The Heart of Bel Kai
by Founder, Whitney Wright
The story page of a website is always my favorite place to start. I’m such a sucker for entrepreneurial stories. Or any story! I want to hear it all, from the very beginning. If you’re like me and you want to hear more, pull up a chair and read on.
To start, bear with me? I tend to be a little (lot) verbose. I’ve been told that I end a sentence with another sentence. Thanks for the compliment, sweet husband. (*wink) A twitter account would be lost on me. It would take me
minutes hours to come up with what I want to say in 140 characters, thus defeating the purpose of a simple tweet. I recently sat down to reflect & write about bel kai, since the start. It’s not often that time allows for such concentrated reflection. It proved more therapeutic than I imagined. As with any good story, there are many twists & turns along the way. This is true for the story of bel kai, which has often been a reflection of my own personal story. This is from my heart to yours.
MY START AS A MAKER
Some of my most vivid memories as a child took place in the creative realm. I have fond and distinct memories of art class in elementary school and can still remember every inch & corner of our classroom. Truth be told, the fondness may have had something to do with a crush on my very cute art teacher. So maybe he was the real reason for my early love of art. Thankfully, my affinity for designing and creating stuck around and it became a thread woven throughout my life.
In middle & high school, creating took the form of yearbook design and after years of soaking up as many artistic electives as possible, I was selected to be in the talented art class & advanced photography classes. Both were such great opportunities to dabble in many forms of artistic media. As a pastors daughter, I was (naturally) the one that would lay out the weekly church bulletin. At the time, this involved cutting & pasting clip art. Actual cut & paste. (Think scissors & glue stick.) Also in middle school, a teacher took interest in my writing encouraged me to join his creative writing class with little interest of my own. I loved it! Although I must have skipped the week where he taught how to creatively tell a story succinctly. It was during these years, that graphic design, printed papers & words seemed to emerge as my favorite media. I often thought that maybe one day I would like to write greeting cards. But alas, there is my conundrum popping up once again.
THE START OF A DREAM
In my senior year of high school, I traveled with my dad to France. We spent time in more remote cities, but of course, took the time to spend a week in Paris. This trip is one of my sweetest memories, for many reasons (how special to have a near month-long trip with your dad…and in high school, no less!), but one of which stands out. We spent one afternoon window shopping & walking through The Galeries Lafayette’s flagship store in the 9th arrondissement of Paris (an upscale French department store). There is no shortage of local shops & boutiques in this area. We walked into a sweet shop where the owner greeted us, a baby on her hip (a crib & play area in the distance), the fluffiest white shop dog. An apartment with a balcony above, where I imagined her living. A woman business owner, creating a beautiful shop of lovely things, making it work with her littlest one in tow… and Paris wasn’t the worst backdrop either.
At that moment, this became a dream to aspire to. I was a creative. I had the desire to start a business. I knew that I wanted a family. This scene encapsulated all of it for me.
THE CATALYST FOR JEWELRY MAKING
Let’s fast forward a bit, past the angsty years where I lost all I thought I knew about myself. Those memories aren’t quite as fond. Other than spending some time here and there making cards & invitations for weddings, showers, events & small orders for friends, very little was happening in the form of creating. I find myself in my second year of marriage, living in Ft. Wayne, IN. Floundering a bit. The floundering turned to a year long struggle with debilitating anxiety & depression. It came out of nowhere. To this day, I can’t pinpoint an exact reason for it. Maybe an orchestrated, God-ordained time to slow down and re-center? I wonder now if it was possibly a realization that the marriage that I had committed to a year prior, was not a sound one. It was a tough year, to say the least.
I lived a few blocks away from a bead shop. I passed it often. A friend of mine gifted a beaded bracelet to me around that time. The clasp was a loop of tiny beads & a vintage button. I was inspired to try jewelry-making. I taught myself the ins and outs of crimp beads, 59-strand wire, seed beads & crimping pliers. And fell in love with the process. After a year of doctors visits & anxiety medication, designing jewelry was what brought me out of the despair that had been crippling me. As it so often goes, orders from friends & family soon followed. My sister came up with the business name, Stix & Stonez (Stix is my childhood nickname). It made sense! And I think I still owe her a reward for coming up with the name. A friend helped design a logo and letterhead stationery (remember, this was 2001). I was on my way! I spent several years selling at art fairs and to local boutiques while I worked part-time at a bank. I have an affinity for numbers. I have my mom to thank for that!
A move to Long Beach, California followed several years later. Because it costs a small fortune to live in California, I felt I could no longer pursue Stix & Stonez as a career and set out to find a full time job. I became the Director of Operations at a women-owned company that planned hiring events all around the country. My boss was the loveliest. Her drive and grit were an inspiration to me. Working for a small business allowed me to wear so many hats. I learned so much about all the moving parts of a business. In 2006, I was pregnant with my first child and planning for his arrival. I knew I wanted to stay home after my little one arrived, and while my boss graciously allowed me to work from home part-time after he arrived, the dream of owning my own business lingered.
My sister gifted a necklace to me (does this sound familiar??). The necklace was classic, a simple chain and double-sided pendant. The pendant was made from two pieces of printed paper, encased in a silver frame. I had stacks and stacks of scrapbook papers and the like just sitting in my craft bin. I didn’t even scrapbook, I just love paper. I bought it up for no reason at all. The necklace she gifted me wasn’t waterproof and I wondered if there was a way to seal paper in pendants. After nights spent at Google University, I found and tried my hand at a two-part resin. At the time, there weren’t tutorials or videos in this medium. There was SO much trial & error.
I couldn’t find settings I liked, so I manufactured them. During my son’s nap-time, I was soldering metal in my dining room. After his bedtime, I was setting paper and pouring resin. Hingeing on my years of designing cards & invitations, I taught myself photoshop and started designing artwork for pendants, instead of using store-bought paper. The sky was the limit once I could design my own pendants. It also came with more trial & error. The paper I used made the printer ink bleed once underneath the layers of resin. It took months to perfect the process that we still use today, to ensure the image and quality remain. Once personalized pendants were an option, a client and customer based soon followed.
I set out to work art fairs & craft shows, baby on my hip and sold to local boutiques in the Long Beach area. It was a lot of hustle that became a lot harder after the birth of my second son. I needed to be home more, so I taught myself web design and launched my first website in 2009. The hustle didn’t end there. At that time, my husband worked nights and slept during the day. So I spent my days mothering & adventuring with my two little ones. I prided myself on strict & early bedtimes at 6:30pm when we didn’t have plans with friends. So, the second their little heads hit the pillow, I was back to work. Most nights, the scene looked a little like this… my dinner and a glass of wine, on my computer designing, jewelry tools to the side, chatting on yahoo messenger with my mom, HGTV on the tv until at least midnight. Given a work hurdle, computer glitch or printer problem, I would work into the wee hours of the night.
I was living out bits & pieces of the dream I had since high school. It was exhilarating & exhausting. Life-giving & draining.
In 2011, after 12 years of living in a marriage that was not nurtured, my husband decided he couldn’t continue and I suddenly & unexpectedly found myself left alone with my two sons (ages 5 and 18 months at the time). We moved to Winona Lake, IN, to the support of friends & family. We moved into my parents home and the large extra room in their house became my new jewelry studio. To say that those first 6 months were hard is a grave understatement. It took several months to get back on my feet in terms of my business, but it finally came. And once again, creating was the healing balm for my heart.
Not only did it give life again, it led me to the greatest gift. My husband, Luke. A huge loss that resulted from our move to Indiana was that of my many California friends that were entrepreneur-ing alongside me. I found that common thread in Luke. He was an artist too & had recently founded a small ceramic studio in a village that was just blocks from my house (MudLOVE). I would often take walks with the boys to the park and stop in to chat business on the way. He also, very conveniently, lived a couple houses down from mine. One week in particular, we were working on orders simultaneously just steps away on a sidewalk, away from each other and after a facebook chat, realized it would be a lot easier to work next to each other instead of two doors down. That week was a surprise to both of us & marked the beginning of something beautiful that flourished for the next 18 months until we were married in the summer of 2013.
For me, working with Luke has undoubtedly been one of the best & most surprising perks of our relationship. The ability to grasp what it takes to be a business owner on a daily basis is understood. But beyond that, we can create together. We can’t help but spend our time idea-ing and we work alongside each other to bring those ideas into reality. It’s a challenge, but the most fun! We have added two more little boys to our family, and a dog (also a male) because we wanted to challenge ourselves just a bit more. And yes, your calculations are correct. It’s me and 6 males in my house. Send help.
Our offices are connected, in MudLOVE's headquarters in downtown Warsaw, IN. The Bel Kai jewelry studio is a small rented space in the Village at Winona in Winona Lake, IN. These days, I work in my office, in our studio and at home, in the pockets of time that I find myself free. I'm thankful for the freedom of opportunity to spend time with our 4 boys, as needed, or wanted! Field trips, class parties, play-doh sessions & park play keep me from working full time until we have all four in school and I am most thankful for this flexibility.
BELOVE (a give back gift shop) is our last baby, an extension of us. The shop is located in the garage where Luke first started his business and where I would visit him. We carry MudLOVE pottery, Bel Kai jewelry, found vintage items (a favorite hobby of ours) and a variety of curated items. Unexpected opportunities to serve our neighbors continually call out to us, so we give back a percentage to local needs in our community through this space.
Whew! If you’ve read this far, you’re like me and love a good story too. We must be kindred spirits!! Shoot me a note here, I’d love to hear from you. Thanks for visiting, friend!
Oh, I almost forgot! The name? Bel Kai. My most asked question...
BEL KAI. What does it mean?
Bel means “beautiful”. Kai means “ocean”. At the time, I was living just a few short blocks away from the beach. The ocean is just about my very favorite place to be and I had a little one on the way, whose middle name is Kai. The name carries a lot of meaning for me, especially for that place & time of my life. And I think it has a nice ring to it!