By Lynda Dell
Amy Ragsdale was a little girl with big dreams who believed in the impossible.
More than anything when she was age seven, this tenacious child yearned to have a horse—even though she had no money and didn’t live on a farm. While growing up her older sisters lectured her constantly that it was just a phase that she soon would outgrow: ‘You’re not getting a horse, so just forget about it!’
But once the notion took root, this extraordinary girl didn’t simply hope, wish, and or wait for things to materialize; rather, she worked out her next course of action and made it happen, a dream that took six years of saving and planning.
Sure enough after her mom had purchased a three and a half acre lot to build and run a Montessori school, there was now room for a horse. In the back, her brother and father had converted a chicken coup into two stalls.
“It was a dream that I made happen,” explained Ragsdale. “I was crazy about getting a horse, so I saved my money. I picked up a horse for $250 that was just sitting out in a field and gave Oaky the last best years of a horse’s life.”
Still unstoppable, Ragsdale’s fierce determination has enabled this jewelry designer to build a flourishing business on a shoe string budget that has withstood both growing pains and economic downturns. It has also helped her navigate the rough patches of single parenthood moving beyond food stamps, and most importantly has given her the resilience and belief in herself to chase after her dreams and transcend them.
Chasing her dream
To think at age 13, she would wake with the sunrise, mount Oaky, disappear for hours, and return home after dark. “I rode him barefoot, bareback, in any kind of weather, through snowstorms and rainstorms, with no fear,” recalled Ragsdale. “I thought I must be the luckiest girl in the world.”
She could trust and depend upon her horse to keep her safe; he wouldn’t jump over anything until he felt that she could stay on. “When I got turned around and lost, I could drop my reins, and Oaky always got me home because he knew where home was.”
By feeding, grooming, and cleaning up after Oaky, she reaped the benefits of her hard work and dedication. “So even if the weather was beautiful, I had to be in the strawberry fields working,” pointed out Ragsdale. “If it rained on my day off, I still went riding.”
Her deep, abiding friendship with Oaky transformed her life, inspiring courage, resiliency, and the following life-affirming principles that she has lived by and from which she has built her business Amy Ragsdale Designs:
Enduring relationships and businesses are based on mutual trust and belief in yourself
Strong family ties and support systems are the buffers that enable us to weather the storms
With great freedom comes responsibility.
Igniting the spark: Navigating the rough patches
When this struggling single mom moved to Booth Bay, Maine, she took a sales job at Anthony Heyl’s fine craft gallery just to pay the rent and feed her two young boys, so she wouldn’t have to be on food stamps–which she had to resort to anyway to make ends meet.
When she was rudderless, Heyl believed in her and transformed her life. He taught her how to solder, polish, and make ear wires so that she could produce a line of jewelry for their next season using his brass and sterling silver carvings while the store was closed for the winter. Moreover, he ignited Ragsdale’s passion when he encouraged her to take home some metal, beads, and some shears to play with, later became her mentor.
“So after I got Nick and Drew bathed, fed, and put to bed, then while tinkering around, I came up with some fabulous designs,” explained this determined mom. “I had a silver disk, and I sliced it in half, twisted it, so that it was elongated, drilled it, and put ear wires on it. It became one of my best selling styles.”
When Heyl’s partner, Carolyn, spotted Ragsdale’s new earrings, she was unimpressed: ‘You might as well keep them because we will never sell them!’
Then a tourist chose her earrings– over the 200 pairs of earrings that she had viewed that day. “In my Amy Ragsdale way, I said, ‘Well, they are not for sale, but I’ll make you a pair.’” She sold them for $50.00, much more than Heyl’s earrings were sold for.
Hammering out the details: Building her business
But it wasn’t until Ragsdale remarried, moved back to Philadelphia, and had two six month old twins that she started rumbling about starting her own jewelry business. Her friend, Gail Brown, loaned her $500.00 for the start-up, which she paid back a year later.
“So I bought the big polishing wheel that I still use, a hammer, an anvil, shears, wire, beads, and chain and made a little studio in the basement. Then I filled a cigar box with some jewelry and drove to local jewelry stores,” recalled Ragsdale. “I just introduced myself and 99% of the time they would ask to see my jewelry, which they almost always purchased.”
Heyl taught her about all facets of the jewelry industry—from technical knowledge to keeping abreast of the marketplace shifts—especially how to price jewelry by accounting for time spent, materials used, market value, etc.
After her second marriage failed, this resourceful women, who couldn’t afford daycare, got her children enrolled in one of the nicest local daycares in Flourtown , Pa by writing press releases about their special events, which appeared weekly in the local paper .
While her children were in daycare, she drove to the finest local galleries and opened wholesale accounts at museum shops, jewelry stores, and galleries.
“A huge selling point for my earrings was that I make my own ear wires–gorgeous, strong, and safe, so they don’t scratch your ear.”
They paid her by check for all of her merchandise, 50% upfront and 50% in 30 days whether they sold it or not. They were never stuck. If something didn’t sell in 6 months, then she’d replace it with their best sellers for example earrings for bracelets. The one condition was that they could not put her jewelry on sale since she considered it timeless.
She puts a new twist on old fashioned trunk shows. Instead of loading up her trunk with samples of her newest line and driving them over to Bergdorf’s in NYC, like dressmakers did in the 1900s, she hops on a plane and brings her merchandise to places like Tucson, Arizona, where she intends to visit friends after the hosted events. A percentage of the sales goes to the host, the rest she keeps. Then she lounges around the pool.
Discovering her life’s purpose
The reason that Ragsdale has had a thriving jewelry design business with pieces in the Academy of Fine Arts Museum Shop and the finest galleries is because she realizes that “jewelry is not just an accoutrement,” Ragsdale explained. “It is a symbol of families from one generation to the next that designates power, wealth, stature, and marital status. Jewelry holds more than memories: it holds energy.”
For this artist, creating jewelry that conveys safety, power, and beauty is an intuitive process. After interviewing a client, she will make five variations of one design for them to choose from.
“Everything is handmade, one of a kind; even my guardian cuffs are bent around a mandrel and hammered. I am not going to copy what someone else did. That’s abhorrent to me. The inspiration for the design happens when the metal is in my hands. When I am sculpting with the metal, I don’t fight it or try to replicate it.”
Ragsdale explained that the jewelry sells itself. “I just tell the stories that belong to each piece, and it is the stories that people love.”
In Alberta, Canada at a craft show at a boutique gallery, after a customer tried on the echo pendant she asked about the story behind the piece “ I said: ‘The echo pendant is to be worn to remind you that whatever you send out will come back to you.’ Tears welled up when she said, ‘I am not taking it off.’ I don’t know what went on for her, but somehow that touched her.”
This sculptor hopes that she is creating symbols of faith, hope, warrior energy, protection, and tribe that heal, touch, and empower. She believes that people deserve to have something that is uniquely theirs without spending an outrageous amount of money.
“I have spent 26 years making jewelry and selling it to people who were really touched by it. I found something that I could put my heart into.”
She doesn’t suffer from Ragsdale disease like the rest of her family, which is when you are incredibly talented but you are afraid to show it.
“As the middle child somehow something happened to me, I call it “grace,” but at a very young age, I realized that I was really, really lucky,” she said. “I just didn’t have the fear of failure. I am a lot like a horse, do my thing, and move ahead, very little stops me.”