Cathy Pope admits she accidentally fell into jewellery design.
Advertising and media had been her first fields of expertise, both in London and New Zealand, followed by costume design in film and television. But her creative genes leaned towards jewellery design after being gifted some gemstones from a sewing client.
“That was almost ten years ago,” she remembers. “I started making and wearing my inaugural chunky choker necklace designs and enough people seemed to like my strong, simple aesthetic styles. Orders from friends came thick and fast.”
And just like that, Cathy Pope, the brand, was born.
That chunky choker featured in a 2013 issue of Viva magazine, requiring an e-commerce page to be hastily set up to cope with the orders.
Fame and exposure came in an even larger dose when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was seen wearing Cathy’s jewellery. It all began from a cheeky Instagram message Cathy had sent to congratulate her on becoming leader of the Labour party.
The PM remained a fan, further evidenced when a Cathy Pope onyx ring was later flashed at her meeting with Queen Elizabeth II.
It is four years since Cathy decided to go 100 percent all out with her jewellery business, after dipping her toe in the film industry for 20 years.
“Choosing to focus all my energies on Cathy Pope Jewellery was a real step-change,” she recalls. “Rather than continuing to dabble in costume design and styling.”
The Jaipur connection
Cathy remembers her first visit to Jaipur, India’s gemstone and jewellery capital, back in 2008, where a bout of food poisoning left a bad taste. Nevertheless, the country lured her back some years later after a failed attempt at jewellery manufacturing in Bali.
In Jaipur she engaged a manufacturer, whom she hoped she could manage from New Zealand.
Unfortunately, WhatsApp limitations across different time zones, plus language barriers, time delays and courier expenses necessitated a trip back every six to 12 months, before the onset of the pandemic.
“I find the hands-on approach much easier as I’m not formally trained as a jeweller and I like the more tangible personal approach to perfecting designs and explaining what I want,” says Cathy.
“I also find India incredibly inspiring and challenging. It stirs up my senses which in turn spurs on my creativity. Its full of contrasts and shocks you with its beauty and sadness.
“Visiting different factories and observing how staff are treated, their work conditions and how and what they are paid is very important to me. I’m very open and transparent documenting this on social media for my customers and they really appreciate my connection to this part of my story,” she says.
“Establishing a healthy working relationship with my suppliers, and negotiating, are all important factors more easily achieved on the ground in person.”
Over the years Cathy has been involved in fundraising for a local orphanage and government primary school. “It’s always rewarding to see how far a small sacrifice of time and income can go in India,” she says.
Addressing the misperception that third world workers are exploited is vital to Cathy. Her Indian workers are paid ten percent above the average wage, receive health and life insurance for their entire families, wear freshly laundered uniforms, and get free transport and fresh drinking water. “Management share meals with their workers and during the pandemic they were provided free accommodation in the upstairs floor of the factory to keep them safe in their own bubble,” adds Cathy. “These are all initiatives I’m really proud of.”
Being an independent female business owner in India has also been challenging.
“There’s a fine line between being polite and friendly but also between being firm and not being taken advantage of,” she explains. “Negotiating price on everything is normal, whereas in New Zealand its seen as rude. So, this is always hard to get used to.”
Dealing with the pandemic
Fully expecting sales revenues to drop as a result of the pandemic lockdowns, Cathy was pleasantly surprised to experience the opposite, thanks to online shopping.
“Something unique happened. Every day as I posted stories of me wearing jewellery those exact pieces sold. I decided to create some limited-edition earrings and necklaces using gemstones and chains I had at home and sell them direct on Instagram. They flew out the door!
“People really enjoyed the ‘real time’ aspect of me connecting with them and didn’t want to miss out.”
Her connection with customers deepened, and she diversified – trialling kimono robes and pillowcases under her sub-brand Cathy Curates. A category that is still growing.
Cathy’s advice to aspiring jewellery designers is to either train formally or complete short jewellery courses. “It’s important to understand the craft and how objects are created.”
This will teach you how metals work and stones are set, she says.
“Just start. Draw, design, try different things, develop your own style. Be unique and find a niche that is somewhere you can fit in, rather than copying.
“Business knowledge is also important. You need to have a combination of creative and business skills. Understanding marketing, costings, margins, accounting, etcetera, are all invaluable skills too.
“I’ve also sought help from business coaches and applied for local government funding to help with projects.”
Following her instincts
Cathy has always wanted to be the face of her business, to give her brand character. She takes a personalised approach to customer service through social media and her Auckland studio, which is also a retail store. She follows her instincts and preferences on design in pursuit of that point of difference.
Fitting her business around her lifestyle is important too, as is purposely staying small to avoid debt and enable self-funding. Being the face of the business and modelling in several campaigns also helps establish trust in the brand, she believes.
Cathy is returning to India this year to develop a business idea with an Indian friend – a boutique shop in Jaipur’s ‘Pink City’, and online store, all targeting tourist foot traffic.
“Until now Jaipur has been my jewellery base, but I’ve realised there’re so many more opportunities to manufacture clothing, utilise the local craft of block printing, and develop other accessories I can also introduce to the New Zealand market.”
Cathy also plans to tap into local organisations helping to empower women, to further help them in the workplace with skills training and employment.
“The Cathy Pope Jewellery brand won’t change but after ten years there’s a predictability and rhythm with the business that gives me space and capacity to diversify.”
Story by editor Glenn Baker. NZ Business Magazine AUGUST 2022