The Tale of the Turtle (Or How NOT to do Custom Orders)

When I was vending at a big belly dance festival, a woman came to my booth and asked if I ever made turtle pendants. She was from a few states away, but I was acquainted with her because she comes to this festival every year, and a few years ago, she had me make one of my dragon pendants for her.

I had never designed a turtle pendant, but I love turtles, and creating one fits into my overall artistic style. She looked through all the cut stones I had on hand, a big mixing bowl full of them, each in its own little baggie, but didn’t find what she wanted, so I gave her directions to a local rock shop.

That was my first mistake, but at least it was an honest one. I should never have sent her to choose stones without me. Normally, when people want certain stones that I don’t have, I look online and find ones that I know will work, send them the links, and let them choose. There are all kinds of considerations about choosing stones – both design and metalsmithing issues – things she couldn’t possibly have known.

She came back with a bunch of stones, and my heart sank.

I realized in that moment how much knowledge and planning goes into the designing of one of my pieces of jewelry. There was absolutely nothing inherently wrong with the stones she chose, except that they just wouldn’t work for the design idea she was talking about.

But I didn’t say anything, and that was my bigger mistake. I agreed to make the piece. Why? Because I was being a people-pleaser. She had just spent a bunch of money on these stones, and she was all excited about the idea. Plus, I really wanted the money that her deposit would bring in. So I pushed my concerns aside. I thought, well, I’ll just make it work — somehow.

After the festival, I stalled on the project for months. Finally, I forced myself to tackle it. I drew the shape of the turtle itself, and cut it out of silver sheet. And I was really pleased with it. Also, I made bezels for about half my client’s stones and placed them where they were supposed to go on the silver cutout.

But they just didn’t look right to me.

I moved stones around and tried everything I could come up with, trying to force the stones to look like a turtle’s shell.

I prayed.

I pleaded for the design to come together.

No luck.

Finally, I just gave up. I realized that I couldn’t make a piece that I didn’t feel good about artistically, and that I needed to just give the woman a refund and return her stones and apologize for not listening to my knower from the start, when she came back from the rock shop and showed me what she had bought.

As I made the decision, a feeling of utter relief washed over me.

Then I thought, “I wonder if I have a stone among all my cut stones that I could use as the turtle’s shell, so I could at least salvage my cute turtle shape that I already cut out, and just sell the piece to someone else?” I reached into the mixing bowl full of stones, and the very first stone I pulled out was a green teardrop of something called serpentine. I set it on the silver turtle cutout shape, and it was perfect. More than perfect. As you can see in the photo, the point of the stone teardrop was a little off-center, and in my design, the teardrop shape of the shell was a little lopsided to give a sense that you were looking at the turtle slightly at an angle as it swam.

I was dumbfounded. I started to cry. Here was my perfect turtle, staring back from my workbench at me. I’ve probably had that stone for more than 5 years, and never found the right design for it.

But just because I ended up making a turtle that I was really satisfied with didn’t mean that she was my client’s turtle. So the best thing I could think of to do was to offer her a choice: refund her money and mail her stones back. Or, if she looked at the photos and fell in love with this one, it would be hers.

And apologize either way. Ask forgiveness for being a people-pleaser and not listening to my knower.

So you can guess the rest of the story. With fear and trembling I sent off my email. She said she liked it from the photos. So I mailed it to her. A few days later, I received this email:

“I got the turtle on Saturday, my birthday!!  I love it!!   She is bigger than I thought from looking at the picture.  Definitely would have bought her if she had been on your display.  Thank you so much!!”

Sometimes it feels like a long road to walk my truth and only my truth. But I’m so grateful that it seems to be getting easier to get back on the road when I stumble off.

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