Hobby Becomes Livelihood: Jenny Forks

The petite young blonde behind the counter at Bitter Creek Designs in The Rim shopping center is not a clerk, not the owner’s daughter or even the owner’s wife. Jenny Forks, 29, is the owner of the shop, where she sells her own jewelry designs as well as the materials for customers to create their own one-of-a-kind pieces.

Although Forks has been in business for seven years, she says, “People still ask me if I’m the real owner. Then I gain their respect when they realize I know what I’m talking about.” Ultimately, she says, her age “isn’t a hindrance. I just have to work a little harder to prove myself.” Natural stones are her passion as well as her stock in trade; having traveled the Southwestern United States to find the beads that bedeck her shop walls, she has learned a lot about them.
Turquoise is her favorite, Forks says, “because it’s my birthstone and because it comes in so many colors, from sky blue to olive green.” Picking up strands of different colors, she points out stones from Colorado and Nevada, stones that have been mined in the presence of copper, gold and iron, each mineral affecting the color of the turquoise differently. “You pick up quite a bit of geology this way,” she says. Though she now teaches beading and related crafts, Forks has never studied geology, art or jewelry design in a formal setting. “I’m entirely self-taught,” she says. Learning what she didn’t want to do was part of that process. Growing up “kind of a tomboy” on a ranch near Beeville in South Texas meant riding horses, competing in rodeos as a barrel racer, playing softball from elementary through high school and “being outside as much as I could.”

At the same time, she grew up in the presence of creative women: Her grandmother was an artist, a painter, and her Native American great-grandmother sewed intricate beaded garments for powwow dancers. “I wanted to do something like that,” Forks says, “but I couldn’t draw, and I didn’t like to sew.” She tried a few other crafts, including cross-stitch and crochet, but they didn’t click with her either. The one hobby she stuck with was making jewelry from beads, which she had learned at age 5 from her great-grandmother. On family trips to Corpus Christi, about 45 minutes away, she’d stock up on beading supplies at Hobby Lobby or Michael’s. “It was the only girly thing I did,” Forks says. “I didn’t even want to wear the things I made as much as I wanted to give them to other people and see how the necklaces or bracelets looked on them.” She tried college, studying business and kinesiology with the idea of becoming a physical therapist to athletes, but “School and I were not meant for each other.” From age 13 onward, she had helped out with her grandparents’ moving business, and it was at another unglamorous job — prep cook at a restaurant — that she met Kris Forks, the owner, who became her husband. The couple married and moved to Boerne, where she opened a bead shop, all within two months. “I had been selling my jewelry at craft shows and to other people’s shops,” she says. “It seemed like a good time to start my own business.”

When Forks opened that first shop, she made the decision to focus on natural stones, such as agate, jasper, citrine, turquoise and amber. Life in the country had taught her to appreciate the natural world. New to working with vendors and trying to guess what customers would want, she says, “I went with my instincts and bought what I liked.” When she started her business in 2002, she remembers that there were only a few bead shops in the San Antonio area. While more have popped up since then, several also have closed. Within a little more than two years, Forks outgrew her first shop, a snug 900 feet, and moved to another former house in downtown Boerne, this time with 1,300 square feet. When an opportunity arose in 2007 to move to The Rim, then still under construction, she took a free-standing space with 2,000 square feet for her sales floor, display and crafting area. There would be room for her husband — who helps her with silversmithing — to have a secondary office for his truck-brokerage business, and the space was large enough for their two children, Hallie, 10, and Tristan, 5, to have their own place to play or do homework after school.

Forks worked with the building’s architect on the interior design; the result is an open space with plenty of room for a central display unit that holds finished pieces and the rarest stones in her stock. The walls are painted art-gallery white to show off the rainbow-hued beads hanging in strands. An alcove at the rear holds wooden tables for classes and other crafting by Forks or her customers, and a “kids’ corner” is festooned with sparkly strands of pre-polished crystal beads. The shop is named after a song on the Eagles’ Desperado album, with a lyric about going one’s own way, and that’s what Forks has done: “I knew I couldn’t just stay home. Everyone in my family has always worked hard, and I need to be doing something, too. This way, I can work at something I love and have my children with me.” While some area bead shops have gone out of business, her shop has prospered, most likely by diversifying. “We’re a three-in-one,” she says. “I’m a jewelry designer, I sell stones wholesale to other jewelry-makers, and this is a bead shop.” Forks started out on her own but now employs four full-time employees and is open seven days a week, with a half-day on Sunday to allow everyone the morning off for church or rest.

“I think we’ve been successful because we put customer service first,” she says. “We carry all the supplies a customer will need to complete a project, and if they want to work on it here, we’ll give them guidance.” Some of her customers come back regularly to work on their projects. “One of them is a psychiatrist who says that this is her therapy,” Forks remarks. To stay current, Forks watches fashion trends to keep up with the styles and colors customers will want, scouts estate sales for vintage jewelry to rework into contemporary pieces and makes buying trips all over the Southwest to find new sources of stones. With a price range of 25 cents for a single simple bead to $700 for a strand of rare blue topaz, she says, “We appeal to all kinds of customers.” The shop offers beading parties for children as well as adults and classes for beginners through advanced beaders wanting to learn new techniques and materials. “As a small-business owner, I could work seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” Forks says, “but I try not to.” She does take some of her design work home, where beads occupy “a couple of places” and then some. “I have another bead shop in my house,” she says with a laugh. Since setting up her Bead for Hope Foundation a few years ago, Forks has shared her portable craft with patients in the pediatric oncology and cystic fibrosis wards at Methodist Children’s Hospital.

Working one-on-one with children who need distraction as well as activity that is not physically demanding, she allows them to choose beads to make a necklace or bracelet. Forks has been surprised to find that “more boys than you’d think” are interested in beading and that many of the young patients prefer to make something to give as a gift rather than to keep for themselves.

“We all need some kind of creative outlet,” says Forks. “I feel blessed to have been given this talent as well as a way — many ways — to pass it on to others.”