Beth Phillips discusses the ins and outs of artist bear pricing, including materials, tools and hidden costs.
Purchasing your first artist bear is a lot like buying your first designer handbag. The faux leather bags you’ve carried most of your life are just fine, but now and then you step into the boutiques to look at the really expensive leather bags, inhale the scent and stroke the soft kid leather. You pick them up and love how they feel, and then you check the price—and your eyebrows slide up to your hairline. Wow!
But one day you decide to take the leap. You swallow hard, pull out the plastic, plunk it down and take your new bag home. Congratulations, you have just conquered sticker shock! When you finally put that bag over your shoulder and catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror—and you love the look and feel even more than you thought possible—you will wonder why you waited so long to treat yourself.
Teddy bear collectors tend to have that same struggle, that same progression up the scale. You love to look at “artist bears,” but you can’t imagine spending a lot of money for a bear. No doubt, the leap from mass-manufactured bears to artist bears can be scary, and sticker shock might cause you to rethink your decision.
So why do those artist bears cost so much? Bringing an artist bear to life involves many factors. An artist must be trained in the craft, acquire the right tools, choose the materials, spend the time, market the bear, deliver the products and run a business. Some artists do it for fun, but many do it to help support themselves and their families and require more than just the satisfaction of a job well done.
With an artist bear, you must first have an artist, and not all bear makers are bear artists. Longtime award-winning artist Irene Heckel defines an artist bear: “It is totally made by an individual, from designing the pattern to the final details on the face and body. It is like the difference between an original painting and a reproduction print. The original is directly from the artist’s hand—the reproduction is a printing process done by a machine.”
Learning to make a bear requires sewing skills, patience and practice. Most artists begin with commercially available patterns. They learn to select the material, lay out the pattern pieces, cut the pieces, stitch the individual parts, turn them, stuff them, joint them and sew them together. An artist then graduates to creating his or her own designs and patterns.
Heckel notes, “The designing of a pattern can take weeks, making changes and redoing samples until the design is ‘just right.’” Most budding artists practice with less expensive fabrics and materials before moving on to expensive mohair and other fine plush materials. Some artists machine sew the seams on their bears, while others hand sew the entire bear. Obviously, an entirely hand-sewn bear will take more time to complete, so the artist properly factors that time into the price. Stitching, turning, filling, jointing, assembling and finishing can take hours.
While bear artists learn the craft, they begin to acquire the tools of the trade. A wide variety of scissors, needles, measuring tools and hardware is needed for this profession. These are a considerable investment before the first bear is ever sold.
Schulte mohair, made in Germany since 1901, is the gold standard for many artists and manufacturers and can run $300 a yard or more. Edinburgh Imports, the sole North American distributor of Schulte mohair, explains on its website why mohair is so costly and desirable: “Schulte mohair is made from one of nature’s finest sources for natural fiber, the Angora goat,” which are a “delicate animal and are very sensitive to temperature change,” the site notes. “In the entire world there are only three regions that consistently meet…ideal conditions: Texas, South Africa and Turkey. The fur of the Angora goat is naturally white, curly and shiny. Its fibers have a remarkable strength when made into a pile fabric. These characteristics together with the noble appearance, silky feel and sheen make mohair one of the finest fibers offered by nature.”
Newer high-quality synthetic plush materials can be nearly as costly as mohair. It’s not unusual for an artist to have at least $50 worth of fur in a single 12- to 14-inch bear. Add in thread, felt, Ultrasuede or other materials for paw pads, stuffing materials (like excelsior, fiberfill, glass beads or steel shot), glass or shoe-button eyes, jointing parts, clothing and other items like growlers, claws, teeth, noses, ribbons and sewn-in tags, and the cost of parts and pieces quickly adds up.
Mistakes at any point can result in much reworking. Jane Monroe of C. Riffenberg Bear Co. shares a story about a panda she created. She was taking the bear to be photographed for a story and wanted to touch up one last place on the face with her airbrush. An unfortunate “hiccup” in the equipment blew paint in the wrong places, ruining the entire head. Monroe had to completely redo the head for the bear but was fortunate to have enough of the same material to use.
Other artists can tell similar stories and have probably learned from past mistakes that it can be helpful to keep extra material on hand for emergencies. A typical artist will purchase mohair in quantities, along with other supplies like eyes, thread and parts for jointing. Artist Sherry Shepardson roughly estimates she has more than $12,000 in inventory, built up over time.
What else does an artist need? “I pack note cards and a laminated birth certificate with each bear, so I need ink-jet note cards ($20), business cards, shipping labels, return labels (each package about $15), photo paper ($20) [and] printer ink (up to $35). The laminator cost $137 and laminator supplies run $5 to $20,” Shepardson explains. “Then there’s the cost of a sewing machine, a serger for sewing clothes, good lighting (I love my Ott-Lite floor lamp, which is about $100), a cutting table ($79), a sewing table and a fluorescent light box for taking pictures inside (about $100).”
Once a bear is assembled, most artists put on finishing touches that reflect their own particular style. This may involve time-consuming hand trimming of the muzzle, ears and paws, airbrushing, needle sculpting, appliquéing and applying teeth or claws that may be shaped and baked by the artist. Additionally, accessories and clothing must be made, assembled and arranged. Finishing touches also include things like sewn-in tags or markers or creating a specialized hangtag.
The amount of money invested in materials, tools and equipment will vary from one artist to another. Not all artists create bears for a living—for some it is a hobby or part-time diversion. Elke Block of Edinburgh Imports notes that when pricing bears, an artist needs to determine what the goal is. “Does the maker want to recoup that expense, make money to buy more materials or bring food to the table and send kids to college?”
An artist who sells bears as a means of income must keep careful records of the time spent and materials used in order to track business expenses. Inventory, equipment and expenses take time to detail. Sales tax must be collected and paid, sometimes in more than one state. Income tax must be estimated and paid quarterly, and of course artists need to factor in money for health care costs and retirement.
Once a bear is made, the work is done, right? Nope, not even close. An artist bear is marketed to customers in a number of ways. Artists may choose to sell their bears through a website or an online auction site like eBay. Oftentimes this requires investments in camera equipment and computer hardware and software. Additionally, online sales have their own set of costs. Many eBay sellers use enhanced features on their listings to bring more exposure to the bears, which can add between $25 and $30 to the listing fee. Shipping supplies, like boxes, packing materials, tape and labels, also add to the costs incurred by the artist.
Some artists may sell through traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Like any other retail establishment, the store pays the artist a wholesale price for an item and then marks up the bear to a retail price. Therefore, bears bought in stores may cost more than if sold directly by the artist. However, the benefits to the purchaser are the ability to examine the bear in person, the opportunity to purchase an item that would not be found anywhere else, the relationship collectors develop with retailers, and the opportunity for signings and appearances by the bear artists. Retailers bring together a variety of styles and artists from all over the world and provide a valuable service to collectors and artists alike.
Many artists sell their wares at bear shows all over the United States and abroad. These shows have costs that may not be considered by the collectors who attend them. Just renting space at a large show can run from $500 to $1,500 and up. There may be airfares, hotel rooms, shipping costs for the display items and props, meals, clothing and advertising materials like business cards and brochures.
Heckel points out that it’s easy to overlook these “hidden” costs. “The artist is also a business owner with all the considerations of any business owner,” she notes. “The cost of promoting, the cost of shows and the travel expenses, the studio space, health insurance, telephone, computer and website are just some of the other expenses a teddy bear artist might incur.”
Other factors affecting the price an artist sets for a bear are the expertise and recognition of the artist, the demand for that artist’s products, and the number of items created. Some artists only do one-of-a-kind bears, with only one bear per pattern. A true one-of-a-kind piece will naturally command a higher price. Other artists may use a pattern to create variations in size and materials to make bears that are different in their own way, yet similar in other ways. Some artists do limited-edition pieces, making perhaps five or ten of the same bear from the same material, with each piece hand numbered. Typically, the fewer made, the higher the cost. Other artists may make the same bear over and over, with the same pattern, materials and accessories. Some artists do all the work on a bear themselves, while others may have help with the stuffing and assembly.
All these factors increase or decrease the selling price. An artist who makes five bears a week may charge less than an artist who makes two bears a month. Artists who have achieved a high degree of recognition and appreciation may have such high demand for their work that they can charge more for their pieces, like any famous artist. Certainly it is appropriate to recognize and reward a high degree of skill. Each of these variables helps determine why one bear may cost much more than a bear of the same size by a different artist.
“Most artists realize that they will not recover all of their expenses, but to continue in the career they have chosen they must cover some of the costs of a business, so each creation they make absorbs a little of each of these costs of doing business,” Heckel concludes. “When these things are considered most collectors begin to realize that perhaps the bear may cost more than they expected, but the price reflects many aspects of the business and art of the teddy bear.
“If a collector still harbors any doubts about the work involved, I also suggest taking a bear-making class,” she adds. “Many times after I have conducted a class I hear the comment ‘I now really appreciate and understand how much work goes into these bears, and I didn’t even make the pattern or cut or sew it together. I enjoyed the class but will go back to purchasing the artist bears with a renewed respect and appreciation, and I promise not to complain so much about the cost.’”
The next time you pick up an artist bear, simply take a deep breath and say to yourself “worth every penny” as you make your purchase!