There’s a rather cryptic looking building in Portland on the corner of NE Sandy and 31st Street with a banner at the top that says simply, “The Bindery.” Inside this shared space is a beautiful mix of wood, glass and high ceilings that together create an airy, open vibe. This eclectic setting is home to Grayling Jewelry—both its corporate office and showroom. Katy Kippen, its creative force, designer and owner, has been passionate about jewelry making since she was a young girl.
“I grew up around rocks in Montana where my grandfather was an avid collector and stonecutter. He made pendants and rings for friends and family as a hobby. I loved it and started making jewelry too.”
That love of jewelry design has been a constant in Kippen’s life no matter what else she was doing—and this hard-working woman has done a lot. After graduating from business school she began work as a buyer’s assistant for high-end boutiques in Montana. Over the next seven years Kippen went from assistant to lead buyer and eventually operated as a partner in tandem with the owner.
“I didn’t know it at the time but everything I did as buyer, every trade show I attended, and all the jewelry lines I reviewed were market research for what would eventually become Grayling Jewelry. I got an amazing education on the wholesale and retail side of the fashion industry as a buyer. I’m really lucky to have that foundation. There are so many valuable insights you pick up just by doing the job every day.”
Big scary leap
By 2009, several things happened that made it clear it was time for a change. After seven years with the same company Kippen was burnt out. She’d been living and breathing the business and intuitively knew it was time for a change. The recession had also hit and the vision for the business was moving in a direction she wasn’t interested in following. Kippen stepped down, with a big question mark about what would come next.
“I knew that I could design and sell jewelry. It was something I had done all my life off and on. I also knew all the jewelry lines out there from my years as a buyer. Even though I’d been working independently and really operating as if I was the sole owner, I wasn’t. The idea of now starting my own business all by myself was very scary.”
Despite that anxiety, Kippen knew in her gut that designing jewelry was the right next step for her. She shared her concerns with good friend John Rink, a gold and platinumsmith.
“I told John how much I wanted to go back to making jewelry and he offered me a bench in his studio, plus access to all of his equipment, for just $200 a month. That was an amazingly generous offer, and just seeing all the tools he was making available to me was inspirational.”
That was the very beginning of what would become the thriving wholesale and retail business that is Grayling Jewelry today. Kippen is quick to point out that she did not make this journey alone. She had help, especially from her husband, mentors and customers, all of whom supported and contributed to the early days of the business.
Kippen believes the unique consumers here in Portland, who support high quality, handmade products, helped shape the direction she took.
“When I first sat down at that bench in John’s studio I had no idea what kind of jewelry line I wanted to produce. In the end, I decided to design for myself, and people like me, who are sensitive to metals, can’t necessarily afford fine jewelry, but really value locally made quality pieces. I knew I wanted jewelry that was fun, expressive, versatile and timeless.”
“Oregon is a unique place with an educated consumer base and a lot of support for entrepreneurs. I’m not sure that Grayling would be as successful as it is today if it was based anyplace else in the country. I’d like to think I could have done this anywhere but really I think the collaborative thinking that happens here has been a key to our success.”
But it wasn’t until Kippen took her collections out in the world and started to get feedback that she was able to really hone in on what would ultimately become her signature collection.
“Don’t be afraid to listen to customers and ask a lot of questions,” advises Kippen. “I’m a huge fan of asking questions because to me there’s a synergy in those conversations with buyers that helps you understand what does and doesn’t resonate with customers. We tried a lot of different things and kept refining our vision based on customer feedback until we got to the point we’re at today. Finding people who are willing to share their opinions is golden. Some of our most popular pieces came to be based on those conversations.”
Portland helps make (and grow) the maker
For Kippen, collaboration comes in many forms, including organizations like the Oregon Small Business Development Center (OSBDC). “I’ve had brilliant experiences and met some of the most inspirational people through that organization. I wish I had known about them much sooner. I’d encourage business owners to check out the classes there. I’ve found them tremendously helpful.”
The OSBDC is just one of the ways that Kippen believes that Portland uniquely supports entrepreneurs in becoming successful.
“One of the most incredibly special things about living in Portland, and I can’t speak to the rest of Oregon because I’ve only lived here, is the great network of people who have deliberately chosen to live here and come to the table with amazing experiences and are willing to share them. There is an unspoken ethos here that if you were helped by someone, if someone gave you that kernel of knowledge that helped you grow your company or made your life better, it’s only right that you do the same and help the next person along their journey. I truly think that idea of community and collaboration is very unique to Portland.”
So with a thriving business poised for continued growth how does this entrepreneur define success now that she has six years of experience under her belt and a national customer base?
“I don’t really believe in the traditional definition of success anymore,” says Kippen. “I even stopped subscribing to business magazines because the theme always seemed to be that there’s more to do, grow larger and faster, think big. The message is meant to be inspiring but it supports this perpetual idea that we’re not doing enough. I remind myself that I’ve blown out of the water the dream I had as a 16 year old to own a jewelry business, and that I’ve surpassed what I dreamed of achieving. Business success to me means surrounding myself with people who embrace an ever changing vision of Grayling and help me execute on it, so that we can all have lives filled with family, friends and adventures.”
And just in case you were wondering, the name Grayling comes from a gray freshwater fish, similar to a rainbow trout, only its “rainbow” is on its dorsal fin—a fish with an accessory. According to Kippen, “Their colors are absolutely brilliant, so full of shimmer and shine, just like I want all of my designs to be.”