Melanie Blaikie is a jewellery maker, teacher of creative skills and internationally selling author. We sat down with Melanie (virtually) recently to answer a few questions about her jewellery making journey, what inspires her and more in the interview below.
Let us know a bit about yourself, detailing your background, study and training in the jewellery making industry.
Many years ago, I answered an anonymous advert in the newspaper and unexpectedly landed my first job – as a trainee diamond dealer with DeBeers. This introduced me to the wonderful world of precious gemstones and remarkable craftspeople of Hatton Garden. I began to specialise in design and worked with many of the big name Bond Street jewellers. Although I loved this work, up to this point, I wasn’t actually making jewellery myself. It was many years – and a change of career – later, that I signed up for a silversmithing course and discovered it was much more difficult than I’d imagined…!! My continued curiosity about all things jewellery led me to, what was at that time a very new medium – ‘clay’ silver. The rest is history…!
Tell us about your work – are there any particular materials or techniques that you favour?
I work exclusively in ‘clay’ silver which is still a fairly recent development in the world of precious metals. The ‘clay’ is a blend of recycled pure silver with water and an organic binder. It’s smooth, pliable texture makes it ideal to shape and sculpt by hand. Since discovering silver clay, I’ve been on a mission to introduce it to a wider audience. So, my work tends to be based around designs that will be simple for beginners to recreate at home, with a minimum of specialist or expensive equipment. Once fired, it becomes solid, fine silver metal and can be hallmarked 999. It’s an almost magical process that completely entrances beginners – and I absolutely love it…!!
How would you best describe your design style?
I love to develop designs that might at first appear complex or highly detailed but because of the properties of silver clay, are easy for beginners to recreate. My students tell me how much they love the sense of achievement on creating their first piece and even better, how impressed their friends and family are when they see them. For me, simplicity is key. Nothing too fiddly or complicated. I like quick projects with impressive results and silver clay delivers on this – every time!
When I’m not teaching, one of my favourite techniques is Keum Bo, applying 24ct gold leaf directly over fine silver. I’ve just finished a gold and silver acorn pendant which I’m wearing right now.
Where do you like to get your inspiration from for your pieces?
Working with ‘clay’ is quite different to traditional metalsmithing. The techniques are more akin to those used by a potter or ceramic artist so much of my inspiration, comes from those mediums. I love the simplicity of Scandinavian design and get very excited about textures and contrasting finishes. One of my favourite textures at the moment is a simple piece of sandpaper. It looks incredibly sophisticated pressed onto the wet clay.
Do you have a piece that you have made which you favour or are particularly proud of?
I’m pretty much self-taught with silver clay. The only book I could find when I started out was written in Japanese, so I tend to say my favourite pieces are the ones I’ve learned from. This means, they’re the ones that went wrong, caused me a problem or simply where I made a mistake. I tell students, the only reason I know how to do these things is because I did it wrong, many times, before I discovered how to do it right. Every mistake is a learning opportunity and I still have so much to learn.
However, looking at one of my earlier disasters (yes, I do keep them all) won’t be much fun here. So, I’ve chosen this heart pendant on pearls, simply because I love the pearls!
What is the one item in your jewellery making workshop that you could not live without?
Something I’ve always loved about making jewellery is that many of the techniques are unchanged over time. I couldn’t live without my agate burnisher. This smooth stone has been used for centuries to polish precious metals and I love that sense of history. It’s a joy to use, soft, strong and perfect for purpose. Its smoothness makes it ideal for Keum Bo as it won’t scratch or tear the delicate gold foil.
What upcoming trends do you see being popular soon?
Everything about 2020 has been unexpected. We’ve discovered a new way of living with less. Spending less but choosing more wisely, so my prediction for 2021 will be simpler, less conspicuous designs created to be more meaningful to the wearer. Incorporating inspirational quotes or hidden meanings will be popular, along with initials or family mementos.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learnt from your time in the jewellery making industry?
It’s a simple lesson; people everywhere are intrinsically kind and giving. I’ve met so many extraordinarily talented and wise people, many of whom have become lifelong friends. I believe the jewellery industry is unique in the sense of trust we place in our peers and colleagues, and receive in return. The creative responsibility that comes with marking a significant life event or lifetime commitment is humbling, inspiring and continually invigorating.
Do you have any particular advice that you would give to up and coming jewellery designers, or someone interested in getting into jewellery making?
To someone considering taking up jewellery making as a hobby or second income, it’s almost the perfect side-hustle. You can get started with very little, it really doesn’t need to be expensive – think recycled materials – and your new hobby won’t take up too much space (at first..!!)
To the professional jeweller or designer, this industry can be very susceptible to economic fluctuations. I know this from personal experience. So make sure you have a secondary or back-up skill-set to call upon. Hopefully, you won’t need to but it will give you confidence to know that you can survive when times are lean.
Time for a bit of fun in our quick-fire round!
Tell us your favourite…
Colour – Green
Biscuit – Fig Roll (honestly!)
Drink – Coffee with cream (it’s my special treat)
Place – Anywhere warm and sunny
Animal – Dog
Gemstone – Peridot. Pleased to see it gaining new popularity
Food – Cake
Sport – Rugby
Film – My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn
City – London
And finally, what was your inspiration behind your book and what would you want people to learn from it?
As mentioned earlier, when I discovered silver clay the only available books on the subject were Japanese or American. These were invaluable in helping me get started but I recognised that a comprehensive guide for UK based beginners was needed.
The book is specifically aimed at those just starting out with silver clay. Projects are graded from beginners to more advanced and every stage of the process is clearly explained with detailed photographs. The early pages demonstrate how easy it is to get started with just a few simple tools and techniques. From here, I hope makers will quickly gain confidence and move onto the later projects although I’ve specifically kept everything as clear and straightforward as possible. For me, a great project is one that’s fun and easy to make at home. I definitely don’t do fiddly or complicated.
Although I was originally writing for a UK audience, I’m thrilled to have received messages from readers in Europe, the US and even as far away as Australia…!
Many thanks to Melanie for sharing her insight and jewellery making journey with us