It's hard not to be inspired by the artists and makers of the Cleveland Flea. Brilliant, talented, creative. They're tough as bleepin' nails on their ways to making their dreams come true. We began The Maker Series to take a look — behind the scenes, beyond the booth — to see what drives our makers to do what they love and love what they do.
Hobbyist turned professional jeweler Erica Montejo took the big leap and left her day job in August of 2016 to entirely focus on her small business, Tiny Erica Jewelry. Erica’s pieces start with a refined geometric metalwork foundation and pair those designs with elegant stone accents. Propelled by a family of supportive artists, Tiny Erica Jewelry shows no signs of slowing down. Learn more about how the maker has polished her process in our Maker Series interview below.
Cleveland Flea: How would you describe your business in one sentence?
Erica Montejo: Tiny Erica Jewelry is a line of fresh, versatile sterling silver jewelry handmade small-batch-style in Cleveland, OH utilizing high quality and ethically sourced metals, gemstones, and recycled woods to explore the underlying grid structures of objects found in you every day surroundings.
CF: What was your path to beginning your business?
EM: Well, here's the abridged version! I graduated from Edinboro University in December 2009 with a BFA in Applied Media Arts with a concentration in graphic design and a minor in metalsmithing. Several months later I obtained a job as a bench jeweler and I've worked in the jewelry industry ever since! My personal business initially began merely as a creative outlet where I could remove myself from the pressures of the daily grind to explore my own ideas on my own time. I set up a little corner in my living space in 2011 and just made my own jewelry. Little by little the work began to feel more focused, and friends and acquaintances began asking for custom work. I really loved collaborating with them to create these meaningful, narrative heirlooms. This got me thinking that, "yeah, maybe I can take this somewhere. I can do something with this," and after moving to Cleveland in 2013 I began to work on building up a more elaborate studio in my home where I could explore ideas and eventually develop a more refined jewelry line that I would share with other people. After selling online and vending at shows for a little while, I took the leap this August and quit my day job. Now here we are!
CF: Why do you love what you do?
EM: Metalsmithing is incredibly tactile and dirty, and I love working with my hands. In this field there is so much to learn about different processes and materials, so there's a great deal of room for experimentation and growth. I enjoy challenging myself and accepting challenges from my customers who keep me on my toes with incredibly creative and interesting requests for custom pieces. I love hearing their stories. I love making them happy with a piece of jewelry that they will carry with them for ages.
CF: Why is Cleveland a great place to launch and run a creative business?
EM: I'm not originally from Cleveland, so upon moving here three years ago it was utterly refreshing to see how supportive Clevelanders are of their city. This resurgence of handmade crafts that we're still in the midst of was well underway, and I was blown away by how supportive the community was of local makers, local agriculture, local business. There's so much support here -- people of Cleveland are resilient and humble -- They work hard, they love hard, they're incredibly encouraging of one another, and there's an awesome sense of community to be found in that. It's really moving and motivating.
CF: What's the best part of running your own business?
EM: I can't deny that I enjoy working for myself. In the past I've had some rather interesting experiences working for others, and in that time I learned a great deal about what I did and did not want to be as a business owner. So taking those lessons with me to build something of my own has been really empowering and exciting.
CF: What's your biggest struggle from a business standpoint?
EM: Sometimes I struggle to decide when to call it a day, switch off the light in my studio space, and dedicate a little time to myself. I would like to take more time to enjoy the company of the people around me, or even just to spend a moment alone, turning off and tuning out. I find that difficult sometimes.
CF: What are your goals for the business this year?
EM: I want to expand my brand's reach and get my new website up and running with the help of my awesome web developer husband. I'm also really looking forward to building and fostering stronger relationships with other makers and business owners in the community. I can feel that beginning to happen, so that's really exciting to me.
CF: Did you see yourself growing up to be a creative vendor?
EM: I always knew that I wanted and needed to work in a creative field, but it took a long time to figure out just how everything would take shape. I have always been making things in some form or another thanks to my parents. They were much the same as I was growing up -- my mom a painter and my dad a woodworker in their spare time -- and they encouraged a curious nature within me at a very young age, as far back as I can remember. At age five I was making little bowls and vessels out of mud in my backyard then drying them in the sun, then as I got older I started painting with watercolors, working with charcoal, just generally making things with my hands, gettin' dirty. But it wasn't until college that I found metalsmithing, and it wasn't until just a few years ago that I decided that, "Yes, I want to own my own business!"
CF: What's the first big moment where you knew you were headed in the right direction with your business?
EM: My first sale to an utter stranger on Etsy. That was a rush! It's still secretly a rush for me.
CF: Who inspires you?
EM: Everyone who has come before me and worked hard and succeeded and maintained a Humble and Fair outlook on life. People who constantly challenge themselves, people who aren't afraid to try new things and fail. My husband. He is one of the hardest working people I know, and we keep each other grounded and motivated and I'm unspeakably grateful for his love, humor, and support.
CF: Have you learned anything about your business by participating in Cleveland Flea?
EM: Absolutely! Tent weights are a must! Just kidding. (no, but seriously, they've saved my tent and thus my work so many times...) In all seriousness I've learned a great about the people who support my work at shows. I feel like it's greatly important to listen to customer feedback, so I really enjoy talking with customers at each event. The input I receive from them has at least in part helped guide the direction of my collection along the way. It's also such an awesome experience meeting other vendors at these events. I've made some great friends just as an attendee and now as a vendor. It's super inspiring to see the flood of creativity coming from all of these beautiful, hard working people, and it certainly motivates me to keep on keeping on.
CF: What's your favorite piece of advice as it relates to your business?
EM: "Stay humble and hustle hard." It's succinct, but it's apt.
CF: What's one thing people would be surprised to learn about your business?
EM: A lot of the jewelry is one of a kind, or at least small batch. And it is completely hand made by yours truly. I have scars to prove it!
CF: How would you hope to hear your business described by your dream customers?
EM: Beautiful jewelry that I never leave the house without, made by a bosslady.
CF: What's your favorite booth at the flea?
EM: It changes constantly, as there is SO much talent out there, but lately I am shamelessly in love with every culinary delight The Pierogi Lady creates. Food is the way to my heart, and her menu has a part of mine.