Kates Design Turns Vintage Buttons Into Timeless Jewelry

Katherine Heath was like many girls her age as a child. She loved to string beads and make friendship bracelets for family and friends. But her real design career started after her mother gave her bags full of vintage buttons that once belonged to her great-grandmother. From there, Kates Design was born. One-of-a-kind bracelets and earrings created from these vintage fastenings remind of a time when the detail of beautiful buttons was an everyday part of getting dressed. I sat down with Katherine to chat about her business, design process and what's to come in her world of charming button accessories. You started out making bracelets for your family as a child and decided to design when you found a bag of your great grandmother’s vintage buttons. Before that discovery, did you always want to design jewelry or did you have something else in mind? I always made string and friendship bracelets, and I would go to flea markets and find old vintage pieces and recreate them. After my mom found the bags of buttons and gave them to me, I started making the bracelets. People were literally buying them off my wrists. That’s what started everything. I said ‘I need to be doing something that makes me happy, something I enjoy,’ and this was it. You work with gorgeous vintage buttons. Do you take inspiration from other vintage pieces such as clothing or furniture? What makes the buttons so enjoyable to work with? Yes, antique furniture and vintage clothing are definitely of interest. Button designs are endless, and that makes them exciting to work with. I always find buttons I’ve never seen before, and it really allows me to be creative. That is what makes each piece unique. I don’t recreate a bracelet twice, and I think that’s why they’ve been so well received – no one is going to have the same design. Do you only use vintage buttons or do you shop for new ones as well? Where do you find them? I started with vintage and then began going to the fashion district and buying new ones. But I realized pretty immediately the new buttons were taking away from the product appeal, so I stopped buying new and am focusing on vintage again. I find the buttons I design with on clothing, from antique stores and flea markets, Etsy and people I know who give or sell them to me. Old jewelry manufacturers and factories that have shut down are great places to find them too. They have old vintage jewelry, everything from beads and buttons to chains. You can find some cool pieces, but you must commit to digging because it’s the most unorganized thing in the world. There are pieces that have been sitting on the shelf since the 50s. Also, if someone has special buttons they want me to use, I will design a piece for her or him out of them and incorporate some of my own. There is a story behind every item because the buttons could mean something special to the person. What aides in your design process? Do you draw your intricate bracelets out first or lay out all of the buttons before assembling? What time of the day are you most inspired to design? I have a huge coffee table on which I lay out thousands of buttons. I arrange them on a board and create from there. I do have some secrets on how I string them so they lay correctly on each other. If you put all the same type and shape of button together, they’re just going to lay flat and you wont be able to see the entire piece. But I end up having to re-string most bracelets about three times, either because I calculated the size wrong or they aren’t sitting correctly on each other. I start designing around 10:30 am and work all day. I don’t watch TV, but I do listen to music while I’m creating. Do you have certain days you go on shopping trips and other days you reserve for designing? Or do you just go as the wind takes you? I’m not really structured on when I do what because I work around the clock. Even when I get home from my regular job, I will work. My days are split between designing, making the pieces, shopping for the buttons, photographing the merchandise and maintaining the website. I’m really doing everything. The E-commerce site launched in November, right in time for Christmas, and that has been so helpful. The site automatically updates when someone makes a purchase, so it saves me time. It's so amazing you taught in Africa and a portion of your proceeds is donated to "Make a Difference NOW." How has your experience working and living in a different culture influenced your designs? Has it changed who you are as an American consumer? Whatever I’m doing has to be beneficial to someone else other than me. When I got out of school, I had an itch to go abroad because your chances grow fewer as you get older. Africa really changed me, so I realized I needed to work it into my life back here. I figuring making a donation from the business would be the best way, and they have been very supportive. Make a Difference NOW is so close to my heart. No matter how big the check I am writing each quarter, it doesn’t pain me because it’s the best feeling in the world. Hopefully some of the packaging for Kates Design will eventually come from there. I am more conscious of the things I purchase now; I’m always aware if the company I’m buying from gives back in any way. Right now you are selling Kates Design merchandise in New Jersey. What is the next state(s) you would like to conquer? Any New York prospects we can look forward to? The New Jersey store has been very profitable for me. It’s actually a really high-end jewelry store, and my stuff is more moderately priced. It’s different from everything else in the store, so it’s been doing really well. At first I was hesitant to even be in stores because all of my pieces are one of a kind, and the business must be willing to carry something that isn’t reorder-able. I have a handful of places that are in the works. My goal for the year is to work on getting in more boutiques. I have been eyeing some stores on the Lower East Side. What is in the future for your designs? Do you think you'll ever go beyond designing bracelets and earrings? How about other types of jewelry? The earrings category is the newest edition and has been doing really well. I am still trying to perfect the button necklace, but I haven’t figured out how to make a longer design look nice. I always have people requesting cuff links, so those will probably be next. And you never know, I could always start something else. Right now I want to grow the business, get more press and get into more stores. Those are my goals for the year and then we’ll see. You can learn more about Kates Design and shop for her jewelry on her website.