Precious metals decoded

One of the most common questions I get on Etsy is a variation on ‘what is gold-filled? Is it real gold?’. Precious metals and their various purity ratings can be a real minefield, when all you really want is to know you’re buying something that won’t turn your skin unexpectedly green or tarnish the second you wash your hands…

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Source: tenor.com

That’s why this week I’m going to break it down for you, with a handy guide on some common metal purity ratings and how to select the right one for your needs and your budget…

I’m going to decode precious metals, if you will… (Yep, you guessed it – I’ve been watching a LOT of Ancient Aliens while fulfilling your orders this week! Sorry not sorry…)

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What are precious metals?

Precious metals are rare, naturally occurring metallic elements, prized for their scarcity. The two precious metals you’re most likely to come across when buying jewellery are silver and gold, so let’s focus on them for now (I might do a follow up post on other metals like palladium and platinum in the future).

The purity (and therefore value) of these metals is measured by how much of the metal is made of the precious metal, and how much is made up of ‘base metals’, or other precious metals (e.g. silver is often used in gold alloys). Base metals is the term used for any non-precious metal, such as copper, nickel and zinc. These are added to the relatively soft precious metals following mining, in order to strengthen them, and sometimes they form naturally-occurring alloys with precious metals.

Silver purities

There are three main types of silver alloy which you are likely to come across when shopping for jewellery: fine silver, sterling silver, and silver plated metal. There are other variations in fineness available, but today I’ll focus on the three main options you might come across while doing your holiday shopping…

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Source: giphy.com

Fine silver

Fine silver has a purity of 99.9% silver by weight. This means it is virtually pure silver (100% silver is extremely difficult to create, as the purer the metal, the harder it becomes to remove impurities).

Pure silver is also what is created when silver clay is fired, because the binding agents of paper, cloth and water in the clay burn away.

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Pure silver sewing scissors pendant

Sterling silver

Good old sterling silver is one of the most popular metals for less expensive jewellery designs. To be classified as sterling silver, an alloy must be at least 92.5% silver by weight, and maximum 7.5% other metals.

Many of the items I make in silver are crafted from sterling silver, because it’s affordable for most customers, good to work with, and has a high enough purity level that it’s suitable for all but the most sensitive skin.

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Sterling silver hoop & necklace gift set

Silver-plated metal

In cheaper jewellery pieces, silver plated metals are often used. Silver plating is where base metals are plated with either fine silver or sterling silver by being dipped into an electrolyte bath.

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GCSE Chemistry, anyone? (Source: Wikicommons)

Plated metals can give you the dreaded green-skin effect over time, as the layer of silver begins to rub off and the internal alloy (often copper) is revealed and comes into contact with your skin. How fast this happens depends on how thick the layer of silver on top is, and whether there’s a barrier layer between the base metal and the precious metal on top.

Gold

Gold comes in various different colours, but the purity ratings are the same for yellow, white and red/rose gold. Sometimes high-quality rose gold will be referred to as ‘red gold’ in jewellery stores, which can be a bit confusing, but it has the same pinky-gold colour that you would expect from rose gold

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Source: karryon.com.au

As you probably already know, gold is measured in carats – but what does that actually mean? Well, the carat rating system measures the amount of gold per 24 ‘parts’. So 24 carat gold is virtually pure gold (999/1000 parts gold), whilst 18 carat gold is 75% gold and 25% other metals. Gold jewellery is also commonly sold at 9, 10 and 14 carats, although 15, 20 and 22 carats are sometimes available (20 and 22 being used more widely for gold coins).

So, the higher the carat rating, the higher the percentage of gold in your jewellery, and the more you’re likely to be spending on it.

But how do I pick which purity I want?

An important thing to consider when buying jewellery is that 24 carat gold is much too soft for jewellery which will be worn regularly, particularly wedding and engagement rings.

For durability, 18 and 14 carat gold has the best balance of pure gold and other metals, so this is the one to pick if you’re choosing a wedding or engagement band, or another piece you expect will get a lot of wear over the years.

For affordability, as long as you’re not planning to wear the item on a daily basis for a long period of time, 9 carat gold is well worth considering, since it is still very durable, and a lot easier on the purse strings than other options, without sacrificing quality!

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9ct gold love knot ring

Gold-plated metals

In much the same way as silver-plated metals tarnish over time, gold-plated metals are not the best pick for durability, although they are more affordable than pure gold or gold filled options. Gold plating is generally done via the same method as silver plating, but because gold is a softer metal, it wears even less well than its silver cousin. Not recommended for any jewellery you’re planning to wear a lot, but fine for more costume pieces or less frequent use.

Gold-filled metals

To be labelled as gold-filled, an alloy’s weight must include at least 5% gold. Gold-filled metal is made up of a solid layer of gold which is mechanically bonded to a base metal or sometimes to silver. Because the gold is bonded rather than just layered on top of the other metal(s), gold-filled metal is a more durable option than gold-plating, but still has the bonus of being much more affordable than purer, carat-rated gold.

This is why many Tiding of Magpies designs feature gold- or rose gold-filled materials – pretty, durable jewellery, without the hefty price tag!

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Moonstone and rose gold fill gift set

5 tips for presenting your jewellery collection

So, I may have mentioned that a selection of my work is currently being shown at Birmingham’s RBSA Gallery (once…or twice…a second…all summer…!), and I found it quite difficult to whittle down my designs to a cohesive collection of just 15 pieces.

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Source: tenor.com

When I was choosing what to include, I couldn’t find a huge amount of advice online on how to make the collection hang together whilst showing the best Tiding of Magpies has to offer.

So, here are 5 useful things I learnt about putting together a collection from your body of work:

1) Start with your favourites

These are the pieces you love, the ones you’re proudest of, the first ones you’d show someone if they asked ‘what’s your jewellery like?’. These could be old or new designs, but they should make up around 1/3-1/2 of the collection, depending on how well they fit into the theme of the exhibition.

Here are a few of mine…

 

An exhibition is also an excuse to get creative and show off something brand new, like this beauty I designed for the exhibition, which is probably now my all-time favourite:

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Coming soon to the Tiding of Magpies shop…

2) No ‘throwaway pieces’

I mean, technically speaking, none of your designs should be ‘throwaways’, so let me explain what I mean by that! It’s actually an idea I got from Project Runway (because, of course I did). When the designers show their final collections, Tim Gunn always tells them to get rid of ‘throwaway’ pieces which are just in there to fill space in the collection.

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Source: tenor.com

These pieces can sometimes be a bit less interesting than the rest, or include multiple repeats of ideas that crop up later in the show. What this means in a jewellery context is, consider whether you want to include multiples of the same design in different colours, or popular designs you’re less proud of (we’ve all got them!).

3) Try and have a relatively even spread of jewellery types & price points

Although my overall body of work is largely made up of necklaces and earrings, I made sure my display collection featured three rings as well, to demonstrate the versatility of my designs and create a more pleasing and varied overall display. If your designs skew more to one type of piece, it’s a good idea to try and even up the numbers a bit in a limited-size collection.

It’s also wise to mix it up in terms of price points; galleries might allow for a higher overall price range, but it’s still worth including some pieces on the lower and middle ends of that scale to tempt casual purchasers or gift-hunters (especially at this time of year!).

4) Echo shapes or materials, but not both at once

This one’s fairly self-explanatory, but as an example, I put these two pairs of earrings into my collection:

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The same overall shape signals that they’re part of the same collection, but the different metals, stones, and stone shapes maintain interest and variety.

5) Think about the theme of the exhibition

If it’s your first time exhibiting (or even if it isn’t), jewellery exhibitions usually feature multiple artists, so there will be an overall thematic link rather than the theme being that of your collection alone. You want your collection to stand out in a good way, but to also have a visible link to the theme of the exhibition.

 

The display Tiding of Magpies is currently part of is titled Stellar, and themed around the sparkliness of space. In response, I made sure my collection included some of my designs which feature star shapes, as well as themed stones such as moonstone (duh) & lapis lazuli (which looks like the night sky, with its blue colour and gold flecks).

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Now all you have to do is avoid the inevitable over-thinking and wondering if you put the wrong pieces forward!

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Source: wifflegif.com

What other aspects of jewellery design would you like to see posts on? Let me know in the comments…

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Source: giphy.com

Adventures in stone-setting

As I mentioned in my New Year Goals post, a) I’m taking a stone-setting class to buff up (haha) my jewellery skills and b) my goal was to set one ring. When you say it like that it doesn’t sound that ambitious, but there are a few reasons why I may sound guilty of, well…

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First of all, it turns out that before you can set stones, you need to grind your tools into shape on a cool grinding wheel that makes sparks and everything. That bit was very exciting initially, but it was also REALLY, REALLY SLOW, because there’s one grinding wheel and…more than one person in the class. Also, you have to grind your cutting tools to fit your hand, and if you have tiny elf hands like me, that’s a whole lot of metal to grind off!

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All toolboxes look like this, right…?

Tools in hand, time to set a ring…right? Nope, because proper stone-setters do hardcore apprenticeships where they have to get used to tools, practise cutting, and learn to control to the drill before they’re even let near anything more interesting than brass plates. Luckily, it was only a few weeks of practice, but still, after one term I had not set a single ring, and I was a little disheartened. (Having missed 3 weeks for my honeymoon probably didn’t help either.)

I started this term aiming to set one whole ring and, lo and behold, I have set FOUR.

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They’re not perfect and some of them need a bit of cleaning up, but those stones aren’t moving ANYWHERE. So far I’ve fully set:

1) A simple 3mm circular stone in a rubover setting (cubic zirconia in silver):

 

2) A 9-stone eternity ring (2mm cubic zirconia; this one was HARD, hence the mess!):

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3) A four-claw oval ring (8x6mm; garnet and silver. These claws need more shaping but the stone is definitely not moving so I consider it set!):

 

4) A four-claw twisted circular ring (10mm; champagne cubic zirconia and silver. This one is NOT subtle!)

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And finally, a moment of silence for the TWO castings of the same ring I destroyed. The first time, I’d done a lovely job with the claws and in tidying them up I scored all the way across the gorgeous, dark blue CZ I’d just set.

 

The second time, keen to avoid damaging the stone during clean-up, I filed the claws too enthusiastically…down to basically nothing. At some point I will reset this stone, but I think I need some time to forget first!

 

Next up is the smaller version of my GIANT twisted ring above. The aim with this one is to be a little steadier with my drill and not create a dimple that then needs to be very carefully got rid of to avoid damaging the claw it’s gouged out of… I also have some exciting square rings to set, which is a more complex operation (hence the brass rings and very cheap CZ stone – no point throwing good stones after experimental work!)IMG_20180416_180044.jpg

 

It might not look like I’ve made a huge amount of progress in two terms, but I feel like I’ve already learnt a lot, including:

1) Stone-setting is simultaneously REALLY hard and really simple. The principles themselves are just logic and physics really, but mastering the techniques to a high standard takes years.

2) Filing is an art of its own. Before this course I was fairly adept at filing down a soldered seam, but that was about it. Watching my tutor filing a perfectly-shaped claw as smooth as silk in a matter of seconds in one of the first sessions floored me.

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3) I’m not naturally good at filing! So I guess what I have actually learnt here is to be patient…

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4) Being a bit behind and therefore towards the bottom of the class is not the worst thing in the world (much as my perfectionism likes to mutter otherwise). Everyone is going at their own pace and there’s no exam – I just need to do as much as I can.

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5) Homework doesn’t end when you finish formal education. Although we don’t have official homework, y own workshop doesn’t have a pendulum drill or grinding wheel, so the more rings I can prep between classes, the more time I have to actually set and benefit from the tutor’s expertise in class.

6) Practice absolutely does make perfect (I know, I didn’t want to hear it either!). My first claw ring took me 2 classes (5 hours) plus prep time outside class. My second was completed start to finish in one class, with a break in the middle to watch a demonstration of the next ring we’ll be attempting.

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What’s your achievement of the week? Bonus points if it’s jewellery-related!

 

New Year, Same Me

Let’s be honest, new year does not mean a new you, whatever WeightWatchers adverts might try and sell you. You’re the same person you were yesterday, and that’s actually fine. You don’t have to change anything, if you don’t want to, and there’s no reason you ‘have’ to do it now. I know that sounds negative, but actually, 2018 is pretty much the first year I’ve been fairly ok with being the same person on January 1 as I was on December 31, soooo…

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I also tend to find New Year’s Resolutions are a bit rigid and intimidating for people of the crazy persuasion (and mostly useless for people who aren’t, to be honest). That being said, I do do goals. It’s always good to have something to aim for, as long as you keep it realistic, and for me, the start of a new year feels like a nice tidy time as any to set them. If you do want to change things or start things or stop things, the new year is a good time to think about that.

However, it can get a bit stressful or feel pressured, so my key advice for effective start-of-year goal setting is as follows:

  • Ignore everyone else – seriously, just because Alex in the Comms team is going vegan and your friend Sam has started a punishing gym routine doesn’t mean that a) you have to or b) your goal of washing your hair every other day is any less valid.
  • If you do want to set big goals, that’s good too, just make sure you’ve got some smaller, more short-term ones to keep your morale up while you work towards the big ones.
  • If you don’t know where to start, think about how your life is now and how you’d like it to be different, then start moulding your goals around that.
  • Make a mood/dream/picture board or a list or a Trello or all those things – fun, visual goal-setting is the best kind. If, like The Goblin, you’re a biro-list-on-lined paper person, that’s great, if, like me, you’re a glittery mood board person, that’s great too. The main thing is helping yourself visualise it.

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So, what am I planning? Working a full-time day job as well as running a business and attempting to maintain some form of social life is a bit manic (sometimes literally!) so I’ve here are a few business and non-business things I’m planning to do in 2018…

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  1. Launch three new jewellery collections (duh)
  2. Complete my stone-setting course (and set at least one bloody ring, which between honeymoon and illness I’ve failed to do this term…)
  3. Reach 1000 sales on Etsy (this one may be a bit high, but I need something to aim for)
  4. Make on average one custom order per month (this one may be a little low but I want to make it achievable)
  5. Carry on learning Welsh – that’s right, dw i’n dysgu cmraeg!
  6. Practise at least one musical instrument once a week (this one shouldn’t be hard, I used to do 3 hours a night, but that was when I was at school and only thought I was busy…)
  7. Write more articles like this one for online magazines
  8. Take two baths per month with bath bombs (seriously, these days I have to schedule in my relaxation in advance)
  9. One business-free evening a week (again, easier said than done, but it would be nice to actually hang out with The Goblin some time…)

I reckon that’s plenty to be getting on with! What about you, lovely readers – do you have any goals you’re aiming at in 2018? Let me know in the comments – and good luck!

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How to choose jewellery gifts

Picking jewellery for someone else can be a bit daunting – it can be hard to judge the tastes of even your closest friends when it comes to the sparkly stuff, not to mention be an expensive mistake if you choose wrong!

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However, jewellery is a long-lasting, personal and often treasured gift for the special people in your life, so here are a few tips to help you get it right…

First things first: what item of jewellery to choose

Think about what you’ve seen them wear before – do they wear studs or dangly earrings more often; rings or bracelets; or perhaps they only wear necklaces? It’s also worth thinking about whether they have one particular piece they wear often; for example, if your recipient always wears their grandma’s earrings, it might be wise to stick with a necklace or bracelet, as they’ll get more enjoyment and wear out of it.

Style

People’s personal style is just that – personal! Jewellery style can also differ from clothing preferences; what if your human wears minimalist clothes with statement jewellery? How do you know what to go for? Again, it’s best to go off what they already wear, perhaps adding an unusual flourish or different stone to what they usually choose to make the gift interesting as well as useful.

Some different styles of jewellery to consider are…

• Minimalist and modern – simple shapes, clean lines •

• Vintage (or vintage-inspired) •

• Dainty/delicate – small, elegant and subtle •

• Statement – large sizes, bold colours and shapes •

• Boho/natural – rough gemstones, curved shapes •

Colour

What colours do they wear in clothes or accessories? When you’re wading through the thousands of beautiful pieces on a site like Etsy or in a big jewellery store, colour can be a really useful starting point. If you’re refining by style, size, or something else, or you’re stumped on what colour they might like, there’s an easy solution: go for simple metal!

Hobbies and interests

A lovely way to give a personal jewellery gift is to search for jewellery that represents one of the recipient’s interests, something I discussed in a post a couple of months ago. This is where somewhere like Etsy is brilliant, because whatever niche thing your human is into, someone, somewhere will have made jewellery referencing it!

If in doubt, start small!

Etsy has tons of affordable, handmade and thoughtful designs available (including mine!), meaning that a heartfelt jewellery gift doesn’t have to be a bank-breaking gamble…

If you’re stumped for last minute gifts, I have a few last pieces ready to ship. For my lovely UK readers, tomorrow, Wednesday 20 December is my last recommended shipping date on standard 2nd class shipping, but I also offer upgrades to 1st class and guaranteed delivery, and I guarantee to ship within 24 hours for any ready-to-ship pieces. Available at the time of publishing are…

And for all my overseas friends, you can always get ahead of Valentine’s Day planning, or just treat yourself!

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Silver clay on World Thrift Day

Let’s celebrate World Thrift Day by celebrating the exceptionally thrifty jewellery-making material that is silver clay. This time last year, I’d never heard of the stuff; now it’s in integral part of around half of my designs…

So, what is it?

Silver clay is made of tiny particles of silver, combined with binding fibres (paper or cotton usually) and water. In its original state, it behaves just like the normal soft clay you’d find in an art class. When fired, the binder burns away (making a really cool-looking flame in the process), leaving behind fine silver (99.9% purity, as opposed to sterling silver’s 92.5%).

There are two main types: Art Clay Silver and Precious Metal Clay. They’re much of a muchness in many ways, and that leads us on to…

Where did it come from?

This is the good bit. So, silver clay was first developed in Japan in the 1990s by two companies. Weirdly, they both got patents on their versions of silver clay around the same time. Not quite sure how that happened, but apparently good ideas are like buses sometimes…

What’s of note for today’s theme is that silver clay is also a really sustainable material, made of recycled silver which usually comes from discarded electrical items. Turns out TVs have silver in them – who knew? The clay can even be recycled at home – if a design goes wrong and you put it back with the rest of the blob fast enough, it can be reconstituted into a new design.

So what?

As well as the environmental benefits of using silver clay (who doesn’t like feeling good about saving the planet?), I actually find the clay kind of fascinating because of the way it changes. The first few pieces, it does feel a little like magic…

It’s also interesting because of the possibilities it offers – it can be smithed like normal silver once it’s fired (albeit it’s a little softer than silver), but it behaves completely differently before that. You can use it to pick up the tiny details of a fingerprint before setting it into a bracelet, or form a ring to be hammered and shaped after firing. It’s a fusion of modern technology and ancient techniques. It can’t currently replace traditional silversmithing techniques, though, particularly stone-setting – I prefer to see it as an addition to them rather than a substitute.

If you want to have a go yourself, it’s not super expensive (around £2.50/gram in the UK), which makes it thrifty in another way, too! Here are a couple of tips for starting out with metal clay:

  • Make sure you wrap it up tightly and put it back in the packaging as soon as you’ve taken the amount you want to use – once the clay dries, it becomes very brittle and hard to work with (although it is salvageable)
  • You probably need less clay than you think – it’s very stretchable!
  • Press firmly and evenly, directly down onto your clay – if you press at an angle you risk smudging or blurring whatever impressions you want your clay to pick up.
  • Get some of this stuff – it means you can make moulds of things which you can then ‘cast’ in the clay.
  • If you have a gas hob, all you need is a metal gauze to put over one of the rings, and you’re good to start firing. If, like me, your flat is electric-only, you can use a simple camping stove and camping butane.

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Tag me on Insta or Twitter so I can see your creations!

How to choose your bridal jewellery in 5 easy steps

It’s an undeniable fact of life that weddings in the Western world are overwhelmingly focused around the appearance of the bride and, let’s face it, that’s a lot of pressure. There are so many things to consider, and that’s before you start looking at wedding magazines or websites for inspiration. When you’re busy obsessing over every aspect of your dress/makeup/bouquet/hair/shoes, it’s easiest to leave the jewellery till last.

I’ve done exactly this, and only just chosen what I’m going to wear, although my wedding is in just over three weeks. Like a lot of brides, I had a couple of family/sentimental pieces in mind early on, but then I got stuck making it work as a whole ‘look’. (To be fair, it probably didn’t help that I changed my mind about my wedding dress three months before the wedding and had to find one to exchange it for… More on that in a different post, probably.)

Anyway, now I’ve (pretty much) finalised what jewellery I’m going to sport on the Big Day™, I’ve got five quick tips for any other brides-to-be who find themselves in similar circumstances…

1) Consider the style of your dress

This sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying anyway. The dress is, naturally, the focal point of your appearance, and it will look better in photos if the jewellery works well with the dress. For example, my dress has a relatively high neck and a very embellished bodice, so I’m not having a necklace because it would be too much, and would get lost in the beading. If your dress is in a vintage style, it might also be worth considering jewellery (real or replica) which suits the era you’re wearing.

2) Stay true to your own tastes and dress sense

If there’s a style or piece of jewellery you see cropping up on wedding blogs or Pinterest, it’s easy to start thinking ‘well perhaps I should wear something like that, too’, but if you wouldn’t wear something similar in every day life, think twice about whether it’s right for you. Of course, I don’t mean if you wouldn’t wear a huge tiara every day you shouldn’t wear one for your wedding, but if, say, the tiara is heavily jewelled and you usually favour clean, simple lines, look for a tiara that fits those tastes.

3) Consider wearing jewellery for sentimental reasons…

‘Jewellery reigns over clothing not because it is absolutely precious but because it plays a crucial role in making clothing mean something.’ –  Roland Barthes

Because jewellery is valuable, it’s often handed down through the generations, imbuing it with memories and emotions, so it’s no wonder many brides wear at least one piece that has sentimental value. I’m mixing old with new for my wedding by wearing three sentimental items combined with a new ring I’ve made myself, and a hairpiece I sourced from another Etsy seller.

If you’re struggling to pull your pieces into a cohesive look, consider choosing one material, style or era to make things go without having to be matchy-matchy. For example, I’ve decided to feature pearls in many of the pieces I’m wearing in order to tie the different styles together. I’m also wearing an heirloom brooch on my bouquet because it doesn’t match the wedding colours; including a piece you like but which doesn’t go with your dress on your bouquet is a great way to wear your treasured pieces without compromising on your style.

4) …but don’t feel bound by tradition if you want a shiny new set of jewels

Conversely, if you’re determined for your look to come together seamlessly, or want to create new heirlooms and memories with some brand new pieces, don’t feel you have to wear something old just because it’s ‘expected’ of you. (Let’s face it, there are enough expectations around you as a bride without adhering to tiny ones like this…) This tip is kind of an extension of point 2; essentially, you do you.

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(Source: pedestrian.tv)

5) Try not to obsess over it

I feel this should be the last point on any wedding advice list, and it’s one I’m terrible at following, but it’s so important. Your wedding outfit will never be perfect (especially in years to come when you look back and your gorgeous mermaid gown looks like those puffy-sleeved 80s monstrosities do now), but you should be so happy on the day itself that it won’t bloody matter. The best you can do is to make the choice you’re happy with now, and then try and forget about it (she says, with incredible hypocrisy).

And what am I wearing, after all that? Well…

  • My mum’s pearl and haematite earring and bracelet set (from Cellini)
  • A new diamanté and pearl hairpiece from this Etsy store
  • A new ring I’ve made to match my bouquet, with an asymmetrical setting of two garnets, a pearl and a cubic zirconia
  • A brooch The Goblin gave me when he proposed (an actual goblin family heirloom, which doubles as my ‘something blue’ and my ‘something old’)
  • My wedding ring, which I also made

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Yes, these are my actual wedding flowers (Goblin with allergies= silk all the way)
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The iridescent blue is from the butterfly wing behind the glass

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Of course, true to indecisive form, I’m thinking of swapping out the garnet ring I made with the one The Goblin gave me for our first anniversary (what a lovely Goblin he is):

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Like I mentioned earlier, the dress is seriously embellished, so it’s got to be one or the other. Any ideas? Let me know in the comments…

Wear your heart on your sleeve (or neck, or finger, or ears)

I just designed another custom order, and it occurred to me that one of my favourite things about designing for a specific person is that it often allows people to physically wear their interests. The current design is music-themed (a customer after my own heart!), but I’ve recently created a few science and maths-themed pieces. These are in some ways more interesting for me because I’m an Arts girl, so it’s nothing I would ever design for myself.

The three bespoke STEM pieces I’ve made recently are:

  • A large ammonite necklace for my nature-loving grandma
  • An ammonite and amethyst lariat necklace for a Geology student’s ball
  • A set of mathematical symbol studs for a Maths student

The first piece was a commission for my grandma’s birthday. She’s a botanical artist married to a Wildlife Trust director, so she pretty much loves anything related to natural history and plant life. She also likes a statement necklace, so my grandad and I came up with this:

The smaller version of this ammonite necklace is one of the most popular in my Etsy store, so I wasn’t too surprised when I got a custom order enquiry about it, but I definitely wasn’t expecting such an interesting commission. The enquirer was a lovely Geology undergraduate called Mo who was hunting for a special piece for her graduation ball. She’d seen my ammonite necklace and was hoping for a themed necklace to go with the outfit she’d already bought.

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This was a really fun one, because I bloody love designing for specific outfits and occasions. Mo had chosen an absolute show-stopper – a dark purple, v-neck playsuit with a flowing train:

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With a dress that eye-catching, the necklace had to simultaneously match up to and not detract from the dress. An amethyst was the obvious option, and I chose a faceted stone to suggest natural minerals. Paired with the ammonite, it made an unusual, perfectly-themed choice:

The final STEM design I’ve done this season is a set of tiny, delicate, algebraic earrings and a nose stud for a Maths student. I love these, and was tempted to make some for myself, but I felt it might be a bit strange to wear symbols that have no meaning to me…

So, from my recent designing experience, it seems that students wear their interests more than graduates. I suppose this makes sense, since their whole daily lives are defined by their degree choice. ‘Theming yourself’ has another benefit though – it helps you find like-minded people. And, as a relatively-recent graduate myself, I also know how hard it is to meet adult friends once you leave university (or school, if you don’t take the uni route).

Suddenly, for the first time ever, you’re not surrounded by an immediate pool of your peers that you can fish friends out of. How are you supposed to tell if that likely-looking person in your office is actually interesting on a friend level without quizzing them like a creep? (Seriously, if anyone has the answer, let me know in the comments…)

Sometimes it’s easier to start a conversation if you already know you have an interest in common, and interest-based jewellery (or clothing, or accessories) is shorthand for similarly-inclined potential friends to read and start conversation:

Wear a quaver pendant and someone might pipe up, ‘What an unusual necklace, do you play an instrument?’

Ammonite necklace: ‘Ooh, do you like fossils?’

Mathematic symbol earrings: ‘Did you by any chance study maths?’

Boom, instant small talk and a foot in the door to talk to a potential friend (without feeling so weird). I know that probably sounds a bit forced, but there’s also possibility 2: they notice your pretty necklace, comment on how they like it, and you start a conversation about the meaning behind it and find out if you do or don’t have that topic in common. Or you’re already talking and you find something else you both like. Or you decide you hate them and can therefore avoid them. Whatever the outcome, your choice of accessory has enabled a conversation…

The best thing about Etsy is that there are so many wonderful artists you can find something to express your interests. If you can’t find exactly what you’re after, almost everyone will make a custom order if they can (as I may have mentioned before, they’re some of my own favourite design projects). This is just a tiny selection of the interest-based jewellery Etsy has to offer:

So get out there, let your stylish freak flag fly, and meet some fellow humans!

How to create gorgeous Instagram flatlays

Ah, the flatlay. If there’s a style of shot that sums up Instagram (aside from heavily posed bikini shots and too-good-to-eat plates of food), it’s the flatlay. It’s one of the most-searched hashtags on the site. Why do I want to do what everyone else is doing, I hear you cry. Well, there’s a reason flatlays are everywhere: they sum up the kind of pretty, curated, visual content people are on Instagram for in the first place. And why not?

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Source: Instagram (obviously…)

Flatlays are also an amazing tool for creative entrepreneurs. If your business is product-based and aesthetic, throwing a couple of pretty flatlays into your Insta feed is a must. They’re shorthand for your style and a great way to showcase your products.

With such beautiful examples already out there (the ones above were the first when I searched just now) it can feel a bit intimidating, but taking a good flatlay doesn’t need to be a chore. Once you get into it, it’s actually quite fun! It can take quite a bit of prep, though, so I often end up doing mine in batches to use later (Blue Peter eat your heart out).

So, here are 3 easy tips to help you take gorgeous (and efficient) flatlays:

1) Background

Broadly speaking, the plainer the better.

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Lots of people favour plain white (I use standard printer paper for this, but fabric and blank walls/floors also work well), but subtle patterns can work too. Marble or small geometric patterns with lots of space between each element are both popular. If you don’t have a stunningly white background to use, don’t worry. Wood (real or fake) is always a good bet. In fact, most of my flatlays are taken on my wooden workbench. It’s not a completely plain background, but I think it adds a bit of character. It’s also already there, which cuts down set-up time!

2) Props, props, props

As I mentioned in my previous tips post about product photography, I like to keep a stock of photo props about, and this is even more important for flatlays. You might have a new book/lipstick/camera that you want to make the focus of your shot, but the props around it are what make the photo complete. They also don’t have to be expensive. I know a lot of flatlays feature Macbooks and iPhones, but they can also feature Poundland tat if you arrange it nicely. One of my absolute favourite props, a ceramic swan planter, was £3 from Tiger:

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Props can be anything you like, but some of my go-tos are: pretty notebooks and pens; coffee cups; tools of the trade (so, for me, a lot of pliers!); fake flowers and plants (see last week’s post for why they have to be fake); jewellery-making materials. Obviously some of mine are specific to my work, but that’s why flatlays are great. You’re an artist? Throw some paintbrushes and paint tubes in there. Flower arranger? Well, duh. General human just taking pretty pictures? Whatever you damn well please. And that’s the point of all this; your flatlays reflect your personal tastes and interests. That’s why people scrolling through Insta never get bored of flatlays, because there’s so much potential for variation.

Here are some of my favourite props:

3) Arrangement/set-up

Whatever background and props you settle on, the way the items are laid out is what will make or break the picture. The short answer to how you get a great shot is really to just play around and see how things look – helpful, I know…

There are a few things you can try, though, if nothing is jumping out at you:

  • Envision how the image will look as a square (I often take a deliberately wide rectangular shot so it’s easier to crop down into a square for my feed)
  • Line items up at right angles to each other and the sides of the box
  • Put like items together (pens in one place, notebooks in a pile, etc)
  • Try ‘The Scatter’ (paperclips, earrings, glitter – if it’s small, scatter it across the space for instant effect)
  • Try putting all the items on one side/one corner of the square, leaving lots of blank space
  • Arrange items across the borders of the image, so some of them are just peeking into view (this gives the image depth)
  • Draw some pretty calligraphy onto your background (as long as it’s paper!). If you can’t do real calligraphy, fake it like I do: write the phrase in nice handwriting, then draw a second line on all of the downstrokes and fill in the space between:

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Now go forth and lay things flat! Tag your flatlays with #tidingofmagpies – I’d love to see them.

 

 

‘Changing Rooms’: Tiding of Magpies edition

I was ‘off sick’ from this blog last week, because it’s hard to be sparkling when you’re 80% snot… I’m on the mend now, but between getting well and the endless wedmin that needs doing, getting back into business has been a slow process. You know how it is; things have piled up and your desk is covered in papers and you can barely remember how to solder (or is that one just me?). I decided the best place to start was with tidying, which then morphed into workspace interior design. It turned out pretty well, I reckon:

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There have been a lot of studies on what might be the best office decor to encourage productivity (natural light and plants are popular, apparently), and I even know somebody whose office floor is carpeted in fake grass (no, she doesn’t know why either). There’s conflicting evidence on whether art on the walls makes people happy or distracted, or both, or neither, but I’m coming down hard on the side of ‘happy’, hence the new picture wall above my desk.

And, whatever office decor trends are happening this month, when it comes to the link between my workspace and my motivation, having a pretty, well-designed area to work in makes me way more likely to get shit done. The amount of time I’ve spent figuring out which pictures to frame and what kinds of trinkets to display might seem frivolous, or like time which could be better spent on Serious Business Stuff™, but this redesign of my space has made me genuinely excited to get into the office for the first time in a couple of months. I’m looking forward to using my workspace for updating my spreadsheets, for goodness’ sake!

So, this week, I thought I’d give you a tour of my office (pretty bits and not-so-pretty bits alike). The beautification of my workshop has been quite a long process (almost a year now), picking up knick-knacks and practical objects here and there, and working out how the space is best used. That last bit has been pretty essential, because it’s a relatively small space; my office is currently one corner of our spare room.

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The early days of my (unusually tidy) office

One of the big benefits of our spare room is its oodles of natural light (obviously an essential for jewellery-making), which is why my workbench is crammed into the far end of the room (past the very glamorous sofabed, filing cabinet, and general storage area).

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All the light

The tight space does make for some pretty creative storage, though, which is why I chose a vintage bureau crammed full of cubbies and shelves for my workbench:

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Then came the organisational whiteboard (you can just see the influence of my primary-school-teacher sister):

And let’s not forget my miniature storage drawers, which are absolute life-savers with so many tiny bits of metal knocking about:

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So, before today’s decoration session, this was my workspace, and it wasn’t quite working for me any more:

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The pinned-up tool rack was a bit of a stroke of genius from the early days of the desk, but over time, the rest of the space has just got more and more crowded around all of the tools. It started to feel a bit like it was all closing in on my actual workspace, and it wasn’t exactly conducive to inspired design… The question was, what to change?

In the same way that making time for important things requires finding your ‘dead time’ and using it more effectively, sorting out your space means using up dead space. So, I cleared the books off my desk and onto the windowsill, moved the boxes from the top shelf of my desk to the more hidden shelves under the desk, and got rid of all the empty butane cans (total eyesore).

In place of the piles of boxes, I put some carefully-chosen ornaments on top of the bureau. Virtually every study ever done about the effects of a workspace on productivity agrees that plants are a must-have for an effective office. Sadly, I’m a plant serial killer, so I’ve gone for some fakes (which definitely do lift my mood, so clearly there’s something in all these plant recommendations):

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Fake succulents are a must

I also added a couple of more sentimental touches, including my snowglobe collection and a light-up globe my grandma bought me years ago, all of which I picked up on a recent trip to my parents’. The Goblin (a steadfast minimalist with a particular hatred of throw pillow) was obviously delighted when he saw the boxes of trinkets I was planning to infest our flat with, but he relaxed when I promised they’d only be in my office, not in the general living spaces…

The hardest part of the redesign was the picture wall, and I’ll admit I spent several hours sorting through my postcard collection, drafting possible layouts, and actually nailing the bloody things into the wall. Once they were chosen and installed, the finishing flourish was provided by a garland of glittery butterflies (a gift from my future mother-in-law; how well she knows me!).

I’m well aware that my insistence that everything be cute before I can poooossibly get to work probably isn’t enormously normal or productive, but it works for me (pun intended). If I’m having writer’s block or the designs just aren’t coming, the amount of pretty, interesting things in my direct sightline helps to inspire. If (like now) I’m pressed for time, and the rest of life is getting in the way of my business, the desire to go and use my ‘new’ workshop is a really helpful motivator which encourages me to make time to work. And, if nothing else, this round of redesigns gave me a legit excuse to go for a stroll in Tiger (where I got all of the photo frames as well as the swan pot); that’s definitely conducive to a good mental state!

What are your workspaces like? Are you a hoarder like me or a clutter-hater like The Goblin? More importantly, is your workspace meeting those needs and tastes? If not, get cracking and make your space match and facilitate your work. Unlike a lot of the stresses and frustrations in life, your physical environment is something you can always change, even if that just means running a duster round the place and putting all your mess in a pile. And if it means sewing adorable flower hoops and sifting through postcards, so much the better!