As an artist and crafter, Rebeca Mojica understands how important it is to use the highest-quality supplies one can find. But when she started her online chainmaille jewelry and supply company, Blue Buddha Boutique (http://www.bluebuddhaboutique.com), in 2003, finding the materials she needed seemed easier said than done.
“The only thing consistent about them was my disappointment in the quality of their products,” she said of her suppliers. "I knew that if we had control over where the wire was purchased, and control over how the rings were made and polished, not only could my jewelry be a better quality, but I could offer the same superior components to my customers. We maillers have been known to be a finicky bunch."
Since those early days when Mojica sold rings pulled from her own stash to the students she taught at a local bead store, Blue Buddha has evolved into one of the largest chainmaille suppliers in the world. By 2007, Mojica had incorporated, hired her first employee, and quit the last of the three part-time jobs she'd held when she started her business. The company, housed in a small storefront in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, now employs 13.
Left: Blue Buddha Boutique founder and owner Rebeca Mojica shows off hundreds of thousands of brightly colored aluminum rings that are awaiting quality control. Right: Jason Scerena anodizes a batch of niobium rings to turn them from a neutral gray to a brilliant mix of blue tones. He passes an electrical current through the rings as they sit in a chemical solution, and can change their color by turning the voltage up or down. "It's a combination of art and science," he said.
Chainmaille, the art of weaving metal jump rings together in patterns to create anything from a simple earring to a showstopping necklace, is a precise craft. Each pattern requires specific ring sizes in order to look its best. If a crafter uses rings that are a bit too large, small, thick, or thin, the end result may be too stiff, floppy, or just plain impossible to weave.
Figuring out what size rings to buy for a project can involve a fair amount of math, but Blue Buddha’s customers don’t need to whip out their calculators unless they want to – the site is loaded with information that takes the guesswork out of ordering.
Blue Buddha’s staff spend their days fielding questions from crafters confused about a project, filling orders that pour in from 40 countries around the world, and sorting through hundreds of thousands of rings to remove anything broken, bent, poorly dyed or otherwise unusable before they’re shipped to customers.
Left: Intern Vivian Li weaves rings together using the Oval chainmaille pattern. Blue Buddha's interns test out weaves and new projects that are published in craft magazines so that the staff can let customers know which rings are best to use for each project and how to troubleshoot any tricky steps in the instructions. Right: Blue Buddha's chainmaille samples, which they call "squids," show customers examples of what projects they can make with a particular ring size.
“The more customers we get, and the more popular chainmaille becomes, the more questions customers have, which means the more people we need to hire for customer service and quality control,” Mojica said.
Because Blue Buddha sells only online, the staff will never meet many of their customers face-to face, but they still strive for a personal touch. “If we have a meaningful interaction with someone on our page on Facebook, we often write a note on their packing slip. It gives customers that warm and fuzzy feeling and makes them glad they chose to do business with us,” Mojica said.
Mojica’s own handmade chainmaille jewelry has always been for sale on the site alongside supplies. But the Blue Buddha brand has become so synonymous with supplies that Mojica is currently in the process of moving the handmade side of the business onto its own site, http://www.rebecamojica.com.
"The decision was finally made for me when, at the last few craft shows I did (selling handmade jewelry), people kept coming up to my booth looking to buy pliers,” she said.
She chose IndieMade to host her online store because she loved the idea of an easily updatable site that also offers a blog, gallery, and shopping cart system that she didn’t have to program herself.
“I watched a demo of the site in action, and was wowed at how easy it seemed to use,” Mojica said. “Plus, I love the fact that this is the brainchild of an artisan/software developer wife and husband team. I'm happy to be able to support a small business!”
Her new brand will debut in person among the 100-plus vendors at the DIY Trunk Show (http://www.diytrunkshow.com), from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19 at Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway, Chicago. Blue Buddha is also sponsoring the show, put on by the Chicago Craft Mafia, and aims to spread the chainmaille addiction by hosting a make-and-take area where shoppers can create a small piece of their own.
Mojica has been a member of the Chicago Craft Mafia since 2005. “Putting on the DIY Trunk Show is a labor of love for us Mafia members; we don't make any profit from it,” she said. “Every bit of money we take in is used to cover expenses and promote the show. Well, OK, sometimes we have enough money left over—just barely—to treat ourselves to a celebratory dinner."
She hopes the DIY Trunk Show can also start generating some buzz for Blue Buddha in advance of their next big undertaking. While she jokes that her ultimate goal is “world domination,” a more pressing concern is finding a new location. The company has outgrown its current space so much, Mojica recently moved her desk back home because her staff was running out of room to work.
The new, yet-to-be-determined location will include a retail store and space for classes and open studios. “Developing a full-fledged retail store is quite the undertaking, but we've already got a crowd of customers eagerly awaiting for our doors to open,” Mojica said. “And we can't wait for all the exciting programs and events we'll be able to provide once we have more space! It's been far too long since I've taught classes on a regular basis, and I really miss it.”