Tucked away in a cute Portland neighborhood, you’ll find a shop called Betsy & Iya. Run by Betsy Cross, her husband and business partner Will and a team of employees, Betsy & Iya is a beautiful space dedicated to independent makers and designers from the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Besty is a jewelry designer by trade, but running the shop has taken over her days (and sometimes nights) in recent years. We caught up with her to chat about how she’s getting back to design via custom work, the biggest challenges she faces day-to-day and how she embraces the little things in life.
So, we’ve been eyeing your beautiful jewelry designs for what feels like forever. Can you share a bit about your work and tell us why you eventually opened a shop in Portland, Oregon?
Aw shucks, thank you so much. When I started Betsy & Iya in 2008 the focus was more centered on whether or not I could pull this whole thing off. I put a ton of focus and drive into making the business work and created as many different collections as I could (I think I literally opened my studio doors with 6 different collections to choose from). I wanted to reach as many people as I could, while still remaining true to my work. I wanted the work to be accessible in price, unlike anything people had ever seen (but still something they could grasp, aesthetically), and made by hand. I wanted people to feel connected to the brand. I wanted the brand to feel familiar, strong, genuine and full of rich stories—like a good friend.
I think that original impetus for the work has remained and it has been my goal to see those values get better and sharper over time. Now I have the space and time to focus more on creative direction of the brand as a whole and of course the jewelry designs. I think my work has gotten better over time because of this and also because of practice/experience. I like to work from a theme, an inspiration like travel, architecture, or a feeling like home. And I like to discover the surprises: the moments that I had no idea would appear in my work—a shape I wasn’t expecting, a method I hadn’t considered, a process that’s new to our production team. I like to listen. I like the work to tell me where it wants to go.
Will, my partner and husband, and I stumbled upon an enticing “For Lease” sign at what would become our shop one day when we were at a crossroads about what to do with our former space. We knew we were getting close to needing more physical space and the idea of having an actual brick & mortar was something that had tickled us from time to time as we looked into the future at what we might become. We weren’t really prepared for what that moment demanded us of, but we pushed our way into it like we’ve done with so many other moments in the business. The space we discovered that day had a built-in loft and back studio that seemed just perfect for our needs at that time. There were only four of us when we started renting in 2011 and quickly grew to a capacity that the space couldn’t contain (now 16 and growing). We expanded, doubling our space, in 2014. The shop portion remained the same size, but we gained a new office in the back and a much larger production studio. In our retail space, we sell our own work and customers can see it being made in the back open studio as they shop. We also sell the work of other independent designers from around the world.
Your journey has been an interesting one: from jewelry designer to shop owner, and, lately, back to jewelry design—but in the form of custom design work. You’ve even hired staff to help create the pieces we see online and in your storefront. Talk to us about that shift. Why has custom work become so important to you as a designer?
If I’m being honest, I’d say to you that I had no idea this is where we’d land. I had no idea where I was going when I started the business, I was just desperate to do something different and meaningful with my life. I only discovered what it needed as I went along. When my husband joined in 2010, he saw a real need for me to have more time to design. He pushed hard to make that happen, and I think it’s because of him that I am now able to devote more time to design. I felt a certain level of guilt (to myself, to the work, to the world) about not being the one who made the jewelry anymore. But I started to understand the real value of giving my brain space to actually think and dream and see things. We have nine makers in the studio now, seven of whom are full time. Even typing that out sort of blows my mind. I work and design in the studio with them, and we all have a close relationship. So we make shifts and grow as a company by digging deeply into the needs of the business and where it seems to be taking us. Now, Will and I have more time to brainstorm about places we want to go, but I’d say it’s a very healthy balance of dreaming, listening and strategically evaluating facts about the business.
I’ve just recently started taking on custom work—more specialty pieces, one of a kind, and engagement/wedding rings. For me this represents a natural growth in design. I never thought I’d be capable of this kind of work. I have days when I still wonder if I’m capable of it. It goes beyond being able to set a stone for me now and into the root of this business—connection to actual people. I absolutely love getting to see couples interact and tell me their stories. If I can capture an inkling of that in my work, I’ve done my job. It is incredibly fulfilling to be a small part of that journey with people. It is all about love and that moves me.
What have been some of your biggest challenges as you’ve grown Betsy & Iya? What about rewards?
Two big challenges come to mind: work/life balance and management of others. There have been stretches of time in the life of the business when Will and I did not stop working, except to sleep and eat, for months at a time. When we opened the shop, the only days we took off were to go to my sister’s wedding. As much as I don’t love this analogy, the business is like our child. It’s wild and unpredictable, it keeps us up some nights, it rebels and talks back and we love it unconditionally. Just yesterday, we were woken up early in the morning because someone threw a rock through our shop window the night before. We started the morning cleaning glass out of virtually everything in our shop. But when things are good, when this little thing does well, our hearts burst with love. Things like learning we are one of the fastest growing companies in Oregon, things like releasing a new collection and getting loads of orders in just after hitting (with sweaty, nervous hands) the “publish” button on our website, things like notes from customers saying they’ve never received our level of customer service, things like having an employee leave (because of something out of her control) and her pulling us aside to say she’s never experienced our kind of culture in her working life and she can’t imagine not being a part of it. Those are just an inkling of the rewards—our child telling us she loves us back.
Neither Will nor I are trained or educated in any of the areas that we are now heads of in our business: not business systems, not design, not development, not marketing and not management. Yet, we have to operate as if we are. The area that is often most difficult for us is management of others. Beyond providing competitive wages, a robust benefits package, flexible scheduling, and anything else awesome we can dream up, it is our goal to create a place where people feel genuinely happy to walk into everyday and happy to stick around. Throw into that a mix of personalities and agendas and ever-changing career goals (statistically, people do not last half as long as they used to in certain jobs), and you’ve got a real mess of things to organize. I can say that I’m proud of how we’ve come through on these things and we’re constantly working to improve what we can offer people, but it continues to be a difficult thing for me. I want everyone to be happy all the time. That can be tricky to navigate. And I’ve learned that I have to let go at times, that at a certain point I can’t control if someone is happy or not; but I will do everything I possibly can with my partner to create a culture worth sticking around for.
We’re curious: with everything you’ve got going on, how do you decompress? Have any tips you can share with us?
See above: any tips you can share with me? Kidding! But it’s a constant struggle for me. One thing we have tried to be uncompromising on is giving ourselves an actual weekend. For years, we took no days off, or only one. Now we insist—with ourselves and each other—that we take two full days off. Though I have failed at times in making this a regular practice in my life, I find I am at my best—effective, happy, healthy—when I have a regular exercise routine and regular breaks. I’m also a big fan of the app Omvana which has anything from 3-minute positivity-affirming meditations to hour long in depth meditations about shifting how we think. When I’m most stressed, I run to that. Beyond that, I’m a real sucker for bath and body products. Nothing releases tension for me more than alone time in a hot bath with good music, a candle and good smelling body products.
We know you love supporting other designers and independent makers—which is evident to everyone who walks into your shop. Who are a few people catching your eye these days?
One of the top selling clothing brands in our shop is Curator. I continue to be impressed with their designs. They always amp up their new collections, they create clothing that makes women feel beautiful and they’re a huge joy to work with. They also have their own shop in San Francisco wherein they sell Betsy & Iya. It’s fun to have that connection and grow alongside similar brands. It feels like we’re in this together, you know?
I love carrying other people’s work in our shop. It’s such a joy to witness the myriad talent and growth in others. Suzy (our buyer) and I get giddy when the brands we carry come out with new collections and we get to pour over new line sheets together; or when we discover a new designer we hadn’t heard of yet. From our one-of-a-kind wall hangings by Trilby Nelson, to Sydney Hale Co candles (which we’ve carried since day one), to Demimonde jewelry and our hand wrapped baskets from Senegal, I love them all and feel proud to put my work alongside theirs in one memorable little corner shop in a small city. They make it all the more beautiful.
Our mission here at Clementine Daily is to truly stop and celebrate the many layers of our everyday lives. How do you relate to that mission?
If we hadn’t stopped at every little moment of victory along the way—from one customer’s trumpeted satisfaction to expanding our space and growing every year—I can’t imagine we would be where we are today. We take time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we can go. We cultivate rich friendships and life outside of work, dance with our dogs and we hug each other every morning as we wait for the delicious coffee to brew. Those are just some of the ways.
Finally, do you have a mantra you keep handy to get you through your days?
I try to operate by these things: be honest (in my designs, work, home life, everything), be kind, be big, work really hard and find happiness in unexpected places. This is what I say to myself most days: “You got this, girl.”
We’re 100% using that one for ourselves, Betsy!
p.s. If you’d like to hear more about Betsy and her work, you can find her recent interview over on the Creating Your Own Path podcast!