals with a lot of the antiques, she is about to complete her gemology degree. We do the shopping together, that’s the best part. We travel together and source antique jewelry. Most of the time though we’re at our computers. We’re a small team of about 10 people. That’s about half of what we had, but it was the best thing we did. We went from making a large volume of jewelry to selling less but higher end product. I just couldn’t pay people badly and keep going. These young people who reminded me so much of me, they are happy to work for nothing but the city will just ruin you.
It’s so hard to function here without a decent wage, especially in New York …
At one point I just realized you can’t afford to employ a large team of people and pay them all fairly and give them health insurance. It’s not doable, and I was pissed about it. I was angry that I thought I was doing the decent and right thing but to keep going we had to adapt. It was unsustainable, you sometimes have to do the wrong, fucked up, capitalist thing in order to keep a business in profit. It sucks. We had a wonderful business advisor who helped us through it. She gave us some hard advice.
What we’re really passionate about right now is antique jewelry. It’s so fun, and we’re finally cracking into it. Most antique dealers are born into the business. The relationships you need to build take a long time, they are trusted and it’s an insider industry. It’s getting really exciting now.
We do antique engagement rings of course, but we also love weird, nice pieces from the aesthetic movement, or the Egyptian revival moment for example. Art history nerd stuff.
Being a third generation New York business owner, how much do you think New York has influenced you?
New York is probably more a part of me than I realize. Being thick-skinned, being a little oblivious to what people think of me, being fast moving, non-conforming, fearless and competitive all come from New York.
What are some of your favorite places around the Brooklyn store, or your home in Brooklyn Heights?
I just had lunch at Ganso Ramen which is a really great place. French Louie is also good; we have all of our meetings there.
Mile End sandwiches are amazing.
Brooklyn Inn is fantastic; I think it might be the oldest bar in Brooklyn. It’s incredible, it looks like a church.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Get an accountant early!
Try to find a partner if you can because it can be really hard to do it alone. That’s what worked for me. Also if you’re not a hyper motivated person, don’t start your own business.
What does New York mean to you?
Today I love it, it’s a beautiful Brooklyn spring day. I hung out with my dogs and the man I love. Then sometimes it just crushes you with unnecessary hardships.
My heart is in New York.