NEW YORK — In an Atlanta home’s back bedroom, where Legos dot the floor, Nicole Franklin toys with brightly colored micro glitters and wild-hued pigments concocting sparkly combinations that sometimes end up on her face, but are meant for fingernails.
While Franklin may be living out every 5-year-old girl’s fantasy, this 30-year-old stay-at-home mom to two boys is one of a growing number of independent nail polish makers who have converted their homes and offices into makeshift labs that bottle handmade lacquers.
Having spent years reworking existing polishes and making new ones for herself, last year Franklin began selling her creations, Elixir Lacquers, and joined hundreds of polish devotees experiencing the other side of their favorite beauty product. Rather than just consume polish, they also create, offering even crazier colors and effects to their fellow lacquer heads – for a profit.
And the nail industry’s profits are running deep as the blundering economy sends women searching for luxury bargains in the beauty aisle. The once-staid cosmetic staple’s popularity boom sent nail polish and care sales to a record $768 million in the U.S. in 2012, up a third from the prior year, making nails the beauty world’s fastest growing sector, according to the NPD Group Inc, which tracks cosmetic trends.
That record doesn’t even include sales made by small, independently owned and operated companies, such as Franklin’s, who have found the lacquer market rich enough to support up-and-coming brands. In the past year, “indie” nail polish companies like Girly Bits, Dollish Polish and Cirque have exploded to more than 300, according to industry blogger estimates, as their nail-obsessed owners use their intimate knowledge of the industry and its fans to their advantage.
“When I first started making homemade nail polish, a lot of people didn’t even know what that meant, didn’t know you could make it for yourself,” said Pam Heil, the 42-year-old founder of Girly Bits, who makes her polishes in her Ontario home by mixing her polish base solution with different colored pigments and effects, like glitter.
As part of the polish-loving community, these lacquer makers already have ties to the most devoted and highest frequency buyers and have obsessed over the major nail collections for years, meaning they know which colors have been done and which ones haven’t.
“I try to make the polishes everyone wants but no one can ever find in stores,” said Victoria “Dolly” Manzo, 42, owner of Long Island indie brand Dollish Polish.
Annie Pham, creator of indie brand Cirque, says indie polishes often have more complex coloring, citing one of her polishes that uses 25 types of glitter: “that multitude of raw pigments in a single polish you don’t find in mainstream ones.”
This ability to produce one-of-a-kind custom polish helps attract lacquer lovers to these upstart brands.
“With their polishes the varieties are endless, they have the most amazing colors, glitters and combinations that I have never seen before and at a price point that is amazing,” said Caralee-Ann Kavanagh, who owns every shade of Dollish Pollish. “For me now, the only way is indie. I still use some mainstream brands but always with a glitter polish on top” from an indie brand.
Buyers like Kavanagh, as well as Instagram and Pinterest photos, and favorable blog reviews, have helped these brands raise their sales profile and gain notice.
Small companies like Franklin’s may sell 350 bottles a month, while larger companies like Dollish Polish and Girly Bits sell 4,500 and 5,000 bottles a month, respectively, becoming their full-time job.
Because these indie brands aren’t stocked in stores or salons, finding them to place an order or see collections can be the most confusing part of wandering down the Internet aisles of the indie shop. Some brands sell on their websites, others through eBay, Etsy, or online retailers like Harlow & Co. Bottles range from $6.50 to $20 depending on brand – roughly the same as the established companies’ bottles.
But why would someone choose to buy a polish from a company they’ve never heard of over a big-name brand?
“All the larger brand nail polishes are factory made and are not always super-consistent with quality,” Franklin said. “When you get to indie brands, they care more about polish than anything else.”
Manzo says the biggest draw to indie brands come from the personal connection between buyer and producer that you can’t get with mainstream brands, which are too big to offer that kind of individual attention.
Still, the benefits of buying an indie brand can be outweighed by reservations about production skills.
“I’m not comfortable with using and buying indie brand polishes because I don’t know them,” said Michelle Mismas, who writes the All Lacquered Up blog. “Maybe it’s just the germaphobe in me, but they’re not coming from a manufacturer. I don’t know how they are testing the product.”
Ave Hutcheson, who writes the Polish Pixelle blog, said buyers need to adjust their expectations and know that there is always a “risk that comes with buying from an individual” since they are producing on a smaller scale.
Not to worry. Those who love a shade by an indie brand but are wary of buying can just wait a couple months for an established brand to make it.
“Major brands have started to mimic the color combos that we’ve seen from popular indie brands,” said Jen Karr, who writes The PolishAholic blog. “The rise of independent polish brands is really pushing major brands to be more daring and creative with what they release.”
But even if a major brand does replicate a certain shade, it doesn’t mean indie makers won’t be buying it.
“I still buy polish from all the major brands. If it’s a color I like, then I’ve got to have it,” Manzo said. “I just want to run along with the big dogs, I don’t want to knock them off their pedestal.”