• Stephanie Drax

FoundHer: Kaaren Buchanan, Jewellery Designer

Updated: Dec 10, 2018

Kaaren Buchanan has already had two glittering careers, and she’s only in her early 40’s. She was spotted in Vancouver by a successful model who convinced her to move to New York City. Aged just 17, she gave up her place at art school in Canada and took the leap. Ford Models, one of NYC’s most illustrious agencies, immediately took her on and she worked consistently for the next four years all around the globe, appearing in Vogue and fronting top campaigns for Clairol and Shiseido. Exhausted by the never-ending jet lag, she took a break in London, met her husband, and settled into married life in Berkshire and raising four children. All the while, she collected demi-fine jewellery and began sourcing it at auctions and online for friends after they yearned for what she wore. Her creative mind was whirring and, at 38, she decided to design her own range. Within three months she had her first collection. From initially setting up a stall at a local fair, to launching her brand and successfully harnessing the power of social media, Kaaren has grown her business year-on-year, quadrupling her sales in 2018.

Kaaren Buchanan

What is your brand’s USP?

I design demi fine jewellery. For those that might not know the term, you have fine jewellery that incorporates solid gold and precious stones, and then you have costume jewellery as you might find at Accessorize. What I create is in between those, so that it’s a balance of quality and affordability. I use gold vermeil – a base metal of silver and a high plating of gold - and I use some semi-precious stones, but to keep costs down I often use cubic zirconia (using only AAA grade). It’s an interesting time to work in this niche - young professionals might not be able to afford a piece of fine jewellery because they don’t have much disposable income, but at the same time, they don’t want to compromise their style or the quality of the jewellery. That’s where my brand comes in.

What does your typical day look like?

I always start the day off with a hot chocolate – I mean, how bad can the day be with a start like that? After a call to my manufacturer, it’s breakfast around the table with all 4 of my children before the school run. The day is then a mix of responsibilities – from managing pieces to be delivered to stylists, touching base with photographers for upcoming shoots and then 1 to 2 hours each day on designs for the upcoming season. I’m hugely busy over summer months as women often buy my jewellery for their holidays. I think people are cautious about taking their real jewellery on holiday, for the obvious reasons, but they still want to wear beautiful pieces and that has been a niche for my demi fine jewellery. Later in the afternoon, I meet or chat on the phone with boutique shops that I supply. My relationships with these shop owners are very important to me – they are the ones who have given me support and are invaluable to my business. From them, I can find out what customers love so that I can incorporate those ideas into other designs in the future. I make sure to check in on all of the children’s days and make them supper before I fly out the door in the evening either seeing clients or attending events. Family and food were what my own mother swore by for success.

Kaaren in her modelling days

What is your biggest success to date?

My biggest success was my transition from in front of the camera to behind. I worked as a model for 15 years and although it was a very exciting career – travelling and meeting lots of interesting people – I was desperate to put my creativity to work by launching my own jewellery line. After my friend signed me up for a stall at a local school fair 5 years ago – without my knowledge! – I was amazed that I sold everything on my table (really: I’d brought a book to read expecting nothing to happen). I realised then that I could have a serious business and that I’d have to build awareness of my brand. I knew Instagram was going to be vital, but I was nervous about approaching too many bloggers to promote my work. So, I went to the top. Chloe Loves to Shop and Does My Bum Look 40 were amazing to me. I gave them some jewellery and they wore it because they loved it. I was so flattered. It instantly opened up customers and my Instagram following mushroomed. It’s been a steady growth ever since.

Which tools can’t you live without?

My sketch pad, pencils and sculpting tools.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I’d like to continue to do what I am doing now, as clichéd as it sounds. I love working on my business and I want to still have fun doing it in the years and decades to come. The wonderful thing about business is that you can start off in one direction, but then it completely changes. When I started designing, I was making pieces for my age group – it’s confusing if you guess what the consumer wants, and it made sense to focus on what I (and my peers) might like to buy. But what happened is that my target women were buying the jewellery for their teenage daughters, and then buying something for themselves as an afterthought. I suddenly noticed I had a really young following that I didn’t expect. I hope that in 5 years time my current customers are still with me, and I continue to attract new customers too.

What would you tell your younger self?

At the very beginning, I rolled up my sleeves and grafted – I got out there, did sales, met everyone I could from stylists to entrepreneurs who have walked a similar path. I would tell myself that it was worth the time and effort, tempting as it was to just sit behind a computer. It’s so important to meet people face-to-face – whether it’s going to people for advice, meeting clients or boutique owners. Also, I’d say to myself: Don’t over think it – just do it!

Is there anything you have had to sacrifice for your career?

I am fortunate to have an amazing, tight-knit family in Vancouver where I grew up – I’m the eldest of four. I am at my busiest at this time of year so it’s impossible to join them during the Christmas holidays, and that’s really hard. The other sacrifice I’ve made has definitely been sleep. I have set up my business so that my office is attached to the house and that means I can easily work before everyone wakes up (sometimes at 5 am) and then again when the house has gone to bed at night. I do thrive on being busy, but I also believe that if I can be there for my family as much as possible and still work efficiently, then I'm very ok with sacrificing some sleep.