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The alchemy of silver, and why I chose it for my artisan handmade jewellery business.

Starting a business in jewellery design is something I’ve thought about for a long time. In November 2019, having moved to a house which has space for a workshop, I decided to take the plunge, buy a workbench, and give it a go. A year and a half later, I’m making handmade products on a daily basis and I haven’t looked back!

I completed a degree in Product Design at Brunel University, and have been a secondary school Design and Technology teacher for nearly two decades. During this time, I have set up DT departments in two new schools, been a senior school leader, and have enjoyed developing projects which teach young people how to design and make novel, aesthetically pleasing products. Early in my career, I completed an MEd at Cambridge University, focusing on creative idea generation and development. This helped me to develop lots of strategies to give to children when generating ideas, for example, bio-mimicry; replicating the natural world in product design in order to make unique textures and forms. These strategies have proved invaluable as I started designing my own jewellery. I now split my time between teaching, silversmithing, and family life!

While I have worked with a number of different materials, fabricating in silver was new. By far, the best source of support comes from the thriving online metalsmith community and Guild of Jewellery Designers, which have provided countless gems (excuse the pun) of advice, and honed both my technical and business practice. Because of my background, silversmithing has been a significantly more gentle learning curve than navigating the world of social media marketing! I, as a fourty-something teacher, never imagined how much of my time would be attached to my laptop creating content for Instagram and Facebook! As I don’t have a bricks-and-mortar business, keeping active and engaging on social media has been pivotal in making my business viable. Great content required investment in specialist equipment for macro photography, along with a crash-course in how to use a camera! Highly reflective metal surfaces are exceptionally tricky to photograph so time at the workbench is not as plentiful for a jeweller as you’d think!

I said that I have worked with other metals, so why did I choose silver? Silver has the most amazing physical and chemical properties, which is why it has been used to make jewellery for many civilisations over the centuries. It is relatively soft, can be securely soldered, and polished to a spectacular, high-lustre shine. I collect every offcut to melt down and recycle, including dust from cutting and filing; nothing is wasted!

To me, silversmithing feels a bit like alchemy; I’m growing quite a collection of different chemicals, such as various pastes and fluxes for soldering, acids for etching textures, and patina for blackening a surface to highlight patterns. Silver needs constant annealing (heating to a high temperature to remove internal stresses) with a blow torch to soften it whilst being worked. This reverses the effects of work-hardening from hammering, bending and even sanding. Annealing makes it soft enough to accept an imprint. Delicate feathers or leaf skeletons can be compressed

into it, leading to exquisitely detailed natural textures. More commonly, I use laser cut paper to imprint patterns, or applying a vinyl ‘resist’ for etching into the silver using ferric nitrate solution, which eats away at any exposed silver, leaving behind a beautiful relief texture.

Polishing is by far the most time-consuming part of making; a huge amount of preparation is needed in order to achieve a perfect mirror finish. I go through up to twelve different stages when finishing work with different grades of abrasive papers, bristle brushes and fine grade polishes. And it is not a clean job; it requires a decent respirator facemask and a lot of cleaning up after! Fire-stain is the number one enemy; overheat the metal too much and you will end up with patches of discolouration that need to be ground out of the surface. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem, but it is invisible until the final polish and when it shows up, the only thing you can do is go back to stage one!

I make to order, using fine or 925 sterling silver, using processes that exploit silver’s wonderful physical, chemical, and aesthetic properties, such as fold forming, forging, anti-clastic raising and oxidation techniques. Fine silver is incredibly soft, which means it is great for making bezel settings to fold over the edges of gemstones. I love designing jewellery around the natural beauty of stones such as moonstone, opal and labradorite. I buy from all over the world; some gemstones are only found in certain parts of the world, such as larimar pectolite, a beautiful blue and white stone from the Dominican Republic. Every stone is hand-picked based on often spectacular aesthetic qualities. Personal choice from the customer can always be incorporated into any of my designs.

Whilst I enjoy making each and every piece in my collections, it is commissions that give me so much satisfaction in my work. I have enjoying meeting and working with clients to produce pieces that will be personal celebrations, symbols of commitment or treasured heirlooms made purely for a couple or individual. Worn close on the body, there is an intimacy to jewellery, and metaphorically, we hold certain items close to our hearts. They often hold meaning, memories and emotion. It is sometimes impossible to see a particular pair of earrings without thinking of the person who gave them or who once wore them. My love for commissions lies in getting to know customers, their ideas and preferences for a piece and to produce an item that will be enjoyed for many years.

So that's a little bit more about me, my journey so far as a new business owner, and my passion for this wonderful material that keeps me so busy!

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