I have known Jared for several years now, a bit before he started onetribe. When he first approached me at one of the old Richmond Suspension Socials with a few pairs of plugs and a dream, I thought he was crazy. I didn’t think it was even possible for one man to compete with the established organic jewelry companies. Well, obviously, he proved me wrong. Not only did he prove me wrong, he did so in an honorable and humble way that deserves recognition. So without further ado, I present to you a few question with jared from onetribe.
Jared hard at work grinding jade
For the questions, keep on keeping on.
Tell us a little about yourself and what got you into body mods.
From a young age I was interested in the idea that the body could be colored and shaped to fit an aesthetic purpose. My childhood was shadowed by my home life so I spent a lot of time alone in the basement reading the massive collection of National Geographic magazines that my grandfather had been saving for years. I learned at an early age that the world was full of people of all different colors and shapes, and that people decorated themselves both to individualize as well as for inclusion and identification. My parents were always fairly accepting of the fact that I was intellectually interested in body modification but were adamant that I not do anything to my body until I was 18 – “my house, my rules” sort of thing. I practiced some easily concealed piercings but never really kept anything in terms of permanent jewelry. I graduated high school just before turning 18 and a few months later moved several hours south to go to art school. It was there I finally started exploring piercings openly and started filling myself up with holes – professionally done tongue, nostril, nipples, lobes, and some self-done genital work. In the years immediately following I started doing a lot of research into tribal cultures and learning more about the origins of Western body modification as well as body adorning cultures closer to home. In particular my interests lie in Mesoamerican and North American cultures, and it’s those cultures I find most fascinating as I have Cherokee blood and have always been very interested in native culture and ritual, and the inherent closeness to nature that formed the backbone of those societies. In the years since, I have retired many piercings and focused on those with more historical significance, along with some heavier work including cartilage punches, my large labret, and of course a chest scarification piece that you did several years ago.
onetribe antiques and cases
What inspired you to start onetribe?
I started looking around for natural jewelry in mid 2002 and very little was available in terms of designs and most of it was wholesale. There were a few online companies selling retail but most of the jewelry was coming from the same places and I don’t think there were any companies that solely focused on the retail side of things that produced their own products. I saw an interesting niche for a self-manufacturing, retail direct-to-consumer business model via the web. Having been a web developer and print designer for several years I had enough background knowledge of eCommerce to pull together a web store on a budget and shave off an incredible amount of start up cost, so the only real costs were the inventory we started with and the shipping materials, making it an ideal scenario for what I hoped would be a successful shoe-string budget startup.
In starting the business I went to every body jewelry website and company I could find and scoured each site from page to page, clicked on every link, read every document, and learned about what made each business unique (or not). I also visited hundreds of eCommerce sites on the web and from all of this information I compiled a massive list of the things I did or didn’t like about each company, and the feeling and overall business presence of the website and their customer service, based on the site copy and any reviews or experiences I could find. From that I developed a business plan of what I thought the perfect “mom & pop” feeling online small business might entail.
There were a few things I found lacking specifically in the body jewelry industry in late 2002 into early 2003 – reference information & general product knowledge, professionalism (skulls, flames, and copy writing that included things like “tatz” just weren’t doing it for me), and easy to use websites that allowed for personal dialogue between the business and customer. These were the things that we focused on when writing the initial copy for Onetribe’s site and designing the user interface and products. We wanted to portray a knowledgeable, professional business that could be trusted, but that was also very creative and open to dialogue. A business that feels like interacting with everyday people was, and still is, my number one priority.
Could you tell us a bit about the history/progress of onetribe?
Onetribe started in my bedroom in the basement of a house outside of Richmond, VA with some, admittedly generic, horn and bone jewelry carved by the artisans we still work with today. The paperwork for legal business status was filed the first week of January 2003 and Onetribe was officially born. The eCommerce site was started prior to that by myself and a friend in Rhode Island collaborating remotely, and was completed in three months and launched mid February. I badgered the hell out of my partner at the time, Rachel Easter, to help me out with the organizational and monetary side of things because I am a total math idiot and generally needed a second head to help me keep track of things, and she’s still with the business to this day as our office manager and primary customer service contact.
At the time we did not have the hardware capability or time to produce enough jewelry in house to be competitive and get off the ground, so one of the first orders of business was to find good product. There were several wholesale jewelry vendors out there to choose from but we were trying to eventually move in a different direction and make Onetribe unique, so through some phone calls and emails I ran across a guy named Everett, originally from the USA but living in Australia. He was paying his way through journalism school there by wholesaling jewelry from some artists he knew in Bali. This turned out to be a perfect match for us because after working with Everett for a little while he permitted us to start sending our own jewelry illustrations and we started turning out completely unique products. We became Everett’s biggest customer and in 2005 we were given the opportunity to purchase his company. I then travelled to Indonesia for the first time to begin working one on one with our artists there.
For the first few years I maintained a full time job while running Onetribe – first working as a youth behavior counselor at an inner city elementary school, and then for the company that prints National Geographic up near D.C. I was commuting several hours each way for a 12hr night shift and eventually it got to the point where I was too exhausted to care about much of anything and Onetribe had grown enough that if I didn’t pay more attention to it, we ran the risk of impacting the business negatively. I left having a full time job and took the plunge into self employment supplemented by some coffee shop work, which in hindsight was more for discounted coffee to fuel workaholism than it was for the money. Eventually I took the full plunge and started dedicating 60-80-100 hour weeks directly to Onetribe. Shortly after that, Rachel was able to ditch her job for full time employment at Onetribe, and we have been growing by leaps and bounds ever since.
For the first several years, growth was exponential as knowledge about the company spread via word of mouth. Until very recently we had never done advertising of any sort and relied on our customers to pass out the business cards we included with every order. We have moved the studio times, and over the years as we were able to grow our customer base and thus our sales, we have reinvested virtually everything back into the company. We helped to build a nicer workshop for our artisans abroad and started supplying tools and materials so that they had to invest nothing but their exceptional skills back into the business. We also invested in tooling and machines for our Richmond workshop and for several years now we have been making what we believe to be some of the most interesting natural custom body jewelry that exists, including reproductions of traditional Mesoamerican jadeite multi-piece ear flares, and a method for setting inlays, including stone into stone, with hardware settings and no adhesives. We have been able to build a local showroom including an antiquities museum and workshop, designed in such a way as to enable customers to come and see jewelry being made, and place custom orders on site with the materials in their hands and the understanding of how that jewelry is physically created.
What kind of political and/or ecological stance does onetribe take with its jewelry materials and manufacturing?
The double edged sword of business is that it has to make money in order to exist, and money can cause all sorts of social and environmental problems both directly and indirectly. I decided a long time ago that because businesses hold the majority of the worlds wealth, and if structured properly they are composed of employees and customers of like mind, they should be used as a catalyst for bettering our society based on certain values. We do not take a specific political stance so much as we make it a point to promote what we believe to be values and actions that contribute to a sustainable society and environment. We try very hard to be as low impact as possible, buying materials as we need them, reutilizing and repurposing things to get the most out of everything from materials to workshop tools to computer hardware. We shred all of our business and employee junk mail as the packing materials you get in your box. There is a statement on our site about the origins of our labor and materials, that at the very least is an interesting read, but I think it tells a lot about the mentality of myself and the people that work for this business.
The biggest thing Onetribe champions for is sustainable societies – specifically, personal and community self-sufficiency and sustainable food systems. We are a very vocal advocate of healthy local economies free of the grasp of federal and corporate hold, and vibrant local food systems where everyone is guaranteed free and fair access to healthy, locally produced food. Onetribe financially supports several non-profit organizations, including Austin, Texas based “Dinner Garden,” which sends seeds free of charge to anyone in the USA wanting to grow their own food, and the non-profit that I started called Renew Richmond, currently focused on working with the city public schools on programs designed to get at-risk youth into the garden growing their own food, working with members of the community and leaving school with a sense of self-purpose and skills that will enable them for the rest of their lives. We actively encourage our staff and customers to be active participants in community dialogue and action and try to lead by example. It’s great to say that we plant trees or recycle, etc. but when it comes down to it, getting your hands dirty or directly enabling someone else to do the same is the way to change things.
Marhall working in the wood bay
Why don’t you tell us a bit about your shop and staff?
The studio is an interesting place – combination workshop, retail showroom, educational space and event location where we participate in the local monthly art walk and showcase local art on our walls. The first thing you see when you walk into our non-descript street entrance in a formerly industrial warehouse district is the workshop immediately to your right, where you’ll likely see my wood man (Marshall Brown) turning wood jewelry and myself in the lapidary bay hand carving stone for custom work. As you progress pass the order filling and jewelry storage areas, you’ll enter the showroom, which looks more like gallery than a retail space. Virtually everything is either bamboo or reclaimed woods. The wall cases are framed in bamboo ply and backlit, and they’re mounted on walls covered in bamboo flooring. The floor displays are bamboo, steel and glass, and the reception area is built from eco-friendly plys, bamboo and trees that died of natural causes or fell during storms. We have a collection of tribal antiquities from around the world on display with the origins of each piece denoted on maps on the wall. There’s a resource library of books and journal articles on those cultures available for research and reference. The space is just as much about education as it is about selling things – from being able to hold the materials and learning why some are or aren’t ideal for your custom project, to learning about the roots of body modification, seeing examples of items we theme our pieces after and being able to come in and read texts about the history of body adornment, jewelry, and man’s connection with this earth. We are here to make the world a better place than it was when we arrived.
My staff is quite small, and we enjoy the marketplace agility and personalized atmosphere that comes from being small and having everyone overlap duties. Myself and Rachel make up the administrative side. Our newest hire Amanda Cleland has been doing a brilliant job holding down the back end with jewelry inventorying, order filling, and other useful tasks, and myself and Marshall are the two jewelry producers in our Richmond workshop. Rachel also switches gears every now and then to hand carve wood items for custom work. We all hold pretty similar views on social and political issues and are all activists in many different facets. We’re all modified in some way and we run the gamut from tattoos and piercings to scarification pieces, scalpel and punch work, you name it. Between the lot of us we have just about everything you could possibly put natural jewelry in, which comes in handy when we’re designing custom work and need to test fit a prototype’s shape or get feedback on design details.
Hand carving station
When did you start offering piercing, and what lead to taking that direction?
We started offering piercing by appointment when we opened the retail showroom in June 2009, and it was because we wanted to be able to show people the right way to do things. There are no 100% legit studios in our city as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to piercing, and particularly jewelry. I am a student of Zak Zito’s absolutely anal retentive feelings about material suitability and freehand work, and Onetribe’s ADORN studio is 100% titanium for initial procedures, with the exception of larger stuff in reputable glass. We started out with a piercer on staff and moved toward having the piercing room available as an asset to piercers, locally or traveling, that can uphold our standards in terms of jewelry and aseptic technique. We take appointments and assign projects to a short list of piercers based on the customer’s needs, and those piercers also take their own appointments and use our space as a safe, clean and professional venue for their own business. Our piercing volume is very low but I am far more concerned with quality over quantity, and piercing is provided as a service to our customers and not our primary focus.
How is your relationship with other jewelry companies?
Our relationship with other vendors is generally quite well. I’m a big fan of Anatometal and have been known to call and bug Barry about things every now and then. Him and I are also involved with a small group of other vendors in an informal industry business ethics forum where we all discuss copyrights, industry issues, etc. Jason Pfhol (Gorilla Glass) and Ana Paula (Quetzalli) are two people dear to Onetribe and we are working on different collaborative projects with both of them right now. Dy from Ebone Designs is a wonderful friend and aide during my travels in Indonesia and I’ve stayed at his house a few times. He has also donated several Southeast Asian pieces and books to our Eastern antiquities collection. I have talked with Adam at BVLA several times about various collaborative ideas and at one point we made a really beautiful Chiapas amber cabochon for a ring commissioned by one of their clients.
What does the future have in store for yourself and Onetribe?
Haha, well in the immediate future we’re just looking forward to warmer weather so we can open all of the doors and bays in the studio, and so I can start moving the lapidary setup back outside and make jewelry on the sidewalk again. Great way to make new friends and it’s always a blast when customers stop by to watch. Business wise, we’re hoping to continue growing in a very organic manner (no pun intended), taking on new customers with the help of our current customers and hiring new staff as needed. Into our eighth year and beyond, we are hoping to continue growing our showroom into an educational establishment and we have tossed around the idea of starting a non-profit to manage that aspect of our business and our continuing mission to research, collect artifacts and educate. We have started to completely digitize our antiquities collection with 360 degree views and cultural information and references, and examples of our reproductions, all tagged together in a handy database for people to learn from. This year we will start implementing some ideas we have in regard to getting anthropologists and archeologists into the studio for lectures that customers can attend (and we will hopefully be able to digitize those and add them to our site), and I have plans to teach a ‘primitive’ lapidary workshop where customers can see how ancient cultures turned hard stones such as jadeite into incredible jewelry with simple tools, sand and water, as well as doing knapping (particularly obsidian). I am also considering incorporating some of those original lapidary practices into limited edition custom pieces.
Innovation is what makes our business fun, and we will be constantly coming up with new design and assembly ideas, working in new materials and methods for producing our items and taking on a lot more unique custom work. We have plans to create a Onetribe ‘couture’ line and really go to town on the details when it comes to custom work. The plans include very robust customer back-ends with production photos for each customer’s project, more information and photographs about materials, videos of production and short segments about materials like labradorite, rainbow obsidian and opal that visually benefit from movement. Our goal overall is to create as personalized of an experience as we can for customers shopping on our site – we want it to feel like you’ve walked into the showroom and are talking to us about the things you are seeing. We have no interest in growing to the point where we are mass producing items and getting further removed from our customers – we want them to be more and more involved in the production of the jewelry that they are trusting us to create for their body modification journey.
I personally will be stepping back a little bit from my insane work/production schedule to focus more on anthropology research, and our more elaborate custom work (particularly with stones and ambers). I will definitely be spending more time working with my sustainable urban agriculture non-profit. I’m getting married in May, and if all goes well we will begin a family homestead & small organic farm business with a particular focus on supplying food to those who need it the most. I am also looking forward to more time for ethnobotanical research and the growing and collecting of native and exotic medicinal plants and entheogens, which I believe have played a very important part in human history and may go hand in hand with many of the body modification ceremonies and rituals practiced by cultures around the world.