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Time to rediscover the 'magic' of art and design

After I had a book written about me, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on all the changes that have taken place over the course of my career.

What really stands out is that now, more than ever before, independent jewellery retailers need to be finding the ‘magic’ in the pieces they sell.

They need to show off the special handmade pieces that carry the passion of the craftsman. These are the kind of pieces that will be handed down for generations. What’s more – retailers need to be prepared charge for this craftsmanship and skill accordingly.

I started making copper jewellery for craft galleries 50 years ago. Dissatisfied, I sought further training and ended up in the School of Jewellery in Birmingham, which I followed up with three years working in the trade in London. I have been self-employed ever since, with one foot in ‘art’ jewellery and one foot in the ‘trade’ by designing and making mainly high-end jewellery.

As a craftsman jeweller, I have relied on independent jewellery retailers to provide a market for my work. However, over the years I have watched the steady decline in their numbers and have seen the struggles of those left to survive.

A major difficulty seems to be the need for cash flow items. Balancing that with the higher priced and more individual pieces that give a point of difference to the shop, and therefore a better margin, has become the challenge. All bricks-and-mortar stores – whether these jewellers are large or small, independent or chains – are under increasing pressure from the looming online retailers.

"There’s a silver lining for us jewellers. As mass production ramps up, there is increasing demand from the public for individuality"

I have always believed in good design, individuality and fine craftsmanship when working with jewellery. Crafting pieces is a personal thing that can fill us with such emotions, not to mention the unmistakable lure of ‘magic’; without this magic, the pieces scarcely qualify as jewellery.

Yet I see too many retailers who might as well be selling underpants or cabbages – the same product as everyone else, hopefully priced a little lower than their competitor. It is however, nothing more than an inevitable race to the bottom.

I am now besieged by offers of designing with synthetic stones or ‘man made’ diamonds; each one advertised as a chance to “give your client a magnificent stone at a better price”. Yet no matter what, there always seems to be someone selling pieces cheaper – a multinational chain with buying power that independent jeweller can’t hope to match any time soon.

In this race for competitive pricing there is a steady undermining of the customer’s confidence, who is left worrying that what they buy is not ‘real’ – and therefore a steady downgrading of the magic of jewellery.

At the same time, advertising claims to be selling something ‘special’, or it boasts to offer ‘jewellery as unique as you are’. This is contrary to the product on offer and is actually undermining the industry.

After all, in reality this is no different than rearranging the peas in a pod!

I don’t believe that a ring made with synthetic diamonds, cast in heavily rhodium plated gold and sold by a chain store, will ever become the treasured family heirloom, or that wonderful antique piece that you see on television shows such as Antiques Roadshow.

I get it – not all handmade jewellery is good. Sadly, too many manufacturing jewellers have been taught technique but not design, while too many designers have ideas yet no technique!

Luckily, there’s a silver lining for us jewellers. As mass production ramps up, there is increasing demand from the public for individuality; for something that feels special – their own little piece of magic.

In the downward pressure on prices, the real cost of handmade jewellery has been forgotten. When I sat on the Crafts Council of New Zealand some years ago, I used to say that if a handmade object was not two or three times the price of the mass-produced equivalent, you were selling it short; if you could not justify that price, you were in the wrong business!

Nothing has changed except that the two or three times is now probably closer to ten times. The only way forward for our trade is in rediscovering the special magic and real value of truly unique jewellery.

Name: Tony Williams
Business: TW Gold
Position: Master goldsmith
Location: Dunedin, New Zealand
Years in the industry: 50

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Monday, 01 June, 2020 04:13pm
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