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KÜHL chats with Madison and Gage, owners of Vancrafted Studio, to learn more about running a small business with your spouse.
Written by Sam Brown. All photos by Mak Crist.
This new series from KÜHL goes beyond getting to know an artist’s work and what inspires them. We dive deeper into their origin stories and struggles to learn how they cope with failure, critics, and success, yet still find time to do the things they love. Born in the mountains, raised in the workshop – these are their stories.
When Madison sits down to make jewelry – whether it’s on a tailgate or at her studio in the mountains – she doesn’t follow the script of every jeweler before her.
Madison does it the way she wants to, sometimes at the critique of other artists. And that’s perfectly fine with her. This fierce independence helped Madison build a successful, handmade jewelry business without sacrificing the life she wanted to live.
In her pursuit of freedom and independence, Madison began her business in 2014 in the back of a van. This allowed her to spend time at the footstep of the mountains and valleys she loved with the people (and dogs) she cherished.
Madison brought her studio to the places that inspired her. She crafted silver earrings and rings next to whitewater rivers. In the dusky light of high alpine valleys, she embedded these pieces with turquoise, lapis, and opal. This pursuit of freedom and her passion for the craft would guide her in the difficult, yet rewarding, journey as a small business owner who loves the outdoors.
She’s taken what she learned during life on the road into her new home and studio just outside of Bozeman, Montana. We got to chat with Madison and her husband, Gage, as they were getting settled into their new home and welcoming a new dog, Spur, who joined their 8-year-old dog, Tobin, into the family.
As they spoke about the origins of their business and their struggles one thing was obvious – this couple has grit. These outdoor enthusiasts had the courage to take an untraditional path to live the life they wanted, and it was paying off.
“The way that I approach jewelry making, and the technical skills that come with the craft, are all based upon real-world experience. For me, a classroom setting couldn’t come close to teaching me as much as my adventures have taught me. I’ve studied under other jewelers around the country, engaged in countless hours of practice and done the research. My education is unlike any other, and that’s what makes my business and handmade jewelry so unique.”
When Madison began making jewelry, she found that many metalsmiths were hesitant to talk about their craft or their process. Metalsmithing culture was secretive. Through trial and error, she slowly developed a process and honed her talent.
After taking a jewelry making class at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, MI, her interest in jewelry making was peaked, and there was no turning back. It was at about this time that Gage and Madison headed west in their old, beat-up van to discover the landscapes that would become the foundation for Vancrafted Studio.
Since then, she’s built the business on her own terms – doing what she wants, how she wants to. For any small business, embracing this kind of risk can have consequences. But Madison didn’t want to sacrifice creative freedom for the sake of social approval.
Her customers appreciate this honesty, and the brand uses it as an asset to inspire people to follow a similar path.
“My jewelry isn’t perfect. When you look at it, you can tell it’s handmade and I take a lot of pride in that.”
Madison’s transparency in the process may not be traditional in this industry. But it’s helped her audience see past the shiny veneer of social media to realize she’s just a regular gal willing to work hard to achieve her dreams.
As Madison and Gage told me how Vancrafted began it was obvious their enthusiasm wasn’t just in the turquoise, silver, or opal they use to make the jewelry, but in the people that buy it.
Madison stepped outside of the traditional metalsmithing realm to create a brand that spoke to who she was as a person – a giver.
“Becoming an online educator of metalsmithing felt like something that I had to do. There was a void in the market, no approachable, simple online course that taught you just the basics of metalsmithing existed. Beyond the simple logistics of this idea, I felt a duty to share the magic that is making original art in the form of metal. It brings me so much purpose and joy, and if I could do something for my fellow human during the very weird time of the pandemic—it would be to share my craft by teaching it, online.”
During the pandemic, she worked hard to put together a pre-recorded, thorough online class that taught students the basics of metalsmithing, via a simple silver and turquoise ring project.
Madison listened to her audience. They struggled to figure out what tools to buy and where to buy them, so she partnered with a trusted jewelry supply company to make it as easy as possible for her students to get started.
The classes quickly took off and her student’s feelings of empowerment from creating something from scratch weren't too far behind. Some of Madison’s students ended up quitting their day jobs to start their own small businesses.
Several worn-out health care workers found silversmithing as a form of therapy from their hectic day job in the midst of the pandemic. Inspiring stories like these continue to be told, and provide the fuel that Madison needs to continue down this path of education.
Through these classes, Madison found a way to impart the ingenuity and courage that helped her when she was first starting. She uses these classes to share more than metalsmithing skills, but the importance of doing something for yourself, maybe failing along the way, but persevering because the act of making jewelry is a vehicle for character traits we need more of – determination, failure, joy, reflection.
The Instagram hashtag #vancraftedintro has more than 1,300 posts. The feed features jewelry makers standing proudly next to makeshift workbenches and selfies of artisans showcasing their craft. This is more than a jewelry class. It’s a community of independent makers following their dreams.
Vancrafted Studio is Madison’s love child. But it wouldn’t be where it is today without the support and help of her partner of twelve years, Gage. Vancrafted began because Madison wanted freedom but wasn’t willing to leave her passion behind. Yet as the business grew in popularity, the balancing act of independence and success was beginning to wobble.
Madison built a thriving business out of the back of her van, then eventually, truck but faced one of the best problems any small business owner can have – too much demand.
“I wish everyone who wanted a piece of my jewelry could get their hands on it, but given the handmade nature of our pieces, and as a one-women shop, it’s simply out of the question. I couldn’t keep up.”
During the early days, beyond acting as Madison’s source of unwavering support, Gage never had any direct involvement with the brand. His day job managing trail crews and building trails for various national and local agencies kept him busy.
Eventually, there came a time that Gage would come home from his job building trails, put on a work apron, and get right to helping Madison make jewelry. Vancrafted Studio launches were beginning to sell out in just minutes, and it seemed like there would never be enough jewelry to match the demand. They decided to pause and analyze the numbers. Could this business that started out so modestly, truly support both of them? All signs pointed to yes. Gage quit his job that day, and they haven’t looked back since.
What’s next for this couple? Madison will continue to sketch in notebooks. She’ll rip these pages from the book and hang them on a bulletin board in her studio. She’ll place her gems and stones nearby for inspiration.
They’ll lace their boots or rig their fly rods when it’s time for a break. The reason they moved into the van was so they could be both free and together. Although the circumstances have changed, their goals have not.
“Now that we’re working together it feels like we’ve come full circle,” says Madison. “I get to spend time with Gage, and we still have the freedom to do what fulfills us—time in nature.”
When I asked her what she’d be doing if she wasn’t making jewelry, she replied, “The art of making jewelry is in my bones. I have my tools inked on my body, there’s nothing else I’d rather do.”