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Pittsburgh-area artists cater to an international market

Christina Kapaun lives in Munich, but she keeps Pittsburgh close to her heart.

When she saw a contest posted on the "Jewelry N'at" Twitter page, she quickly entered -- and won -- a custom-made pendant to show her penchant for the Steel City. The hockey fan, who visited Pittsburgh this past winter, owns two Jewelry N'at pendants -- one inscribed with "Pens" and the other displaying the city skyline and Clemente Bridge.

"They are made of high-quality material and are wonderfully handcrafted," writes Kapaun, 37, in an e-mail. "I love extraordinary stuff that is made by people's hands and not coming out of machines in masses."

The Internet has opened Jewelry N'at owner Sharon Massey's business to an international market, but with that comes more competition. To continue to make a profit, small-business owners who sell handcrafted items, like Massey, are debating whether to embrace mechanization or stick with the touch of individuality that customers like Kapaun admire.

Massey, 34, of Highland Park, has a master's degree in metal design from East Carolina University and creates all of her jewelry from metal, especially sterling silver. Because sawing and soldering is tedious, she is considering switching to the process of laser cutting, which would follow a pre-made design and allow products to be identical. The quickness of this process would lead to a greater quantity of items at cheaper prices and the hope of the release of an under-$50 line.

While Massey has had success selling in four Pittsburgh-based consignment shops and online at Etsy.com , she admits she isn't "making very much money," which has made her rethink the way she creates jewelry.

For one, the rising cost of silver has complicated her business. Silver nearly doubled to $40 per ounce last month, but Massey was hesitant to raise the prices of her jewelry, which she generally prefers to keep under $100 per item. On her Etsy account, a pair of earrings shaped from sheet metal to look like the silhouette of a man's "playoff beard" sells for $45, and a "Yinz" pendant made from sterling silver with a gold-plated chain costs $76.

For now, Massey has decided to stick to her craft: She aims to provide affordable jewelry, even if that translates to less profit.

"The jewelry world is really small, so I know pretty much every jeweler in town, and I don't think anybody could do what I'm doing for the prices I'm (setting)," Massey says.

She is hoping the price of silver will stabilize soon, but said she will make necessary adjustments in the meantime, such as using less silver and more gold-plated materials, as well as recycling her own silver scraps.

Massey works at the Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District, and teaches metalsmithing classes at Community College of Allegheny County's North Side campus. She also directs the Martha Gault Art Gallery at Slippery Rock University. In the rest of her time, Massey spends about 10 to 12 hours per week creating Jewelry N'at products. She says her business has its "ups and downs" but that it "reflects the rest of the retail business."

Massey is a member of the group Steel Town Etsy, which allows artists from Western Pennsylvania to promote one another's work. A "Pittsburgh" search in Etsy's jewelry section yields nearly 500 results from different businesses, so individuality is essential to success.

"It's definitely really important to come up with something that you feel strongly about, that's very unique and that nobody else can copy," Massey says. "And be prepared to work really hard."

One or two custom orders are sent to Massey each week. Recently, a customer wanted her to incorporate a black-and-gold taco into an original piece of jewelry.

Jewelry N'at is marketed mostly via social media, through Twitter and Facebook, which allows international customers to discover her products. And because the city is so saturated with Pittsburgh merchandise, out-of-state customers provide the most business.

Despite the pressure of operating a handcraft business, Massey believes she always will have loyal customers, like Kapaun, who appreciate her products for their quality, quirkiness and Pittsburgh flair.

"I love the designs," Kapaun writes. "They are beautiful, created with lots of small, but awesome details and often come along with a certain sense of local humor."

The Point Park News Service is a joint project of Point Park University and this newspaper.

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