My workshop is absolutely full of the tell-tale signs of the busiest time of the year! Every tool imaginable has been used, bench space is at a minimum and there is a liberal sprinkling of glitter….except it’s not the glitter my children use for their Christmas cards…it’s gold dust!
Being surrounded by this precious by-product of creating unique jewellery has led me to think about my workshop. Keeping my tools and equipment clean and in working order is really important and, of course, not letting the valuable dust get away! There are important lessons to be learned in thrift and recycling.
My workshop is a second home to me but must seem quite alien to anyone who isn’t in the trade.
A stranger would be confronted with the dusty darkness of my polishing area, with its large motor, face masks, calico mops and noisy extraction system. In another area the space is clean and lit like Wembley stadium with gemstone sorting trays, tweezers, designing paints, weighing scales and lists of work priorities.
In the centre of my creative hub is the workbench, with shelves above and drawers full of tools within arms reach. The jeweller’s bench is not a normal straight-sided workbench. I sit on a low stool at a shoulder-high semi-circular cutout bench top. The jewellery I’m working is supported at eye level on a narrow wedge-shaped piece of wood. This juts out from the back of the bench and is known as the ‘pin’ or ‘peg’. Every jeweller customises their peg to suit the way they wield their saw, files and drills; cutting it and forming it to support their work. I could never work another jeweller’s peg any more than a ballerina could dance in another’s shoes. When a peg eventually wears down to an unusable stump, breaking in a new one is a horrible job!
Under the bench peg hangs a heavy leather ‘skin’ which forms a hammock-shaped layer between the working surface and my lap. This collects any falling gold dust or little stones that have escaped. It also effectively protects my legs from falling molten metal when I’m heating, soldering or melting gold.
On the walls I’ve added words of inspiration, my favourite being a Rumi quote, ‘When the ocean surges, don’t let me just hear it, let it surge inside my chest!’ It reminds me of my approach to creating something – to have a heart-felt understanding of my inspiration and be moved by it, rather than a superficial, purely business-like approach (sorry Lord Sugar but I wouldn’t make a good apprentice to you!).
When I started in the trade over 30 years ago, I was encouraged to make many of my tools. I can’t begin to tell you what a pain I found that! It seemed such a total waste of time – why couldn’t I go out and buy them? And besides, there’s no better reading than the Suttons tool catalogue! But decades on I get it. Not only did that experience give me a set of tools that were completely tailored to my own hand, it gave me the belief that you can solve practical problems and the skills to create solutions.
There is only one person that I will trust with cleaning my workshop – my teenage son, Toby. He’s not the tidiest kid at home. His head is in the world of quantum computing and his body leaves a trail of dirty clothes, guitar picks, and empty chocolate wrappers. But when it comes to his Saturday cleaning job, he excels! My sacred work space is meticulously transformed and I can rest assured that any gold dust has been retained in the ‘lemel’ jar.
As Toby cleans the workshop, he uses a designated hoover bag and any cleaning cloths used to wipe down glittering surfaces are saved. Abrasive papers, old polishing mops, and the filter from the extractor are stored. It takes many many years to gather enough ‘sweeps’ to make a trip to the refiners worthwhile, but eventually, all these tiny offerings accumulate, can be burnt and the gold content extracted. My last workshop carpet had enough gold in it to pay for re-flooring my new gallery!
Over the years I have developed my own systems of working, and the places and positions of my hand tools and equipment have become so familiar I can reach for what I need with my eyes shut. Just like driving a car, or eating a meal, the tools become almost invisible to the task in hand. Toby has learned just how I need the layout of my working space to be, and he takes a great pride in caring for the tools and equipment; oiling pliers and rolling mills and making sure steel blocks and hammers are clean and shiny. Unfortunately he hasn’t completely transferred these skills to home life (I can’t find the words to describe the kitchen after he’s been cooking), but the clean workshop is good enough for me!
Just like saving and re-using my own precious scrap, I can do the same for my clients. One of the many re-cycled gold pieces I’ve made this Christmas was a beautiful dragonfly pendant. The gold was gathered and melted from family wedding rings and the stones from engagements rings. I really enjoyed creating the wings and legs from square wire rolled from the ingot. The round ‘rub-over’ settings of the diamonds and sapphire made the abdomen. It is now flying round the neck of it’s owner, a delightful expression of her personality and style. It is also a reminder of the sentiment of the past items it is made from and is being enjoyed and worn as unique jewellery should be.
The time between Christmas and New Year is one where the jewellery workshops close and we all rest and recuperate. Before I lock up I will help Toby make the place spotless and ready for the New Year commissions and then curl up in front of the fire with the latest tool catalogue! Seasons greetings from the workshop!