Last week I wrote a spotlight of 5 great jewelry boxes on Etsy. When I do these spotlights, I always let the designers know that I wrote about them, because it’s always fun to see your business get some exposure! Donna and I wrote back and forth a bit, and I decided to ask if she’d be willing to do an interview. I want to do lots more of these, and Donna seemed like a great place to start, because I knew I wouldn’t feel nervous asking her questions.
I’ll start with a little bio about Black Forest Cottage. It’s a jewelry organizer company run by husband and wife team Donna and Darrell Knish. They’ve been doing this for 9 years, and have a shop on Etsy that you can see here. They have over 5,000 sales on Etsy, and have pages and pages of rave reviews. Customers love the careful construction, the wood finishes, and even the way they wrap their items before shipping! They are a jewelry box company I would personally recommend as a great place to find a quality product.
I sent Donna questions and she was kind enough to answer them. Below are my questions (in bold) and her answers!
Last week we were chatting about the Christmas rush, and how both of us have already begun Christmas prep for our businesses. You have even started talking about what to make for Christmas dinner! First off: congratulations on your business success. You and Darrell really do have a Santa’s little workshop this time of year, and I’m sure many happy customers will be unwrapping big presents under the tree. I have to ask…what is going to be on the table for Christmas dinner?
Haha, this year I’m making prime rib dinner since it’s the easiest thing to do. With that we’ll have garlic mashed potatoes, gravy, cauliflower and broccoli with cheese sauce, salad, and a ton of preserves that I’m making this Summer and Fall. Then to top it off I will have English truffle for dessert since it’s everyone’s favorite and they always ask me to make it.
Why did you choose the name Black Forest Cottage?
Darrell and I are so different from each other, and each of us has our own ideas on things. So what we did was we sat down and each of us came up with 5 names that we liked, then we took them all out, read them and chose the top 4. We decided that we liked all of those so we put them in a bowl and had our granddaughter pull one out. We chose that one!
Tell me how you got started making cosmetic organizers.
My grandfather had made me a jewelry organizer from printer drawers over 40 years ago (ok so now I’m really showing my age). I love it and have had it for all these years. My husband had heard about Etsy on the news when a local boy was making fridge magnets that looked like bacon and was selling them on Etsy, so he checked out the site. We put this on the back burner for a while because of my health. Then I got cancer and lost my job because I was off for a year, so we had to find something we could do to make a living. I started looking up printer drawers on line and tracked down a couple of companies where I could purchase 100’s at a time and we were off to the races so to speak.
What makes a great jewelry organizer?
That is something that is different for so many people. To me it is making a piece that is just perfect for that one person, that is why we have so many options. For me personally it has to have room for everything that I wear, like rings, earrings, bracelets etc. Notice that I never said clip on earrings or bangles, because I don’t wear them. That being said our daughter and granddaughter’s love them and so we had to come up with something different to hold the types of jewelry that they wear. I’m still working on how to store clip-ons, so if you have any ideas let us know!
You say Darrell is the creative one who pushes you to think outside the box—give us a recent example of when he gave you a push.
Well, recently I was telling Darrell that I don’t like using cork for my post earrings in our displays. He said, “Come up with something different,” but I told him I was busy and that he should come up with something. Well I’m sure you know that did not go over very well, haha! We each took on the task and came up with an idea.
I scoured the internet seeing what I thought could work, and I saw people making displays using this metal mesh. I noticed that they didn’t have a way to store post earrings, so I thought if I made it with hinges it would open up so that they could put their post in it. I ran to the saw and cut out a frame, ran the pieces through the saw to cut a slit so that I could slide the mesh into it, then I put hinges on it and added it to one of our displays. I just loved it and no one else was doing it. As soon as I listed it, it was a day and I sold it! Since then we are selling most of our pieces with this little door.
Talk about the dynamics of a husband-wife duo. What’s it like working every day with your spouse?
I’m going to give you a little history. I was a personal banker for over 20 years, I was a whiz at financial planning and I loved my job. I have always been very focused and task-oriented, and was good at thinking out side of the box when it came to finances. My husband couldn’t stand working in an office environment and would go crazy if he couldn’t be creative. He used to buy houses, fix them up and flip them. He would go into a place, just sit on a bucket of paint and let his mind wander on how he could make the flow better, what color he wanted to make the room, etc.
When I got sick he had to take care of me and take me to all of my appointments every single day for months. Then we had the housing crash and both of us were out of work. So you can see Darrell was creative at making things and I was creative in financial matters. We had savings left (remember I was a financial planner so I always had at least 1 year worth of savings), but my treatments and all the time off work lead to almost wiping out our entire savings. Plus on my husband’s end, houses were not selling, especially in the small community where we live. We knew that we had to do something. Because of the side effects that I live with everyday we knew I would never be able to hold down a 9 – 5 job again, so I was really worried.
Darrell remembered Etsy, and he thought maybe we could make jewelry organizers like the one my grandfather had made for me. Sure enough other people were already doing it, so we knew it was a possibility. We wanted ours to be different from everyone else’s, so Darrell figured out how to add in places for post earrings, and I figured out how to add a place to store rings. Like what I said earlier about the mesh hinge door we use, it was two components that others were not offering, and because of it our store took off.
Darrell is a real jokester. He can drive me nuts, because I’m very serious when it comes to work. We worked out a really good balance: I get my time alone when I’m making listings and answering questions. When I come up with a new design, we work it out together to make sure that it will work. He comes up with things that I didn’t think of, and I love pondering a problem to see if I can make it work. We have a really nice balance now. And that is a good thing, or we would be in trouble!
You sell 109 different organizers on Etsy. Where do you find inspiration for each design?
Wow, we don’t have 109 totally different organizers! We have different color options, we have add on’s on some like a bangle bar, the new mesh doors and ring sections. We want to have a different variety for everyone.
We start with how the customer would like to see it work. What do we want to be able to put in there? We make items for just necklaces, for just earrings and for every jewelry type together. I have to remember that others wear jewelry pieces that I don’t–how would I want to store them if I did? It can take me weeks to come up with a new design, and other times I will just be shipping things out when an idea hits me. I drop everything and run to the shop to see if it will work. If I can’t figure it out on my own I ask Darrell to work it out with me. Between the two of us we have been able to solve any issues. Sometimes it takes years, as we have to keep up with our orders, and that doesn’t always leave room for coming up with new things.
If I don’t work out the idea right away, I will forget about it. I have a huge pile of wood sitting on a shelf that I have wrecked because of ideas that didn’t work out the way I thought they would. Many times, customers will want something we have not yet made before, and both of us will sit at our work bench with scraps of wood, placing them around to see what we can come up.
You tell your customers you look forward to earning their trust and building a relationship with them. Why is that so important to you?
That is an easy question for me. As a financial planner, earning my customers’ trust was very important. Remember, I was helping them to build a future. That sound business practice will always stay with me. I listen to my customers’ needs, I ask them questions about how they want their piece to work for them; do they have limitations on how much space they have, how do they want it to function for them, what colors do they like, etc. Once I have all their information I build a design for them. If they like it, we build it. If they want to make any modifications, I do it. I once had a customer I worked with for over a year.
How do you decide how to proportion out each section of an organizer? What’s too much room for necklaces, etc.?
I have a large variety of jewelry of my own to work with, so that helps! I know that some people prefer to have shorter necklaces, some have longer ones. Some people wear very long earrings while others prefer to wear post earrings or smaller dangles. I take my earrings and place them on the work table, and work around them. I allow some room for small pieces, some for longer pieces, and there is always the bottom of the display for really long pieces. You have to have a balance for everything.
I’m surprised that so many customers take the time to praise the wrapping of the product. They adore the organizer, but are also consistently pleased with the presentation. How do you wrap them?
I make sure first that I have wiped off all of the finger prints that are left behind after putting in putty to cover the nail holes. Then I put down however much bubble wrap I need for the piece. I add purple tissue paper, then I place my piece on it and wrap it up. All of my small and medium pieces get a gold pull bow, and then I place a post card that thanks them for their purchase and hoping that they will enjoy it for years to come. If it is a larger piece, I add a huge black pull bow and the card. I place the piece into the box, then I put in air pillows on either side of the bow so that it doesn’t get crushed. That way, when they open up the box, it looks like a gift has arrived.
You’re going to start a new store called Hooked on Woodwork—can you tell me about this new store?
We did start the store, and it was originally going to hold different types of jewelry organizers than what we sold in Black Forest Cottage. But when we finally ran out of supplies for the printer drawers, we had to have something to sell, so we added in the displays that we were selling on Hooked on Wood.
That being said, we do not sell all the items in each shop. For example, we make coat racks from the wood pieces that we trim off of our jewelry organizers–they are so much fun. Darrell was down in the shop and wondering what we were going to do with all of this wood. He didn’t want to throw it out, so he was in the shop all night and didn’t even come up to bed. When I went to the shop in the morning, I saw a beautiful coat rack and him snoring with his head on the table! We also do not offer our necklace hangers in Hooked on Wood, but we do offer a different version of a bangle and necklace storage in Hooked on Wood. We have so many new ideas that we want to get out, but it will have to wait until next year, as I have to start preparing for Christmas.
Thank you Kyle for taking the time for this interview, it was fun.
Thanks again Donna for the great interview. It’s so much fun to listen to an artist talk about their craft. I really appreciate the creativity that Donna and Darrell have as a team–it’s inspiring to get a glimpse into what it takes to create some really beautiful art! I think that’s what I want to get out of these interviews going forward–a chance for readers to appreciate artists, and get a look into their world. Stay tuned for more interviews, I had so much fun with this one that I definitely want to do it again!