10 Questions with Caroline Golden of C. E. Golden Jewelry
Caroline Golden loves to tell stories, but considers herself pretty bad at it. She’s a rambler in person, an all-lowercase, stream-of-consciousness kind of writer, the type of thinker whose mind frequently wanders off in reveries that take multiple twists and turns before folding back in on themselves to create new stories. These are the qualities that make her the rarest of jewelry designers, an artist who crafts functional, versatile pieces that still feel conceptual and reflection-worthy.
Golden, who can be found under the business name C.E. Golden at handmade boutiques, artisan festivals, and through her Etsy shop, earned her BFA in sculpture and painting from the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University in 2004, then worked for five years as a metalsmith apprentice in Santa Fe. She sat down to talk about her mix of craftsmanship and unique, found-object-meets-modern art style, and the ins and outs of running a creative business.
ROBIN CATALANO: What’s your earliest memory of being interested in art?
CAROLINE GOLDEN: I think my entire childhood was art focused. I’ve always been a stare-er. My mom would tell me stories about how I would wander off at the grocery store just to stare at magazine covers; I would be straight-up staring at all the colors, images, fonts, etc. I was completely entranced by color and texture. I wore clothing and jewelry that would embody these things. I remember making wish lists for birthdays and Christmas that were chock-full of various colored pencils, markers, paints, paper—anything and everything I could make something with.
I wasn’t a busy-body kind of kid; I was a sit-still-and-daydream kind of kid. Apparently, I would sit in this old Swyng-O-Matic chair for hours. My world would move with me, colors and shapes would go from a fixed state to a bobbing rhythm. Now my family teases me about it, calling my daydream state me “Going Swyng-O-Matic.”
RC: You started out as a sculptor and painter. What drew you to jewelry?
CG: I’ve always loved jewelry. Really anything I could adorn myself in. When I was little, I would play dress-up in as many of my great-aunt’s necklaces as my neck could support. I remember loving the way light reflected off the faceted beads, stones, and metal. And feeling the weight of all this jewelry on my little frame felt remarkable. I actually started making jewelry when I was about eight, mostly weird beaded necklaces and earrings. I would continue to make jewelry in spurts throughout my adolescence, and while I was in college these tinkerings turned into more elaborate beaded work with found-object pieces as focal points. So jewelry making was always there, it was just a side hobby to everything else I was trying to get my hands on. And really, it’s also just been a way for me to combine the painting with the sculpture.
RC: You seem to approach much of your work from the perspective of an artist fascinated with shapes and movement. How do you then translate those ideas into something wearable and balanced?
CG: I have a pretty similar approach to making jewelry as I do with making a painting or a piece of sculpture: I’m presented with some sort of shape that I immediately imagine moving in space or simply taking up space. I ask myself a series of questions about this shape and the space that it occupies. What is the direction this object is moving in? If it isn’t moving, is it then hovering in space or is it anchored? How is this object interacting with the space? These pretty simple questions quickly direct my design—okay, this should be an earring or this should be a static, symmetrical necklace.
RC: There’s also something of a storytelling component in your designs. Tell me about this.
CG: Yes! This is my favorite part of making art. I’m a rambler of an oral storyteller; I’m really no good at it at all. So making things that tell the story for me is such a treat. I believe that everyone responds to visual stimuli, though in different ways. By having a visual representation of a feeling or an idea, it may help a person navigate their own internal processing. I love using a tactile medium to inspire thoughtful reflections on a very real idea. And because the story will slightly change with each person, this is the part that I’m really interested in. It’s like that game where one person starts off a story and is passed to the next person who adds to it, then passes it to the next and the story just evolves into something wonderfully personal and nuanced. I’m just starting the story; it’s the viewer or wearer who gets to add to it, enhance it.
RC: There’s a strong sense of the vintage in your jewelry. Why has that become an important theme for you as an artist, and do you use found or repurposed materials?
CG: For me, this has everything to do with storytelling. I’m an incredibly sentimental person, maybe even to a fault. I value tradition, the handmade object, personal histories, and genuine, authentic connection between people. So I love working with found objects, whether they appear in the work themselves or just sit on my desk for me to look at, be affected by. I collect all sorts of vintage and antique objects, things that were made by hand either out of need in a time where technologies weren’t available or in an effort to honor a family culture or tradition. The amount of time and discipline to make so many of these objects blows my mind.
Using found objects, to me, memorializes the hands, the time, the hard work of past generations. I like to honor them while passing their story on to someone else who will appreciate, be affected by, and maybe pass it on to someone else later down the line. This is the residue of art. It does not begin and end with two people or even ten people. It’s ongoing and always personal.
RC: When did you first realize, “Hey, I can make a living at this?”
CG: Oh, gosh, I feel like this is the perpetual question, and then because the answer is yes, that is the perpetual celebration! I probably first started to think about this when friends and family actually wanted to give me money for the jewelry I was creating.
RC: Are you a solopreneur, or has the business scaled to a point where you’ve been able to hire help?
CG: At this point, it’s just me. My more-than-handy husband has been a tremendous help with the marketing/technological side of my biz. I definitely would not exist in Cyberland if it weren’t for him!
RC: What percentage of your business is wholesale to stores, how much is traveling to arts fairs for retail, and how much is online?
CG: I’m kind of in the middle of a shift right now. For a while, selling at art shows probably made up about 50% of my income, while wholesale and online were about 25% each. But over time, with more exposure, I’m getting more and more interest from businesses that want to carry my work, which now is quickly rising to be my primary source of income. It’s been great for my ego but also poses some business adjustments and reevaluations. Always learning; always adjusting!
RC: What are the most rewarding and most challenging parts of running a business for you?
CG: I’d have to say the most challenging aspect of running my own business is sticking with my gut—designing work that feels right to me without jeopardizing my vision to meet what is common or trendy or easy. My approach to my business is that I am an artist first and foremost, which isn’t exactly what I’ve been told would make for a successful business. But it does mean that my business is authentic. From packaging to the materials I use to correspondence with clients to the signage and display I use for my retail shows, everything has a purpose and a reason and has met my standards of living responsibly in a world that is meant to be shared and respected.
I write handwritten notes with each online sale. My packaging is made with 100% recycled materials, all made right here in the USA. My retail displays are items I’ve come across in my antique treasure hunting or are the remains of an old wooden project of my grandfather’s. I try to use as many recycled or sustainable materials and methods as possible. My business is just an extension of my life, I guess. It’s worth it to me to spend a little extra on American-made and sustainable products because, after all, people are investing in me, my hands, and my time. Why not really give them the full me and not the half me?
This is the reward: being me and not being sorry about it. But I should also add that to be me is to be affected by you. To think that I created something that has the power to affect someone feels almost like magic. Sometimes I receive little notes of thanks from a customer and it just makes my heart so full. I’ve been told that one of my necklaces is so meaningful to the wearer that it’s taken on a more sacred note, that it is as precious to her as wearing a cross. A young man preparing for his first deployment wanted to give his fiancée something before he left and gave her one of my pieces to represent that they were only an ocean away and soon to be reunited. To be told that my work symbolizes a lost partner or a beautiful memory is just so darn moving I’d have to be a robot to not feel touched by all of this. It certainly never gets old.
RC: Who has influenced you the most as a business person?
CG: My peers. The people I do shows with end up being the hardest-working and most resourceful folks I know. Many of them have become pretty awesome friends and are just good people to be around. I’m inspired by their efforts to really develop their craft as well as push themselves to explore and learn about the business world. And they’re all willing to help each other out too. They’ll give advice about a display idea or recommend a cool shop to check out, relay tips for marketing, or pass along a good read about social media uses. Also, just watching a friend succeed always gets me in motion.
RC: What keeps you motivated, even when things aren’t going as planned?
CG: I get outside. I go for a walk, pick up whatever debris catches my eye and cart it back to the studio to look at. Sometimes it’s a quick trip to the city. Being surrounded by people doing their thing, energies twirling, my Swyng-O-Matic kicks in. I let myself daydream.
If I’m in the middle of a project and things go awry or all of the sudden I just don’t like it anymore, I simply put it down and move on to something else. But to be clear, I don’t ever throw anything out. I just save it for when my brain and hands have a better answer than what they had that day. Things always find a way to finish; it’s just not always when you want it to. This is probably one of the most useful pearls I can offer. I learned this after way too many years of forcing myself to finish something that wasn’t working. In the end I always lost time and the thing never worked.
“This is the reward [of owning a business]: being me and not being sorry about it.”
RC: What tools do you use or activities do you do to recharge your creativity?
CG: The great outdoors! Really, fresh air is priceless. Being out in the world, experiencing people and cities or any landscape that I find myself in definitely helps get my gears turning. I try to get in it, feel it, and look at all of it. Ideas pop out of the strangest or most ordinary of things. I also really enjoy yard work, and not just planting things. I love big project, lots of sweating, gross, dirty-hands kind of yard work.
I live in an old house that’s been in my family for nearly 100 years. There is no shortage of work to be done on the house or on the property. Downed trees get chopped, rogue vines get detangled and pulled, bushes and shrubs get pruned, and rock walls get reinstated. This kind of full-body workout engages all my senses and makes me so dog-tired that I start to look forward to sitting at my bench and getting my fine motors back into action. Plus, I have all that time to think while I’m outside working, so I’m really never not thinking creatively. I also really enjoy trips to any museum, going to movies, and chatting with friends.
And now that I’ve covered almost every life detail, you now know that I recharge my creativity through almost everything! Except taxes.