MANCHESTER, NH – Michelle Erdman says her handcrafted recycled bullet-themed jewelry is selling almost as fast as she can make it – and she’s pretty quick on the draw!
In a corner of her sitting room her “bullet buffet” is fully stocked with bags of used shotgun shells in various sizes, so she can mix and match the brass or silver casings, whether following a particularly creative muse, or filling a custom order.
“Right now I’m not sure if it’s because of the country and what’s going on, but that is what sells,” says Erdman, who also repurposes typewriter keys, Christmas lights and flea market finds into jewelry for her Etsy shop, My Tabby Boutique.
A lifelong crafter and cross-stitcher, Erdman started beading about five years ago, mostly using crystals. It wasn’t until she discovered Etsy, and then started experimenting with upcycling and recycling bullet jewelry, that her shop took off.
She sold her first piece on April Fool’s Day 2012.
“I’m a registered gun owner, and so a lot of the casings I use I shoot myself. My mother mother’s man in Wyoming is a huntsman and sportsman. I think the popularity of the jewelry is from the feeling that the government is trying to stop people from owning guns, so we’re wearing our jewelry proudly,” says Erdman.
Although you truly have to do a double-take to pick up on the bullet theme in most cases – Erdman artfully combines brass and nickel bullet and shotgun casings set off with Swarovski crystals and other details that often translate to “bohemian cowgirl chic.”
She explains that her eclectic style is inevitable – she credits her cowboy father, her “shabby chic” mother and a tattooed motorcycle-riding brother who helped her learn to love “guns, rhinestones and skulls.”
It’s not all frills and sparkle, however. She also makes men’s jewelry, including this 20 gauge Winchester shotgun shell featuring a brass head stamp and copper primer with a silver ring surround, for $34. She also makes tie clips and cufflinks.
Because her other passion is repurposing, she recently got the idea to slip some defunct clear Christmas twinkle lights into bullets – a perfect fit – and has found they have appeal, beyond holiday bullet-loving jewelry shoppers.
“Someone from 1800recycling.com contacted me. They want to feature my earrings in their November campaign,” which was an unexpected thrill.
She has also been contacted by Country Outfitter, who approached her about wholesaling her jewelry. She turned them down.
“I’m not interested in the Wal-Mart approach to selling,” Erdman says. “I keep the prices reasonable and I enjoy handling orders on my own. I’d likely sell more, but I’d make less per piece, and I think it would change the way I work. I have a one-day turn around, and haven’t had any complaints – well, there was one return. A man bought a necklace made of shotgun shells, but the woman he gave it to wanted something daintier, so they exchanged it.”
Etsy, the e-commerce marketplace launched in 2005, continues to be a popular source for hand-crafted items and gifts – there are 114 Etsy shops connected to Manchester, NH. Annual sales in 2013 for Etsy sellers, a virtual online small business collective, was a reported $895 million. Of course, some sellers may only make $100 a year, while the average median income for Etsy sellers is about $44,900, according to this Slate.com story.
Erdman doesn’t do it for the money. She says she is devoted to the art of creating beautiful things, and mainly sells the jewelry because it’s addictive to create – and she can only wear so much. She’s found a comfortable groove in the specialty jewelry niche.
When she’s not making jewelry, she does property management for a Manchester-based attorney. She says in addition to being a gun enthusiast, she’s a true cat lover – not only do her feline assistants keep a watchful eye while she works, but her Etsy – My Tabby Boutique – is named for one of her beloved cats that died of cancer. She donates 5 percent of her sales to local animal rescue groups.
“If something isn’t selling I just tear it apart and make something else out of it. Next to making jewelry, I am all about repurposing,” Erdman says.
Photo Gallery: Inside Etsy’s My Tabby Boutique with Michelle Erdman