Heather Kraty is living the dream. Stepping into Island Cowgirl’s Main Street shop in Huntington Beach is akin to entering an inspirational, whimsical wonderland. While her store and its handmade contents are awe-inspiring, the story of how she reached this point is even more so.
"I never really wanted to do a store," Kraty claims.
Originally from New York, she studied jewelry design at the Fashion institute of Technology. After graduating, she traveled to the Caribbean where she lived on a catamaran and sold jewelry with her friend in a beach shack. From there she went on to own two nightclubs in Miami and lost touch with her craft. She eventually yearned for a quieter lifestyle, relocated to HB and returned to jewelry around 2000.
With zero desire to travel or do retail shows, she focused primarily on obtaining wholesale accounts. Her first wholesale success was to a store on Balboa Island. "I literally put my stuff in a backpack on my bike with my dog and went down there. I was so nervous!" says Kraty. The shop owner bought every handcrafted piece. From there, she built a website and worked her first wholesale trade show in Los Angeles.
Walking past an empty storefront on Main Street years later gave her the idea to open a brick and mortar. "I’ve always operated on intuition, and something told me to just do it," Kraty says of the Island Cowgirl flagship store. The landlord liked the concept, and the jewelry line's one and only storefront was born.
The store has now been open for six years, but Kraty had a hard time foreseeing that in the beginning. "I didn’t know if this was the street for an art store or a gallery...in this sea of t-shirt shops," she says.
The signature look of Island Cowgirl's boho collection is thanks to a very old jewelry making procedure called the lost-wax casting method. The process dates back to the Romans and creates a more organic and imperfect look. She prefers this to the more defined and symmetrical shapes of other jewelry. "Everything is made out of wax first. And then it's cast, and then it's finished. I clean it up and make sure it's the way it's supposed to be," she explains.
Kraty crafts primarily sterling silver necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings but has a few 14k, 18k and rose gold pieces available. Her various lines feature anything from animals to hearts to peace signs to religious themes. Precious stones are sometimes featured, and on occasion she makes custom engagement rings. As a young child, margins of her homework were always filled with doodles and inspirational quotes. Fast forward to today, and you'll often find these positive quotes etched on the back of her pendants, bracelets and other creations. Over the past 12 years she has sold thousands of pieces.
Her storefront has evolved to now include art from Kraty's friends. Of adding art sales to the mix, Kraty says, "People were not afraid of it, and they were not afraid of paying for it. I saw the value as an artist, but I wasn't sure the tourists and the surfers would get that." Today the shop features seasonally rotating works of 50 to 100 different artists. While 70 percent of sales are Kraty's jewelry, selling work of other artists adds variety to Island Cowgirl's offerings.
For Kraty and Island Cowgirl, sharing the wealth doesn't stop there. The company also partners with charities, mainly those benefiting animals. She chooses those that mean something to her personally. "We do a lot of work with horse as well as dog rescues," says Kraty. This is no doubt inspired by her own dog, Nigel, and horse, Sun Bun. Kraty currently features a bracelet in her line benefiting Sunkissed Acres, a Georgia-based horse rescue facility. All proceeds from the sale of the bracelet go directly to this charity.
Whether it's designing a special piece for a charity, sponsoring them out of her own pocket or donating jewelry for a raffle, Kraty doesn't ask for thanks or advertise her charitable work. "It's just something you should do," she says.
Speaking of spreading the love, it's not too late to grab one of Island Cowgirl's heart-themed pieces for your Valentine. Stop by the store at 320 1/2 Main Street, Huntington Beach, CA 92648, or shop online.
UPDATE, May 28, 2014: Island Cowgirl has moved her shop to Nashville, Tennessee, so don't go lookin' for her on Main Street, ya hear?