The Bishop of Bath and Wells has a lot to answer for! Little did I know, when I first set up my business, that my fascination with his bell-ringing swans would eventually lead to many sleepless nights, my first jewellery design collection, and having to rebuild the entrance to my house.
I can’t help it – I like swans. They have a lot going for them! Appearing to glide effortlessly and elegantly with pleasing form, whilst hiding the reality of their massive paddle-like feet that work over-time in weed-encrusted waters. Pairing for life with a minimum divorce rate (what an achievement), both male and female equally share the responsibilities of nest-building and incubating eggs. Watch them for a while and you realise that us humans are not the only ones who try desperately to be patient with our feisty teenagers -and yet, swans achieve this on a diet of pond weed and tadpoles!
The world is full of myths and legends about swans, they have inspired artists, poets, composers and dancers. They’ve become a symbol of fidelity and the swan’s feather (which will sit in water but not get wet) is an age-old metaphor for non-attachment.
Back in the 1990s, I set up my workshop and gallery in Wells. Keen to enjoy a lunchtime game of frisbee and the chance to snatch a fresh pasty from the hand of an unsuspecting tourist (yes, it happened!), my dog would tow me up the High Street, past the Bishop’s Palace moat and the famous swans of Wells. The Swan’s nest on the side of the moat, and generations of these majestic birds have been trained to ring a bell to ask for their food.
It’s probably no surprise that swans inspired my first jewellery collection. The symbolism of their pairing for life fits the sentiment of a jewellery collection perfectly – particularly engagement and wedding rings. Developing collections has been an interesting journey for me. Having trained and specialised in one-off pieces, creating a ‘set’ with a theme isn’t something that comes very naturally. The range of my collections has grown with several pieces added to each over the years. Each new creation is carefully integrated into the set.
Rings were first in the collection, – simple cross-over swan’s heads with different coloured gold beaks, the necks forming the band around the finger.
Capturing their elegance and movement in a static form was a challenge that I enjoyed. I aimed to portray the curves and grace by tapering and bending the forms in the most aesthetically pleasing ways. This is done by taking a square wire and hammering it to shape it, similar to a blacksmith forging a tapered railing. Then the final shaping is done with a set of steel files and finished with abrasive paper.
I chose the unusual marquise cut diamond for a gemstone in the engagement rings.
The marquise cut is rarely seen in jewellery, but it’s story that is as romantic and unique as its three dimensional form. In the 18th Century, King Louis XV of France commissioned a jeweller to design a facetted diamond shape that reminded him of the smile of his mistress, Jean Antoinette Poisson, the Marchioness Madame de Pompadour. Over time, the marquise cut was refined into the distinctive boat- (or Navette-) shape that is known today. The marquise cut is very flattering on the finger, giving the illusion of a long and slender hand, and I found that it created good negative spaces between the swan’s overlapping necks.
The details of the swan’s beaks are created with a tiny bead of rose gold with a tapered beak of yellow gold. Adding the beaks is the most painstaking part of the making process. The rose gold bead is formed by melting a tiny snippet of metal ( it rolls itself into a sphere when molten) and the yellow gold tapered beak is filed to shape from a piece of square wire. Then the pieces are soldered carefully together before I bend the necks into the final correct position.
Several years later, the City of Wells launched the ‘Swans of Wells’ charity fund-raising project. 60 large swan sculptures, placed around the City and eventually auctioned, were sponsored by local businesses and decorated by artists to raise money for local charities. How could I turn down the opportunity and challenge to be a ‘Swan artist’?
My proposed design for ‘Forget-Me-Not Swan’ was agreed, and soon after, a four-foot-high, ‘blank’, fibre-glass swan was delivered. It’s arrival in my house of three young children, an excitable dog, two rabbits and a diabetic cat, was nothing short of riotous. After removing the children and dog hairs from it, three intensive weeks of work followed; mainly at night, once the children were asleep and the cat’s insulin had been administered! I sculpted a raised patten of decorative leaves over the surface and fixed over 450 glass ‘gems’ into place to make jewelled flowers on the wings and neck. Finally, I sprayed the surface with a sparkly sheen, and I have to confess, I was pleased with the result, it was refreshing to work in a big format, and it looked great. Unfortunately, my joy was short-lived. With the ‘gems’ now in place, it no-longer fitted through the door! So, while the ‘Swan-mobile’ (a van waiting in the lane outside) revved impatiently, my front door frame had to be removed and along with considerable squeezing and swearing, ‘Forget-Me-Not’ emerged and was sent on her way to be displayed outside the Bishop’s Palace in Wells.
As an extra fund-raiser, I designed and made swan pendants for this event, which are still very popular today. It was important to create the pendants, so that they were easily repeatable, and not too complicated or time consuming to make. To do this, I designed them to be lost-wax cast in one piece. This eliminated the need for any joining or soldering. Once the rough castings are cooled and cleaned, the pieces need filing smooth and hand-polishing to give them a perfect surface.
I have done many one-off versions along the swan theme. It is always lovely to make one that is unique. The most recent commission was a swan bracelet set with diamonds for my colleague, Pauline, from her husband! She’s a splendid advert for my work, and I have even seen a swan on the courts of Wimbledon worn by young Bristol born tennis star, Katie Swan!