Making jewellery on a narrowboat

Jewellery Focus sits down with Rich MacKenzie, founder of Bike and Boat, an online and travelling jewellery company based out of the back of his family’s narrowboat. He explains how his desire to live on a boat sparked his own business venture in the jewellery sector

Trained in horticulture, Rich MacKenzie always envisioned a passion-led lifestyle. Having bought a narrowboat called ‘Bluebell’ in 2017, when the pandemic hit, he and his family made the “best decision” when they decided to live on the boat full-time.

Alongside his wife, Jackie, two children, Robbie and Fleur and pets, in July 2020 in between lockdowns and during the family’s routine trip to Warrick, MacKenzie began “wracking his brain” around what he could do from the boat, having been inspired by a conversation with a stranger who decided to quit his job and cycle to Wales.

He came across a Youtube tutorial on how to make copper bracelets which he says “just instantly sat well” with him. Knowing that he had some copper on board, he quickly decided to give it a go. Within no time, on the journey back to Oxford, he began amassing tools and gathering copper from stop-offs.

However, in Napton, halfway to Oxford, tragedy hit when MacKenzie received a phone call saying his father had been taken ill. A few days later he passed away. “The passing of my dad really whacked me in the face,” he says. “I had been thinking about making this jewellery all the way home and even though I hadn’t made any yet, I wanted to take it seriously.”

Diving into his jewellery making work, MacKenzie claims that the process was “like therapy”, as he enjoyed turning something ordinary into something he personally found “to be quite beautiful”. Between the time of his father passing and his funeral, creating jewellery became his coping mechanism.

By the time the family made it back to Oxford, MacKenzie had made his first order when his friend asked him to create a piece in return for a charity donation. From that sale, three more followed, and MacKenzie eventually launched Bike and Boat on Etsy. Within “no time at all” he amassed 1,000 orders and launched his own website earlier this year. Three months in and with the business taking hold, MacKenzie was able to quit his job and focus solely on making the jewellery. In December 2020, the family began living on the boat full-time and left Oxford.

The process

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Working and living on a boat can be a hard dynamic to adjust to, yet MacKenzie had got his routine narrowed down. Once an order is received through his website, it goes onto the order list which usually has between 10-30 pieces of jewellery outstanding at one time, with a turnaround of between roughly two days to a week. From this point, he would go “rummage” in his copper box, which is a collection of scrap copper that has been saved and brought by people to the boat.

From here, MacKenzie would select the piece needed for that specific jewellery type and would take it from the tube, cut it using tin snips and flatten it using a hammer. At this point the piece of jewellery is completed. For extra sentiment, every piece that gets sent out has a personalised hand-written note to thank the customer for their support and is packaged in 100% paper-based packaging.

MacKenzie usually tends to save up the paper from the canal newspaper to wrap the jewellery in, which he says is “all part of the story of the piece being made on the canal”. The paper is then secured using paper tape and sent off to the customer. Between starting the business and now, MacKenzie has made over 2,000 orders from the canal.

Starting a business in lockdown

In order to trade off the boat, MacKenzie needed to obtain a Roving Trader Licence. With the pandemic still in full swing and affecting trade everywhere, the business luckily seemed to have been unstirred, unlike many others, as it relied primarily on its online presence. “We’ve spoken to many people who trade from their boat, the traditional way and unfortunately they’ve suffered because they couldn’t trade from the towpath,” he says.

Having set up online, MacKenzie was able to build an online community via Facebook which has attracted a following of nearly 15,000 people. During the lockdown periods, he often would turn on the camera once a day and do a live feed of him making a piece of jewellery. This process allowed him to interact with customers who had the option to comment on the screen and ask questions – not just about the jewellery, but also about family life, with questions such as: ‘What it’s like to homeschool the kids on the boat?’

Furthermore, customers were able to make requests to see if pieces could be adjusted or fitted differently, something that would usually happen in store face-to-face. “It was lovely to be able to get that feedback,” MacKenzie says. He attributes a lot of the success of the businesses to the idea that he was “not just another online seller, but that it was a real community effort”.

MacKenzie would also live-stream a tour of the boat and the scenery of where they were, from locations such as North Wales. “I think that’s really important in business that you don’t just go and have your product and that be all that. I think it’s important that you take the customer along with what you’re doing, whether it’s your craft or your lifestyle or whatever,” he concludes.

Now that the majority of lockdown restrictions are lifted, when asked about whether the business still has an in-person presence, he says that from 10am each day he has an open workshop. Although MacKenzie doesn’t sell from the boat, people can still come by and watch him make the jewellery in person.

Whilst many people have started a jewellery business during lockdown, the uniqueness about his jewellery is that “there’s a story behind it”, with each piece of copper able to be traced back to its origin, according to MacKenzie. For example, he was recently making a bookmark for a customer out of copper that came from a house in Chester and was brought all the way down to North Wales where MacKenzie is currently based on the canal. He says: “I think that’s what’s great about the jewellery, it’s all made from something different.”

Would you try a different material for the jewellery?

Having fallen in love with the process and versatility of copper, MacKenzie states that he would only ever stick to that one material. “I have been asked if I would work in silver, but I really like the fact that the precious thing here is the time and work that goes into every piece,” he explains. He reiterates that he still gets that “massive buzz” out of taking something completely ordinary, the type of thing that most people would put in the cupboard or garage and turning it into something which he finds beautiful.

The other reason for sticking with copper, in his opinion, is that, “it’s about creating something which you find beautiful rather than something which you feel that your customer will like”. He notes that he would rather make things he personally enjoys than get stuck making things that his heart was not into. “I find that in actual fact if you make stuff that your heart is really into, people will buy it,” he adds.

Speaking more about his client demographic, he says the jewellery tends to attract more women than men but “is not gender specific”, although he recalls that a fair amount of the jewellery is sold to “often middle-aged women”. Whilst he and his family typically spend only one week in any given place, the business has obtained most of its sales in Wales rather than anywhere else in the UK. He said he does “not have a clue why that is, but we definitely seem to have quite a following on social media in Wales”. Similarly the brand has increased popularity in Oxfordshire where the company started out its journey.

Where is the business going?

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Although the business has grown from strength to strength, MacKenzie says he could never see himself “setting up shop” and upscaling in the near future. “I always want this to be one bloke sitting on the back of his boat doing something that he really loves.” Although accepting that the company could expand and outsource the work to other people, he says “that wouldn’t be the reason behind what we wanted to do”, adding that the aim was to create a modest income for the family and live the lifestyle they wanted.

“I don’t want to be a businessman, I want to be a creator”, and as soon as people upscale they become a businessman, he says, and lose the ability to do “exactly what your heart wants”.

Looking ahead, the brand has been developing a vegan collection taking after their own dietary habits and will be launching new material using different techniques he is currently learning. He comments that although “a lot of my stuff is the same”, the jewellery emerged from one idea, which was the bracelet, and eventually grew and went down the personalised route and that he was “excited to try new things”.

As Christmas approaches, he will be “using a lot of our own ideas from our journey and try and make that a little bit more broader” and look to retire some of the older designs to create space on the website for the “newer ideas coming through”. “It’s going to be a really exciting time for us.”

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