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Renee Blackwell
Renee Blackwell
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Jewellery's new hunters and collectors

Sifting markets looking for special treasures or harvesting ancient seeds to make modern jewellery, NAOMI LEVIN speaks to three women who are not only jewellers, but hunters and collectors.

Beautiful jewellery takes a lot of work. For some jewellery makers though, a lot of that work comes before they even start thinking about a design. For them, the hard yakka is in the sourcing and gathering of stones, beads, gems and seeds.

Ann Porteus, owner of Sidewalk Tribal Galleries in Hobart, must be running out of pages in her passport. She has travelled all over the world to source ethnic beads and tribal jewellery components – from deepest Africa to steamiest Asia, from the dusty Middle East to suburban Australia, she’s been there.

Porteus’ preferred place for jewellery hunting is Yemen, an ancient land on the Arabian Peninsula. One of her favourite hunting stories took place during a trip there.

“In 1997, I met a trader in Yemen who had some wonderful pieces,” Porteus begins. “When I returned in 1999, he was away in Dubai, so his young son took me to meet his grandmother Nana, a very old but very agile woman. Sixty years earlier she had been the first person to start buying old jewellery from the Bedouin tribes.”

The Bedouin families – a nomadic group of people who roam the Arabian deserts –melt down a woman’s jewellery after she dies so the pieces can be remade. Nana saw the value in these beautiful old pieces, Porteus explains, and started buying them and then commissioning new pieces from the families.

“When I met her, she still had her shop, but she only opened for a part of a day each month,” Porteus says. “I went to her house where she had a small bench bed, and all the space under it was full of old Red Sea coral.”

Porteus had been looking for good quality coral to sell in her Tasmanian shop and online for two weeks, but had only found bits and pieces of poor quality coral.

“We sat on the floor for hours going through it and I bought quite a lot, as much as I could pay for,” she says. “I really was not expecting to be searching under a grandmother’s bed to find the good stuff.”

Renee Blackwell, a jewellery designer from southern Queensland, has also made some great discoveries on her trips to the edges of the world: “A year ago, I went to South America, to Chile and Argentina, and I would have to say it was one of my more fantastic recent trips,” Blackwell says.

Blackwell --who began by making beaded pieces after a trip to Africa more than 25 years ago --found a lot of glass components in Buenos Aires. She also stumbled upon an enormous antique market.

“They have this antique market every Sunday. It takes up a big portion of the city; they block off all the streets and it goes for miles and miles around,” she says. “I spent two Sundays there from the morning until dark and I still didn’t see the whole thing.”

Bev Dunkley, another Queensland-based designer, gathers her jewellery components by growing them. Caravanning around Australia with her family, Dunkley learnt from some indigenous women in Darwin, that northern Australia’s indigenous communities have been creating seed jewellery for thousands of years.

Dunkley discovered that certain seeds are colourful and shiny and do not fade or crack. Now, she has adopted the ancient art and combines these seeds with sterling silver and gemstones to create unique objets d’art.

One thing Dunkley does not do is travel abroad to source her seeds: “It is an absolute taboo,” she explains. “For one, bringing seeds into Australia is something you wouldn’t do (because of quarantine laws). Also, why would you go overseas and get seeds when you can grow them yourself?”

Before Dunkley makes her jewellery, she wanders around her Far North Queensland property collecting seeds from the various trees and bushes she has propagated and planted.

“When you’re first dealing with seeds, you start finding out their names, how they grow, what the plant is and where they live,” she says. Seed jewellery is an art unique to the tropical climates of northern Australia.

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“It is definitely up to the climate. You will only find the seed trees here. If you start going south beyond Townsville it is just not warm enough for them and not wet enough.”

After collecting the seeds, Dunkley does nothing but drill a hole in them as, astonishingly, they require no treatment, no painting and no polishing.

“They are completely natural; you don’t have to do anything,” she says.

The real romance of these three artisans and their pieces comes from the stories behind their work. All say their customers appreciate hearing of the search for the materials.

“To this day, the number-one question that I get from everybody, whether it is a retail buyer or a wholesale buyer, is where I find my beads and my components,” Blackwell says.

Porteus explains that her customers like both the cultural history behind her pieces and the stories of her individual discoveries – and stories she has, speaking knowledgeably about her favourite hunting ground, Yemen.

“Yemen does not have a lot remaining from their history of wonderful Jewish jewellery artisans,” she explains. “You rarely see it in the markets, but most traders do have a few pieces stashed away if you ask.”

Yemenite Jewish jewellery, however, can still be found and a small amount is even still produced. In the late 1940s, close to 50,000 Yemenite Jews were transported to Israel by the Israeli Government. Among those 50,000 were descendants of famous Jewish silversmiths.

“A few of these people continued to make jewellery in Israel and now that country produces some beautiful contemporary jewellery,” she says. “Yemen was closed to the outside for many years and still does not attract a large tourist market, so with good contacts I have found some fantastic pieces there.”

Another thing all three women agree on is that trends and fashions don’t really matter because of the uniqueness of their components.

Dunkley uses her seeds to make pieces that reflect her own personal style and, in her own words, “look really good”. The biggest challenge she finds when putting together her jewellery is getting the designs right.

“Every seed is like a fingerprint; they’re all different,” she says.

For Dunkley, creating matching earrings requires a meticulous eye for detail to find seeds that are as close to identical as possible. She must sift through to find ones that are blemish-free, shiny, the same size, and colour.

Meanwhile, Blackwell says that while she keeps up with trends, she is not beholden to them: “I don’t really think, ‘OK, red is in this year and lime green is in this year so I’m going to make red and lime green jewellery’. I’ve never really done that. I feel like I make my jewellery and then those who like it will buy it.”

After more than 25 years in the business, Blackwell has become a little more discerning about what she purchases on her trips.

“I used to just go and buy everything thinking, ‘I’ll use it.’ That has been good for a long time, but now I’m more careful and I know what I’ll need and what I’ll use because I have a whole studio with a whole lifetime of beads.”

Porteus, too, looks almost exclusively for things she and her customers will love.

“I always hunt for things to suit my personal style but I also buy things for the market. After 19 years, I have come to know the style of a lot of my clients who both wear and collect ethnic jewellery,” she says. “These days, there are not enough good quality pieces left to be too fussy about particular styles. It is more a matter of choosing from the pieces available.”

While Porteus, Blackwell and Dunkley all spend hours in their studios polishing, stringing and creating one-off, unique pieces, it is the time they spend hunting and gathering that makes their creations extra special.

Naomi Levin
Contributor •

Naomi Levin is a journalist who knows a little bit about a lot of things. She has worked as a sports journalist and is currently a political and general news reporter, in addition to writing for Jeweller.
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