Gena Smith of Moonkist Designs

Metalsmith and stone setter Gena Smith shares the lessons she's learned from building a successful online jewelry business.

Last edited: 7/24/2019
Portrait of Gena Smith

Photos by Kelly Hazel Photography. Moonkist Designs' studio space.

Gena Smith has traveled a circuitous but steady path to jewelry-making. She learned how to cut cabochons at age 12, began a silversmithing apprenticeship at age 15, and spent 11 years leading “a double life” in publishing and at the bench. In 2010 she launched “Moonkist Designs” on Etsy, and her business has grown to include her own ecommerce site, two additional Etsy stores, and a presence on Amazon with a second ecommerce site to launch this year. Gena says that benchwork offers a restorative calm amid the bustle and sustains her mission to “put beauty and positivity into the world.”

Portrait of Gena SmithGena Smith, founder of Moonkist Designs

How did you become interested in making jewelry?

When I was 12, my parents joined our local Gem and Mineral Society. That community taught me how to cut cabochons, and then I wanted to make something with them. I tried wire-wrapping, but I wasn’t pleased with the results. What I had in my head was so much bigger than what I could do with the wire! I started working in my parents’ friends’ gallery when I was 15, and it didn’t take long to figure out that I’d be much happier in the back at the bench than I would be in the storefront.

I started out thinking, “Ok, I’ll go in a few days after school.” It quickly became a passion. Soon I was coming in early on Saturdays and staying as late as possible every day they were open. At one point, Bill Churlik, the bench jeweler, noticed me and started to show me things. Over the next five years, he taught me silversmithing and goldsmithing, repair work, and how to set stones. I still set all the stones in our jewelry myself. I love benchwork, and I don’t want to let go of having some part of the process.

What led you to start your own jewelry business?

For 11 years, I worked as the personal assistant to a best-selling author. On the weekends I would teach jewelry with Bill, who had started his own jewelry school, Earth Speak Arts. I had this sort of double life—I was able to keep my skills fresh and learn everything from metal forming to enameling. In 2008 the recession hit, and everything sort of ground to a halt. For a long time I thought, “I don’t have the heart for this.”

Then one day I looked at my UFO [unfinished objects] box and something clicked. I started to work through each of the old projects and soon had a pile of jewelry that looked fairly nice. That led to my starting an Etsy store.

The store grew slowly at first, but after four years I had to decide between my “day job” and my rapidly growing business. I left my job to focus on Moonkist Designs. Within six months, I had more orders than I could fill on my own, so I hired my first full time employee.

Tiffany stone, 14K yellow gold and sterling silver pendantA one-of-a-kind pendant of Tiffany stone, 14K yellow gold and sterling silver.

How has your brand evolved with the growth of your business?

My brand reflects my business model, all under the umbrella of Moonkist Jewelry.

My first Etsy store, Moonkist Designs, taught me so much and influenced the direction of my other stores. I learned a lot about business in general, but especially about the value of curation and thinking about what I wanted to present to the public. Today Moonkist Designs specializes in niche commitment and occasion jewelry.

We have the typical seasonal fluctuations that most jewelry stores do, and I started my second Etsy store, Moonkist Creations, to counteract that. It caters to women and is organized by color. One of our best sellers is a sterling ring with a 4mm moonstone cabochon, priced at $28.

Our third store, Moonkist Gallery, offers ready-to-ship jewelry. Some are pieces that I’ve made and really love, but they just won’t work for production. Others are one-of-a-kinds that were created because one of us had the itch to try something new.

It’s good to have a business where people can buy things for themselves that are within the realm of financial possibility without regretting it. It’s all about finding out what people are willing to spend money on and filling the gap. I’m not just working to feed myself—five other people count on this business at this point.  

What has been your defining moment (or moments) of success?

There have been lots of moments. Most recently someone bought one of our engagement rings and proposed at a KT Tunstall concert, and we found out the recipient was thrilled with the ring and that KT Tunstall saw the ring and was impressed. I had a great fan girl moment over that one.

But I don’t think you ever “make it.” If you ever think that you have, it’s easy to get lazy and stop moving forward.

What is your most indispensable tool at your bench/in your workshop?

A Foredom® belt sander that we bought from Rio Grande years ago. We use that thing like crazy—four or five times a day. It’s been amazing for cleaning up the edges of flat bands and straightening out miscentered pattern wire.

Lily Silver Wedding Band.Lily Silver Wedding Band.

How has being a RioPro member helped your business?

We easily place an order a week with Rio. When we send orders to our customers, we include a small Sunshine® cloth, decorated with a sticker that might have a promo code or a thank you message. We would never not do it—we’d get complaints! Because we order so frequently, having discounted shipping has really made a difference for us.

What is your biggest challenge as a jeweler?Actively working on diversifying. You can’t get complacent, and in today’s online climate you can’t exist with all your eggs in one basket. Etsy is still our most successful sales channel, because an online marketplace is going to get more traffic. It’s really tempting to think, “This channel is doing really well, so let’s put all of our energy into that.” But all marketplaces have a lifespan—customers won’t always turn to the same thing day after day, year after year.

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