Day in the Life: Jaanek the ceramics sales manager

Jaanek Kurs pours slip, or clay slurry, into a plaster mould. 6 December 2018.
Jaanek Kurs pours slip, or clay slurry, into a plaster mould. 6 December 2018. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

In a world where you can walk into any store and buy any number of fancy pots and pans or other home goods, it's not every day that a customer can come into your work and show you an item made by your company that is older than you are, and survived World War II no less. I take pride in being part of a family carrying on a hometown legacy that is over 130 years old. My name is Jaanek Kurs, and I am the sales manager at Siimusti Ceramics.

My day begins at 6:30 in the morning. Like many people, it also begins with a cup of coffee.

I take a shower and eat something before heading off to work. Unlike many people, however, my commute isn't very long, and doesn't require a car, bus or even bike; I live in the same borough as the ceramics factory — in Siimusti, just outside of the town of Jõgeva.

Upon my arrival, I look over the factory itself, and then hand out orders to the employees. After that, I start working through various emails that have arrived since the previous workday, and deal with ordering customers.

Siimusti Ceramics dates back to 1886, established by local farmer Joosep Tiiman. While not part of the Tiiman family ourselves, my grandfather was director of the factory, and my mother and father both worked there as well.

Many of the designs, which are instantly recognisable and can be found in homes all over Estonia, date back to Joosep's time. We have also had customers come in and say that they own Siimusti pieces that date back decades; one customer even brought in a jug stamped 1938, which means it even survived a world war and decades of occupation. We have had customers tell us that they have bought items from elsewhere and then been disappointed when they do not last. It's something I take pride in — knowing that we continue to produce items that are such good quality.

It ends up being free advertising as well when your name and designs are synonymous with good quality. An old lady will buy a ceramic baking dish and make lasagna in it and take it to her friend's house, and suddenly all of her friends want the same dish. Nowadays there are all kinds of fancy pots and pans available — stores are packed with them — but what were people using to cook with before any of them? Clay pots. To this day, ceramics are still the most surefire thing to cook with.

Hometown legacy, family business

During the factory's earlier years, the company employed some 150 people. Siimusti Ceramics quickly became Estonia's biggest ceramics producer, and by 1913, it was listed among Russia's large enterprises — capacities were just that big. Nowadays there are just five of us, including my mother and my aunt; this is a family business today. Production capacities are nothing compared to what they used to be, but they are steady.

In a way it's nice that we are still producing the same bowls, vases, jugs and other items that were being made a century ago. But it is also beneficial from a financial perspective, as the plaster moulds needed to make our moulded pieces are very expensive. If a customer asks us if we can make a uniquely-shaped mug, for example, we tell them that sure we can, but it would take an order of some thousand mugs before it made sense financially. Or they would have to order an €800 mug. Not many people want to do that. Asking for a custom colour combination is much easier to do, and in fact, a series of blue, black and white items we produced in honour of the Estonian centennial this year at one point sold faster than we could produce them.

As there are so few of us at the factory, I am familiar with all parts of the process, from mixing clay to firing to sales. When I am not directly involved with selling our products, what I most often do in the back is mix our clay to make a slurry known as slip, which is then poured into our plaster moulds.

When the factory first began producing ceramics, it sourced its clay locally. Now all of our clay, which is blue clay, came from the Piusa area in Southeastern Estonia. If I had to take a guess, eyeballing the stockpile we have on site, we have enough clay to last us for the next 200 years — longer than I'll be around, in any case. This is the cheapest raw material. Our glazes were also initially produced ourselves, but at one point we started ordering our glaze from abroad. This is the more expensive part, but we can't really increase our prices too much, or people won't buy our products anymore.

Clay can be grouped into three categories, by the way — earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. These categories represent different characteristics, including firing temperature. Our products are all made from stoneware-grade clay. This means that if one of our bowls falls on the floor, it will split into large pieces, rather than shatter into a million little pieces the way porcelain does.

Shop, fairs, orders

We have a few different ways of selling our products. On site, we have a small shop, open on weekdays, plus on weekends by appointment. The store carries items in a range of sizes and a rainbow of colours, from ceramic shot glasses and cake stands to flowerpots and ashtrays, and from dog figurines to a ceramic heeled boot that can really be laced up. We even have a "museum" shelf with a selection of unique items from over the decades, and another shelf of discounted items with small defects. Once, when a group came to tour the factory, one of the visitors saw how cheap everything was on the discount shelf and completely emptied it — they bought everything! Speaking of museums, though, we have considered opening one at the factory.

Our items are also sold at a selection of shops in various parts of the country. But where you are most likely to find me and a table full of our wares is at various handicraft fairs across the country. And not just during the summer either; we've been present at a number of indoor fairs throughout autumn as well. What I love about my job is the opportunity to talk to people, which I get to at the shop at the factory, but especially at fairs where we are selling. This is where I often hear positive feedback from our customers about our products, which is one of my favourite parts of the job.

Yet another means of selling our pieces is through orders. Recently, for example, an animal shelter in Tallinn ordered shallow food bowls for their cats. As it turned out, the base of a type of ashtray we produce, the kind often found on the patios of restaurants offering outdoor seating, was the perfect size and depth. Those ashtrays, by the way, can be found on the tables of every other restaurant in Tallinn's Town Hall Square come summer. We also recently delivered an order to a well-known spa in Finland. My trips up north are also among my favourite parts of the job.

Because of how stressful the workday ends up, I plan on finding myself an assistant who would handle the other employees so that I myself could focus more on sales.

That being said, I close up shop at 4 in the afternoon and head home, where my dog, cat and family are waiting; I also have two daughters and one grandchild.

I enjoy relaxing at the end of the day by taking sauna and taking a dip in the pool. I also like to play some sports, and enjoy cross-country skiing, when the weather permits.

Back to your roots

I was born here in Siimusti. I attended Jõgeva High School in town nearby, after which I went on to attend Paikuse Police Academy on the outskirts of Pärnu. Upon graduating, I returned closer to home and worked as a shift supervisor at Põltsamaa Police Station, some 25km away. At some point, however, I started dreaming of life in the big city, and so I ended up moving to Tallinn, where I worked for 15 years as a shift supervisor at Tallinn Airport. As a child I had wanted to grow up to be a pilot, so this was close, at least.

My wife wasn't a fan of life in the city, however, and so we ultimately decided to move back to my hometown, at which point I realised that it was time to join the family in continuing operating the ceramics factory, carrying on a family tradition dating back generations.

A lot has changed during my lifetime, the major one being the ruling regime itself, as I was born during the Soviet era and Estonia regained its independence in 1991. One good thing about this is that now people can travel freely, which I definitely plan on doing with my daughter over the upcoming Christmas holidays. The factory, of course, has seen more regime and even currency changes than I have.

I myself have changed as well, though. The years have seen me grow calmer and more easygoing, as well as wiser. The biggest life lesson I have learned is that young people should trust their elders and their advice more. I also think people in general should more seriously think about who they elect as their leaders, and one thing that bothers me is increasing hatred and malice in people's interpersonal relationships.

But I myself am very content. My daughter Katarina has brought me real joy lately; she is earning straight As in school, and recently performed very well in a dance competition at Cestants Dance School in Jõgeva. If my childhood self and my current self were to meet, we would agree that I had a lovely childhood. I did not end up fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a pilot, but I am nonetheless very content with my life.


Day in the Life is a new weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at [email protected].

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Editor: Dario Cavegn

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