Fire Mountain--Beading the Way for 40 Years

Fire Mountain--Beading the Way for 40 Years
For the CCO of Fire Mountain Gems and Beads, jewelry is more than just business.  

by Julia Gerlach, Editor, Bead and Button Magazine

It's hard to imagine that there could be a beader alive who doesn't know about Fire Mountain Gems and Beads. As one of the largest retailers of beading supplies in the world, Fire Mountain is a big presence in the community, carrying more than 130,000 products and shipping them to every corner of the globe.

Fire Mountain CCO, Chris Freedman
Fire Mountain CCO, Chris Freedman
From seed beads to crystals to fiber, findings and filigree, there are few types of supplies they don't offer, and the huge 1300-page Fire Mountain catalog is sometimes referred to as the beading "Bible."

Having gotten started 40 years ago, Fire Mountain has truly grown up with the beading industry. Beading itself is as old as the hills, of course, but like many other handcrafts, the knowledge was long passed down through oral tradition, and bead makers and distributors largely kept their secrets to themselves.

So what is behind Fire Mountain's success and longevity? Surely, they got the timing right and structured their business in a way that was unique and filled a need. But after a recent conversation with Fire Mountain's CCO, Chris Freedman, I realized that there is much more to their success than a keen eye for opportunity and smart management. After all, businesses thrive best when the company looks after more than just the bottom line. And Chris and her husband, Stuart, have focused on what has mattered most--sharing knowledge and creating community.

Rock-y Beginning, Groundbreaking Work

Fire Mountain began as an outgrowth of Stuart's rock-hounding hobby. While running a rock shop, he noticed that more and more customers were looking for beads. Soon, he and Chris realized that the bead buyers were also hungry for information on how to string the beads. After scouring the libraries for books on stringing techniques, they discovered that there was no published information on the topic, and few people were willing to share their trade secrets.

Early Headquarters in Studio City, California
In the early days, Fire Mountain Gems operated from a small storefront in Studio City, California.

Today's headquarters in Grants Pass, Oregon, features the familiar logo, but most everything else has changed.

They hired a friend to research the topic, and after she finally found someone who was willing to teach her basic pearl knotting. She and the Freedmans designed a few simple pieces of jewelry, documented what they had learned about beads and beading techniques, and in 1984 published The Beadmakers' Handbook.

The Beadmakers' Handbook may have been the first publication of its kind. In fact, this slim 22-page booklet (which can still be downloaded on the Fire Mountain website) could be the birth of today's beading-tutorial industry. Beading traditions were alive and well in cultures around the world and had been documented by anthropologists and archaeologists, but techniques and patterns were not being published for popular consumption. Chris and Stuart were intent on letting the world in on what they had learned--secrets, according to Chris, traditionally passed along by "women sharing with women"--and they were overwhelmed by the appreciation of their customers.

It Takes a (Global) Village ...

Fast forward to 2013. When asked what keeps her inspired at Fire Mountain, Chris returns to the themes of sharing knowledge, working together, and supporting each other. She wants to "build the best community in the world," and while that may seem like a lofty goal, it may not be out of reach as Fire Mountain truly affects beaders worldwide.

Hill Tribes Workers in Thailand Make Beads And Components for Fire Mountain. Hill Tribes Workers in Thailand Make Beads And Components for Fire Mountain.
Hill Tribes workers in Thailand make beads and components for Fire Mountain.

Globally, Fire Mountain has created lasting partnerships with vendors big and small. many artisans in third-world countries have built sustainable businesses through their ties with Fire Mountain. Closer to home, Fire Mountain creates opportunities in a variety of ways. Always looking to support jewelry artists, Fire Mountain's ads prominently feature pieces by designers both well-known and newly discovered. They sponsor beading contests--both their own and those organized by others--to celebrate artistic achievements.

The Deep Pockets of Deep Love

And Fire Mountain is heavily involved in philanthropic activities. I was aware of this because every year at the Bead and Button Show, Chris and/or her Fire Mountain representatives bid on items in our auctions, the proceeds of which go to the medical College of Wisconsin for breast cancer research. (I personally have been on the losing end of more than one bidding war with Chris!) When pressed about the significance of these auctions, Chris explained that her mother died after two rounds of breast cancer, and her sister is a survivor after two bouts. So this is, indeed, a cause near and dear to Chris' heart.

Besides suporting the Bead and Button Show auctions, Fire Mountain processes 15-30 requests per week for charitable donations. Many of the pieces of jewelry that are featured in their catalogs are donated to these causes as well as to the
Kids From the Boys and Girls Club Benefit From Fire Mountain
Kids from the Boys and Girls Club benefit from Fire Mountain's generosity.
huge Boys and Girls Club benefit that is held each spring. As a board member of the Boys and Girls Club, Chris happily donates approximately 150 pieces of jewelry each year for the event.

Employees Hunt For Treasures At The Annual Company Picnic.
Employees hunt for treasures at the annual company picnic.
Fire Mountain also sets aside up to 200 creations per year for a company auction, the proceeds of which go into their Seed Fund for company employees. If an employee needs money for an emergency, they can request money from the Seed Fund. Because it is money generated by the employees for the employees, they nurture the program and have sustained it for more than 15 years.

Helping the local community around their headquarters in Grants Pass, Oregon, is important to Chris, so she takes great pride in Fire Mountain's Bootstrap program. It was started in 1987 to give local kids a chance to learn skills and develop goals and direction. Bootstrap is a paid internship program in which high school students work in four to five departments over a two-year period, learning valuable work skills on the job.

Approximately 200-250 young adults have gone through this program, and most of them go to college after completing both high school and Bootstrap. Chris remains passionate about the people whose lives are touched by beads. Every endeavor--is aimed at spreading the love of beading and jewelry making around the globe. Just like the early days when The Beadmakers' Handbook opened the eyes of so many, she says of Fire Mountain, "We want to do anything we can to provide a magical experience."

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