On the Lookout Jewelry gives us the biggest smile, with its bright colors, multi-strand mayhem, and return to summer camp friendship bracelets. Chicago native Erica Young travels around the country, taking inspiration from the road, and puts it into her pieces.
Where did your business name come from? Is there an interesting story behind it?
As an incessant observer, I have always heavily favored my sense of sight and a nurtured an obsessive attention to detail. I’ve also been blessed with a hint of synesthesia, so every object, feeling, memory, sound and smell has a distinct and unchanging color or an aura of it’s own, that I see in my mind without really trying.
I spent much of my childhood traveling around the country, as my mother went back to school to pursue several Masters’ degrees and then a PhD. This was well before the advent of smartphones, so to pass the time I often stared out the window of our car, making up little stories about the cities we drove though, wondering what might be at the end of the long roads that stretched in front of us, as we chased the sun from coast to coast. I was constantly in awe of each landscape and how distinct every place felt. These things seen, but not quite experienced, captivated my imagination and gave a multitude of backdrops to my dreams, which I them translate into a little wearable.
When trying to come up with a name for my brand, this singular characteristic stood out : on the lookout is something I am always doing, with eyes open or closed. Looking out, up and beyond is incredibly magical to me and it gives me a simultaneous sense of physical grounding and spiritual freedom, that feels electric. On the Lookout out serves as my reminder, that much like the sky, our possibilities are limitless and never-ending. Building a business is a daunting task, so when I feel myself placing limitations on what I can and cannot accomplish, I look to the sky as a reminder that there are none.
Have you always been passionate about design?
Yes, I have always loved making and building and especially making and building with quality in mind. Being able to create something out of nothing with your own two hands was always and invaluable skill that I practiced and dreamt of excelling at. I am also a hardcore Gemini, always pulled in every direction and wanting to work and learn how to use every material I can get my hands on. When I was younger, I really wanted to be a fashion designer, but soon realized I didn’t have the patience to learn to sew or the big-picture mindset to put an entire look together. Jewelry allows for that same design eye, on a much more smaller scale. With a small project, like a designing a piece of jewelry, I get to focus all of my attention into one concise outcome – I’ve found that working small keeps me from getting overwhelmed!
Why did you start working in this particular craft?
I’ve been working with little beads since I was a kid, probably about 6 or 7! Summer camp was my jam and you could always find me with a pocketful of half finished necklaces or a friendship bracelet safety pinned to my jeans. So, to say I have been a bead nerd since the beginning would be an understatement and the summer camp vibes run heavy within my work! My mom was always the most supportive, enrolling me in art classes and buying me craft books. My whole world changed when she gave me a little beading loom as a present one year. It was a beast to work with and I think that was part of my fascination with it. I tinkered with that thing for ages, until I created my first little bead weaving. The little beads, tightly stacked next to one another was just as soothing to my eyes as it was to the touch. When I realized I could create intricate, flat patterns (almost like a drawing) with the beads I was used to simply stringing, I was hooked!
What do you think sets your designs apart from others?
Attention to detail is what makes On the Lookout Jewelry so unique. I strive to make each piece a physical translation of inconspicuous, everyday inspiration and I am lucky to be VERY picky when it comes to overall aesthetics as well as durability + functionality – this picky nature creates the unique lens I see through and I make sure to nurture that. I also think my designs are the personification of my light-hearted and playful attitude – each piece having some intentional element of pure joy, something that simply makes you smile. Making jewelry is so much fun for me! I essentially get to create a little totem for people to enjoy; a wearable, keepsake that provides comfort or happiness whenever the wearer looks down at his or her wrist.
Have you had any major failures? If so, what were some important insights gained?
Oh yes – there was a period of time where I binge-purchased supplies and sunk every single penny I had into this crafting obsession, only to wake up one day with a $6 bank account balance and almost all of my credit cards maxed out. While I don’t consider this a huge failure, it was enough of one to shake me to the core! This was my rock bottom, and although I was still selling my jewelry, I wasn’t able to pull myself out of debt by continuing frivolous spending habits. I decided that day that I was going to put everything I had into my business, not just financially, but my heart and soul and a boat load of passion AND direction/focus. I was going to treat my hobby as a true business and operate as such, mostly so I could continue doing it. This was the day my work ethic skyrocketed and I went from just getting by to being an overachiever and a goal-getter – a space I had never really tapped into before.
What has been your proudest moment since creating your business?
I think my proudest moments come when I am at shows and able to interact with people who find joy in looking at, trying on and touching the jewels. Little beads seem to attract lots of curious kids and kids-at-heart and I love to enthusiastically explain my process and where my business started, hopefully to inspire others to tap into their creative side. Getting people excited about something, whether it’s about the pieces I’ve made or helping remind them of their own creative ambitions is when I feel most content. Beads and bracelets may not be the most important thing in the world, but they make me sublimely happy – I am so passionate about sharing this in an effort to help others finding their own “sublimely-happy-inducting-thing,” whatever it may be!
What valuable experience/knowledge did you have before starting your business?
As a college graduate, I was lucky enough to work for a few small businesses that really gave me insight into running a business and the skills needed to set up an online shop. One was a clothing boutique, located in Chicago and the other was an online sports equipment company, located in Cleveland, Ohio. Since both were small (under 10 employees) and locally owned, I got to see the how’s, why’s and why not’s of running a small business first hand from my bosses, who were also the business owners. I was able to learn skills like sales, customer service, buying, setting up an eCommerce shop, photography, email marketing, content creation, SEO and web design. I don’t think I would have had a chance to have learned all of these skills working for a large company and I am SO grateful for those experiences.
What made you take this leap into being your own boss?
I’ve always been super ambitious and I knew at a young age that I liked making my own decisions and doing things the “Erica-way,” with any insight I can grab from knowledgeable people who will give it, or course! The leap from hobby to business was actually a birthday present to myself almost 4 years ago on my 30th birthday. It was one of those now or never feelings and it was terrifying and so incredibly exciting. It kept me up at night and was all I could think about! At the same time, I was able to recognize this whole craft explosion was happening all around me. I saw maker fairs, art blogs and craft-specific platforms (like Etsy) popping up and I was just being in awe of seeing the maker behind the magic. The internet really helped make this lifestyle more transparent for me, more achievable and provided a wealth of information on how to do so. It’s actually kind of funny that Renegade Chicago was the first craft fair I ever went to and I stumbled upon it accidentally in the summer of 2008. So random, but so impactful.
What are some inspirations for your work?
Oh man, so many things inspire me – ALL of the things! Everything seen, felt, heard and imagined is fuel for the work I create and I aim to translate all of that goodness into the pieces. I love the colors seen in the sky and I often imagine what the sunset on another planet in another solar system would look like. I love the gradation of color on the feathers of a bird or wings of a moth. Shades of green in a field of grass seem like fleeting images that need to be captured. Nature and art inform my color choices and architecture and decorative artifacts play heavily on my patterns.
What are some tips or suggestions you’d like to offer to fellow makers?
I love giving out information on what I have learned, so my first tip would be to immerse yourself in what you want to do, ask as many questions as you can and spend as much time as you can creating, it really is a practice. Find freedom in being able to create whatever it is you want and practice that until you decide you want to do something else. Art is one of those things where there are no rules – this can be overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! I spent hundreds of hours making horrible stuff, but without those eyesores, I would have never arrived at the things I am most proud of. Also, I would say take your time and build it slow. Use everything you can to learn and be open to opportunities that may not seem like they jive with what you want to be doing, because there is so much value in every experience! Remember that the good, the bad and the ugly are all conspiring to help you create a life that you love. Aspire to find your perfect ratio of hard work, practice and fun – and then be open to changing that as much as YOU need to. Oh and a great support network is necessary too! Seek out those who can light you up when your spark dims and encourage you to keep going – I find my greatest support lies within in family, friends and other makers.
Anything else you want to tell us about your business?
On of my future goals for the business is to incorporate a fundraising portion, where I can create jewelry that will help benefit a wide range of causes and nonprofit organizations. I’ve nicknamed this idea “Beads 4 A Better World,” and while the specifics are a work in progress, I have a few great people and organizations I will be supporting in the coming months. Last winter alone, I was able to raise over $750 on behalf of Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, with the help of those who purchased OTL Jewelry online and at shows. I hope that this will be something I am able to do throughout the life of my business. My feeling is that, “If you make and observation, you have an obligation.” I (we) are witnesses to a host of injustices in this world and I want to make sure I do my part in supporting those in need.