The Value of It All
There’s no point in avoiding the fact: handmade ceramics are expensive. When friends express interest in buying my work, I can’t help but cringe when the subject of cost comes up, because it is always a higher number than they will likely expect. If someone had told me five years ago that I would think spending £22 on a mug is perfectly acceptable, I would have spat out the tea that I was drinking from my £4-for-a-pack-of-six Ikea cup in disbelief. But now, through a little understanding, a change in my approach to consumerism, and first hand experience in selling my work, I understand the reasoning behind these hefty price tags.
This isn’t to say that I don’t recognise the luxury of spending this kind of money on a mug, and the irony is that most makers probably can’t afford their own work. People often ask me if my kitchen is full of handmade pots, and the answer is yes, but only the cracked, chipped, wonky and unwanted pieces, because the reality is that keeping the good stuff means essentially paying for it myself, which is something that I can’t afford to do.
So why are handmade ceramics so expensive? There are a lot of misconceptions about the profit margins on a pot, but in reality the numbers are very tight. There is an excellent cost analysis blog post by East Fork Pottery which talks numbers in painfully transparent terms; but most makers probably wouldn’t be able to allocate their costs this accurately (and would probably cry if they could).
First, there is the making. You may see makers on social media boasting multiple boards full of cups all in a morning’s work, but in reality throwing the piece is only one stage of a lengthy making process. Once thrown, those cups must be dried, trimmed, dried again, fired, sanded, glazed, fired again, sanded again, and finally they are ready for purchase. The potter is also not advertising the hours spent the night before prepping clay, weighing and mixing it out until it is ready to work with. When I accept a commission, I usually specify a minimum of six weeks’ lead time. In reality, I am able to turn around work in about four weeks, taking into account making time, drying time and the studio firing schedule, but I leave myself a little extra wiggle room to allow for any delays due to my own schedule, the firing schedule at the open access studio where I work, and the dreaded B word (there is no feeling more frustrating, boring, and demoralising as re-making an order that you have already made once before due to breaking the first attempt).
Once you have allowed for all costs involved in making the work, including materials (which, admittedly, aren’t so bad for a ceramicist in comparison to a jeweller for example), studio fees, firing fees, and the maker’s time itself, it would seem that most makers could still carve themselves out a healthy profit margin, right? Except that we still need to factor in all the costs involved in actually selling the piece, which is half of the work in itself. There are shipping fees, packaging materials, marketing costs, website fees, market space rental, insurance fees, and so many other costs that I have either forgotten or haven’t even considered yet. I’m not sure about most other makers, but I often don’t factor my own working time outside of the studio into my financial model, which effectively means that any time I spend on marketing, admin, product development, branding or finance is time that I am not paid for. This might not be ideal, but it is the only way that I can possibly calculate an average hourly rate that doesn’t make me want to curl into the foetal position and stay there.
‘Even so,’ I hear the sceptics saying (and I should know, I used to be one of them), ‘£28 for a plate? You can’t tell me that’s all spent on bubble wrap and business cards’. And it’s true, this isn’t where all of the money goes. Something that a lot of consumers don’t realise is that most new or not yet established makers work predominantly through wholesale, which means selling their work through a third party, whether that’s a shop, gallery, cafe, or online platform. Wholesale prices are around 40-60% of retail price, which means that although the customer is paying £28 for a plate, the maker only sees on average £14 of that. Now imagine squeezing all of the above costs into a £14 budget. The truth is that it is near enough impossible, and makers are often forced to accept making a potential loss or working for free on these projects, in exchange for the exposure and accreditation that the established third party retailer gives them.
So whilst I still cringe when a friend expresses interest in buying my work, it is not because I am embarrassed that it is over-priced. I cringe at the discomfort of discussing money and precisely how little of it there is in that £22 mug, and at the knowledge that I will not be able to outline all of this to them clearly and succinctly when it comes up in passing conversation. Often I end up mumbling something about how that would be lovely but it is a little pricey and anyway let's talk about your plans for summer. I hope that with time, as we move away from blind consumerism and towards a deeper awareness of what we’re buying and where it comes from, that this will come with an appreciation for the value of handmade pieces; if only to save me from awkwardly mumbling about the cost of kiln shelves to friends who have absolutely no idea what I am saying.