Butterfly pin from Shoal.
Enamel pins are ubiquitous in gift shops and accessory aisles across the country. These tiny pieces of wearable art offer their owners the chance to adorn backpacks, jackets, hats and more, and make perfect gifts and collectibles to boot. But the story behind these little pins is more complex than first meets the eye– their creation often involves closely-guarded factory relationships, industry middlemen, the threat of art theft, and direct negotiations with overseas manufacturers. And in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many of the fragile business relationships keeping the enamel pin industry afloat are in jeopardy.
“It has been sort of a never-ending, constantly-changing nightmare ever since outbreaks started,”says Alex Tinsley, a pin designer and employee of Alchemy Merch, a middleman organization that communicates with overseas factories on US customers’ behalf.
She recalls that the pin factory her company works with was particularly impacted in the early days of the virus. “Our factory was pretty close to Wuhan, so they were closed and totally not operating for a lot longer than some of the others,” she says. “They had tighter shutdowns than anywhere else in the country.”
A unique relationship with China
The machinery used to make enamel pins is banned in many parts of the world due to its potential for creating counterfeit coins. For this reason, 95% of the world’s enamel pin factories are located in just one country: China. This gives the enamel pin community a distinctive characteristic not found in many other industries: it frequently involves individual small makers in North America and elsewhere doing business directly with Chinese manufacturers. These manufacturing relationships can be fraught with language barrier issues, conflict over defective pins, and lapses in security that can result in knockoff designs flooding the market. But at their best, these relationships are beneficial to both parties: pin designers avoid the added fees of middlemen, and pin factories get business based on their word-of-mouth good reputation.
“It definitely took the factories a while to stand back up again,” says Serena Epstein, an illustrator and pin designer in the San Francisco Bay area. Then, as the virus arrived in North America, pin designers began feeling its effects just as factories in China were recovering.
“We went from emailing manufacturers, checking on them, making sure they’re okay and their families are healthy, to COVID coming out here and then suddenly they’re checking on us,” she recalls.
The timing of the virus
The virus’s offset timing in different parts of the world has put pressure on designers and manufacturers alike. Currently, many Chinese factories have reopened and are functioning at a high capacity– Alana Ma, a factory representative from Ever Rich Gift Limited, confirmed via email that her factory is “already back to work as usual.” But pin designers elsewhere in the world, particularly in the United States, are still feeling the effects of the virus on their businesses.
“A pretty big proportion of our business is either directly related to conventions or big events, or it’s independent designers who sell at big events like that. So when all of those events got canceled, that meant that our sales took a nosedive,” recalls Tinsley. “And then, of course, there was this period of panic, and nobody knew what their job situation was going to look like… people were both distracted and probably a little bit afraid to invest in pins.” Epstein, who runs the nature-inspired gifts company Shoal, adds that the decline in sales may also be correlated with the waning popularity of enamel pins as a whole.
Cat pin from Shoal.
Succulent society pin from Shoal.
Beluga pin from Shoal.
Are pin sales declining overall?
“I’ve definitely seen a decrease in pin sales over the past couple of years,” she says. Over time, she expects to see this customer base narrow back to its original loyal demographic: pin collectors. But other pin designers testify that their businesses have suffered for reasons unrelated to the public’s interest in buying pins. Katie Hof, the designer and pin collector behind Faux Fox Studio, says that the virus’s toll on her mental health has caused the biggest impact on her business.
It’s just been a really hard year
“For me, the sudden change in routine and isolation were the worst,” she says. “I had to start schooling my kid from home while running a business, I couldn’t see my family and friends as I normally would…no one knew what this would do to the economy or how bad it was. I struggle with major depressive disorder… it’s just been a really hard year.” Other pin designers echo this sentiment. Alesia Gitter, a maker known in online pin communities for offering advice to newcomers, says that COVID-19 caused more personal conflicts than anything else.
“Having to homeschool my kid basically stopped my company more than anything, since my company was alongside [attending] college,” she says. “Overall, China didn’t impact me as much as the US did.” As the virus crisis wears on, many makers have also struggled with whether or not it’s appropriate to try to return to ‘business as usual.’ Instagram user @katzenjammerpins, a pin collector and designer based in Germany, recalls deciding against launching a Kickstarter campaign in March– many pin designers use this platform to crowdfund their pin manufacturing costs.
“I wasn’t sure if it’s appropriate to start a campaign when so many people [are] suffering around the world,” she says. She ended up funding the pins herself, but is now waiting for international mail restrictions to lift– these restrictions have also delayed or even halted delivery on many of the pins she has purchased for her over-700-pin collection. Tinsley feels similarly about selling her own pin designs during such a tumultuous time.
Stitch ‘n Witch pins from Alex Tinsley
Still, pin-making holds promise
“I haven’t been doing a lot of marketing since it doesn’t seem like a time when I should be selling things to people if I don’t absolutely need to,” she says. Nevertheless, she argues that now may be as good a time as any to become a pin designer.
“If it’s something you’re interested in and you’re home anyway, I think it’s a great time to get into it,” she says. “It’s also just immensely satisfying to send in a drawing and have it become a physical object. It’s delightful. And if you’re trying to boost your at-home business right now, because everything is crazy, you can definitely do worse than to try out pins.”
Natalie Wallington is a freelance political journalist and maker based in the New York City area. She has professional interests in social and environmental justice as well as investigative reporting. She is also a freelance editor and copywriter, and runs a small Etsy shop where she sells stationery and embroidered gifts. You can find her website here and her Etsy shop here.