Jewelers Suite featuring JHJ Magazine

Riding the Waves of Change

The global pandemic brought life to a halt—and certainly for cruise line jewelers

written by Diana Jarrett

We’re still reeling in a Ground Hog’s Day reverie—waking up each morning experiencing the same thing as yesterday. The unrelenting grind of sameness is a bi-product of the global crisis we’ve found ourselves dumped down into unwittingly. The jewelry trade went full stop for the most part—and is just now reemerging with phoenix-like resolve. But the normal now in our trade is definitely a new normal that we’re still sorting out.

Two industries inexorably linked together for decades are the cruise lines and the jewelry trade. At every port of call, competing jewelry shops glistened enticingly in the tropical sun, all vying for Come-Here-First with relaxed holiday goers looking for a deal, or at least a meaningful remembrance of their vacation. 

But cruise line tourists also indulged in luxury shopping while riding the high seas to their destination. Individual designers sold their collections onboard, in a stress-free atmosphere to tourists eager for exciting new items and often a chat with the artist who made the pieces.

Florida-based jewelry designer Karen Simpson Tweedie sold her imaginative pieces onboard major cruise lines for years, 13 to be exact. Since 1984, her jewelry was manufactured for her. But by 2004, Tweedie was at the bench designing and fabricating her own collections that were often theme driven. Her core customer base was in her words, “mature female self-purchasers looking for a custom piece created around a stone or an image with personal meaning to them.” In our post-cruise era, some of her customers still stay in touch and request new items from her.

As soon as a quarantine was called, vacation cruising screeched to a standstill worldwide. Stores in those exotic locales shuttered and workers scattered. Designers like Tweedie were abruptly sidelined with no prospects of when or if they would ever resume selling their wares. After all, the ship was their retail store—and every one of those were mothballed. The weird sensation Tweedie felt was like “the boat got pulled out from underneath me and I was left to drown.”

So, what does a designer do when her floating store is kaput? “My creative life came to a halt just like all of our personal lives did,” she recalls.  But with that sudden glut of free time, Tweedie says “I chose to step into the deep end of the creative pool and just let things happen.  It took a few weeks to re-center myself amid all the craziness but I tried to make the best of it.”  

For Tweedie, making the best of it meant spending countless hours researching, planning, and organizing for her volunteer role as head of a youth program she started a few years ago at a local historical society.  “I was also making jewelry for the gift shop and recently started a Makers’ Guild of volunteers to handcraft our gift store offerings.” Her foray into research led her into creating with textiles. “It’s been an interest of mine in since I was a teen,” she recalls. This newfound wealth of time has taken her down a different creative path. “I have recently begun designing fabric and have been felting with local alpaca fiber.  I have also collaborated with a fine art painter, producing an entire collection of jewelry and accessories inspired by images from his work.”

Collaborations like these can be mutually beneficial for both artists, since art lovers see original jewelry as an expression of their personal taste.  “Another painter recently contacted me about creating jewelry to complement her painted images. I just completed numerous earrings for her.  Bracelets and necklaces are coming up next.” 

Can she say that the full-stop to the cruise industry “positively” impacted her artistic direction? “I have always been creative in some fashion, so this time has allowed me to explore diverse techniques and materials.”  If she were back on the treadmill of constant cruising, these times of discovering new directions and outlets might not be possible. Like others in this predicament, that revenue stream has taken a dive. Still, she’s hopeful and using her time productively. “I enjoy learning and experimenting and have used this time for that. In previous years I would be preparing for a cruise or already be on a cruise.  I have really enjoyed this break from the loads of bookkeeping involved as well.  People often don’t realize all the paperwork that is involved with Customs and Border Protection.”  

The cruise industry may never recover—or it may take on a completely new form that we’ve yet to envision. So, Tweedie is not wistful for her ship to sail again. “For years people have asked if I would teach jewelry making.  I was a teacher in my previous life and I enjoy it.  Since I don’t know if or when my cruise trunk shows will resume, I have decided to allocate a portion of my large studio space for teaching.”

Jewelry designers at this moment have had to take a deep breath and rethink how they can connect with their customers. Of course, that has led to the creation of virtual trade shows for designers to meet with their retailers virtually. For jewelry artists selling directly to their consumer, a robust presence on the internet with aggressive and persistent promotion has become a requisite. 

“We are basically creative people—artists,” Tweedie says of herself and other jewelry designers. “Nourish your creative self a bit during this time,” she encourages. “Allow your inner child to come out and play —you never know what might be discovered.” ▼