Laura Bullard Scott, left, and Patti Bullard of Wubbers Pliers, center, helping a customer at a previous Bead&Button Show. Last week, show owner Kalmbach Media announced that Bead&Button will close permanently.
The Bead&Button Show, the largest consumer show for jewelry-makers, is closing permanently Kalmbach Media, the show’s owner, announced last week. The final issue of Bead&Button Magazine will be published in October. Although the beading community had witnessed the show’s attendance dwindle over the last few years and the noticed the magazine getting thinner, the news, coming amidst the myriad of other pandemic-related cancellations, felt like a real letdown for many.
Bead&Button was held each June at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee and 2020 was to be the show’s 20th anniversary. Highlights of the show included more than 600 classes taught by expert jewelry instructors from all over the world, exhibits, competitions, and a vendor marketplace. Although there are other bead shows in the US, Bead&Button was the largest and the premier show in its category.
The Bead&Button brand was founded in 1993 by Coterie Press as a magazine and was bought by special interest media company Kalmbach Media in 1996. Four years later they launched the show and then continued to expand the brand, adding a book publishing house, two websites (FacetJewelry.com which offered free jewelry-making tutorials, and JewelryandBeadingStore.com which sold books, magazines, tools, and supplies), a short-lived subscription box called Facet Jewelry Box, and a series of jewelry-making retreats called Creative Connections. The websites and retreats, and eventually the publishing house, will all be shut down as part of this closure.
An economic decision
The show was the profit driver for the brand. This year’s cancellation due to COVID accelerated Kalmbach’s decision about Bead&Button’s future.
“It was really an economic decision for us. We’re evaluating our brand portfolio constantly and it was just not profitable,” said CEO Dan Hickey. “We loved the event and our customers loved it. We’re disappointed.”
Hickey says the company saw the audience for beading shrink over the last few years. “The beading category was a bright spot for us, but over the years we saw a declining audience at the show. We were losing people faster than we could bring them in.”
“When we look at the younger generation, we are asking ourselves if they have hobbies. I joke that their hobby is their phones. Really, though, that’s the fundamental problem with hobbies like beading that have served the baby boomers so well.” He noted that many of the larger retailers had reduced their presence at the show.
The magazine was also struggling to get advertisers. According to Hickey, the circulation was approximately 20,000. “Even the bigger publishers, like Meredith, are reevaluating right now,” he said. “That’s the challenge of being in the magazine industry right now.”
Dan Hickey has been CEO of Kalmbach Media since the fall of 2017.
Longtime exhibitors are definitely disappointed. Well-known beading designer and teacher Jill Wiseman described the news of the show’s closure as an emotional blow for her. “I literally have Bead&Button, both the magazine and the show, to thank for my career,” she said, recalling when, years ago, she sent a few of her designs to the magazine while working part-time at a local bead store. When they were accepted she got her first national exposure.
Jill Wiseman in her booth at a past Bead&Button show.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Thornton.
It happened again a year later when she was accepted as an instructor at the show which she described as “like getting called up to the major leagues from the minors.” Soon she was teaching 13 classes at the show and making half her annual revenue there. She credits the exposure with securing her a book contract and appearances on the PBS show Beads, Baubles & Jewels.
In addition to the business contacts she’s made, Wiseman said the show was also just fun. “We referred to it as summer camp. My entire year revolved around the show in Milwaukee each June.”
She said she cried when she received the email announcement of the show’s closure. “I’m crushed knowing I may never get the chance to see those people in person again.”
Andrew Thornton, co-owner of Allegory Gallery, a bead store in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, has been attending Bead&Button for 16 years, and his family has been a vendor at the show since it began (his sister, Cynthia Thornton, owns pewter bead company Green Girl Studios based in Asheville, North Carolina). Like Wiseman, he looked forward to the show as a place to connect with friends and business contacts. “It was one of the only places our tribe gathered,” he said. “We’d hang out and do things in Milwaukee, too.” The show often coincided with the city’s Pride celebration and he recalled one year when he and a group of friends spotted Cher.
The writing was on the wall
Still, Thornton said he could see the show declining for years. “It used to have energy and enthusiasm. But then the aisles were spaced wider and wider apart. The vendor fees started going up.” He also noted that the show got longer and longer, to the point that it was a two-week affair. “There would be a preview event to the preview event,” he said, and the number of classes ballooned as well. “People would come and go before the marketplace even opened.” Then a glass show was held concurrently forcing many glass bead vendors to choose to attend one show or the other. “It just got super quiet,” Thornton said.
Wiseman, too, said she could see things changing.
“The show had been visibly declining for years. The magazine was getting slimmer with far fewer ads. That business model is obviously suffering in the era of everything being demanded online.”
Single stitch bead crochet was offered as a class taught by Candice Sexton.
Japanese diamond chain mail-bracelets were offered as a class taught by Vanessa Walilko.
Jardin Majorelle bracelets were offered as a class taught by Erika Sandor.
A cyclical market
As to whether the market for beading is truly shrinking, Thornton thinks that may be true. “Most crafts go through seven-year cycles, with highs and lows, and beading is more challenging right now.” He noted that many brick-and-mortar shops around the country have closed. Those shops served to recruit new customers to the craft and online shops would then capitalize on that energy. “Now, those recruitment centers are no longer in business.”
“Bead&Button was the pinnacle of the bead industry for 25 years,” said Wiseman. “I’m grieving for the loss.” Thornton is hopeful that something new will rise up from the ashes. “In some ways, it was time for this to happen,” he said. “Whatever comes next will be more grassroots and more in touch with the people and their needs.”
Andrew’s sister, Cynthia Thornton, owner of Green Girl Studios, with Lorelei Hill Eurto out together in Milwaukee during Bead&Button.
Abby co-founded Craft Industry Alliance and now serves as its president. She’s a sewing pattern designer, teacher, and journalist. She’s dedicated to creating an outstanding trade association for the crafts industry. Abby lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.