North Bennet Street School Commencement Address
This post continues the speech I gave at the North Bennet Street School Commencement on June 1, 2012. You can read Part I here
Aesthetics matter. Beauty drives demand and demand drives value. Value drives business, and business drives a brand-new pickup truck full of German power tools.
In addition to making something beautiful, you must also “make it good”. You have learned practical techniques. You will now have the opportunity to put your technique into practice in the real world.
Famous names like Wallace Nutting and George Nakashima are famous for a reason. In order for objects to hold their value over time, they have to still exist, and be in relatively good, original condition. They’re still here because they exhibit superior craftsmanship.
Some of my favorite auctions at Skinner are our jewelry auctions. Each year Skinner assembles thousands of pieces of antique and estate jewelry for auction. Those events are visual feast, filled with the designs of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Edward Oakes, Georg Jensen, Van Cleef and Arpels, to name just a few of the makers.
Along with beauty, these makers exhibit superior craftsmanship. Does the pin mechanism on a brooch close and seal solidly, or does it draw blood every time you wear it? These world class makers understood the necessity of finish. The finish tells the story of the quality of the piece. As you turn a piece of fine jewelry over in your hand and examine its underside, the finish work must show care. You shouldn’t feel the presence of a piece of finely crafted jewelry on your person. It should be sculpted to become one with your body.
Each generation sits in a cat-bird seat. Today you and I are able to look back, to draw lessons from the artifacts of the past and reflect on their meaning for the present. We can appraise an object’s value from its beauty and its craftsmanship. It, in turn, can inform and sharpen our skills and connoisseurship. That reflection makes me a better appraiser, and you a better maker.
Beauty and fine craftsmanship are only two ingredients for success in the business world. Your aesthetic and technical skills must be complimented with “life skills”.
To do your job well and “be good at making it” you will need to be a marketing pro, economist, accountant, social worker, and psychiatrist.
As a marketing pro, approach your work with enthusiasm. Years ago Skinner worked with a large marketing firm. One executive began discussing the record prices Skinner had achieved to date. I began to feel uncomfortable with the direction the conversation. I felt we had to temper our message because nobody likes a braggart or a show off. She said something very powerful to me. “Karen, if you don’t communicate the story of Skinner’s success, who will?” Know thyself, figure out where you want to go and begin your journey with confidence.
As an economist accountant, your pricing structure must support you but importantly must leave something for investment in your business. Living hand to mouth is not a healthy business plan. Consider budgets for major purchases like computers, tools and advertising. Engage in your marketplace. And understand your competitors.
As a social worker and psychiatrist, listen to your customers. Be honest and straightforward. Do what you say you will do. Meet your deadlines. If you are late with a project deadline, follow up with a project report. Getting in front of a disappointed customer can often defuse the situation. I can’t tell you how many times a client has said to me, “thank you for calling me back.” The attention you pay to your customers will come back to serve you. Skinner’s single best advertisement is the word of mouth endorsement from a satisfied customer.
Keep your antennae tuned for opportunities. What you have learned at North Bennet Street will have legs. For some of you those legs may take you to jobs where you never again pick up a tool. I can think of two people. A colleague, Julie Khouri, currently working in the jewelry department at Skinner, graduated from North Bennet Street School. She was hired partly because of her bench experience. Her training allowed her to be sensitive to construction techniques thereby noticing restoration and condition issues in the antique jewelry we auction.
She is working in an environment where she draws on the skills she learned as a maker. I bet she couldn’t have imagined the possibilities as she sat in the seats you are today.
This is a very exciting day. You will go on from your time at North Bennet Street School and you will do important work. You will make new objects for useful purposes. Some of you may find yourselves restoring objects from an earlier era. Some will become single owner entrepreneurs, owning business; others will work in a larger organization on a team.
Societies and cultures are remembered over time by what they leave behind. What they have created as a tangible clue to who they were as a people.
Good luck and I have one wish for you today: as you settle into your career, that each day when you get up and go to work you are able to say, “I love my job.”