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Image courtesy: Van Cleef & Arpels
Image courtesy: Van Cleef & Arpels

A jeweller’s state of mind

Although the future may not look bright for many manufacturing-based industries, Stephanie Chan discovered that’s not the case for JAA design award jewellers.

While politicians and the mainstream media regularly lament the loss of large and small-scale manufacturing industries in Australia, it is often overlooked that one sector that hasn’t completely shifted offshore is jewellery design and manufacturing.

True, the industry’s size may not be as large as it was at its peak in the late 1980s but when it comes to small-scale design and creativity, Australian and New Zealand jewellery design is just as vibrant today, if not more so.

On the eve of the JAA Australasian Jewellery Awards, Jeweller polled this year’s finalists on what excites them most about the industry, what challenges they’ve faced and what lies ahead for jewellery design and manufacturing.

CAD/CAM technology seems to be at the top of the list. Although it was first introduced some years ago, it is still considered to be one of the newest developments in the jewellery industry – and for Mehrnoosh Ganji, it offers one of the most exciting opportunities.

Ganji – who is a finalist for the 1st and 2nd Year Apprentice/Student Craftsmanship and Design award – says she is particularly interested in CAD/CAM software and how it allows her to design virtual 3D jewellery on screen and create photorealistic images of her pieces.

“My idea comes to life and I can see it from all angles even before I make it,” she says. “All of us [jewellers] recognise the growing role of computer technology in the creation and selling of jewellery.”

“3D printing is the next big thing,” CAD/CAM award finalist Armad Bahar adds. “It has definitely changed the way the jewellery industry works; however, I believe that it is really being underutilised in terms of design and new trends.”

A major concern that surrounded – and arguably still surrounds – the establishment of CAD/CAM and 3D printing within the jewellery industry was the fear it could usurp handmade jewellery and the individuality it offers. However, Rhys Turner says new technologies such as CAD have helped influence his craftsmanship and hand-making processes.

“I can explore and expand new ideas and designs,” explains the Coloured Gemstone category finalist. “I can create a unique piece for my customer and I feel it can only lead to well-developed products and an enhanced creativeness within the industry.”

Not everyone is focused on technology but rather a general appreciation of being able to create a piece as an expression of creativity and skill.

Tabitha Higgins, a Precious Metal award finalist, who is a self-proclaimed admirer of traditional craft skills, explains, “It is wonderful to think that when I make something, I am materialising an object that will potentially exist long after I am gone and forgotten. It will go out into the world to hopefully bring pleasure for a long time to come.”

Higgins’ point is an important issue that’s often overlooked – namely that unlike many other industries, not only are old-world artisanal skills still practiced today, they are prospering, and in some cases thriving. 

Craig McKim, a Coloured Gemstone category finalist, also expresses appreciation for the positive impact jewellery can have on people’s lives.

He explains, “I have a client who will be celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary. On his wedding day, he presented his wife with a diamond brooch, which was later stolen. Through the use of old wedding photos, we have been able to remake the original piece. To me, this is what is exciting about the jewellery industry – with all the memories it represents.”

Diamond award finalist Ben Preston-Black believes jewellers are fortunate to be working in the industry: “I’m glad to have a job that allows me to be apart of such an organic and creative process – an artistic approach in a commercial market.”

A smaller, more competitive world
The use of the internet – social media in particular – to market and sell jewellery is another relatively recent development.

“The ability to engage with the consumer audience and stay up to date on trends is now only a click away,” Precious Metal award finalist Benjamin Hart explains.

However, along with its benefits, the internet and technology has brought competition to jewellery retail and Turner believes that online shopping is having a “massive impact” on the industry. It’s a view also acknowledged by Riki-Mojag Tait, another Precious Metal category finalist.

“The biggest challenges I face in the trade are not being able to compete with online sellers and the lower cost of CAD/CAM manufacturers,” Tait explains. “With fewer people choosing the handmade option, the average jeweller has less scope for creativity, and spends more time repairing cheaply produced jewellery.”

Turner states, though, that competing, rather than conforming, helps move the industry forward. “The key is to embrace and adapt to change and use it to your advantage whilst remaining loyal to your standards and ethics as a jeweller,” he says.
embracing individuality McKim, who operates his own business, states that he too finds it difficult “catering to a market that is consumed by cheap overseas products”.

Despite this, he sees the challenge as an opportunity to “provide unique and personalised pieces of jewellery that the mass market could not produce”.

Men’s Jewellery and Accessories award finalist Ok Jin Jang is another jeweller that strives to maintain individuality in her pieces. “Despite the current industry developments that make it easy to duplicate designs, I am passionate about creating handmade jewellery that is unique,” she states.

To remain competitive with international markets, Ganji points out that the Australian industry must stay abreast of new jewellery technology, materials and knowledge, adding that this also requires “proper education”.

Coloured Gemstone award finalist Leon Parry agrees: “If you can be proactive instead of reactive, you have a better chance of being successful.”

He adds that the industry will always be faced with constant and ongoing economic challenges – an opinion that Bahar shares. “Jewellery is a luxury. In today’s market when consumers are going to spend a small chunk of their life savings for an engagement ring, they are smarter with their purchases, making it very competitive for retailers,” Bahar explains.

“If the economy is being portrayed as volatile in the media, our industry is always the first to take a hit, and with tighter profit margins, jewellers cannot afford to make mistakes.” Despite this, Parry states, “If you provide a unique and innovative product backed by great service, you will not have a problem.”

When it comes to the future of the industry, Jason Cheetham believes that “adornment will be with us forever – and so will ever-changing technology”.

“With advances in 3D printing, the possibilities available are growing exponentially,” the 1st and 2nd Year Apprentice/Student Craftsmanship and Design award finalist states. “Thoughtful design will be the thing I am most looking forward to in the future.”

Jason Nesbitt, who is a finalist for the 3rd and 2nd Year Apprentice/Student category, says the reason the industry is slowly becoming CAD-based is due to the low cost and less metal wastage – but he attests, “CAD isn’t what being a jeweller is all about!”

“My objective will be keeping jewellery true and real for the future, and to stay away from CAD as best as possible,” Nesbitt says.

While Parry thinks the future is bright for the industry, he also believes the rising popularity of CAD/CAM technology will mean “old school jewellers” that can handcraft fine jewellery, such as he and Nesbitt, will become a rare breed.

“I hope the generations coming through are not just cleaning up component parts and assembling them, rather than having the opportunity to handcraft,” he says, before conceding that the technology does offer jewellers “total freedom of design”.

“Pieces can now be created that previously would be difficult to hand-make, therefore opening up a whole new world of design possibilities,” Parry admits.

CAD/CAM vs handmade
Tait is of the opinion that jewellers’ acceptance of CAD is inevitable, stating that “the future is definitely in technology”.

“I feel like hand-making will be a niche market for those who particularly want to pay for it,” he says. “Most designers who don’t manufacture will end up having to learn CAD, and manufacturing jewellers who aren’t particularly design-oriented will have to learn how to talk to people, because just doing design or manufacturing won’t be enough to keep job in a dwindling future retail market.”

Contrary to opinions that demand for handmade jewellery is in decline, Turner – who is a supporter of using CAD/CAM and traditional methods in combination – believes that a resurgence for such techniques has recently occurred.

“It is great to see people wanting to ‘break the mould’ when purchasing jewellery by having much more input into the design process and expressing their own personality and individuality in their piece,” he says.

Despite the industry’s fears of international competition, Bahar believes that consumers are starting to “shift away from the lower quality imported goods and going for better quality Australian-made personal pieces”.

“When the market decides to favour the latter, we will truly see some unique pieces and with hope, start to see the development of an Australian jewellery culture,” Bahar says.

Sentiments like this help to provide insight into why the 2014 JAA Australasian Jewellery Awards showcases current cutting-edge jewellery design, heralding a new generation of innovation. Indeed, it’s also a celebration of the trade’s determination in overcoming challenges and serves as a reminder to jewellers just why they love their chosen profession.

Stephanie Chan • Staff Journalist

Stephanie Chan is a staff journalist for Jeweller. She has more than four years’ experience in business-to-business publishing, covering a wide range of industries.

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