Local teenager’s online art business blossoms

A pin designed by Pacific Highlands Ranch teenager Nicole Ma, who runs the Sugar Acids online shop.
(Courtesy Sugar Acids)

What 17-year-old artist Nicole Ma has always loved about art is creating something that she could hold in her hand, whether it was crocheting cute characters or building a miniature bedroom out of popsicle sticks for her hamster.

“I always wanted to do more than just art,” she said.

This past year, she has grabbed hold of space in a niche market and has found a way to turn her art into a growing business and really, really enjoy it.

With her online shop Sugar Acids, the Pacific Highlands Ranch resident is crushing it selling her custom-designed silicon molds that other artists and crafters can purchase to create their own resin art. The molds come in shapes such as strawberries, cows, mushrooms and sakura (Japanese cherry blossoms) and can be used to make earrings, charms, keychains, bracelets, barettes, combs and more.

She also sells shakers, molds with openings where glitter and beads can be added for extra fun and sparkle.

Nicole Ma
(Nicole Ma)

In addition to molds, she sells her custom-made jewelry, ita-bags and enamel pins, mostly in the Japanese fashion and “cottagecore” styles. Her enamel pin designs include sweet deers, lambs, a sleepy bear and a cow poking its head out of a strawberry as well as retro designs inspired by Care Bears, My Little Pony and Lisa Frank.

The teenager’s monthly revenue can reach $20,000 and her highest-grossing month was $60,000.

Nicole, a rising senior at Canyon Crest Academy, started two years ago with an Etsy page and an Instagram, at first making and selling mostly stickers and jewelry. Her shop’s first name was Whimsy Bear, which turned into Piinkkink and as of June, she rebranded as Sugar Acids. On her whimsical website, a trail of hearts follows the cursor as it moves.

Last year Nicole moved onto molds realizing it could be very profitable: “It really picked up in March 2020, during the pandemic.”

She did several Kickstarter crowdfunding drives to fund her pins and molds. After she digitally designs a custom mold, a friend in San Francisco laser cuts the acrylic blanks for her. To make her molds, liquid silicone is poured into the blanks and they come out super shiny. Each is sent to customers in a pink package, made personal with a note from Nicole.

“It really makes me feel good about what I’m doing and makes me feel more confident in my art since I design everything myself,” she said. “It’s so amazing to see people appreciating it.”

A section of her Instagram page is dedicated to showcasing her customers’ creations with her molds.

Silicone molds from Sugar Acids.
(Courtesy Sugar Acids)

Growing up, Nicole excelled at traditional mediums such as photorealistic color pencil drawings (her chihuahua is a favorite subject), painting and amigurumi, the Japanese art of crocheting small stuffed yarn creatures. When she was a freshman, she wrote a how-to book on character amigurumi, filled with patterns for cute creatures inspired by Sanrio and San-X characters.

She also likes to build models and designed an adorable strawberry-themed house in her AP 2-D art class at CCA.

While Nicole did a year of the art Conservatory program at CCA, she mostly likes doing art explorations on her own. She also shares her talents by teaching arts and crafts classes to neighborhood kids.

“My art isn’t that amazing, it’s just simple,” Nicole will say, downplaying her artistic talents. “I love digital art design.”

Nicole draws all of her designs on her iPad, using the program Sketchbook. For projects like her enamel pins, after she completes her design she picks out the colors and communicates with her manufacturer to perfect the final product. She works with several different manufacturers in China to create her pins, adhesives, washi-tapes and bags—Nicole found all of the manufacturers through an online search.

All of the packing and shipping of her items is done out of an office space carved out of a corner of her parents’ home. It is filled with boxes of products and shipping materials as well her mold-making gear and tons of past creations.

One of Nicole Ma's retro enamel pins.
(Courtesy Sugar Acids)

“I work really hard doing this. This spring I barely did anything else besides school and my business,” said Nicole who somehow managed to juggle her growing brand as well as several AP classes.

Keeping up with orders has been challenging and she doesn’t know how much longer she can do the molds, just by herself. With Sugar Acids, she might make more custom jewelry or possibly branch out into makeup or clothing—she has already designed one prototype of a sweater with strawberries and ribbon details.

While she may always love strawberries, Nicole said her aesthetic is always evolving, especially as she matures. She is exploring goth and “soft grunge” designs and using more masculine colors.

Ideally, she would love to spend more time on her business but she does have one year left of high school and college looms—she is considering options like Stanford or UCLA to study business.

“I don’t exactly know what I want to do but this has been really amazing, ” Nicole said. “I always want to be doing something that I love.”

Shop Sugar Acids at sugaracids.carrd.co or follow her on Instagram at @sugar.acids.