On the Loupe’s 7th anniversary: a few lessons learned

Seven years ago today, I put up my first post on this website. In honor of the occasion, I’m going to give some backstory you won’t find on my carefully edited About page. For anyone thinking of starting a blog, take this for whatever it comes down to for you: inspiration or cautionary tale.

Maybe it’s part of getting older, but I find more and more, the role I feel most comfortable in is mentor and educator. I’d like to think this site has helped both collectors and creators, at least a little. My goal going forward is to focus more on doing precisely that.

Now and then, usually in the Q&A that follows a talk or webinar, someone will ask, “Should I have a blog?” My standard response is: “If you have to ask, probably not.” It’s a lot of work to build a following and keep a blog going, I tell them, and if you’re not driven to share something specific, it’s going to be a hard slog. At worst, you’ll end up with a few dated posts that leave you looking a little flaky. Better to use your energy elsewhere.

But the real answer is more complex. Here’s my truth: I was talking about launching a jewelry blog for a good four years before I actually did it. By 2005, I had quite a few writer friends who were experimenting with blogs and I followed them with fascination. One in particular was blogging about the design scene in our city. Every time I discussed my dream of a jewelry blog with her, she would say, “Do it! It sounds great. I’d read it.” But she hadn’t yet married and taken on a mortgage, family, etc. (Rule of thumb: Start this kind of thing young, when you have relatively few demands on your time and abundant energy.)

In 2006, on assignment for JCK, I got a backstage pass at Christie’s to attend the auction of the jewels actress Ellen Barkin had received from her new ex-husband Ronald Perelman. These included 17 JAR jewels. I was given a personal tour by François Curiel, then head of Christie’s jewelry department. I’ve written about all this before, but what I didn’t say was that I knew this sale was going to be big news, and it was killing me that I didn’t have a blog up.

Christie's sale of Ellen Barkin's jewelry in October 2006 (photo Cathleen McCarthy)

Christie’s sale of Ellen Barkin’s jewelry in October 2006 (photo Cathleen McCarthy)

At that time, nobody was blogging about this kind of thing and the magazine I was writing for would not be able to publish the results for at least three months. There were aspects of this story that JCK readers would want to know and I was excited to tell it. But there was another, more immediate first-person report I longed to give, one with my own behind-the-scenes images.

I was assigned to report on the sale, not photograph it, but I showed up with my Canon Rebel around my neck and managed to snap a few quick shots of those JAR jewels on my hand and later, of the auction itself. Nobody in that crowded preview room was doing this but me. Now every other person would be taking selfies, but at that time, the word “selfie” didn’t even exist and neither did Instagram.

JAR gardenia (photo Cathleen McCarthy) | The Jewelry Loupe

My photo of JAR diamond pavé Gardenia ring, taken on my hand at Christie’s Rockefeller Center in October 2006, day before the Ellen Barkin sale

I recall Curiel watching me balancing Barkin’s honking diamond pavé Gardenia ring on my hand, trying to focus for a quick shot. Curiel was on a tight schedule. He would be at the podium in a few hours auctioning off the collection of a lifetime and there were probably other reporters he needed to show around. “You don’t need to do that,” he said. “We will send you professional photographs.” His young assistant, watching nervously, piped up: “I’m sure she’s doing that for perspective. Right, Cathleen?” I smiled, nodded, and put the camera away.

I was well aware JCK wasn’t going to be interested in my hand shots, so why was I taking them? I was shooting for a blog I didn’t have.

On the bus home after the record-breaking auction the next day, I flipped through the images I had captured. Even as I was organizing my notes for the magazine story, I was composing something else in my head: a quick, illustrated firsthand account of the sale, the one I wanted to post the next day. But there was nowhere to put it. I vowed to change that, ASAP. As it turned out, ASAP was three years. That post on Ellen Barkin’s JAR jewels did go up – nearly four years after the sale. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to post that.

What can I say? Life and work got increasingly hectic. By 2008, I was reaching burnout as a magazine writer. In the end, it took a major recession to get this blog in place. Yay for the recession! (JK)

I built this site myself, for better or worse. That in itself amazes me, given my usual impatience with all things technical. I figured it out because I wanted a place where I could cover what I found fascinating about this timeless, universal human instinct to create and wear ornament. And I wanted to do it all myself, for once, without slanting it to a particular magazine’s readership and then waiting for an editor’s okay on a pitch, an art director’s choice of photos, and – last but never least – a publisher’s paycheck.

I was – and am still – working in that model. Among the other hats I wear is that of a freelance writer. I’ve been wearing it since I was 9 years old and received my first rejection letter from Highlights magazine. I’ll probably be getting rejection letters from editors at 90, if I live that long.

But full-time freelancing had become daunting well before I launched this site. Budgets were shrinking and contracts were expanding to include draconian clauses. Among other things, writers were being asked to indemnify publishers in case of a law suit, taking on all legal expenses, sometimes even if mistakes were inserted into a writer’s story by the editors. By October 2009, when I launched The Jewelry Loupe, there just wasn’t much work, period – and you don’t have to be a writer to remember that.

Two years before, I could barely keep up with assignments. One year before, in fall of 2008, I had signed a contract with Town & Country to publish their first coffee-table book on jewelry, a comprehensive look at the history of jewelry in the magazine. I was given access to dusty archives dating back to the late 19th century and told I could pick and choose. Be still my heart! My outline and sample chapters were approved, I received the first payment, and just as I was rolling up my sleeves to dig in, the market crashed. The book was put on hold and, not long after, the editorial staff I was working with vanished from the masthead. That was happening a lot back then.

By that time, I had a mortgage to pay and all the usual grownup stuff, so all this was a bit unsettling. Here’s the thing though. There was a part of me heaving a sigh of relief – I was burned out – and looking around at the wreckage thinking, where’s the opportunity here?

I think this goes to the entrepreneurial spirit at my core, the one I think you’ll find at the heart of all successful creative independents. Many professional wordsmiths stopped using the word “freelance” years ago, when it became linked with a kind of bottom-feeder willing to work for pennies and exposure. (You can die from exposure, veteran freelancers love to say.) But I continue to embrace the term. Did you know the word “freelance” dates to medieval times? It’s related to the concept of the “free company,” a medieval army of mercenaries acting independently of any government. When they were not employed, they made a living by plunder.

I sometimes miss the days when juicy assignments dropped from the trees, editors covered travel expenses, and freelance writers like me earned up to $3/word. But I also love that I was around to experience the transition from print to web, and the fact that my posts here on this humble blog have sometimes showed up at the top of Google searches, trumping posts from the giant publishing houses that once hired me. Online self-publishing, at least for now, has become the great leveler.

I would love to work with an editorial team again. But I will always need to do some things on my own. I still love writing about jewelry, even after all these years, and here on this site, I get to write about what I find interesting, which is sometimes pretty esoteric. It turns out, there are people around the world who love that kind of stuff – and they can find it wherever it lies, courtesy of the search engines.

For those of you still reading this post, thank you. For those of you still reading this blog, after many years, I more than thank you. I send you love, and the hope that you’ll stick around for a few years more.


9 comments for “On the Loupe’s 7th anniversary: a few lessons learned

  1. Lyn Coombs
    October 20, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    Yes, Cathleen, I read every word and thank you for this blog. I subscribe to a number of jewellery blogs, each bringing something different to the table. However, if I could subscribe to only one, it would be yours. I’m a (very) modest collector but truly passionate lover of jewels who appreciates your breadth of knowledge, personable style, and writing skills. Keep up the good work.

  2. Barbara Mullally
    October 20, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    Thank you, Cathleen, for your blog and your articles that I read in Lap Journal. I find inspiration, information, and just feel that I’m keeping up to date with our field of interest. Keep up your great work.
    I’m a studio jeweller in a small village in Canada so it’s great to feel I’m in touch with our world via your posts. Thanks again, Merci beaucoup.

  3. kat newkirk
    October 20, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    i love your blog! i have learned from it, drooled over the photos, and more than once wished i could see these fantastic pieces in person. please keep writing and posting, and keep me in the loupe!

  4. Stacy A
    October 20, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    I also love your blog – I read it religiously and sometimes pass it around to my friends when I just HAVE to show them some spectacular piece. So glad you were willing to stick with it through thick and thin. Keep up the great work and please-please-please keep taking those gorgeous pictures.

  5. October 20, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Cathleen…quality of writing is first and foremost if I am to subscribe to any blog…you have that covered; and well. Your blog topics, organization, and images are also top-notch. Lastly, as a semi-self-taught studio art jeweler, all that you do on the ‘Loupe’ expands my thinking and understanding of jewelry history, process and possibilities. Many, Many Thanks….so happy you plan to continue. Kathaleen

  6. October 20, 2016 at 2:54 pm

    Thank you all so very much! Reading these comments makes it all worthwhile. I meant that about the love.

  7. October 20, 2016 at 5:48 pm

    Thank you for your inspiring words…keep writing. I love your blog. My jewelry shop was hatching in my mind for years before it came to fruition; I am 4 years into it, still learning everyday. It is the hardest but, most rewarding thing I have ever done and I rely on people like you to inspire me to plow forward.

  8. October 24, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Thanks for sharing your journey. It can be a big decision and commitment deciding to start up a blog, but you’ve managed to work out it all out. Jewellery is such a fun industry to get to report on, with so many new and incredible designs coming out. The beautiful thing about jewellery (and no doubt why it continues to be so popular) is its ability for individuals to flaunt and demonstrate their personality.

  9. Stef Pont
    October 25, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    Read every word – and love what you do! Someday i will get my act together and get my dog rescue blog up – this was a good little push :-) Onward!

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