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Carlie Thitchener
Carlie Thitchener
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Age and experience

Australia’s jewellery industry is ageing and traditional skills could be lost if younger talents aren’t nurtured. Sonia Nair investigates training and employment challenges facing young jewellers.
When the Jewellers Association of Australia (JAA) conducted its annual member survey last year, it came as a bit of a shock that more than two thirds of its retail and manufacturing members were over the age of 45. Yet when Jeweller editor Coleby Nicholson wrote a column urging the industry to get behind young jewellers and support the creation of a ‘Young Jewellers Group’, he was inundated with emails from this elusive sector of the industry. Emerging, passionate young jewellers are still out there it seems – it’s just that the traditional bricks-and-mortar jewellery stores that the JAA represents aren’t in touch with them.

According to JAA chief executive Ian Hadassin, the industry landscape has changed: ”Young jewellers these days are working as designers or manufacturers in small studios as opposed to traditional jewellery stores.” But is this because young jewellers are choosing not to work in the traditional retail environment, or is it because they are finding it hard to break into the mass market? Jeweller has found that many young people in the industry believe it is the latter.

Young jewellers face no shortages in skills training courses and degree options – whether they adequately prepare them for – or necessarily propel them into – a paying career in the jewellery industry is questionable, however. For young jewellers, the options are different depending on whether they are jewellery designers or manufacturers. Designers usually undergo a university degree or a TAFE course while manufacturers complete a TAFE course alongside an apprenticeship, or a university degree.

25-year-old Ewen Ryley, who completed his Certificate 3 in Jewellery Manufacturing, a three-year training programme that is offered to indentured jewellery apprentices, believes his course could have had more specialised training in areas such as gemstone setting and handmade jewellery manufacturing. “TAFE training skims across the basics of what we need to know as a trade-qualified jeweller. Because this industry is so diverse and can span many areas, there needs to be further training after the Certificate 3,” he says.

Albury-based 26-year-old Tanya Howitt who went down the alternate route of a Bachelor of Arts in Jewellery faced a similar experience to Ryley. “Although I feel I received a much broader education, which I really value, the everyday tasks expected of a trade jeweller were covered but not focused on in a way I felt they should have been.” Howitt says her class as a group wanted to learn to set stones but it was “deemed not a jeweller’s job to set”. Her current job requires gemstone setting and she had to undergo a GAA course to learn it.

In a word of advice for young jewellers who are grappling to find a place for themselves within the industry, Hadassin says everybody should undergo courses in both jewellery design and manufacturing. “Those who can design and make can discuss design with confidence to consumers and then transform the design into a jewellery piece. It’s a real strength to have both skills.”

Part-time apprentice jewellery lecturer Ralph Pownall, who teaches at the Southbank Institute in Queensland, says a lack of knowledge on gemstones and practical experience is a big problem he sees with his students. “I am hearing from jewellers looking for recently qualified tradespeople that many are not experienced enough and lack basic skills other than what they are taught at TAFE.” As important as the TAFE training is, Pownall says apprenticeships are a vital way for young jewellers to gain confidence.

Similarly, Steve Kiddle, managing partner of Castle Hill-based Limbergers Jewellers in New South Wales, thinks apprenticeships are crucial in a young jewellers’ training regime. “Apprenticeships are a vital part of our industry. You can’t really replace the experience of a young jeweller working next to an experienced artisan. My eldest son worked under three master jewellers and learnt different skills from each.”

Urging those training in the jewellery industry to undertake an apprenticeship is all well and good but, according to many young jewellers, there seems to be a fundamental discrepancy between the number of apprenticeships available and the number of students who require them.

23-year-old Carlie Thitchener, who is currently studying jewellery manufacturing at the Design Centre in Enmore, New South Wales, says only half her class have apprenticeships. “I have found it difficult to find places where I can get trade knowledge where I could be confident both in what I was doing and in the items of jewellery I was producing.” Thitchener is not alone. Howitt says it proved difficult to find an apprenticeship in her regional hometown of Albury, where there aren’t many stores with a qualified jeweller on site.

If jewellers in training are willing to relocate, the task of finding an apprenticeship becomes somewhat easier – but whether the experience itself is educational is another issue. 26-year-old jeweller, gemmologist and diamond grader Anna Moncrieff, who completed a Bachelor of Arts in Jewellery, had to move 4,000 km away from home to undertake the only apprenticeship she could find in Australia at the time. “I discovered the master jeweller of the business to never be around and to be more lazy than under-skilled, but therefore incapable of giving me the training needed to get my trade papers,” she complains.

Many apprentices have claimed that they are under the tutelage of a master jeweller who is too busy manning his or her business, and say that they tire of having to perform routine, everyday tasks. Howitt thinks her BA Jewellery was a more enriching experience than an apprenticeship could have been. “The fact that you are learning from several different lecturers means that you learn several different ways of doing things.” 25-year-old jeweller Cassandra Mamone agrees with Howitt. “I think young jewellers tend to struggle when stuck in one position, like polishing, for too long. Once you’ve learnt the skill, you want to move on to something new.”

Bench jeweller Peter Gordon, who has manned his own eponymous jewellery manufacturing business in Brisbane for the past 10 years says he spent his whole apprenticeship doing repairs and resizes, but still believes the experience was invaluable. “I did 24,000 resizes and complained bitterly at the time but 20 years later, I’ve found the experience to be invaluable. The core of doing an apprenticeship is knowing the basic skills and for an apprentice to be good at something, it is crucial they do it over and over again.” Gordon says there are always jobs for young jewellers if they obtain the necessary groundwork. “Even if they spend their entire time polishing, they’ll become an expert polisher and there are jobs out there requiring those skills.”

Sydney-based high-end jeweller Victoria Buckley agrees with this principle of learning to walk before you can run. “Routine tasks can be a way of testing someone’s fortitude. You can expect to be doing pretty basic things for the first year or so while you get your skills up. As you earn the jeweller’s trust, you can expect them to gradually train you properly. I test apprentices for flexibility and loyalty before I start to train them in sophisticated skills.”

Conversely, part-time TAFE teacher Ralph Pownall believes the problems facing apprentices are caused by larger forces in the market that mean master jewellers no longer have the time to dedicate to their apprentices: money pressures and a rise in imported goods are top of his list. “Many large workshops are employing qualified jewellers who are under pressure to mass produce cheaper jewellery and consequently do not have time to train their apprentices properly.”

Pownall adds, “The average manufacturing jeweller is struggling to compete with cheap imported jewellery and finds it hard to justify employing a young apprentice when they can buy a large variety of imported mounts that are already diamond-set, for instance.”

However, Gordon insists this is not the case with every master jeweller. “My apprentice is on the bench with me bending metal, making rings, shaping things and filing. I also come up with different little exercises for him by working with his TAFE handbook.”

Designs by young jeweller, Carlie Thitchener
Designs by young jeweller, Carlie Thitchener

Wages are cited as another reason why apprenticeships are unviable for many young jewellers. Although Ryley says his apprenticeship was crucial in helping him perfect his skills, he struggled to live on an apprentice’s minimum wage while living away from home and subsidising the whole cost of his training in Brisbane. Pownall says there is minimal financial support for apprentices. “Jewellery apprentices do not receive a tool allowance for instance, which makes it hard for their employers to properly train them in the workplace.”

As far as Buckley is concerned, though, where there’s a will there’s a way. “I would have loved to have studied under a talented goldsmith but I didn’t have contacts. I’m self taught and I didn’t just have a low wage – I had no wage.”  She says even basic first-year apprentice jobs with low wages are worth fighting for because they help jewellers gain contacts and observe how things are done.

Beyond the classroom

However, the challenges facing young jewellers don’t stop at training. Despite there being many creative avenues for young jewellers, many still struggle in getting established and obtaining entry-level jobs after training.

Howitt tells Jeweller she and her university peers had to fight to have employers acknowledge that their degree was an alternative level of qualification to the more traditional trade certificate. Another issue is a lack of guidance from older tradesmen when newly qualified jewellers start their full-time jobs, according to Howitt, who believes the combination of unsupportive employers and poor pay are squeezing the passion out of young jewellers.

“There is an issue of the older employers wanting to keep young employees at a certain skill level and not have them really flourish into the exceptional jewellers and designers they could be. This may be an issue of not wanting to breed a potential competitor, or not wanting to have to pay them for their increased skill level,” she claims.

Whether these problems are widespread or just the experience of a few is unclear. Gordon says it would be ultimately detrimental for jewellers taking on apprentices to have such a mindset. “I need my employee or apprentice to be as good as possible. If they’re better than me, it’s an asset to my business and they’re profitable,” he insists.

Mamone says another big issue, like with apprenticeships, is a lack of entry-level jobs in certain areas of Australia, such as Adelaide, where she is based. “Many other students whom I completed my studies with opted for working on a bench part-time or making pieces for exhibitions and galleries while having another part-time job elsewhere.”

In Sydney, 35-year-old designer-cum-entrepreneur Charms Baltis believes a lack of jobs is not an issue: “I see jobs advertised for manufacturing jewellers regularly; the jobs are out there.” She advises fledgling jewellers who are struggling to get work to use more pro-active tactics to find employment. ”Experience can be gained by putting yourself out there.” She also urges young jewellers to make their own jewellery to sell to retailers or online. “The process of marketing yourself is the best experience you can get as you are researching what markets are going to work for you and that are accessible today.”

Ryley, who works full-time at Brisbane-based Stephen Dibb Jewellery, agrees with Baltis. “I don’t think there is a lack of jobs for jewellers particularly. You need to be willing and able to do what it takes to achieve whatever goals you might have. After all, it is a specialist trade and positions will always be available for those with the skills and talent to fill them.”

Many young jewellers struggling to find work in the industry have opted to open their own business instead.

Thitchener launched Hazell Silver in 2010 while Mamone founded her own eponymous business due to a perceived lack of design opportunities. 23-year-old Andy Lowrie, who is currently undertaking a Bachelor of Fine Art at the Queensland College of Art, has set up a studio at home and produces his own work. “The Australian government is currently very supportive of young creatives establishing their own businesses and I have a network of industry professionals helping me,” he says.

The big picture

The problems young jewellers face in making a name for themselves could stem from larger market forces, according to Kiddle, who believes the negative flow-on effects of chronic discounting is proving detrimental to how the market is evolving. “Over the last 25 years, the industry has trained the public not to accept marked prices. In my opinion, this has resulted in jewellers losing the respected position they may have once had and this has flowed on to the public not appreciating the skill and dedication required to be a manufacturing jeweller.” As a result, Kiddle says there is less of a requirement for skilled jewellers who can manufacture one-off designs, and consequently a lack of job openings here.

Baltis echoes Kiddle’s concerns: “I think the economic climate is hindering self-expression and holding back the sort of innovative talent that is recognised on a global level because of the warranted fear of financial failure.”

Step in the right direction

Whether young people in the jewellery industry are getting a fair deal or not, these emerging talents are the future of the industry and need a voice. As a step in the right direction, the JAA has made a move to attract young jewellers by launching a new category of membership for sole traders and offering a discounted rate to join. “The discounted rates help sole traders, many of which are young jewellers, become members. We have to establish a dialogue with these youngsters to see what they want and need,” Hadassin says. The JAA is also set to reconfigure its Design Award categories for 2012 to encourage more young jewellers to join.

Design competitions are an important way for young jewellers to gain exposure, according to Mamone, who thinks that there needs to be more of them. “It’s important so we try to exceed our own goals and push ourselves more to demonstrate our skills to others in the industry,” she says.

To combat the lack of knowledge among young jewellers, Pownall thinks the elder bench jewellers should rally together. “Many of us who are over 60 and nearing retirement could make a great contribution to the survival of the jewellery industry by giving our time free of charge to mentor young people.

Training is so important and the whole local Australian industry should be looking at ways to improve our viability and credibility to ensure our future, or we will become irrelevant to the consumer.”

Baltis thinks there needs to be more widespread recognition of the jewellery industry in general. “I feel that compared to somewhere like London, where the jewellery design industry is supported and promoted as much as the fashion design industry is, we have a lot of room for improvement.”

Ryley is of the opinion that suppliers and employers could provide upcoming jewellers with financial support. “Suppliers could offer a higher discount to apprentices than they currently do, if at all, as well as a government requirement for apprentices to be provided with a tool allowance or tools.” He says this would encourage young jewellers to work from their own premises once qualified and give them confidence.

Lowrie, who is the treasurer of the Jewellers and Metalsmiths Group of Queensland, says such committees are important in fostering a sense of belonging and promoting the exchange of information.

The formation of a ‘Young Jewellers Group’ could certainly go some way to facilitating such an exchange. Indeed, Howitt seems to sum up the views of the industry when she says, “If established members of the jewellery industry are willing to share their wisdom, I am definitely willing to listen!”

And if both young and old can find a way to support each other, the jewellery industry’s future will look a lot brighter.










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Wednesday, 11 December, 2019 12:04pm
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