Sometimes the prettiest things come from the most unlikely places.
For instance, a company that sells little handmade clay jewelry dishes stamped with wedding dates or other symbols of love is doing booming business nationwide. It’s based here in central Fresno, hidden away without a sign in an aging office park. Its founder is a 21-year-old who is still in college.
Fresno State student Natalie Fugere is the head of The Painted Press. She’s been running it quietly for several years now and we just discovered her because she applied for and won the College Entrepreneur of the Year award from the Fresno Chamber of Commerce.
At The Painted Press, a staff of seven people make the little bowls with gold accents that are designed to hold rings or other jewelry. Most often, they are wedding gifts stamped with a married couples’ initials and the date they got married.
Sometimes the dishes have names stamped on them, or constellations that match a person’s zodiac sign. Others have coordinates of where a couple met or married, and some simply say, “Today I choose joy.”
Custom images are available too, painted by Fugere’s sister, Annie Fugere, a Fresno State art student. Customers have requested the Paris skyline and bridges.
“People love bridges and a lot of people get engaged on bridges,” Fugere notes.
The Painted Press (named because the letters are pressed into the clay) often sells its dishes locally at The Foundry Collective in Clovis, Root in downtown Fresno and Embellish & Restore in downtown Visalia.
Fugere remembers being incredibly nervous when she first pitched her product to The Foundry. But owner Karen Chisum knew instantly the dishes would fit in her shop and now sells them for $14. Customers often pair them with a necklace or a ring as a gift.
“Her stuff has been so popular we can barely keep it in stock,” Chisum says. “I love how she’s on trend. She’s always one step ahead of what’s going on and it’s so fun to see what she’s producing.”
The dishes are also available on The Painted Press website, at Etsy.com and are stocked at boutiques around the country. The company supplies several large wholesalers, including nationwide diamond jewelry seller Tacori, which buys the dishes as gifts for the people who sell their jewelry.
Despite her success, Fugere never planned to launch a business.
“It happened by accident, but obviously, it’s the best accident,” she says.
She was an 18-year-old freshman when she first experimented with making the dishes in her parents’ kitchen. She wanted personalized Christmas gifts that didn’t cost a lot.
People liked the gifts and she tried selling them on Etsy.com, a site selling handmade items.
“Nothing sold,” at first, she said.
They began selling here and there, but numbers were still small. Discouraged by her first negative review (her Etsy reviews now average the top rating of five stars) she considered closing up shop.
But an online jewelry seller made a big order.
“They wanted to do wholesale,” she says. “I didn’t know what wholesale was so I looked it up.”
And then in November 2015 everything changed.
“All of a sudden I was getting a ton of orders and my phone crashed,” she said.
The Huffington Post website had published a piece headlined “10 Personalized Gifts under $100 to Order Right Now.” No. 1 on the list of Christmas gift suggestions was a picture of The Painted Press’ blue and pink dishes.
Hundreds of orders a day rolled in and eventually Fugere had to shut down for a few days to keep up with demand.
Remember, Fugere was 19 and still a sophomore in college at this time, balancing studying speech pathology with the business while making the dishes in her parent’s kitchen.
“I would just stay up really, really late ’til 2 or 3 in the morning making them,” she says.
It become obvious she needed a better manufacturing space, so she rented three rooms in the office park, one each for manufacturing, shipping and an office.
As if there weren’t enough on her plate already, she also planned her October wedding last year just before the busy holiday shopping season.
Today, the business hums along. Her husband, Josh Martin, manages the wholesale side of it and together they earn enough to make a living off it.
The fun part, says Fugere, is that they often get to play a little role in their customers’ happiest occasions. Especially with custom orders, they get to hear stories about how they got engaged or other happy moments in life.
“We get to hear funny stories, we get raunchy humor,” she says.
She especially loves hearing the ones husbands tell about their wives when ordering.
“That’s just so sweet,” she says.
Fugere will graduate in December. She plans to take a year off from school to focus on the business and will then decided if she wants to go back for her master’s degree in speech pathology.
Until then, she’ll juggle the business and school, she says as we’re wrapping up our interview. Orders of dishes are on her desk waiting for her to stamp dates and names, but first, she has to study for a neurology exam, she says.