Brand origin & evolution
When I turned 35, my dad gave me a stainless steel ring for my birthday and I wore it daily. A few years later, in June of 2011, I asked him if he could make some stainless steel rings that I could potentially sell online. Pops has been a machinist since he was a teenager, along with both of my uncles, and my grandfather, Jimmie. He had made random pieces for me over the years, but they were never machined pieces, he didn’t see machined pieces as something you would give as a gift, it was just a job. For some reason, when I turned 35, he decided to make me this ring. I didn’t wear jewelry of any kind, but this ring became part of me. I was asked about the ring on a weekly basis, and I loved telling the story behind it. Back to 2011, when I was looking for a change in work and my dad needed work. There isn’t a huge demand for a manual machinist out in the desert anymore. CNC pretty much put him out of work, so I thought if he could make a handful of rings a week, I could build a little website and sell them on the side. The bonus would be an excuse to drive out to Joshua Tree more often and spend more time with my dad. I never had any intention of turning this into a full time business or learning how to run those machines. I loved the process, but figured it was beyond me. I was a photographer and designer and wasn’t looking to change my profession.
Above: The ring that started it all
Within a month I had some sales. I should explain that it’s not generally that easy to get some sales with a new website, but I had a small following from a previous business. I had started a jewelry line that built a tiny following over the years. I taught myself to carve wax and had them cast into silver pendants, rings and bracelets. I loved the process of carving but my heart wasn’t in it because I truly didn’t care about jewelry. I think my love for design and working with my hands came through so sales were decent but it was never going to be a full time thing. When I launched J. L. Lawson & Co., I had a contact list of around 800 potential customers so I sent them a newsletter and the sales trickled in. I lost quite a few of those contacts because the aesthetic was quite different, but I didn’t mind because this new line was something I could actually believe in.
Interlude about the brand name
I will take a moment to explain the name. I spent days, if not weeks, trying to come up with a clever name but nothing fit. The potential names felt contrived and lacked the organic feeling of the pieces. Everything was happening organically so I couldn’t force the name. I can’t remember exactly how I came to name it after my grandfather, Jimmie Leonard Lawson, but it was the natural choice. I think I found an old name badge of his from the 50’s that I’d never seen and it just seemed right. Everything was happening in Joshua Tree in the shop that he built in his garage in the 70’s, and his energy was all around me. I could still hear him telling me to be careful around the chips because they would slice me right open. The irony is that he would never agree with machining these pieces because machining was for parts. I truly miss him.
Back to the story
A couple of months into this new venture and my dad was busier than he actually wanted to be. One of the great things about my dad is that he doesn’t need much to live and be happy. He prefers a simple life and had long since cut his machining hours down to a minimum, but I had inadvertently created a full time job for him again. The problem was that rings are challenging to sell online because of the size factor, I was probably getting half of them returned for a different size, which would put my dad even more behind. I needed new product. Around that time I watched the movie Cool Hand Luke for the first time. I loved the fact that Paul Newman had a bottle opener hanging around his neck for a chunk of the movie, and I had recently seen these really amazing hand forged bottle openers somewhere. I did a search for machined bottle openers and couldn’t find anything close. Machining didn’t lend itself to something like a bottle opener because it’s such an expensive process. When I approached my dad about it, he confirmed that we’d have to sell them for around $40 and who is going to pay $40 for a bottle opener? I thought folks would and so we moved forward. The response was overwhelming. Well…overwhelming considering my dad was manually machining each one and didn’t want to work 10 hours a day. So I kept availability to a minimum and the brand began to grow. There were more sales than my dad could handle but this was still never going to be a full time thing for me because he simply couldn’t make enough product. That was fine because, again, that wasn’t my goal. This was pretty much the way things went for about a year. My dad would make some product, I would sell it and life moved forward. I don’t think we were too far into 2012 when I discontinued the rings, because there was too much work involved for all of the size returns and, quite frankly, my dad was getting tired of it. I came up with other product ideas that didn’t involve sizing. Belt buckles, letter openers, key chains and more (at some point, I’ll do another write up explaining in more detail the other products). The pieces sold but it was still a side thing, and pops was getting tired.
Above: One of the first batches of bottle openers. ca. 2011
In October of 2012, I asked him if he could make some solid brass spinning tops. He had made some aluminum tops for my niece as Christmas gifts the previous two years and I just loved them. I didn’t think to add them to the product line before because they didn’t fit in with my “men’s accessories” theme, but I thought they would make a cool holiday item. My dad was skeptical but I was certain that folks would see the charm in them. I did a search online to see if there was anything like it but couldn’t find one machined top. This is where I sound like I’m trying to be a pioneer in the machined spinning top world. I am not, and I doubt my dad was the first manual machinist to make a spinning top. Spinning tops have been around for a couple thousand years or something, so turning one on a lathe is a pretty natural concept for a machinist; With that being said, none of them were selling them anywhere. It was likely due to the way most machinists viewed machining, it’s too expensive, high precision parts. Something like a top is just for fun.
Above: One of the first tops. ca. 2012
My dad made a few brass beauties for me and I loaded them to the site and sent out a newsletter. They sold within minutes. By far the most popular thing I’d ever put on the site. Revelation. Start turning tops dad. He did and they sold as fast as he could make them. The great thing about the spinning top is it requires one machine, the lathe, and thought maybe this was something I could learn, and so my new education began. Within a month I was contacted by a company called Fab, and they wanted to purchase as many spinning tops as we could make. I wasn’t great at machining but I made some tops, and they bought them. I cringe at the sight of these original tops I had made, but hey, I was getting paid to learn a new trade and, at the same time, build the brand.
January of 2013 was a turning point. My only problem was that I still had a day job and I lived two hours away from my dad. I wasn’t sure that I could sell enough to quit my day job, but the good thing was I only had to go into the office three days a week. I was technically supposed to work from home those other two days, but I started sneaking out to my dad’s to make product. I’d spend a couple of days out in the desert machining, and spend my nights on the website, customer service, shipping etc. This schedule lasted until mid August when I was faced with a choice; My boss wanted me there five days a week instead of only three, which meant the jig was up. I would have to shut down J. L. Lawson & Co. or quit my job. Quitting was a huge gamble because I was making a steady salary and wasn’t sure I’d ever be a good enough machinist to rely on that for income, but obviously, I took the gamble and chose to quit. During that time, my soon-to-be-wife was nothing but supportive. I have to take a moment to acknowledge that without her encouragement, this never would have happened, and I would have shut down the brand and been miserable in my job. She believed in what I could do when I truly didn’t, and I had faith in what she was telling me to do so I just dove in.
Above: First batch of tops I made for Fab.com holiday 2012
Fall of 2013 is when the real work began. I would drive out to Joshua Tree on Wednesday, machine for a minimum of 12-15 hours a day until Friday night when I would make the two hour drive home. The other days of the week were for finishing product, working on the website, handling orders, customer service and marketing the brand. This continued for the next year but I was exhausted and needed a solution. I was maybe breaking even and the only way I could grow the company would be to set up my own shop near my home so I could machine on a daily basis. I was getting better at machining but I was still limited to lathe work. Dad was teaching me the mill but I was so busy with product on the lathe that there was little time for the mill. He continued to do all of the mill work while I plugged away on that little lathe.
The problem was that I needed funding to set up a shop. I think I figured that I needed at least 10k to get set up and running. I could go the traditional loan route but I’d been obsessed with Kickstarter for the previous couple of years, so I decided to give it a shot. The natural product would be a top because it was pretty much the best piece I could make, and they were still selling well. A customer had recently introduced the idea of putting a ceramic ball in the tip for extended spinning times, so my KS campaign would be the launch of these long spinning “every day carry” spinning tops. To this point, I was only doing solid brass tops that didn’t spin perfectly, and only spin for about a minute or so. They were a novelty toy and nothing more. I believe I launched the campaign in May, and the response was remarkable. I hit my 10k goal in less than a week and it just continued to climb. The funding closed at 63k and I was able to buy my first lathe (still use the same lathe), and set up a shop near my home in San Juan Capistrano. I spent the next three months making tops for the fulfillment of that campaign and then the holidays hit. I continued to get amazing press about the spinning tops, and the trend began to grow. It is now three and a half years later, and I still make spinning tops on an almost daily basis. Over the years, I’ve wanted to bring rings back, but just simply haven’t had the time and, to be honest, I didn’t realize that I’d gotten good enough to make rings. Recently, I decided to give it a shot, and I couldn’t have been happier with the results so they are making a comeback.
In the Summer of 2017, I moved my shop even closer to my home in San Clemente and loving the new location. I also helped my wife launch her brand, Gemma Raffo, and we are lucky enough to work side by side now. In the last couple of years, my dad has slowly been forced into a machining hiatus (I won’t call it retirement), because of my grandmother’s failing health, but his machining days are far from over. Once time allows, he will be back at it, and likely be machining until he’s too frail to open that shop door…just like my grandfather Jimmie.
November, 20 2017