Maker of the Month: Ri Clay Collection

Photography by Leo Soyfer

Ri Clay Collection, an assortment of meticulously handmade polymer clay earrings, was a pandemic baby of sorts, born in August 2020 to Riley Hill-Kartel. With some inspiration from Instagram, a bag of starter materials from Michael’s, and a handy KitchenAid attachment, Riley began creating a variety of unique, yet wearable earrings made in small batches. You can follow Ri Clay Collection on Instagram and Facebook to see Riley’s upcoming collections which will be available for purchase on Etsy

What piqued your initial interest in designing your products?

I started making stuff in August of last year. I was hitting a point where I needed something else to do. I was really crafty as a kid and I missed making things. I stumbled on a couple of different accounts that make polymer clay earrings. I started following accounts and watching behind the scenes and tried to figure out some of the techniques on my own, and then I thought, “No, I should just try this.” So, I went to Michael’s and picked up a starter amount of materials, started making stuff, and fell in love with the versatility of the material. You can do so many things! It’s been around for quite a while. I actually don’t know its origin, but it was pretty big in the 90s too. I remember playing with it as a kid. There’s a lot of old-school techniques that are coming back now since people are really getting back into it. I had a ton of fun making earrings since nobody was dressing up a lot, so it was a nice way to make a piece that you could wear a fun top with and feel like you had a full outfit together on Zoom meetings. I was inspired to make something and then just went for it!

What principles do you use when designing your earrings?

Balance, it’s hard to make a piece that has to look good on its own but also on someone’s face. That’s a challenging thing sometimes when the idea in my head looks great on a piece of paper or on its own as a piece, but the second you actually put it on, it doesn’t work as well. Color, too! There’s this battle royale between bright and bold colors and also everyone who loves neutral, so I try to find a balance of wearable pieces that can be dressed up but also stuff that isn’t too wild where you’re like, “I don’t know what to wear with this!” I’ve also been playing a little bit with patterns. One of the trends right now with other people that are making earrings are silkscreens, which create any pattern with paint. I personally haven’t tried it yet, but patterns are really coming back in terms of leaning into bold, retro stuff. Those are the main ones – balance and color being the two big ones – and trying to make stuff that is unique but uses really basic shapes.

Who or what influences your design style?

I would say architecture is a big one when it comes to shape and balance. It’s really interesting to look at building shapes. Historical architecture is really fun to think about, how it plays with lines and demands balance. Architecture, weaving, textiles. Fashion is definitely a big player in terms of finding out what’s trending, but also what of that can you take and go further with or pull from. A lot of accessorizing outfits is that whatever the main piece is, whether you have a white or a black dress on, you can totally dress something up with shoes or jewelry or headpieces. I want to say food, too. It’s fun to look at how dishes are plated at really high-end restaurants. You can see how they play with texture and color balance. I would say architecture and textiles are probably the main ones, though. Sometimes photography or nature. Especially during the spring and summertime, everything’s so lush and green and it’s fun to play around with. Colors that work well in nature are probably going to work well in other areas. 

How would you describe your design aesthetics and values?

I’m still in the exploratory phase, and I could describe my own personality like that. I don’t really like to stick with one very specific look, so pieces that I make don’t reflect a very specific aesthetic. I would say timeless, clean, but also bold. I make stuff that’s fun and different. That’s a hard question! I don’t even know if I’ve been able to answer that for myself yet, but I make a variety of different aesthetics so that it’s almost like every day you get to play dress-up, right? One day you might want to wear athleisure, the next day you want to wear a jumpsuit or a vintage piece. I make stuff that either works with pieces across the board or lets you have different aesthetics through wearing different pieces.

What comes first for you – the design materials or the design concept?

It varies! I would say shape is usually what comes to me first. When I’m either falling asleep or getting up in the morning, that’s usually when I get struck with ideas. Once I figure out the shape, logistics, and mechanism of how it’s going to work, then I’ll usually start to explore color and texture and how to make it fit different aesthetics. You could make the same shape twice, and one could have glitter and one could just be solid black, and you get two totally different styles.

Could you describe the process of creating a piece from start to finish?

I usually start to think of shapes first. Sometimes I’ll sketch it out. Other times, I’ll just take scrap clay and just start cutting. I have a lot of what look like really small cookie cutters, so sometimes I’ll physically play with different pieces and try to make them into a prototype. Then I play around with the thickness of them. The clay has to be conditioned and rolled out so that you don’t have a bunch of bubbles, so I’ll do that, cut the shapes out, and bake them. They actually just go in a regular oven or a toaster oven at 275 degrees. Once they come out after about an hour, they have this flexibility to them, so they bend without breaking. Then I start to play around with where I want the connectors – called jump rings – to go on each piece so that it hangs symmetrically or in a balanced way from your ear. I finish them, make sure they have a back attached, and put them on myself and try to see what’s working and what’s not. But before all of that, usually after they come out of the oven, there’s rough edges to them that you may not notice from a photo or from far away. The tactile feeling of pieces is really important, so I tried to work really hard on sanding everything. I use a Dremel rotary tool and a felt tip to smooth all the edges and the backs out so that it’s more of a finished piece that people enjoy feeling and wearing. When it comes to actually selling pieces, you’ve got to photograph them, post them, talk them up, and get people excited about them, so that’s a big part of the process. Figuring out what the promotional aspect of it is – that’s been interesting and fun to be both promoting yourself and also your work!

You also have really nice packaging. What was your process for creating that?

My fiance’s actually got some graphic design skills and he helped me bring that vision to life. I was really focused on doing something that was super minimal. I did not want a bunch of designs, patterns, or colors because I didn’t want that to distract from what you see when you open the box. I was very focused on as little design as possible so that the attention was on the product piece, both in the photography but also in the unboxing experience. I also didn’t want to spend a lot of extra money on packaging because that doesn’t necessarily make you money back or add much to the experience, but I wanted it to have a nice feel to it! It feels good; it feels like a card versus a piece of paper. I also didn’t want to have a bunch of waste, so everything that’s in the box is either reusable or recyclable. It can be disposed of in your traditional recycling bin if you don’t want to keep it. It doesn’t have extra boxing; it’s just a sticker, a card, and two pieces of tissue paper to make sure that it’s secured in there. I focused on very minimal visual design and packaging. I didn’t want a bunch of extra stuff that had to be put in the trash or left aside.

What is your favorite tool to use whenever you’re making your earrings?

I couldn’t do any of it without the pasta machine that I have, which sounds crazy! Some people have a hand crank, but when I first started this, I didn’t want to buy an extra thing that I didn’t need. I also make homemade pasta on occasion, just for fun, so I brought my KitchenAid out and I attached the pasta roll-out piece to it, and then I didn’t have to crank! I just turn the button on and I roll everything through that, so that’s probably my favorite because it makes my life so much easier and makes the process go a lot faster. Otherwise, you’re hand cranking and it just takes a lot longer. So that’s probably my favorite tool because it reduces my time by a lot and makes the pieces look really nice. It helps get all the bubbles out and keeps it really clean and smooth. 

Could you describe a piece you’ve created that you’re most proud of and what was special about it?

It’s funny – once I sell stuff, I often just forget about it because it’s not laying around anywhere and I just don’t remember. There was a series that I did that was just two circles linked together. It was this huge thing, everybody was doing it, and I was like, “I want to figure out a way to do it where you can’t see the seam where it’s glued back together.” I worked really hard to create my own method of taking time to smooth that out and make it look like a totally magical piece that is somehow linked together. It’s just a fun, big, chunky, bold earring that you could wear it with anything. Another is a marbled one I did a couple months ago that similarly took a lot of time. The buffing process is very laborious. It’s six or seven different layers of sanding paper and then you buff it four or five times. It can take up to an hour to do just one element, but the finished product of it – you just want to touch it. It feels so soft and it has this really nice shine and you can see all the details of it. I would say those are probably my favorite two that I’ve made.

Do you do commissions?

I’ve done a couple custom orders! I have a soon-to-be bride that’s doing a set for her bridesmaids or bridal party. She’s requesting a design that I’ve already made but in colors that she wanted, so sometimes we’ll do that. There’s a couple other pieces where what I’ve made doesn’t fit their ears perfectly, so I’m going to make some adjustments so that it fits them better. I’m pretty open to custom orders, it’s fun to co-create something with people because everybody’s creative in some respect, whether they think they are or not! It’s fun to walk through that process of, you know, ‘tell me about your favorite shirt!’ or ‘what’s in your house that you love looking at?’ You can just make something that feels like it’s part of that for them.

What advice would you give to aspiring designers like yourself?

I would say just start doing it! During quarantine, everyone was fed up with a lot of things and feeling trapped in their own house or frustrated with not being able to do things that brought them joy, and I really wanted to do that for myself at first. Pretty quickly, I realized I actually really liked doing this. I really like sharing this with other people. I had friends and family that were like, ‘Wait, this is really cool. You should do something!’ It took me a little while to feel comfortable enough to really put myself out there, create an Instagram account, and go through Etsy and figure it out. It’s a lot of work, but if you just take the step and take the jump, you’re not going to look back. You’re going to look forward at how you can continue to get better and grow more. I’m very blessed to be able to do this for fun. It’s a side thing for me. It’s not something that is paying my rent, but it’s really helpful to feel like I have some control over my creative life. So if you think you want to do it, you probably do. Just go for it, buy the supplies, and try to figure it out! Spend the time upfront learning as much as you possibly can before just jumping out there. I was able to learn from a lot of people online. There’s a lot of resources on the internet, so use them!

What is one thing that that creative community can do in Indianapolis to help grow an audience for customer handcrafted work.

We have to buy it ourselves! We are our best billboards, and word of mouth is always going to be your most powerful marketing tool. It was funny, I was just at a girl’s morning a couple of Fridays ago and really only knew the person who invited me, and two or three other women that came and hung out were like, “You’re the girl that makes earrings!” I was like, “I’ve never met you before, I have no idea who you are!” One of them had bought stuff because of the one person that I knew, and her network of people that I don’t know are now aware of what I’m doing! That’s probably the most powerful way of locally supporting other makers – buying their stuff, talking about it, and sharing it. It goes a long way and it really has helped promote that. So if you are a maker or if you want to be, get to know other makers when you can or use your friends. Give them a product or help them buy your stuff and then hopefully they’ll wear it, or if it’s not a wearable item, they’ll use it and talk about it. That’s the best way that anybody locally can find out about what you’re doing. It’s pretty cool to see people wearing your creations in real life versus shipping them off and never seeing them again.

What makes your work different from anybody else’s?

I focus a lot on quality as best as I can. I also don’t want to price it out to the point where it’s not affordable or attainable for the average 20-something. There’s that balance of making it feel really special and also pricing it appropriately, but not going so far to where it’s not attainable for anybody who wants to have a piece. That’s important to me, finding a good balance between quality and affordability. Also, if there ever is an issue with something, I’m going to fix it. Hands down, no questions asked. I appreciate that so much about big and small brands that I’ve had problems with. Having that personal connection with people is really important versus just being a product. I’m not a product, so I want people to know who I am and see my face and have a relationship with me, even if it’s online. I personally buy more from people that I feel like I know online than just a big brand who’s promoting their stuff. 

What is your most rewarding memory with Ri Clay Collection?

It would probably be the very first drop that I ever did. It was really a lot of work to get ready for that first one and I had no idea what to expect. I had heard from some friends, I didn’t have a ton of followers, and I wasn’t promoting anything on Etsy or really talking it up that much. Within the first 10 minutes, I had sold 40 pairs, and it was just crazy. I didn’t have enough boxes and I couldn’t ship things out because I didn’t prepare for it. It was really wild to see the power of word of mouth or friends and family jumping on and saying, ‘We’re going to support you!’ was really, really cool. That was the initial push that I needed to feel like, “Okay, this is a thing that I’ve decided to do, and it’s legit, and I’m good at it.” It’s hard for people to have that moment if it doesn’t happen super early on, so that was really cool to feel very supported and like all that hard work had actually turned it into something. That was probably one of the coolest memories. 

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