Chun Hui Chen-DeCosta is the owner and one woman show behind Komakai Jewelry. She was born in Taiwan and immigrated to Hawai‘i when she was four. She grew up in East Oahu and went the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa where she studied Japanese and Chinese languages. She also finished her MBA at UH Mānoa and started working for a luxury jewelry company. After being laid off during the Great Recession, she decided to expand her hobby and turn it into a full time business.
What inspired you to start your own business?
I’ve been working since I was 15 (after I scratched a parked car two weeks after getting my drivers’ license, I got a job at Kozo Sushi). I can honestly say I have never had a job that I was passionate about. I never worked anywhere more than three years, but after I was laid off in 2009 I decided I had to find a better path for myself. I started making bridal accessories for my upcoming wedding in 2010 and quit my day job in 2012. I started making jewelry in 2014. Soon after I started making jewelry, the bridal accessories category on Etsy cratered with cheap knockoffs, which was my primary sales platform. I closed my bridal accessories business in late 2015 and have been full time jewelry designing since.
Whats been the most rewarding aspect of starting your own business? The most challenging?
The most rewarding aspect is getting to do something I love, every day. I never thought of myself as a crafty or even artistic person but something about making something one of a kind with my own two hands, then seeing my customers wearing it and enjoying the fruits of my labor - there are no words to describe the fulfillment and joy. From a financial standpoint, I would rather make $50k a year working for myself than make $100k working for someone else. The sense of accomplishment I have knowing that every ounce of effort I put in directly benefits my family makes all the challenges worthwhile.
The most challenging is time management. In a creative business like jewelry, staying organized and being strategic with time management is extremely important. I wish I could just play with design all day, every day but there is so much more to the jewelry business than just designing - especially as a one woman show. Scheduling down to the hour (which I’ve just started doing) has helped immensely keeping me on task and making the most of my day. I also make sure I take one day off during the week to refuel.
How has your UH education helped you in your career?
My undergrad was in Chinese and Japanese languages. It was an integral part of my luxury retail sales career in my 20s and taught me a lot about how to sell - a skill I still employ today. I studied for a year in Japan exchange program during my third year of college - it was the best thing I ever did for my education. I grew so much as a person in that year and came home with a totally different perspective on life. The confidence and independence I gained from that experience was a major factor in believing in myself enough to start my own business.
Whats something about the jewelry industry that most people dont know?
When I first started trying to sell my jewelry, I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought it was as simple as walking into a store, talking to the owner/manager and showing my pieces and hoping they would sell it. I was in for a rude awakening. After two years of trying to do it myself (and failing miserably), I hired a sales rep who already had relationships with all the stores I approached. Within the first year, she got me into 10-12 accounts I would never have gotten on my own. I had no idea what a line sheet was or what was involved in wholesale, but sometimes you have to fail to succeed. Wholesale has all but ceased since the pandemic but it was an integral part of making my brand more visible and financially viable. It was also the steepest learning curve in my jewelry business journey.
There is a lot more to the handmade jewelry business than just making pretty pieces, taking photos, wholesaling and selling at craft fairs (all of which require a multitude of tasks and strategies). To be successful to the point where you can do it full time financially, you need laser focus on who your DREAM customer is (not just a general demographic) and figuring out your why. Why do I make jewelry? Why would someone purchase from me over the 1000s of other handmade jewelers out there? Why am I different and unique? Everything I do for my jewelry business is focused on answering these questions and making sure I stay true to the aesthetic that I am passionate about, not just following trends or undercutting prices to make a buck. Anyone can make a bunch of jewelry and sell at as many craft fairs they can get into, but you will burn out quickly and lose money if you don’t focus on your core values. That is something that was drilled into my brain in the UH MBA program - core values!
Do you have any advice for students and alumni who want to get into this industry?
Just do it. Don't overthink things in the beginning. If I knew how much work it was in the beginning, I may never have tried making my jewelry hobby into a business. You have to be flexible and willing to make mistakes. Not every event or fair will be successful. you might sell nothing at one show or sell out at another. Your website might not see any sales for a long time. You may start out making one type of jewelry in the beginning and by the end of the first year, be making something entirely different (you can see a dramatic evolution in my jewelry aesthetic in my IG feed). You have to love what you make or no one else will. Don't just make something because you think you will make money selling it even though you wouldn’t wear it. Authenticity is key to succeeding in a creative industry, especially something as personal as jewelry. It can be a grind at times, but when you see your customers start coming back to you and wearing your pieces and telling you how its their favorite, go-to piece I promise you will be hooked.