Get whimsical with Claire English
NXG‘s Emma Knock chats to the weirdly (her designs not her, she is lovely) wonderful English jewellery designer Claire English about Portobello Market, childhood memories and having her designs sold in Selfridges.
Do not forget to join Claire’s mailing list and enter the competition (details at the end of the interview)
How did you get into designing jewellery?
I always knew I wanted to make jewellery, but I started making jewellery when I was at university.
What made you want to get into that field?
I’ve always been interested in fashion. I used to do modelling, that was my first job, the job I left home doing. I liked the things that people took from outfit to outfit and I like old fashioned ways of making things, things that have got history behind them.
How and where did you start selling jewellery?
I began selling stuff on Portobello Market after university. I had my own stall. I used to meet a lot of interesting people on Portobello Market.
Your designs are really unusual. What is the inspiration behind them?
Most of the designs that you see are inspired by childhood, memories and nostalgia. Things that have caught my attention because they remind me of that period. My interest in matches comes from the way that they are frightening when you are a child and the way you cannot touch them or play with them. It also comes from the Hans Christenson Anderson story, The Little Match Girl, which is all about the potential of the child and what a great loss it is that that she is freezing on the street selling matches. It is all about child labour laws. My inspirations usually come from quite a few diverse themes from literature, but always to do with sentiments that go with objects, and the narrative and stories that come to mind when you look at certain things.
When you have an idea in mind how do you go about making it a reality?
To begin, I usually work with real things and I would just put them together in ways that resemble something else. My brooches are put together in the way medals are. I had this great empty medal box for a peace medal, so the first brooch I made and sold was a wishbone and matchstick brooch. It was made specifically to fit into that box because I liked the idea of it being the modern peace medal, but with two things that are drawn from something else inside it.
You were on the BBC programme High Street Dreams, and your mentor was Stephen Webster who has designed jewellery for the likes of Christina Aguilera and Kate Moss. How did that come about?
Just from being at Portobello! It is a great place for up and coming or aspiring designers as loads of big labels started out there. Pauls Boutique started there about 12 years ago. Comfort Station started there and now has a shop in the East End. She started out doing leather wrist bands at the market. For me it was just one of those fortuitous things that came about from being there. They came along and said “Hi, I am from a production company, we would like to do some filming at your stall, would that be okay? It we will be with Jo Malone.” From there I went to the casting process. I do not watch a lot of TV or listen to a lot of mainstream radio, so I would have completely missed the audition process if they had not have sort of scouted me. They tried out some other cool stuff on the day- apparently there was one person spelling special cakes just for dogs, and Jo Malone took a massive bite out of it.
How was it being on the show?
It was fantastic. I learnt so much from it, it has really done wonders. The products I made before were definitely not ready for a big audience and I was making jewellery as one-off things. I was not really making them to reproduce. Since the show, I have learnt a lot about the jewellery industry and got a lot of help and support from people in the industry. Having Stephen say that he believed in me and thought I was talented gave me a level of confidence that I never would have had before. It also meant that I got in touch with a lot of important people that I would have never met before.
They had you pitch to Selfridges. How was that?
The people were both really nice, but it was really intimidating. [During the show they did not place an order] but I went to see them again the week the show aired . I had been working really hard on some really good pieces, the stuff that I pitched before still had a long way to go, because I had not had the time. When you make a new collection of jewellery it takes a few months and then when you think you have finished it can take a few more. With the filming and everything there was not enough time, so it was not until I went back again that the pieces were ready at a level that they could take it.
How do you feel the show shaped your career?
It is difficult to say what would have happened [without the show]. It could have taken me half a dozen years or more to come to the point that I am now if I had to organically build my way up through word of mouth. But also, I never would have set myself a bigger challenge if it had not have been for the show. It might have taken me a year or more to have got around to designing a collection of silver jewellery. Having all the people telling me what I needed to do when it came to this and that, I might not have done that from the get go if it had not have been for the TV show.
Have you had many other stores or websites wanting to stock your designs since the show?
Yes, I am supplying to Alexis Dove in Lewes, Baroque Bespoke Jewellery in Brighton, W Collection in Manchester, and ST Hoppers in Lincolnshire. I am also doing a big new online project that is kind of top secret right now. It is a really good project, with loads of amazing designers so it is exciting, and happening in about four weeks.
As opposed to having a model as the face of your company, you are. How did that come about?
I think it is good to have a combination of both really. I am happy to be the face of my brand, although the way the show was edited, they made it seem like it was a big thing for me during the photo shoot, but I would rather have someone else. For my new collection we are shooting a nice look book for it because I want to have more pictures of my jewellery on people. We are shooting with a fantastic model called Issadora from a band called The Half Sisters in Brighton. I have been planning to make some stuff for them for their stage shows for a while, but it is just when I have got the time to do it. We are going to be shooting that in my Grandad’s garden in the shed that I used to play in as a kid, next to the train tracks. I am quite happy to be the face of my brand and I always wear my jewellery, but I find the modelling campaigns a bit cringesome.
Is there anyone you would be dying to design for?
I would love to make something for lots of people. I would love to do something for Bjork because she is so incredible. There are quite a few people I would like to see wearing something of mine so hopefully that will come around soon. Natasha Khan from Bats To Lashes bought one of the first things I ever put in a shop and that was before the television show. She is really cool, I would like to make more stuff for her.
You have got a new collection coming up, when can we expect that?
I will be exhibiting it at International Jewellery London trade show, so hopefully that will be in shops in time for Christmas. It is inspired by a combination of memories and stuff I have read. It is called Mice, Memories and Muchness. Mice feature heavily in it. It was inspired originally by this shop I came across called The Silver Mouse Trap which was open in 1650 and closed in the 80s and was near Smithfields Market. Not far from my studio. The reason it was called that was because it used to sell mousetraps in the 1800s when people use to have pompadour hairstyles. They used to take a long time to put in and they used to cover then with flour. Hairdressers would spend all day putting one in and it would cost a fortune, so you would keep it in for weeks and when you were sleeping in it mice would come a nest in your hair and would pop out whilst you were in company! So you would try to lure them out at night with little silver mousetraps. That got me thinking how London has changed now we have pest control and made me think about how inherent mice are to London and big cities. Also in the collection, magpies feature as they are inherent in London as well. It is really magical. There will be a lot more stones in it. I have a pendant that is a magpie’s foot with a gem in it where it has picked it up and flown away with it. The mice will all have red and pink sapphires for eyes. There will be a lot more bracelets as well.
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