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Articles from EDUCATION / TRAINING (185 Articles)

Aussie through and through

I began making silver jewellery about 43 years ago. Silver won me over from day one on a buffing machine. I still remember thinking, “Wow, I love this stuff!”

I was lucky to start at a time when there was a surge in demand, due to a certain 1970s social movement – it was the period of Woodstock, California Dreamin’ and Janis Joplin so suddenly everyone wanted more silver than the market could supply.

It took a few years for imports to arrive but market stalls, galleries, gift shops and even corner stores were stocking a range of imported silver before long. The prices were ridiculously low and there was no way we could emulate them by manufacturing product in Australia. Still, there wasn’t a lot of metal or imagination so I thought that just maybe I could find a way to compete.

Luckily, I’d had some pretty strict training in developing quality product – durability and finish were vital. With silver being relatively inexpensive, you could add another $10 in value and have something 10 times better. It made business sense to make pieces chunky, generous and, hopefully, unbreakable.

Further, there had to be a major design element, technique and point of difference.

I devoured my Oppi Untracht bible, Metal Techniques for Craftsmen, looking at old-world techniques and what makes a truly great piece. Here was forging, hand engraving, pattern rolling, fusing, inlay, relief stamping, etching and patinas.

Another breakthrough can be traced to metalwork class in high school. The woodwork teacher was sick one day so Mr Metalwork taught us how to forge and temper a steel punch.

"In developing quality product – durability and finish were vital."

Later, working in my shop in Broome, I realised if I made a little set of punches with a lugger, a pearl shell, a diver’s helmet, a boab tree that there was Broome on a ring or bracelet. The punches and stamps kept coming: a mermaid, a scuba diver, a shark.

This presented an opportunity to make Australian-looking jewellery – kangaroos, emus, echidnas, wrens and whale sharks.

It continues to baffle me that there’s so little iconic Australian jewellery here. It’s not like we’re stuck for symbols of everything Aussie; we revel in our own music, art, films, TV and the whole sunburnt country thing. Why does jewellery miss out? Is there a cringe factor? Maybe because it takes just a little more thought to design and manufacture.

The Navajo Indians of New Mexico and Arizona have made a jewellery industry from their traditional and tribal motifs and icons. The Haida tribespeople of British Colombia have also adapted their totemic figures once carved in wood into metal adornment. Similarly, our friends across the ditch in New Zealand have made great use of their local nephrite, using traditional Maori designs such as the Tiki and Koru.

In each of these cases, the jewellery is an industry – locals and visitors love it and buy it.

We don’t need to appropriate indigenous intellectual property to do this. There’s no end of good-old Aussie iconography, as exemplified by artists like Pro Hart, Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley and Ken Done.

I now have hundreds of steel pattern stamps and incorporating these with hand-engraved landscape detail has created a unique range not available elsewhere. It doesn’t have to be kitsch; it just needs style. I can attest that local sells well all over the world.

I like to avoid getting boxed as ‘the stamping guy’ so I keep the styles and techniques mixed but always with an eye to quality and finish. About 15 years ago I sold a silver bracelet for $2,000 and thought, “Who else does that?”

Silver jewellery specialist Georg Jensen is a classic example of a great business model. The ethos? Better before cheaper. There is no rule two.

Nothing has changed today. Trying to emulate fashion trends and chasing the market is folly. You can never expect to compete with people paid $10 a day. You have to make it better and make it different.

Our national pride permeates every facet of our lives from how we eat to the AFL.

Why not jewellery? This style might not be for everybody – most trade jewellers do what they do best and that’s it but, like so many other manufacturing industries, we’re sunk if we can’t compete.

I urge you to consider making it better and while you’re at it, why not make it noticeably Australian too?

NameJohn Miller
BusinessJohn Miller Design
LocationAdelaide, South Australia
Years in the industry43

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Friday, 10 July, 2020 09:31am
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