How Covid has affected Cathy Pope Jewellery

How Covid has affected Cathy Pope Jewellery
The C word. Where do I start? I remember in February 2020 purchasing my ticket to India and there were rumours circulating about a virus that was causing problems in Asia and we'd have to wear masks. No problem, I thought. This sounds like SARS or something that will be manageable in no time so I'll stock up on extra hand sanitiser, masks and some latex gloves. I'd already purchased my espresso travel coffee maker and my trip was all planned out, my designs were on paper and it would surely be a trip just like all my others. Soon enough the seriousness of the pandemic dawned as people in foreign countries were scrambling to get back to NZ. 

Like everyone else, I watched as the seriousness of the virus took hold of the entire world. It feels like a surreal blur when I look back. As a really organised person, all my plans went on hold and I had to adjust to the new normal of feeling frustration, relinquishing all control and learning to pivot and find alternative ways to function and run my small business.  It dawned on me how at the mercy of Asia we were for imports and how much we really rely on them.

My first big concern, especially as we entered the first lockdown was that people wouldn't be buying jewellery. It's not exactly a necessity and I presumed that luxury items like mine would be the last thing people would be thinking about. How wrong I was!  The financial hit took a bit longer to come as the first lockdown was almost a bit of a novelty for people. But amid my initial panic I decided to just keep doing my best and I found that the reverse happened. People were highly responsive to anything and everything I talked about on social media. Usually on a normal day when I do an Instagram story or post I sell a few of the pieces I posted about, but suddenly people were glued to their phones and buying whatever I talked about on the day. It was an amazing feeling. People were listening to me? Actually it was more a case of people having nothing else to do, online shopping was one of the few buzzes available. Treating yourself became the new coping mechanism for lockdowns, boredom and closed shops. For me too!

So I decided to be resourceful and creative with gemstones and chains I had in my studio and sell them as lower priced limited edition pieces. I started by trying it out on Instagram stories and I didn't even have time to put them on the website, just a simple show and tell and then just communicated on direct messages. It proved a great way to use up spare materials lying around gathering dust, offer some lower price items and it really was a win win situation! So the first lockdown wasn't too bad for me, more of a time of discovery and connecting with customers, trying new tactics and keeping myself busy. 

On the other side of the world things were getting worse and I was very concerned about what was happening in India as the cases were rising steadily. I was in regular contact with Sushil my manufacturer and other friends living in Jaipur and I knew it was just a matter of time before we would be affected too.

I'm so fortunate that through all the difficulties in India, production of my jewellery never stopped. During the lockdowns in Jaipur, the workers all lived in the factory in the upstairs quarters which kept them safe and able to keep earning for their families. They had their own bubble which they stayed in for about 3 months. They were temperature tested three times a day, socially distanced and were cared for well. Many jewellery makers are immigrant workers who live in the outskirts of Jaipur and only go home every 3-4 months, usually for religious holidays only. They work 6 days a week and live in hostel type quarters in the Old City in the centre of Jaipur. There were rumours of tens of thousands of immigrant works all over India losing their jobs and unable to get back to their villages as public transport was overflowing, so I was hugely relieved to know that my factory was taking good care of their people. One thing I felt very grateful for was how well I already knew and trusted my manufacturers. My annual trips had built a strong foundation and its proven invaluable through this pandemic. There is a deep established trust and each time I visit I see how well my makers are treated and respected and how good their work conditions are.  

But as Delta took hold of India, sadly Sushil my manufacturer and his entire family caught it and all communication stopped for two weeks. I felt completely stalled, helpless, worried and stressed for him and his health, the future of my business and my mind couldn't fathom what was going to happen. For the first time I thought everything was going to collapse and I'd have to go back to my old job of styling. A few weeks passed and I checked on him regularly and soon he was back at work. The factory never stopped. What a relief! 

One of the biggest issues I've had is getting samples completed efficiently. The main reason I go to India is because it's much faster to get collections sampled and approved when I am there. One thing that covid proved to me was that what I can achieve in 3-4 weeks in India in person takes about 18 months if I don't go. Freight was slowly getting more expensive as there were less planes connecting countries and my costs started creeping up. The cost of silver and gold also increased and within 6 months it had increased by 60%. Traditionally in times of international crises and pandemics people hoard traditional commodities like silver and gold so the increased consumption meant prices went up. So these extra costs meant I had to increase my retail prices. I knew I was in the same boat as all my peers and retailers were very understanding. But it also meant I had to reconsider my use of sterling silver and I decided to start using more stainless steel chains. I was already manufacturing my larger chains in stainless steel and its a metal I enjoy as its light, doesn't tarnish, its much lower in price and easy to wear. My finer chains came predominantly from the US and I was having problems with factory closures and supply was slow and unreliable. So one of the decisions I made was to work with stainless steel for my finer chains too. This meant that I didn't have to increase my prices too much making it easier on my customers. 

Photography shoots were also getting difficult with lockdowns to I decided to front up and do the modelling myself. People had been telling me to do it for years but understandably I was hesitant. But with my name on my brand it made a lot of sense so I just had to get over myself and just do it. Modern Vintage was the first campaign I fronted and it was a big success and created a stepping stone to doing more campaigns like this. It was encouraging and an important turning point for my business. 

Meanwhile I was also looking at new categories, how to grow the business and have new offerings but not spend too much time, energy and cost on designing new products. So bringing back successful designs such as the Amalfi ring in new gemstones labradorite and lapis worked well, making decisions to phase out designs that weren't selling. A friend of mine in Jaipur was looking for new opportunities as he was a tour guide was starting to source fabric manufacturers. I knew quite a bit about block printing and had been frequently bringing homewares back from India and selling them and had also manufactured my own line of pillowcases in 2020. It made a lot of sense to expand my categories as I'd been a dressmaker and clothing designer for 20 years and it was the perfect challenge for me ie not too challenging! Over Instagram video calls he took me virtual fabric shopping and I selected fabrics and soon samples arrived and we went into production. And so here I am in October 2021, 18 months after coronavirus changed the world and our freedom and life as we knew it.

Perhaps the greatest loss for me is the creativity and inspiration I got from travelling. It was something I took for granted and I miss it immensely. India terrifies and enlightens me and makes me feel alive. I have the world of manufacturing at my fingertips and Jaipur is steeped in possibilities for me. There's something that fear and terror does to push me and wake me up and afterwards I feel like I've really accomplished something. Its been a huge part of my personal growth and the development of my business and I'm struggling to design without it. 

However it's a huge feat to have still launched four collections in this pandemic. Luckily in December 2019 I was super organised and shot Lucent and Ashoka very early. Ashoka imagery was ready in January, ready for lockdown launch in March. It was a case of shooting when I could and sheer luck shooting Modern Vintage and the Harmony collaboration with Flox in a non lockdown window of time. Catherine we managed to shoot with me just before the August 2021 lockdown but we're still struggling to book a shoot for additional imagery for that collection. 

Nov 6 update - my gym trainer has agreed to model robes for me tomorrow! Watch this space!

My motto is to be organised and early with everything. Hold more stock than you usually would as you don't know what's going to happen with supply chains. 

In a nutshell, it's been a crazy and terrifying time but I can see the positives that have come from it and I'm hopeful that we can get back to a sense of normality soon. 





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