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Behind many thriving Australian jewelry businesses stands a highly skilled artisan.
Behind many thriving Australian jewelry businesses stands a highly skilled artisan.

Wisdom from the bench

Creating jewellery is a complicated art form. SAMUEL ORD explores life for those who brave the bench.

Behind so many successful Australian jewellery businesses is a highly-skilled artisan.

The professional lives of these bench jewellers are complex and emotionally taxing.

For much of the day, jewellers must deal with long and gruelling hours of concentration, focusing on the finest of details and executing a seemingly endless chain of precise techniques, where the price of failure is disastrous.

That is without mentioning the many health risks associated with jewellery manufacturing. These artisans must be mindful of both their physical and mental health while working.

Indeed, there are many ways to earn a living that involve less stress – so what is it that motivates these jewellers to persist?

Unsurprisingly, the answers vary greatly depending on whom you ask. 

"Indeed, there are many ways to earn a living that involve less stress – so what is it that motivates these jewellers to persist?"

“I don’t even wear jewellery, personally, I just find so much joy in seeing the pleasure that jewellery creations can bring to others,” Anthea Plug of Smales Jewellers tells Jeweller.

“Seeing the reactions from customers they receive their special creations and have their dreams come to life, that’s what makes it worth doing.”

Zoë Pook, owner of Zoë Pook Jewellery in Sydney, says that it’s an art form that appeals to some basic, almost primitive, human desires.

“It’s one of the oldest ways for humans to adorn themselves and to show individuality or tribe,” she explains.

“It’s about creativity and it’s worn by everyone. Old or young, from any culture, jewellery is universal.”

In neighbouring Engadine, Darren Nancarrow of Dian Darling Jewellers says that the greatest reward he derives from manufacturing is knowing that he is contributing to family history.

“It’s about being able to create a design that means so much to someone, that they may hopefully pass down that jewellery for years to come,” he explains.

“That’s definitely the best part of the job, the happy face of a customer.”

Why do you do it?

For others, jewellery manufacturing presents a deeply enjoyable ‘mental puzzle’ where the end result of successfully rising to a series of cognitive challenges is a memorable piece of artwork.

“It’s art, and the vast possibilities of what you can create when you try to master an art form are very fulfilling,” Jo Makohin of Simon West Fine Jewellery says.

“I love looking at a job and working out how to make it. I enjoy the challenge of making something new and different. I love the conceptual struggle of lifting an idea off the page and making it better. And there’s always more to learn.”

The challenge of taking a sketch or computer design and transforming it into a physical adornment is the factor many bench jewellers say they find deeply motivating.

Creating jewellery appeals to the logical faculties of craftsmen the same way solving a crime appeals to some detectives, or completing a jigsaw puzzle scratches that certain ‘mental itch’ on a rainy day.

Learning to see tasks from this logically ‘step-by-step’ perspective is also one of the most common pieces of advice that jewellers offer apprentices.

With more than 30 years of experience in the trade, David Stephenson of Holloway Diamonds in Brighton has seen it all.

"The challenge of taking a sketch or computer design and transforming it into a physical adornment is the factor many bench jewellers say they find deeply motivating."

“You need to be able to divide the biggest jobs into small challenges,” he explains.

“You should enjoy what you do. For me, I get a sense of achievement in completing a piece that a client is happy with. There’s always a sense of satisfaction that comes with completing quality jewellery.”

The importance of breaking a task down into smaller challenges is passed on to apprentices at an early stage in their education and it’s wisdom that even those relatively new to the profession, such as Eleanor Hawke of Abrecht Bird, are accustomed to.

“I love the idea of sketching a rough idea for an item of jewellery and watching a simple bar of gold transform into something spectacular,” confesses Hawke. 

“If a job looks complicated and daunting as a whole, you break it down into smaller components. Everything is made up of shapes that appear more complex than they are.”

She adds: “Presenting customers with their new item of jewellery and seeing the joy in their faces makes it all worthwhile.”

There tend to be two paths to the bench for jewellers. For some, it’s a profession that simply ‘seems right’ – whether it be because of a passion for gemstones, the enjoyment derived from working their hands, or the pleasure of dealing with satisfied customers.

For others, it’s a family affair – something preordained from birth as parents or grandparents are already committed to the industry.

The latter applies to Hawke – the great-granddaughter of the founder of House of Hawke, one of Australia’s largest jewellery manufacturing companies.

It’s a similar story for Leon Raper of the Australian Diamond Company in Melbourne, who began working in jewellery as an apprentice in South Africa in the early 1980s.

“It’s in my blood!” he proudly tells Jeweller.

“My father was a diamond cutter and polisher and from a very young age, I would go with him when he visited various people in the industry.

“That is how I was exposed to the diamond and jewellery business. For me, the best part of the job is mastering a technique that you once found difficult.”

Tortured artists

The myth of the ‘tortured artist’ has been extensively debated in recent years. Many have asked the question: is pain and suffering really required to create great art?

History contains many examples of such a figure. Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night during a period of emotional distraught.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney forged their musical partnership following a significant death in their respective families. John Milton wrote Paradise Lost immediately after the loss of his wife.

It’s been said that the greatest art reflects humanity and that humanity’s greatest virtue is overcoming adversity.

Another Australian jewellery store that embodies the importance of family in business is Bassil Creations in Sydney, where a father-son duo knows all too well that creating jewellery can be a mentally and physically taxing experience.

“Sitting down for too long can be the biggest health risk for any jeweller,” explains Sergio Bassil.

“It’s important to get up sometimes and move around and stretch the body. Forgetting to take a break and stretch when working on a significant piece that requires many hours at the bench can be a real problem.”

Sergio’s son, Harry, agrees with his father and says that he has had to learn to overcome this challenge outside of work hours.

"It’s been said that the greatest art reflects humanity and that humanity’s greatest virtue is overcoming adversity."

“Sitting down for a long number of hours without much movement isn’t going for anybody. It’s important to do some daily exercise after work,” he says.

“When growing up I always saw my father creating jewellery and this always intrigued me. I used to sit on his bench and play around with the tools. From the first time I started working with my father, I knew this was my passion.”

“I love the concept of bringing a customer’s jewellery piece to reality.”

Located in Sydney, Rick Southwick Bespoke Jeweller specialises in unique designs for special occasions. Owner Rick Southwick echoes the sentiments of the Bassils and says that remaining active is vital.

“Posture is the key to longevity. The bench is an extension of the jeweller, so it should be ergonomically set up for ease of use and fluidity,” he explains.

“Jewellery has given me a career spanning the globe, learning Victorian jewellery-making skills in London and the intricacies of style and proportion in Sydney, and has led me to tap into my own ‘creative well’. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Cosimo Mirachi is also based in Sydney and says that his concern relates more to the materials required to make exquisite jewellery.

“Breathing in chemicals is a big one for me. I try to use non-toxic chemicals where possible and drink plenty of water while working,” he says.

“With that said, I love all the challenges of creating jewellery. The deadlines, the pressure, it’s all part of what pushes me to achieve perfection.”

It’s a similar story for 72-year-old Jim George, a bench jeweller at Rohan Jewellers in Perth.

“The polishing dust and acid fumes we have all inhaled at one time or another is a major health concern. I wear a mask regularly,” he advises.

“I think a lot of jewellers would agree that finding enough time in each day to get everything done is sometimes impossible.”

We’re all in this together

While bench jewellers are notoriously private people who enjoy keeping to themselves, few are ever truly ‘self-taught’.

Indeed, while the number of jewellers who have constructed most of their technical knowledge from purely online resources has increased in recent years, that information doesn’t just appear on the internet on its own!

Beyond the jewellers who are happy to share what they’ve learned online; apprenticeship programs remain vital to introducing the future leaders of the industry to the craft.

For those already in the business, sometimes all that’s needed is a helpful pointer from a fellow jeweller.

“Perfection is impossible, but we should always strive to attain it in what we do,” explains Mark Draper of Bell & Brunt.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder with jewellery, and a custom piece can serve as a creative outlet for both the jeweller and the customer."

“Failure is a critical part of the manufacturing process, it’s how we become better jewellers.”

Stephen Dickins of London Court in Perth says that whether you’re self-taught or well-trained, all that matters is a thirst for knowledge.

“Just because you haven’t been shown how to do something, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I’m self-taught in a lot of things, and I’m always asking questions to improve my skills,” he explains.

With more than 50 years of experience working with jewellery, William Whiting of Archer & Holland Jewellers has seen it all and highlights the importance of time management.

“You should treat every piece of jewellery you are working on as if it’s your own,” he says.

“When you’re manufacturing, don’t waste time on things that may not be necessary.”

It was mentioned earlier that jewellery presents artisans with an addictive test of their logical skills or a mental puzzle that must be completed.

Matthew Alexander Crooks, owner of Matthew Alexander Jewellery in Queensland, says that understanding this process is the key to conquering any challenge.

“During my apprenticeship, my boss instilled a belief in me to trust in my expertise and strive to build my problem-solving ability. When making a piece, before my boss would answer a question, I was asked what I thought,” he reflects.

“This lesson is important for custom handmade designs, as you are constantly problem-solving.”

“This one lesson has not only greatly shaped the way I run my business but is also one of the greatest life lessons I have learned to date!”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder with jewellery, and a custom piece can serve as a creative outlet for both the jeweller and the customer. Crooks says that passing on the skills and traditions which make such creations possible should be paramount for the industry.

“We need to work hard to keep hand-manufacturing skills alive. A willingness to work together and cherish these skills will go a long way to building the industry and culture within Australia,” he says.

“This can only benefit those passionate about the trade and its future. If made well, any piece of jewellery can be passed down through generations as a representation of the past and a historical artefact.”

Indeed, while many bench jewellers share overlapping qualities and characteristics, there are always those who break the mould.

For the dozens of committed technicians who enjoy nothing more than peace and quiet while working at the bench, there are also boisterous artists who love nothing more than interacting with customers.

What these characters all seem to share is a passion for overcoming the mental challenges associated with creating fine jewellery, while also bringing joy to the lives of their customers by transforming dreams into reality.


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Samuel Ord

Samuel Ord is a Jeweller journalist covering day-to-day industry news and investigative long-form features. He has over seven years experience as a court reporter and sports journalist.

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