Rita Britton is dingle-dangling a pair of earrings with all the glee of an excited child at Christmas. The baubles in question — elongated pear drops of chiseled Whitby jet, speckled with the glint of black diamonds — are the work of the Whitby-born, Sheffield-based jeweller Jennie Gill.
“Aren’t these fantastic?” exclaims Britton. “What I really love about Jennie’s work is that she challenges any preconceptions people have about diamonds — if you mention diamonds to people they think it has to be a solitaire on a plain band. But Jennie’s use of diamonds is more about sculpture than showing off a big rock. They are not for flashing in other people’s faces; they are subtle. And the people who buy her work absolutely love it.”
Gill, who wriggles shyly at such praise, is more at ease talking about the nitty-gritty of the craft itself.
“Rita and I were talking about Whitby jet and working with it in a contemporary way,” says the 45-year-old from her Persistence Works studio in Sheffield. “There are still seams of jet that some people know about but it’s a secretive little industry, as you can imagine. As such, the pieces are one-offs. I buy my jet from a local guy who collects it on the beach. It’s a beautiful material to work with: you get a ginger dust from it as you cut it, and it has a wonderful smell.”
It’s not just the unexpected revival of Whitby jet, more associated with the piety of Victorian mourning jewellery than Digital Age style statements, that features in Gill’s new collection for Nomad Atelier. There are oversized rings of brushed and oxidised silver, their chunky bands topped with a faceted-metal bobble from which tiny diamonds sparkle (a Thelma Flintstone two-finger salute to the Wag’s ‘Bigger Is Best’ mantra, if ever there was one), and boldly-proportioned earrings with slices of faceted sapphires in anything other than the usual blue: mustard-yellow, forest-green and cloudy aquamarine.
“The way that I make my jewellery is all about investing the time into making something with my hands, as opposed to saving time by shoving a design into a computer [CAD] and having everything laser cut on a machine,” says Gill.
And it’s exactly here, within Gill’s modern spin on the handmade tradition, where the real genius of her work lies. Because, unlike other contemporary jewellery, Gill’s pieces manage to retain the raw energy and feverish creativity with which they were made; a quality which is usually lost during the journey from initial sketch to over-polished, finished product.
“I don’t draw. I don’t design on paper. I can’t do 2D work. I design at the bench, responding directly with the stones and the metal that I am working with.”
Gill’s preferred metals include 18 and 22 carat gold (“so soft and malleable”), and silver which she oxidises or leaves raw (“Everything is brushed and burnished so that it takes on the personalty of the wearer as you wear it”) to create the perfect foil for the old-cut diamonds that she sources from family-owned mines in India.
“All my diamonds are ethically sourced, cut and are traceable. That’s very important,” says Gill as she draws my attention to the two rough gold bands studded with old-cut diamonds (and one teeny-tiny pink diamond) which decorate her fingers. “I bought these diamonds about 15 years ago from America. They are antique rose-cut diamonds, cut around 300 years ago, broken down from estate jewellery. They are probably the two most special pieces of jewellery I own because I would never part with them, and they continue to inspire the gold pieces I am working on right now.”
And yet despite the undiluted passion that Gill has for making jewellery, it wasn’t always an obvious career choice.
“I have always been interested in design. Even as a child I was making and designing things, like the [greetings] cards that I used to make and sell from the little shop that I set up in the living room. I was about five years old,” remembers Gill, laughing. “But rather than jewellery itself, it was the materials and working with those materials that first got my attention.”
Fast forward some 11 years and Gill enrolled at York Art College to explore her creative bent.
“It was an amazing course which let us experiment with lots of different things. I had a go with clay bit I just ended up making a load of turds. Everything looked awful. I couldn’t do it. But there was a metal work room and so I experimented with that and I just found I had an affinity with metal.”
Having obtained her jewellery and silversmithing degree at Sheffield University (where she met her husband-to-be, Rob Baxter), Gill cut her jeweller’s teeth working for High Street fashion brands as French Connection, Phase Eight and Oasis.
“I did 15 years working in the trade but when the children came along I didn’t have the bench-time for it anymore, and so I started making pieces that I really loved,” says Gill who now has two kids: Ed, 10, and Jim, 7. “It was actually a huge relief not to have to follow a specific fashion trend or to have to design things for a particular market. It’s been a bit of a revelation. I’ve found a completely new customer base.”
Today, that new customer base includes the clientele at Nomad Atelier’s Barnsley HQ where Britton is now playing with a bangle, its wire-fine strands threaded with black diamond beads.
“I first came across Jennie’s work when a client of mine came in wearing one of her rings. It was the first time that I’d ever thought ‘if I were going to wear a ring it would be just like that’. And then when I first met her she was just as divine as her jewellery. What more can you want?”