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Setting Out 5 Years On: Mairi Burrow

In 2013, whilst on the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s Setting Out Programme, emerging maker Mairi Burrow created a plan for her own design-led jewellery business. Just five years later, Mairi has not only succeeded in founding Northern Ireland-based jewellery brand MAIRI, but has also met every target outlined in her business plan, including the impending launch of a studio showroom for clients. She shared her inspiring story with us this week.

Could you tell us a bit about how you got started in the industry, and what made you want to start your own business?

I originally studied architecture at the University of Dundee, but realised that I didn’t want to go down a career path that would have me sitting at a computer on a daily basis. So I transferred to Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, and thought jewellery would be the most hands-on department and therefore right for me. After university, I exhibited at New Designers, and pursued a few opportunities that came out of that, and then I found the Setting Out programme, which really focused me and gave me the kick I needed. After Setting Out, I knew I wasn’t looking for another job, so I moved to Northern Ireland and just poured everything into my business going full time.

What were the biggest challenges involved in starting your own business - and how did the skills gained on the Setting Out programme help you to tackle them?

Overcoming inherent doubts, like thinking that you can’t do it or being afraid to put yourself out there, were a challenge. Setting Out gave me a lot of confidence, and that’s key when communicating with clients. I also found the mentorship attached to the programme very significant. Jon was my mentor, and he helped me to focus on my business plan, to keep sight of what was important, where I wanted to be and how I could achieve it. For example, in regards to applying for funding, Jon pointed out that unless the grant fit with my business plan, then applying for it would be wasted energy. And funding applications can be very time consuming, so that saved a huge amount of work.

Shelley Garrett, Ten21 photography.

On your website, you emphasise that MAIRI is striving towards ethical and sustainable business practices. Why do you think this is important to your customers and has this changed over the years?

It may be a millennial thing, but I’ve personally become very conscious of my consumerism. I’m fortunate that I largely make engagement rings, which are investment pieces that last a person’s lifetime, but clients will often ask where things are sourced, and that’s something I’ve always questioned myself since entering this industry. The trade can be quite closed in that sense, not very transparent about where things come from. But sustainable practices are becoming more accessible, like fair mines - I have a licence for that now - so I think I’m doing everything that I can to give my customers, and myself, assurance that my business practices are as traceable and ethical as they can possibly be. And I really think that all businesses should be taking those steps, rather than just using them as a marketing tool, or to make their businesses stand out - I think they should just become standard practice.

How confident were you in your business skills before Setting Out?

Not at all, really. I look back now and the one thing that really stands out to me is my lack of confidence, an ability to be firm or to say no. Being affiliated with the Goldsmiths’ Centre really helped me to value myself. In terms of costing for example, it made me realise that there’s so much more to costing a piece than just adding up the cost of the materials, it’s also the value of your time and your skills. And that affiliation with the Centre was meaningful because after I left university, I felt quite disheartened. I worked really hard but didn’t get a first-class degree, so being accepted into such a prestigious institution made me realise that maybe I did have something after all. And it was an amazing environment to be in, with so many amazing people, a community that you just don’t have access to anywhere else - you just don’t! 

You’ve achieved all of the targets set during your time on Setting Out, including recently opening a studio for your clients. Of all these achievements, which are you most proud of?

I’m very proud of opening up a studio showroom, because when I set that target, it seemed completely unattainable. At the moment I’m at the point where I’m muddling along, thinking about whats' next and what the next five years look like.

What are your main aspirations for your business over the next five years?

At the moment I’m working on 95% commissions, and going forward I’d like to do more of my own designs for clients to purchase, whilst still keeping it all one-off. I also have a big project planned for my new space. From May until the end of the year, I’ll be inviting a different designer every month to showcase their work - designers who I really aspire to, who are my contemporaries and colleagues within the industry. In Northern Ireland, there aren’t that many unusual jewellery stores or designer/makers, so I’m excited to show the people here work from London and Scotland, and I’d like to see if that helps clients to engage more with my business. I really do believe that the more you promote like-minded people, the more you promote yourself, and I’m trying to approach this from a slightly different angle, from the mindset of a fellow maker. We’ve all been in that situation where you walk into your stockist, and find your work badly displayed or tarnished or not clean - and they wonder why it’s not selling! So it’s an experiment for me, trialling work on a monthly basis to see if this business model works. 

What advice would you give others thinking of starting their own jewellery business?

It doesn’t get any easier, but it does become more predictable. The more you do it, the more you can predict what’s coming - like when you’ll be busy, and how much money you might make. It’s definitely worth it, but you’ll always go through periods of doubt, so gear up for the ride.

Contact Mairi Burrows