My favorite studio visits are the ones when I walk in and immediately feel at home–and that’s exactly how I felt when sea glass jewelry artist Suzie Thomas opened her doors and welcomed me into her Santa Cruz, CA studio.
Her oasis is, no doubt, ocean-inspired: air plants dangling from inside sea urchin shells that mimic the shape of jellyfish, bright blue abstract art work–painted by Suzie herself–on display, and whales peeking from the corners of her desk and swimming along her walls. Suzie features local artists’ work within her studio, including her son’s “Mom” rainbow, a charming masterpiece.
With Santa Cruz’s gorgeous sea coast and redwoods as Suzie’s backyard playground, it’s no surprise her home and studio space are very much aligned with nature. But it was a surprise for Suzie when she realized she could turn sea glass into jewelry and eventually grow jewelry creation into a full-time business. “At first it was just something I did alongside my full-time marketing job,” said Suzie. “But then the orders continued to grow substantially. I crunched the numbers one day and decided to take the plunge, quit my job, and launch my business full time. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Read Suzie’s interview below to find out how she initially discovered the concept for her sea glass jewelry line, what happened when she got swept up by a wave while hunting for sea glass, and why Albert Einstein keeps her motivated every day.
Where do you find inspiration within this space?
The art I have displayed in my workspace is made by some of my favorite artists (mostly local). I also have my sea glass displayed vertically on a wall in little clear-topped tins in rainbow order. [It’s] inspiring to see all the colors together, and it enables me to quickly experiment with different color combinations.
Where does downtime fit into a day in the studio?
I try to keep a 9-5 work schedule so my downtime is the same as my family’s, but I also make time for exercise. If I am not sea glass hunting, I take a jog to the nearby lighthouse with a friend or take a lunchtime mountain bike ride with my husband for some midday downtime.
What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
I’m capable of a lot more work than I ever could have imagined. I don’t have any employees for the assembly of my jewelry and I tend to err on the side of caution, so taking on my first really large order pushed me far outside my comfort zone and outside my normal work hours. It was stressful, exciting, nauseating, and exhilarating–separately and all at the same time–but I am so glad I went through it.
How did you come up with the concept of your product?
I was collecting lots and lots of sea glass and as I started making more and more jewelry with it. I noticed my jewelry really looked its best when it was grouped with other pieces of sea glass jewelry. I then started using multiple pieces in a row and began experimenting with different color combinations until one summer day at the beach, I was inspired to try to replicate how the color of the sky meshes with the color of the ocean.
What makes sea glass officially sea glass?
I believe it’s the salty, violent waves and sand that pummel sharp shards of discarded glass into smooth rounded glass pebbles.
*Editor’s note: You can learn more about sea glass in our blog post Waves of Wisdom: 9 Uncommon Facts about Sea Glass, which features Suzie’s work.
What are your most essential tools?
My hands. I got swept up by a wave and thrown hard onto a rocky cliff last year while hunting for sea glass and my hands took the brunt of it. I couldn’t make jewelry for a few days, yet I had orders I needed to fill. It was terrible. I never valued my hands like I do now that jewelry making is my full-time job. Now when I hunt for sea glass I am extremely cautious.
What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Go for it!
How do you set goals for yourself?
I write them down and then plot out a timeline with steps I need to take or tasks I need to complete. My short-term goals are simply deadlines for orders or shows, which means there’s not much wiggle room for slacking off. When I have really large orders to fill, I figure out the number I need to make per day to stay on schedule. If I don’t meet the quota by Friday, it means I have to work on the weekend, so I try really hard to meet my daily quota. My long-term goals are mapped out on a spreadsheet on my laptop. Whenever I’m on my laptop I revisit my long-term goals and if necessary, add daily tasks to my calendar.
What is the process when hunting for your sea glass?
I hand-collect sea glass in the surf wearing a wetsuit and booties where it’s pretty rough and rocky. The rip currents are strong, so my technique is defined by not turning my back to the ocean and trying to not get hurt.
How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
All victories require a victory dance, but big victories are celebrated at my favorite restaurant in Santa Cruz with my family.
What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
I’ve learned so much since starting my sea glass jewelry business and it all stemmed from my imagination, so this quote motivates me to continue following my imagination.
What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
There are so many jewelry-making techniques. I’m always in search of learning something new, but recently I’ve been focusing on learning color. Sea glass as a medium has limitations because some colors are difficult or impossible to find. Understanding color helps me think of colors in new ways.
How do you recharge your creativity?
When I feel uncreative, it’s a reminder I need to switch gears for a while. Switching gears means leaving the studio and getting out on my bike, either to the mountains or to the coast. The redwood forest in the mountains and the Monterey Bay are so beautiful and vibrant I am recharged instantly.
Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
Collaboration is interwoven throughout my craft. I am constantly collaborating with other sea glass hunters on days or spots to hunt, with other artists in Santa Cruz for upcoming show opportunities, and with other sea glass artists about business. I also collaborate with my community by donating jewelry to local schools for fundraisers and I donate money and jewelry to SaveOurShores.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of marine environment.
What have you learned after spending years within the sea glass community?
I have learned a lot: best spots, best tides, when to jump to avoid being slammed by boulders that get picked up in the current, how to read a set of waves, how to position myself if a wave does pick me up. But mostly I have learned the Santa Cruz sea glass community is composed of incredibly nice people who genuinely care about each other and will go out of their way to help and support each other and I’m so grateful to be part of it.