Hands up! Who isn’t moved by the stirring pace, flowing dark locks and rippling muscles that greet our screens during Poldark?…. Those horses really are in peak condition… and many rate Ross Poldark too! The filming for the BBC Series is done in a place that is dear to my heart and has had a huge impact on a major part of my jewellery development and design.
My relationship with Cornish Tin began with a commission from a client from London who requested a unique pendant to present to his wife for their tenth wedding anniversary. “With the tenth anniversary traditionally associated with tin, and since my wife is from Cornwall, would you be able to add some Cornish Tin?” he asked. I saw no reason why not! Tin is non-toxic (think of tin cans!), very soft and workable, a beautiful white colour and the thought of working with a metal from an area so familiar to me was exciting.
Trying to find a source of Cornish Tin however, proved almost as elusive as finding a unicorn! Despite being mined for thousands of years, Cornwall’s tin production ceased in the 1990‘s and all the tin mines are now closed. Eventually, I found someone who could help. After months of communications, learning about the smelting process that extracts the metal from the rock, and understanding it’s unique properties, I held my first tiny piece of Cornish Tin.
Around the same time, an opportunity for an artist’s residency in the St. Just mining area came up and I was very fortunate to be selected to work on my designs and exploration of the world of Cornish Tin.
As with all my design themes and projects, I don’t feel that I can create anything authentic without really understanding as much as I can. Safely ensconced in a converted mine building in Priests Cove on the tip of Cape Cornwall, I spent an intensive time alone working. Typically for that area, the weather was atrocious! A storm blew in from the Atlantic and lasted a week. It was almost impossible to sleep or open the front door against the wind, let alone go outside. And sketching with pen and paper quickly produced a soggy pile of papier mache.
I very quickly developed an admiration for the miners who worked in these conditions. Not only on the surface, but below ground. I took several trips underground with ex-miners to explore the miles of deserted tunnels and faces. Many of the tunnels ran out under the sea, and the miners who guided me remembered the filtered sound of the waves and rocks crashing above them.
I wanted to capture something of the power and form of the huge waves crashing around me and I resorted to ‘sketching’ the forms using wire which could withstand the rain and wind, could be easily shaped, and dried off quicker than I did! This led to three dimensional forms that I later used in my jewellery designs.
Technically, working with tin provided me with a big challenge. I needed to devise ways of combining it with precious metals that I was familiar with. Not easy! One tiny crumb of tin, when heated together with a precious metal makes an unworkable alloy, so I had to be careful to keep any tin experiments in a completely separate part of the workshop to my gold to avoid contamination.
The shape of the first ‘Kerensa’ pendant (‘kerensa’ is Cornish for ‘love’) was based on the simple leaf shape of the ancient wooden shovel used by the Cornish tin miners. I started logically and decided to simply fix the tin leaf shape in a ‘frame’ of gold with rivets. The white, satin surface of the tin provided perfect contrast to the rose gold and diamonds that held it and supported the neck chain.
The first time I worked with it, I was startled by a phenomenon known as ‘the cry of tin’. It is an eerie, creaking, singing sound, which is emitted whenever the metal is stressed or bent and sounds almost as if it is alive!
For my ‘Surf’ pendant, I developed a method of interlocking tin and silver using the properties of their vastly different melting points. Tin has a very low melting point and is easily poured into forms in a rubber mould. My designs grew from the sketches I had made of the waves. I forged a silver taper with a hole running through it to make the dramatic central core and hole for the chain,. Then I made a mould that would enable me put the taper into it and pour molten tin through the hole to fill a wave-shaped cavity.
With new growing enthusiasm for the possibilities of Cornish Tin in jewellery, I set about exploring its heritage further and started on a creative journey that has inspired a host of works.
It’s amazing who you can find at the bottom of a mine and Anthony is one friend that I met under these circumstances. After witnessing a brief re-creation of the use of explosives to extract ore, we both decided that one of the best qualities a Cornish tin miner could possess would be to run fast! It turned out that Anthony was the Custodian of the Levant Tin Mine, run by the National Trust. This chance encounter, and his generosity, led to amazing access to spend time discovering what life as a tin miner was all about.
I spent many days there capturing the raw beauty, dramatic textures, lines and colours that inspired me; watched by choughs and blasted by sea-spray in howling gales. Anthony’s office (which as also served some time as Ross Poldark’s dressing room) provided a welcome escape to dry out and be revived with tea. Whilst there, I met the composer, Richard Nye, and we subsequently spent two years on a collaborative work that explored the mine and its people.
My insights led me to look more broadly the ethics and environmental issues connected to mining the precious metals that I use, and at that point I became one of the first jewellers to be registered to work in Fairtrade / Fairmined gold and silver.
While tin mining is no longer an active industry in Cornwall, its lasting impact continues to influence our lives today in ways that often go unnoticed. It is a privilege to work with such a beautiful native metal and convert it to pieces that are worthy of the hardships and skills endured to extract it.