One of the best things about running this business is that I get to create beautiful things that become a treasured part of my customers’ lives, and I get to do that by stretching my design wings. I recently undertook a commission which was heartfelt, exciting and challenging, and I thought I’d share it with you…
My client was Suzanne*, a lovely woman who owned a treasured but somewhat battered piece of Whitby jet which had been passed down to her by her grandmother. The piece of jet had an extra-special meaning to Suzanne, because her grandma played a big role in raising her, and she wanted it turned into a wearable piece of jewellery so she could carry the gift with her everyday. She was also concerned about the potential to develop arthritis in the future, so she wanted the ring to be adjustable.
As well as being delighted that Suzanne had entrusted this piece of jet with such sentimental meaning to me, I will admit I was a little nervous! Jet is notoriously difficult to set, being quite a flaky and fragile stone. However, the challenge was exciting, and I explored a number of different design options to set this stone into a silver ring, since, after some discussions with Suzanne, it became clear that she favoured rings over other types of jewellery.
I knew as soon as I saw the jet that I wanted to make a design feature of the missing corner rather than crafting a setting to hide it. After all, this jet is a piece of Suzanne’s life story, and life has its imperfections as well. I wanted to embrace the history of the 150-year-old stone, and Suzanne was also excited about this idea, so it was full-steam ahead! We decided to go with the double-band design, and Suzanne absolutely loved it.
After receiving the ring, she sent me a lovely email telling me that she plans to pass the jet down to her own daughter in the future – I could not have been happier or more touched.
I also love the way the design turned out, and the whole process was one of the best commissions I’ve ever had. Sometimes I can’t believe I actually get to do this job!
*Not her real name; I like to maintain my clients’ privacy unless they wish to be a part of blog posts etc.
It’s the long weekend break in the UK, so I’m spending four days in Mid-Wales with the in-laws doing a whole lot of this:
(Learnt Monopoly Deal and then won twice in a row, just saying.) Not pictured: roast lamb and amazing homemade treacle tart courtesy of my lovely mother-in-law. But between all the food and scenery and aggressive card play, I’ve whipped up a little virtual Easter treat for you all. An Easter egg, if you will…(sorry).
I’m assuming most people (if not everyone) reading this have heard of Fabergé Eggs, but I thought they deserved a bit more of a detailed look (because, God knows, they don’t get enough attention…). Essentially, the Fabergé Imperial Eggs are a collection of 50 intricate, jewelled metal eggs, filled with equally intricate surprises, which were given as Easter gifts by tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II to their female relatives (predominantly their wives and mothers). The eggs were made by the world-renowned Fabergé workshop in St Petersburg, and 43 still exist, most of which are owned either by oligarch Viktor Vekselberg or the Kremlin Armoury.
I was lucky enough to visit the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg last year, where I saw 9 of the surviving Imperial eggs, as well as a whole host of other Fabergé treasures. Fun fact: although Peter Carl Fabergé is most famous now for the creation of the beautiful eggs, he also made a vast range of other trinkets. In fact, in the late 19th and early 20th century, it became fashionable for the European aristocracy to gift each other “a little something from Fabergé” for almost any occasion. With Fabergé’s continuous technical innovations, cigarette cases, watches and photoframes could be had in a dazzling array of enamel colours:
And let’s not forget the stunning jewellery the workshop created (so many egg-laces):
He also made some gorgeous faux flowers, which I now desperately want for my wedding centrepieces…
But back to the eggs. Although there are 9 impressive eggs in the Fabergé Museum’s collection, these are my top picks:
First, the Coronation Egg, presented as an Easter present to Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna by her husband Nicholas II, the last Romanov ruler, in 1897. Among other skills, the egg’s construction involved the use of guilloché. Like my Staffordshire Hoard blog post, researching the details of these eggs has introduced me to new metalworking techniques, and this is one of them. Basically, guilloché, originating in the 16th century, is the engraving of a repeating pattern into a base material by mechanical means (engine turning).
The egg also features a range of enamels, and the Empress’ crest set beneath a large diamond (one of many in the design). More exciting than the egg itself (at least to me), is the surprise inside: a miniature, working replica of the Empress’ coronation carriage, less than four inches long and fashioned in enamel and gold. The carriage features opening doors, moving wheels, and even tiny folding steps.
The second of my favourite eggs from the museum’s collection is the Bay Tree Egg, which I found the most impressive in terms of mechanical ingenuity.
Fashioned from jewelled nephrite (a type of jade) and enamels, this egg was presented to Nicholas II’s dowager mother, Maria Feodorovna, in 1911. As if the individual leaves and enamelled planter weren’t impressive enough, the surprise inside is incredibly impressive. When a lever disguised as a jewelled fruit is turned, the tree opens and a feathered songbird which moves and sings appears:
My final pick from the Fabergé Museum is the First Hen Egg. As the name suggests, it was the first egg presented to Empress Maria Feodorovna by her husband, Alexander III, in 1885. Although the egg is much less showy than its descendants, it makes up for that in execution and number of surprises. When the first white egg is opened, it reveals a pure gold ‘yolk’, inside which is a golden chicken with ruby eyes. The hen’s tail feathers have hinges, and the hen opens up to reveal even more surprises. Unfortunately these are now lost, but they would have been a tiny gold and diamond replica of the imperial crown, with a ruby pendant suspended on a chain inside it.
The Empress was so taken with the egg that Alexander put in a standing order with Fabergé for one egg per Easter, giving him free rein to be as innovative as he liked, as long as each egg was different.
I loved the Fabergé eggs I saw in St Petersburg, but there are three in particular in the Kremlin Armoury collection that are on my itinerary for my bucket list trip to Moscow: the Moscow Kremlin Egg, the Memory of Azov Egg, and the Steel Military Egg.
The Moscow Kremlin Egg, by far the largest Imperial egg at more than a foot tall (36 centimetres), sits within a phenomenally beautiful model of the Uspensky Cathedral, where all of the Romanov tsars were crowned, forming the cathedral’s dome. The interior of the cathedral is fashioned in gold and enamel, and includes minute enamelled icons, carpets, and a high altar. The surprise inside is a music box which plays Easter music, including one of Tsar Nicholas II’s favourite hymns. The egg is from 1906, and is considered so precious it has never travelled outside Russia, unlike many other eggs, which have toured to different museums across the globe.
Frustratingly, I couldn’t find a picture of the inside of the egg’s cathedral, which only makes me want to see it more…
The Memory of Azov Egg, presented to Maria Feodorovna in 1891, is carved from a single piece of heliotrope jasper which has been richly jewelled. Inside is a perfect replica of the Memory of Azov ship, part of the Russian Navy, upon which Nicholas II (then the tsarevitch, or prince) cruised to Far East Asia in 1890. It is fashioned in red and yellow gold and platinum, and the windows are made of tiny diamonds.
The final egg I’d like to see is the most stylistically interesting, hinting at the Soviet Realism style that was yet to come, and far plainer than the other early 20th century eggs. The Steel Military Egg was presented in 1916, when Nicholas II was away fighting in the First World War. Set on four steel ‘artillery shells’, the egg is plain steel with just the Imperial crest and crown adorning the outside. Inside is hidden a tiny painting by Vassilii Zuiev, which sits on a gold and steel, enamel-covered easel. The painting shows the Tsar and Tsarevitch examining military maps, surrounded by senior army officers. The frame is filled with diamonds. With hindsight, this austere egg almost seems portentous; it was the last egg Fabergé delivered to the Tsarina before the revolution, removal of the monarchy, and nationalisation of Fabergé’s workshop.
What’s your favourite Fabergé egg? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter/Instagram.
Now, we’ve been doing dry Lent (The Goblin’s idea; never again), so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for an enormous glass of Malbec. Enjoy the rest of the Bank Holiday weekend, UK readers!
Buttons are of local importance as well. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Jewellery Quarter, and Birmingham more broadly, made all the fixings and fripperies needed for contemporary life, from buttons to buckles and hinges to coffin plates. Come the nineteenth century, it also made 75% of the world’s steel pen nibs. Birmingham became known as the ‘toy-maker of the world’, ‘toy’ being another word for small items of fashion such as buttons, buckles and snuff boxes. Apparently, the Jewellery Quarter wasn’t just the home of trinkets and gems.
So, Birmingham was originally the centre of the buckle-making trade:
but when this was massacred by the humble shoelace in the late-eighteenth century, buttons came to the rescue. In 1800 there were over 100 separate button makers in the few square miles making up the city centre. In 1770 there were even two separate button makers in the tiny street where I work, and nine at larger Snow Hill.
Buttons were the city’s miniature money-maker until the early twentieth century. As William Hutton stated on a visit to Brum in 1780, ‘it would be no easy task to enumerate the infinite diversity of buttons manufactured here…’.
Buttons were Birmingham’s stock in trade because they were both functional and fashionable, desirable and essential. Originally made of horn (lovely, trendy, stinky cow-foot buttons), buttons have been made in Birmingham since at least the twelfth century, according to recent archaeological excavation at the Bull Ring. However, in the eighteenth century the trade exploded, with buttons being made of mother of pearl, glass or shell, embossed or stamped, or even covered in silk.
Button-making was also a huge employer, even after the partial mechanisation of the trade in the mid-nineteenth century, due to the fragility of some of the materials.
As I mentioned before, I love buttons – they’re the epitome of functional beauty, and (as Terry says in the video) a fascinating window into social history. In fact, that great social commentator, Charles Dickens, wrote an interesting (and very, very detailed) article about the Birmingham button trade. You can read the whole thing here if you fancy it, but I’ll leave you with an apt quote from the piece:
‘It is wonderful, is it not? that on that small pivot turns the fortune of such multitudes of men, women, and children, in so many parts of the world; that such industry, and so many fine faculties, should be brought out and exercised by so small a thing as the Button.’
It’s almost the weekend, so I thought a light treat was in order: another post in my Disney Designs series. This week’s film is one of my all-time faves, partly because it came out when I was little, and partly because it features a badass female hero (let’s just ignore the questionable depictions of the Huns).
Also, it came out 20 years ago this June (I’m not old, YOU’RE OLD), so it seems a good time to look into its jewellery…
For obvious reasons, Mulan wasn’t the first film that came to mind when I was thinking of Disney Designs post ideas. However, the scene where Mulan’s dad gives her the lotus hair comb (awwww) got me thinking. Now, the original ballad of Hua Mulan on which the Disney film is based is set in either the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), or during the reign of Emperor Yang of Sui China (reigned 604-617), depending on which source you use. In our case, it doesn’t much matter, because during both periods, hair combs were a popular means of self-decoration and of showing your social status.
Combs began to act as status signifiers during the Wei and Jin dynasties, around 100 years before the first given date for the story of Mulan, and by time of the Northern Wei dynasty, they were all the rage. Comb styles during this period were fine-toothed and delicate, like this:
Fast forward to the Sui dynasty, and they became larger, higher and more ornate:
Unfortunately, Mulan is set fairly early in the history of Chinese hair combs, so I want to take the opportunity to share some of the more fantastic creations the following couple of centuries brought to the country (the Tang Dynasty was when combs really hit their stride as a fashion accessory…):
That’s all for Mulan – which movie should I explore next? Let me know in the comments…
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?
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:
Broadly speaking, the plainer the better.
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:
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:
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:
Now go forth and lay things flat! Tag your flatlays with #tidingofmagpies – I’d love to see them.
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:
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.
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).
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:
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:
So, before today’s decoration session, this was my workspace, and it wasn’t quite working for me any more:
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):
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!
On my recent holiday, it almost seemed that jewellery was following me around the Mediterranean – not that I was complaining about it! Possibly the pinnacle of this trend was the day we arrived in Mykonos to find the Archaeological Museum we were planning to visit anyway (first pottery depiction of the Trojan Horse, anyone?) turned out to be almost completely filled with an exhibition on Cycladic jewellery from prehistory to the present day.
The exhibition, titled ‘Vanity’, was laid out in chronological order spanning a very impressive 7 millennia. It was also, as the exhibition leaflet proudly proclaimed, a ‘meta-exhibition’, with the museum itself becoming a giant jewellery box. It all sounded pretty good to me, and that was before we even saw the exhibits.
The interpretation was excellent from the off, with all the exhibits in these gorgeously lit boxes with draws to pull out and read more:
There was also some extra reading if you knew Greek:
I won’t cover everything we saw because there were hundreds of pieces, but here are a few highlights.
We started with Early Bronze Age jewellery, most of which came from Naxos. Like many of the items on display, the majority of these early pieces were found as grave goods, highlighting the important role of appearance and adornment in early Cycladic society. As you can see below, semi-precious beads were a particular favourite. Oh, and check out the phallus charm on the left-hand side; some things never change…
Pins/fibulae and diadems were also popular during this period:
After this we hit the Middle Cycladic Period, where coral beads from the Eastern Mediterranean were all the rage (the suggestion being that their owners believed them to have exotic, special properties):
The Late Bronze Age gave us this absolutely gorgeous necklace made of gold and white glass beads in the shape of lotus flowers. Interestingly, these beads were made in a mould, hinting at a growing market for and mass production of such items. In fact, the display called these shapes ‘standardised’ – the Cyclades were definitely modernising!
The Geometric period, where the Mycenaean world collapsed and was taken over by Greek culture, pins and hair wires were the order of the day. The pins in the bottom left-hand corner are also from Thera, which I was overly excited about. (No, I’m not being sarcastic; we visited a couple of years ago and I was really excited to see some of the artefacts that aren’t at the site.)
Much to my delight, almost all of the artefacts from the Classical period, including little human and animal amulets, were from Thera:
A couple of centuries later, the Hellenic world had completely changed Cycladic jewellery, bringing exquisitely detailed pieces made from gold, pearls, and semi-precious stones. In fact, jewellery got so ornate that Pliny and Seneca complained about the amount being spent on it… Many of the pieces in the exhibition were from Delos, only found because the residents were forced to flee from the pirates of Athenodorus at the end of the 1st century BCE, and hid some of their gems before they left.
Also, here’s Aphrodite riding a goat:
During the Roman period, the Cyclades were flooded with gold hoops, rings, and bird amulets, much like the rest of the Mediterranean, although the Hellenic styles didn’t disappear overnight:
Sadly for The Goblin and I, the Cycladic Middle Ages weren’t enormously well-represented, because of the limited excavation activity around this period; understandable given the amount of ancient history there is to explore in this part of the world.
There was another reason for the lack of medieval Cycladic jewellery on display: the predominance of Byzantine Christianity, which emphasised austerity and inner beauty. However, as the display highlighted, ‘the human tendency to improve outer appearance and simultaneously highlight social status prevailed and jewellery continued triumphantly to adorn both men and women’. The exhibition had several finger rings and Byzantine cross pendants to prove it:
Post-Byzantine/19th century Greek jewellery was a particularly interesting section of the exhibition, marrying themes from ancient and modern jewellery in the typical, ornate ‘Mykonos’ style earrings made from gold and pearls:
This diamond cross pendant was a particular highlight of the later part of the exhibition, having belonged to Manto Mavrogenous, who spent her entire fortune financing the Greek Revolution:
The final historical section of the exhibition featured work by Sofia Thanopoulou. Better known as Maroulina, Sofia was a self-taught creator who was one of the first important Greek jewellery designers in the second half of the 20th century. Her shop on Mykonos (1953-1972) attracted a prestigious, international clientèle, particularly after she began adding jewellery to her ranges of shoes, clothes, and bags in 1955. Combining Art Nouveau and traditional Greek influences, Sofia Thanopoulou created jewellery ‘characterised by the abundant expressiveness of their materials and their dynamic, often unexpected compositions’. Quite the jeweller role-model…
The final room of the exhibition was one of my favourites (and definitely The Goblin’s pick), in interpretation, design, architecture and, of course, contents. This was the place where the ‘meta-exhibition’ really came to the fore. I mean, just look at this stunning set-up:
Venyx by Eugenie Niarchos undoubtedly crafted my favourite piece: a pendant featuring a traditional Cycladic head in a modern, gold setting. As well as being completely beautiful, this necklace seemed to epitomise the exhibition as a whole: ancient and modern Cycladic art and creation brought together in one place and one time.
Every item in the collection (according to the leaflet) was chosen to highlight that most timeless human trait: vanity. The desire to bedazzle ourselves has been around as long as we’ve known how to thread rocks onto a piece of thread. But it also speaks to the endless creative potential and endeavour of humanity; not only do we want to sparkle, we’re willing to invent and graft to do so. It might seem shallow, but the face (or ear, or wrist) you present to the world can matter, and adornment is a big part of that.
One could even argue it’s part of humanity to deck ourselves in glittery gubbins; after all, ‘Vanity’ has 7000 years of archaeological proof that we just want to be…