A head-turning name, eye-catching designs, and the birth of a business…
“Van Gogh cut his earlobe off, the story is, put it in an envelope and gave it to a prostitute,” explains Lizz Barnes, recalling the notorious tale associated with one of her favorite artists—and the inspiration behind the name of her business. “I just thought, ‘Ear in the Envelope… That just sounds like such a creative phrase.’ It’s one of those things that as soon as somebody hears it, they don’t forget it.”
Indeed, while it’s easy to overlook her studio space, tucked away in Peoria’s Warehouse District, it’s a name you surely cannot miss. Established in July of 2011, Ear in the Envelope Inc. is an umbrella company founded to manage the operations of Barnes’ numerous ventures, which include the Etsy shops Designs By Lizz Barnes and Gotta Getta Deal and the blog foodsafemetal.com. A multi-talented metal artisan, Barnes has carved out a niche for herself in the arts business designing food-safe aluminum jewelry and selling her own DIY tools and hypoallergenic materials online. But before launching her own business and making a name for herself as an artist, Barnes had a completely different career path in mind.
The Big Lie
“I thought I was going to go into medicine,” the Peoria native declares. “I didn’t take any art classes in high school… I went away to school and hated college, and I didn’t know why. Then I came back, went to ICC and took an art class with Chuck Flagg… and it was just like, ‘That’s it!’ … I was meant to be an artist.”
In 1998, Barnes earned her bachelor’s degree in art education and glass from Illinois State University. Soon after, she moved to the Chicago area, where she taught art part-time and began experimenting in glass torchworking—a technique, she says, that piqued her interest in jewelry design and, ultimately, metalworking.
Eventually returning to Peoria and settling down in her hometown, Barnes began teaching classes at the Peoria Art Guild, where an experience with a special-needs student set her career destiny into motion. “I was trying to figure what he could do, and he could hammer really well,” she remembers. “I knew that metal stamping was getting really popular, so I decided maybe we’ll try that. Then, the metal that I could find was very bad-quality aluminum, so I just started looking around.
“Now here’s where the story starts,” she continues. “I started thinking, ‘Food-safe aluminum pans—they’re supposed to be good for cooking, so you’d think that would be the perfect thing to make jewelry out of.’” Determined to get an affordable supply of food-safe aluminum—pure aluminum that’s naturally hypoallergenic—Barnes began her quest, which quickly became trickier than she anticipated. “When I started calling around, I didn’t even get responses from people. They’re probably thinking, ‘Lizz wants a 1”x1” piece of aluminum… I am not calling this person back!’
“So finally—this is the big lie of the business—I said that I was [in her best gruff voice] ‘Joe, from Joe’s Sculptural Fountains, looking for some metal,’” she laughs. “Once I did that, I started getting phone calls! And so I’d say, ‘Yeah, this is Joe’s wife, but I know what he wants, so let me tell ya…’”
The Basement Years
Upon securing a metal source, Barnes started creating and selling her own food-safe aluminum jewelry, opening Designs By Lizz Barnes on Etsy. But about the same time her online business began taking off, the hands-on artist was dealt a devastating diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to make jewelry,” she recalls. Though she had been toying with the idea of selling supplies for some time—a much less physically demanding venture—the burdensome recovery from her first hip replacement convinced her to pull the trigger. “I was sitting at home thinking, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ [fake crying] I think I’ll start an Etsy shop,’” she laughs. “Kind of at the lowest point of [my] life, where I don’t think if I had been laid up, I ever would’ve taken enough time to get a shop set up.”
Running the entire operation out of her basement, Barnes began cutting her own metal and selling pre-sized aluminum and jewelry crafting tools online through a second Etsy store, Gotta Getta Deal. Soon, sales skyrocketed—so much so that she hired a team of metal artists to help—as did the demand for jewelry crafting tutorials, prompting Barnes to create the “how-to” blog, foodsafemetal.com, and ultimately, her umbrella company, Ear in the Envelope.
Today, Barnes considers her “basement years” a stressful, yet valuable lesson. “You’re inventing everything. You’re inventing your customer service and all the answers to every possible question,” she describes. “At the beginning, you’re trying make to everybody happy, and then you move into ‘I have to survive…’ I want them to be happy, but I have to sleep and I have to have a life at the same time. So you start putting up boundaries. We’ll do this, but we won’t do that.”
Blossoming in the Warehouse District
Two and half years later, having outgrown her basement, Barnes decided it was time to move. In June of 2012, she began leasing a space at 820 SW Adams, where today, business has never been better. “You don’t realize how if you’re in a small space, it’s almost like a plant,” Barnes remarks. “It can only do so much in that space.”
With a converted warehouse serving as her new studio, Barnes has seen Ear in the Envelope’s profits double each of the last two years, and is on track for record-breaking revenues yet again. Working almost exclusively in food-safe aluminum, Ear in the Envelope cuts, corners (a process to remove sharp edges), tumbles (a polishing technique), and packs all of its metal in-house, distributing anywhere from 20 to 75 orders a day all around the world. Barnes also sells her premade designs, which include intricately hammered and anodized (finished using an electrochemical process that allows the metal to be dyed) rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces and more starting as low as $15. Customers can also purchase everything they need to start up their own jewelry crafting operation—from aluminum blanks and charms to metal punchers, pliers, bracelet benders and beyond—for about $120.
With the desire to help other artists kickstart their careers, Barnes has opened Ear in the Envelope up for the First Fridays studio tour, and earlier this year, began offering classes in metal stamping, glass fusing and precious metal clay. Having never anticipated her success or loyal clientele, Barnes feels fulfilled just knowing she has made a difference in the local arts community. “I love to make and I love to help people make,” she explains. “I don’t want to make a million dollars. I would rather pay our bills, be able to hire people, and have an impact on the community.”
And Barnes has found that running her own business and working with other creative types is a pretty awesome gig. “I think that is an amazing thing—when your vision starts running through the veins of your employees and they’re just as excited as you are. Now, instead of just me being this crazy person with an idea, it’s a bunch of crazy people with ideas!” she laughs. “A job really can be a fun place to work. It doesn’t have to be a drag at six o’clock to hit the alarm. I actually get pretty excited in the morning.”
Going For It Having seen the simple idea of helping a student grow into a lucrative business, Barnes encourages other “born” artists—from painters and sculptors to creative inventors and innovative office managers—to find their inspiration and just “go for it.” “You have to be a leader and you definitely have to be organized… but I think if you really want to do something, start it small on the side. Dabble in it and see what you want to do,” she says. “The Internet is a great place to do that now. There are great opportunities to do things you never would’ve been able to do before!”
“And you can be somebody else if you want to,” she jokes. “You can be Joe!” iBi
Ear in the Envelope is located at 820 SW Adams Street in Peoria. Find Barnes’ designs and supplies at etsy.com/shop/DesignsByLizzBarnes and etsy.com/shop/gottagettadeal, and her blog at foodsafemetal.com.