Dragon’s Den: Opali

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Among many things, this lockdown period has meant that an increasing number of people are now working from home. For some students, however, this isn’t anything unusual. I recently spoke with Poppy Taylor-Smith (in a remote interview conducted online, of course) about Opali, a jewellery business she started two years ago on her year abroad, while studying Arabic and Spanish at Durham. 

“At the time, I was living in Beirut,” Poppy tells me, where she would come home from long days of studying feeling too exhausted to explore the city in the evenings, but not content with doing nothing. Stumbling fortuitously upon some YouTube videos about making jewellery, she became fixated with the idea of making her own. 

The story of how she properly fell into the whole business is rather entertaining. After doing some research about supply stores in Beirut, Poppy took a 50p minibus to what she can ascertain was “a very, very dodgy area of the city that you really shouldn’t go to”. None of those concerns seemed to matter when she found the jewellery store she was looking for. Boasting a grand three storeys, every aisle had arrays of beads as far as the eye could see. “I used all the cash that I had, and had absolutely no money left when I walked out,” she recalls. After a fairly adventurous journey involving a dead phone battery, some shaky Arabic, and a kind stranger who lent her money for a bus, Poppy found herself at home with goldfish bowls of beads. 

“The good thing about jewellery is that there are no rules. If you can make something and it works, no one can say that’s not the proper way.” Through trial, error, and experience, she learned to make the delicate pieces scattered all over Opali’s Instagram account. “You only really need three tools to make a lot of jewellery, and I’ve stuck with those tools since the beginning,” Poppy says, mysteriously. 

She recommends jewellery-making as a hobby that can also be a source of income. To put a more positive spin on the lockdown situation, Poppy is looking at the silver linings it’s provided for juggling this business alongside a full-time job. She’s come up with a new series of making earrings with resin during this period, a project she’d been planning to do for a year but was reluctant to start until she could give it her full attention. 

“I’m cutting out the commute, and I can spend whole evenings holed up in my room with my beads. So, if anything, the lockdown period is great for creativity.” 

One thing that strikes me is Poppy’s strong sense of artistic integrity. She’s very cognizant of not stepping on the toes of other businesses when looking for inspiration. Her sister, India, is part of the triad that created the sustainable denim brand Demoo — “we’re a family of enterprisers” — and they’ve both been on the receiving end of stolen ideas, which is, needless to say, very frustrating. “I usually handle it by dropping them a polite message saying I think it’s great you’re getting into it, but maybe you could be designing things that feel more true to you rather than replicating other people’s designs.” She herself understands how easy it could be to be too influenced by other designs, but stoically maintains that authenticity is what matters. 

Inspiration often hits at odd, inconvenient times, when Poppy feels most desperate to shut her work away and get down to her jewellery. Her creative process puts her in what she describes as a state of flow, when “you’re so tied to whatever task you’re doing that time is just nonexistent, and you’re completely absorbed in your task. That’s absolutely how I feel when I’m making jewellery.” 

When asked if Opali is planning to become a full-time business, Poppy sounds wistful. “It would be a big leap of faith,” she says. “Many creatives would say that. Giving up a salary to a big void with no stability would be tough, but it is something I’ve thought about, and perhaps it could happen further down the line.” She’s taken the sensible approach, starting off in a more traditional career while maintaining Opali as something of a side-hustle, but she also wants to start taking professional jewellery classes. 

It’s definitely nice being the boss of Opali’s one-woman band, particularly the organic relationship it fosters between her and her customers. “If someone wants a custom piece, we can work together on a design. I like how the small-scale, one-person team enables that.” What she finds time-consuming is the maintenance of Opali’s social media presence. It is a gorgeously curated account, with sun-lit photos that feel spangled in an autumnal glow. Poppy takes all of the pictures: while she can make the jewellery at any time of the day or night, the photography aspect depends on good natural lighting. 

“With the jewellery brand, the making is one thing, but the managing is another.”

That said, she is a big fan of Instagram as a platform and how it enables small business owners to operate at no cost. “If it was a website, there would be a lot less fluidity. Instagram is great, and I don’t think I’ve outgrown it yet.” 

The origins of the brand’s name are evidently bound up with the precious stone, but she tells me that ‘pali’ is also the combination of letters in her and her friends’ names. “It has a bit of personal resonance, but I don’t share that too much, because it’s a little bit cheesy,” she laughs. 

When asked about Opali’s engagement with Durham events, Poppy is sad to admit that it wasn’t all good. While being part of the DUCFS Festival of Sustainability was fantastic — sustainability, “the hot topic of the day, and rightly so”, is a strong part of Opali’s business model —  she had some less positive experiences with college fashion shows.

For one particular college, she spent a whole night making pieces for the models to wear, all for free, because she was happy to support their cause. One can only imagine her disappointment when they forgot to make the jewellery part of the models’ apparel, especially after she’d also made the effort to attend the show. “They spent two minutes talking about Primark, and I thought, don’t you think it would be more relevant to reference a uni student who stayed up all night making this jewellery?”

Although she doesn’t blame anyone on the exec, and completely sympathises with how difficult it is to organise these events, she admits that she didn’t feel supported by the college fashion show community, and doesn’t plan to participate again. 

She does advise students to make the most of the more relaxed schedules of university. “If you can, build a business out of a hobby, particularly as a student: we like to pretend we’re busy, but we’re really not.”

“If there’s any way you can push yourself to spend more time doing the things you enjoy, do it. I doubt I’d spend as much time making jewellery if I hadn’t made this into a business.” 

You can follow Opali on Instagram.

Photo: Opali

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