A Letter to Improving Piercers

Through discussions with newer piercers and on the Body Modification Learning Forum, it has become very clear that there are a lot of piercers who know the services they are providing are substandard, and desperately want to get better. Wanting to improve the quality of your piercing is a good thing. Actually, this is a great thing, and perhaps the only way to stay relevant in the piercing industry. The fact that many of you still pursue a career in piercing when you know your shop, jewelry, and education are substandard; this is where a lot of your more experienced peers may start to lose patience with you. There are three basic areas a body piercer can improve his or her shop and skills. Health and safety, jewelry quality and education.

I will start with health and safety because this is our primary concern. Both piercer and client are at risk when minimum health and safety standards aren't met, and body piercing isn't worth damaging ones health over.  Health and safety “techniques” can be considered an educational advancement, so for our purposes, we will discuss health and safety equipment and facility standards.  There is a certain set of minimum equipment and facility standards I feel comfortable with. Anything below this, you should not offer body piercing.

1) Autoclave: Front loading, spore tested at least monthly, ideally weekly.
2) Ultrasonic: large enough to completely submerge tools, about 1⁄2 gallon.
3) Hand Washing Sink: In piercing room, used only for washing hands.
4) Sharps Container: locked, and wall mounted in your piercing studio.
5) Contaminated tool tray: totally separate from everything else in your piercing room.
6) Instrument Stand: Completely separate movable stand for piercing setups.
7) Piercing table: Disinfectable, comfortable, and sturdy.
8) Clean storage area in piercing studio: For clean supplies and storage of sterilized equipment and jewelry. This should never be contaminated with unclean gloves.
9) Clean-up Room: An area other than your piercing studio for the processing of contaminated tools.

If you cannot meet these standards, which are still below Association of Professional Piercers (APP) standards, then you should stop piercing at the facility until these standards can be met. What is nice is these equipment standards are relatively inexpensive, with the possible exception of a hand washing sink. Plumbing can be expensive.

Improving jewelry quality is a huge issue at a lot of otherwise adequate piercing shops.  If the Body Modification Learning Forum is any indication, many piercers consider it to be the biggest problem at their studio.  The problem with buying high quality internally threaded or threadless jewelry is seldom a lack of money. The problem is perspective.  Most piercing shop owners fail to understand how the sale of body jewelry benefits the shop. Below is a simple explanation of body jewelry sales (apologies for the math).

I like working with imaginary people as examples, so we'll invent two fictional piercers: Anne and Beth.
Piercer Anne charges $30 for a piercing with jewelry.
Piercer Beth charges $60 for a piercing with jewelry.
Anne, because her prices are cheaper, does a lot of piercings. Let's say Anne does 20 piercings a day, which results in $600 gross.
Beth does a lot fewer. She's twice as expensive and that has a negative consequence.  Her prices seem to chase some potential customers out of the shop. Let's say she does 12 piercings a day, which is $720 gross. ($120 more than Anne!)
But let's compare that $600 gross versus the $720 gross. I will give Piercer Anne the benefit of the doubt, and assume she goes through the same amount of supplies per piercing that Beth does. Let's say the cost for each piercing is $5 in supplies. Now let's assume the jewelry costs $5 wholesale for Anne and $10 wholesale for Beth. Anne nets $20 each piercing, or $400. Beth nets $45 each piercing or $540.
Beth did 8 fewer piercings and made $140 more dollars. While the initial shock of piercing less people seems terrifying, it ended up being significantly more profitable.
What's important to notice is that these numbers we are discussing above are happening in a “vacuum”. This isn't actually the way body piercing works.

Our hero, Beth, is using awesome jewelry. Internally threaded or threadless designs. This means Beth has a lot of beautiful gemstone options that Anne simply doesn't have access to. This means Beth's piercings are, for lack of a better term, “cuter”. This also means Beth benefits from increased word of mouth marketing. Because of the smaller, “blingier” gemstone options Beth carries, she is very seldom piercing with “basic” jewelry. Her $60 basic piercing fee usually increases to $70 or $80 or even more when her clients see Beth’s beautiful gemstone options. This increase in profit doesn't go directly into the bank, mind you. It turns into more education, a bigger jewelry selection, more up to date health and safety equipment, fancy tools like StatIMs and anodizers. Before long, Beth's shop is not only safer AND piercing with better jewelry, but also far busier than Anne's. Money begets more money and eventually Anne’s shop isn't “the competition”, Anne’s shop is a different kind of business altogether. Beth gets to say when someone stumbles into her shop, “I'm sorry we don't carry externally threaded barbells, but I think Anne might”.

If I seem like I'm belittling others for making this mistake, not true. I know from experience with gold jewelry. For years I said, “our customers can't afford it” and “it's too expensive to stock”. Then I realized that this is the same excuse I heard from people using substandard jewelry. I began ordering more and more gold. I took classes on selling gold. I networked with gold manufacturers. Sure enough, my shop started selling gold. A lot of gold. And that math that worked so well with internally vs externally threaded jewelry slapped me in the face. Buy a barbell wholesale at $15, sell it for $30; $15 profit. Buy one at $100 and sell it at $200? I shake my head at all the money I lost out on. Not because I'm greedy, but because it took me 10 years at the same shop before I was able to offer my employees health insurance. Now I can. This keeps my shop happy and healthy, and means my already experienced piercers are able to stay with me and gain still more experience and training.  The difference is, of course, not carrying gold was a bad idea. Carrying and piercing with poor quality jewelry isn’t just a bad idea, it’s bad ethics.  

It’s also nice to note: at my shop, clients now benefit from a better trained, happier staff and a larger jewelry selection. This wasn’t a selfish endeavor.  Everyone has benefited from slightly higher prices and markedly better jewelry quality.

There is no cheap way to jump into better jewelry quality, unfortunately. There are several companies besides Industrial Strength and Anatometal. Blue Mountain Steel, AC Steel, Intrinsic, Neometal, SM316 and several others make internally threaded, implant grade body jewelry that meets APP specifications. I'm sure there are several more I don't know about. Picking one style of jewelry (straight barbells, for instance) and working your way up from there may be your best option. Offering two price levels may work while you phase out your old stock may also be effective. It will seldom seem easy, but if you are consistent and intelligent, segueing from externally threaded jewelry to implant grade internally threaded jewelry can be done in less than a year’s time.
Finally, educational improvements are almost always available. Some of them are free, or nearly free. Shadowing an experienced piercer you've met through networking is a valuable exercise. An apprenticeship is a necessary step in becoming a piercer, and the value of a good apprenticeship cannot be understated.  That said, in many cases you learn the purported “one right way” to pierce. Seeing another experienced piercer work is often an eye opening experience. Attending a class like the Fakir Intensives (full disclosure, I am an instructor) was essential for my growth as a piercer, as I benefited tremendously from hands on training and supervised piercing. Of course, the APP conference is a spectacular resource that I strongly encourage you to pursue (again, full disclosure, I am a member, on the membership committee, as well as a roundtable facilitator at the conference and hopefully a speaker at future conferences). Regardless of what educational options you pursue, the more exposure you get to other piercers, the more you will find seemingly difficult problems have easier-than-expected solutions.

I applaud your desire to make improvements to your shop, regardless of what form that improvement takes. Tirelessly pursuing excellence is the mark of an ethical piercer. Still, it seems the question pops up regularly, “Well what if I don't have money for that right now”? This is where the nice guy stuff kind of ends. If you don't have the money to do something right, do not do it. I consider implant grade, internally threaded or threadless jewelry a minimum standard. I consider the equipment and environmental criteria listed above to be a minimum standard. I consider a decent apprenticeship, some piercing education, and BBP and First Aid classes to be a minimum standard. All told, I think you can start a shop like that for under $50,000, but probably not much less than $35,000. If you don't have that small amount of money, you are not in a position to open a business. That's not a bad thing, though! Doing something else, waiting until you are in a financial position to do things the right way: this is going to prevent expensive, unnecessary growing pains. Talk to your peers, the ones who successfully grew out of bad standards and into good ones and ask them: “Would you do it the same way over again?” The answer will almost always be a resounding no. I also urge you to consider the piercing industry and culture and how much it benefits from you pursuing things the right way from day one. Every poor piercing, every negative experience, these are all knocks to our industry. After years of working so hard, don't be surprised if those of us with a bit more experience feel like you owe us more. You do. 

A Letter To Improving Piercers by Jeffrey Saunders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.jefsaunders.com.

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