As a young girl in the 60’s, Judy Tomsky wanted to become another Margaret Mead…a famous American Cultural Anthropologist. 1979-1980 brought her to Jerusalem, spending her junior year abroad. As a student of the university she was able to participate on an archaeological “dig”, discovering items from the Roman Period 300 AD, treasures of Roman glass, mosaics and ceramics at a temple site. In those days, it was easier and mostly safer for a female, especially an American, to wander around old ruins and the marketplaces than now.
After graduating college in ’81 at Sonoma State, Judy returned to Israel for two years, living in the southern part of the country in a Kibbutz. The surrounding area was filled with remnants of a copper mine, Chrysocolla, Aventurine, Rhodochrosite and other rocks and minerals. Not only is the country rich in ancient ruins, but minerals abound, feeding Judy’s appetite for discovering the past.
Coming back to America, Judy went to work at the Sharper Image in 1983. Selling big toys for the big boys. It wasn’t that fulfilling of a job, but she could at least utilize some of her language skills while helping the International clientele. She craved being in foreign lands and began frequenting the fabulous Marin/Sausalito flea market. She was a regular and met dealers from all over who shared the same passion for worldly adventures. Judy was offered an opportunity to set up accounts for an Swiss/Indonesian friend selling Bali imports. They went around San Francisco testing the markets. Store owners were interested and buying, but Judy wasn’t ready to take the entrepreneurial leap yet.
In 1994, Judy was ready and bit the bullet. She left for SE Asia with absolutely no planned return date. She spent 4 months in Thailand, Burma, Singapore, Java and Bali meeting antique dealers who gave her access to the ancient world. As she traveled, Judy rapidly immersed herself in tribal & ethnic art, finding her way to beads, textiles, baskets, dealers, all on her own as a female traveling solo in these third world countries. There is always a “but”…..and that was the fact that she was a Western white, American female and not a man. Being female was difficult at times navigating the lay of the lands so to speak. However, she quickly found herself among many private dealers and their collections. While the men were making deals and gambling, she was alone with amazing found objects and time to study them. It wasn’t always the easiest path, but having that kind of access was better than any museum or tourist shop could provide.
As a private traveler, versus being part of a “tour”, Judy was able to experience things in more private settings and off the grid, than taken to points of interest that the average tourist sees. Traveling solo can be lonely at times, yet on the other hand, you can find yourself meeting more locals, and invited to things you wouldn’t as a couple. Judy discovered the world of expats, local shop owners, and villagers who became part of her circles she would frequently visit and would eventually do business with.
When she was in Bali, she reconnected with her Swiss Indonesian friend from the 80’s, and had a base to lean on. However she quickly learned, that people don’t willingly share their sources. As she moved around the island, discovering various artisan villages and their wares, it was easy to fall in love with the place. A friend invited her to Java to Borobudur, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. They went up and down the island on 3rd class trains, stayed in the ghettos of Jakarta, participated in a traditional Javanese wedding, visited many Batik markets, and connected with soon to be suppliers in the near future.
Judy found herself behind the scenes, seeing the workers in their villages rather than the storefronts or markets. Stumbling across the more common daily routines of the locals and seeing their way of life was very special yet many times meant a lot more work and headaches in the long run.
In those days, there was little or NO internet connection…no way to make notes electronically or any way to research a location before you actually got there. Her notebooks were filled with comments, drawings, names, everything written out in great detail, as opposed to now with a click of google maps or Waze.
Judy returned to the bay area, with the company name, “Natural Touch”. The name represented a line of handmade handbags that she marketed her 1st year of business, along with a collection of Thai silk Jackets she designed in Thailand. Judy had to learn about foreign and U.S. Customs and the volumes of “codes” that seemed to change every time she tried to bring something into the USA. Each government had a different set of values and seemed to promote and subsidize commodities of different materials. Depending on the rules and regulations, custom charges varied and made it complicated when determining the resale value of her imports.
While running around to Regional gift shows and design centers with NaturalTouch bags & jackets, Judy also had sample boards of lampwork & recycled glass beads from Java, Thai Silver from the hill tribes and silver, bone and wood. The glass bead movement in the US was gaining momentum and bead shows such as The Whole Bead show were bringing in enthusiastic buyers.
Rather than hustle the “rag trade” with imported clothing, Judy quickly decided to move into beads, and establish herself as a bead dealer. Bead shows were popping up all over the country as well as bead stores. There was a demand for good unusual beads, and it was fun to jump into the arena and have her own line of beads.
In those days, there were just a few trade magazines featuring beads. Judy went to the top, Ornament Magazine. Advertising in print was the only option then, and interested companies would contact you by mail or phone. Everyone was asking for catalogues, and the pressure to have something in print was growing. This is before suppliers had websites. In the early mid 90’s, you were not able to purchase online or have such direct contact with suppliers like you do now.
Judy showed us her original sample boards, beads sewn on plastic and cardboard with item codes. Doing business in 3rd world countries has its pro’s and cons. If she wanted to place an order, she would photocopy the boards, write up orders with black and white images, and in English and Thai or Indonesian notes, fax them over to her new suppliers. Unfortunately, it sometimes took days for the faxes to successfully transmit, due to bad weather on the receiving end. And ordering by phone was very difficult, due to time differences and language barriers.
Once her orders were shipped and delivered to California, upon opening the boxes, more times than not, the beads were completely different colors or sizes than requested. That meant paying for items she didn’t have orders for, and not being able to fulfill the ones she had waiting. If you want to be making money, you got to keep the customers satisfied. Customer service is one of many jobs a single owner must contend to. Judy was successful in obtaining some big wholesale customers, but if she couldn’t deliver on time, or didn’t have the right goods, she didn’t get paid, and the buyer might lose his customers too.
After a few years, Judy decided to drop her business in Thailand, it became too complicated with the language barriers, and sometimes she felt that being a woman was a barrier for negotiations. Adjusting to the hierarchy of whose in charge and who will help you can be irritating, especially if you feel you are not being taken seriously. On the other side, it was rewarding when Judy brought beads or other items from the States to trade with the male dealers. She might have succeeded better with a male partner, but most of the time she did ok.
And in the States, occasionally Judy ran into sexist roles at the shipping docks. Being the sole proprietor, she would be the one to claim the shipments, drive and pick them up. Mostly there are male truck drivers at the docks, or air cargo terminals. She managed to get through the red tape more than once. You just have to stick to your guns, and be strong.
People asked her if she ever had a shop. Judy opened a shop in Fairfax, CA. It was intended to be more of a wholesale showroom, but after a year, she was traveling too much for shows, to manage and oversee a retail store. She decided instead to bring her inventory to storage spaces and used them as her warehouse at different times.
As time progressed, Judy traveled back and forth to Indonesian three times a year, and doing 20+ shows annually. It was fun to meet enthusiastic customers, and connect with the other bead dealers. She found her place as an antique collectible dealer as well as a supplier of modern beads. Her life was full of International flair, trading and buying from many African, Indonesian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Singaporean and European dealers.
The era of the International and National craze for beads ran strong for many years. Judy was selling to hundreds of stores, shipping worldwide, developed a website that generated sales on top of the trade shows. But once again, trends change and companies were trying to knock off anything that looked like a good sellable item. Being on the road in the US was fun for awhile, but she had to stay on her toes, watch her back, and occasionally say “No Thanks” to potential big buyers, who only wanted her latest designs for their own interests.
She took many risks, that many women would not have been comfortable taking, like traveling alone in the US and abroad. She also agreed to manufacture beads for large suppliers, who would later try to negotiate her down to very little profit. Keeping an eye on her finances, managing her inventory, maintaining daily operations, and the website, became her life. And staying on top of what the market would bear for collectibles was a gamble. But when asked would she do it again, “Absolutely”, she replied!
To stay in the bead game, Judy realized she needed more variables in her beads. Everyone was always on the hunt for the next cool product line. Resin became her main stay, with 80 shapes , and a color palette of never ending shades. Then about eight years ago, she branched out in Italian Metal Buttons. They were in demand for the popular wrap around bracelets, the seed beaders used them and of course there’s the knitting world too.
Her passion for beads, especially the old ones,are still part of her life, but she has realized that the bead craze has changed tremendously. With a majority of bead stores closing, internet platforms offering beads for ridiculously low prices, and trade shows barely making it worthwhile, it’s time for a new personal direction. Meanwhile, her collections of beads, textiles, baskets, and ethnographica remind her of the giant leap she took years ago, and she cherishes those adventurous times.