Twenty years ago, Leah Strugis decided to take up a hobby outside of teaching in Juneau, Alaska, a community founded on gold mining with a population of 17 people. She enrolled in the local community college in a jewelry-making course, and 20 years later, she produces around 1,000 pieces of jewelry a month, some of which are sold at the Eastern Market outdoor fair each weekend.
Sturgis makes everything by hand, meaning that she does not use any hand or electronic tools to aid in what she calls, “abstract, organic and temporary” jewelry in her Alexandria, Va., home that she shares with her musician husband, Frank Solivan.
Sturgis attributes her success to customers at Eastern Market, where she makes half her sales, she says. Another portion comes from wholesale shows, where small boutiques and art galleries and artists meet to purchase items for regional shops. She goes to around 12 art shows every year, and because of this, her pieces are in shops from D.C. to Alaska.
She made the leap out of teaching into jewelry when her husband began working with the U.S. Navy Band and they moved from Alaska to D.C. ten years ago. She said the first few years she did not make much profit from her art, but she was circulating between local outdoor markets and building clientele. Seven years ago, she was invited to a whole sale show and that’s when she started increasing her volume.
“I went from having two or three stories that carried my work to within a few years, 120 stores,” which she describes as an on-the-floor catalog.
She started as a buyer for Imagine Artwear, an Alexandria handicraft boutique, but going in as a seller “opened my eyes to what was going on in the industry… this is how you get yourself out there and this how you get your jewelry into the hands of people.”
She travels around the country to these wholesale shows, which she would like to rely on, “but it’s so much work to do that. I have that at my fingertips with Eastern Market — it’s fun to be at Eastern Market.”
Steps Sturgis took to grow her business included making business cards and taking a class on “From Amateur to Professional” in Old Town Alexandria. She wants to keep her business small and to continue being the sole creator of her products, but she sees adding employees to handle her website, shipping pieces and financials.
“Still, as much as I want my business to grow, I want to primarily be the full maker. That’s something that I have a lot of integrity in, they know my hands were on it,” she said.
A few years ago, when her husband decided to quit the Navy Band and form a full-time bluegrass band, Frank Solivan and the Dirty Kitchen. She recently created a new line comprising of mandolin and guitar strings, “A perfect marriage of our two worlds,” she said.
To see Sturgis’ work, visit Leahsturgis.com, or visit Eastern Market.