Rachel Emmerson – Jewellery maker

Rachel Emmerson – Jewellery maker

“It expands at a different rate to the enamel so it will fire and then explode. You can enamel on certain metals but not others. If it has too much zinc it won’t enamel onto it. So you do have to have a little bit of science and understanding of metal and how it’s made up and how it works.”

Photography by Daniel Dytrych
Transcribed by Katy Mack

On your website you have yourself defined as a designer and manufacturer. Do you see yourself as a maker?

Yes it’s very important to me, the making process. I make most of my pieces myself and I do design, but essentially I’m a manufacturer and I will do manufacturing for other companies as well as work for other jewelers. So it’s the making process really that I do.

Are you aware of this kind of trend for a maker movement?

Yes I am, obviously with things that you see on the TV, there is interest in things such as ceramics making. I think it’s just something that has always been with me so it’s not really anything I consciously think about. It’s just natural, working with my hands and making. That helps me develop my ideas actually. I’m not very good at designing on my own and then handing it over. I learn through making.

So you like the whole process?

Yes, although I specialise in certain techniques now. I do sub-contract work out if it’s not my area. That’s usually to other makers like myself so we usually share work. I met them through doing shows, and other contacts they use. We all kind of know what work we are doing and what kind of level and quality it’s at.


What sort of thing would you outsource or get them to help you with?

Maybe something like casting if I had a design I was making small batch runs of. It would be precious metal casting and you need to have contacts in order to understand what process you use so you get technical elements of the casting right. If I just went to any caster and asked them to cast me 10 of these pendants, they might not be suitable for what I want. If I ever want stones setting, I will use a stone setter because it’s quicker, although I learned stone setting in college, it’s just easier.

What is your specialism?

I specialise in hand engraving. I went to Birmingham Jewellery school and I learned to do engraving like lettering and script, quite traditional work. This isn’t being taught a lot now. In fact, Birmingham is the only course still teaching hand engraving apart from one in London. I engrave silver and gold and then enamel over the top. They are two quite dying arts really but there is a small collective of us that are keeping it going.

Are you in demand for that kind of thing?

Yes. Obviously it’s a very niche area, but when people want that kind of work there are about 3 or 4 people I could list, so not many. Some people work on large scale pieces, silver pieces, some jewelery. You can do machine engraving but I think it just brings something unique to my work that you can’t really get using a machine.

You said you went to College, was that the beginning?

I was quite lucky when I was at school. We had quite a good workshop and technician. So when I was doing my GCSE’s I learned how to use a metal lathe. It was mainly training really for apprentices to go on to something like engineering school, but I enjoyed it from a creative perspective. We also learnt soldering and brazing. There were two girls doing the course and about fifteen boys then, but I knew I wanted to go into that area. I still did art and design, I wanted that creative side, but I knew I wanted to work 3 dimensionally.

So not specifically jewellery?

Oh no, I just liked working the materials. I did a foundation at Chesterfield. I suppose it was sculpture, fine art but design as well. I was able to do metal work, textiles, wood furniture. I had quite a good grounding in different materials which I think helped. Then I went to Brighton College and they had a course called wood, metal, ceramics and plastics. So I had to work with lots of materials. I kind of couldn’t decide! Jewellery doesn’t come in until quite late really. Plastics was great, I liked the colour but it’s quite a toxic material and I had to think quite seriously when I graduated, was that something I wanted to continue with. After I finished my degree I went to Birmingham to learn hand engraving and enamelling.

Was that a postgraduate course or something separate?

I looked at doing an MA but the course that I finished was quite self directing and I knew where I wanted to go. I really wanted specialised skills, so I did City & Guilds courses. I just went one day a week and did a whole day of engraving and enamelling. I just applied that to my designs really.

So was it at that point that you knew it was going to be jewellery?

Yes. When I started working with metal and started combining it with enamel I realised I could work with colour and texture which is what is in a lot of my work. It’s really the materials. Jewellery just happens to be what I do. It doesn’t have to be jewellery, but jewellery obviously is a good way of earning a living. You can do certain shows and you get regular orders from that.

Do you get opportunity within your practice then to do a little bit of experimenting?

Certain times of the year, this time of the year really when you are applying for shows and exhibitions. You’ve got orders, mainly commissions and trade orders. So I try and have a play really, it keeps me sane.

I suppose that’s why you do it really, to a certain extent you are able to create something a little bit unusual?

When you are working you kind of get ideas of new things and you want to different things so you just keep them in the back of your mind when you’ve got spare couple of hours and have a play.

In terms of you being a manufacturer, what sort of quantities are we looking at?

If I’m making stock work, which are designs that I stock most of the time, I probably make batches of about 10 pieces at a time. Maybe working and engraving several pieces and then enamelling them in a week. It’s still pretty labour intensive so that obviously is reflected in the cost. I wouldn’t want to get into the stage of repeating and doing items at a lower cost and just making a higher volume because you’re just competing with other high street shops which isn’t my market. It’s small scale production and commissions. Customers will contact me directly from my website or I’ve seen them at a show and they may want a commission for a one-off piece like a ring. They tend to be people who are looking for something different so they might be people who aren’t afraid of colour or something that stands out a bit. Then I will do some trade work for jewellers who may want enamel on their work. I have done some design work where I’ve sold designs to a company, but that’s following their brief so it’s to what they want and it’s not really impinging on my designs. They buy the designs off me.


Do you design on paper?

I’m of that generation that hasn’t got into 3D printing. For jewellery 3D printing is like a revelation because people can just put quite complex designs in and then see a 3D model. But engraving is almost like drawing. You’re using a metal tool to cut into metal and I quite like that feel of drawing and creating.

What would you make them in?

Paper and card and then colour. I put lots of colours together to get ideas.

If you went down the route of 3D printing though, it’s very hands off. You design it then a machine makes it.

I think it depends on your style of work really. I can see where it has advantages but it’s not something that I’m going to do. Enamelling is glass that’s fired on to metal so it goes into a little kiln. I mean that’s an ancient tradition, you need heat and you need to fire it. There are simple rules that you do and don’t do. So you can’t really use 3D printing. It’s quite good having that strict boundary with enamelling because you’ve got laws you’ve got to keep to, but that helps you with your design. It’s not like you can do anything, it’s what can you do that exploits the properties.

Having too much choice potentially makes things difficult doesn’t it?

That is a problem yes. That’s a problem I had earlier on because I just liked doing so many different things. So narrowing it down and just experimenting. There are still lots of things to learn about enamelling even though it’s been done for centuries.

So you still feel like you’re learning?

Yes. Just different metals you can enamel on. The colours, they change depending on what metal you fire them on to and you can overlay them to get different shades. I’ve just been doing some gemstone carving getting small stones like agate and using the techniques of engraving but rather than using steel cutting tools you’re using diamond cutting tools. I’m just playing about with that.

Do you still get a good sense of satisfaction doing what you do? There is obviously some repetition, but you are still allowing yourself room to experiment.

I think so. When I’m doing pieces for shows and I know I have to make a certain amount because they are popular pieces and they sell. I still learn each time I’m doing a piece. It’s not like I changed something and I put different colours on. I mean there are days when if it’s an order it’s the satisfaction of getting it done to a deadline. That’s quite a good discipline that you’ve got to have when you’re self employed. That kind of feeds into doing your own pieces. So I’m quite lucky in what I do.

In what sense are you lucky?

I enjoy it and I do something that people appreciate and like. I’m pretty much in control. People come to me asking me to design and make a piece and it’s kind of the whole process, whereas I know not everybody works that way. The downside is that you’re on your own quite a lot in your workshop. So you miss that kind of environment.


So solitude is a little bit of an issue at times?


Yes, it is. I mean it’s something I’m comfortable with. When you are working it is quite an immersive process. But it’s just being aware that you need to stop and have some time off. Even just to go and see exhibitions to get some inspiration.

What about other people within the complex here at Cromford Mills?

We don’t see each other a lot because we are all doing different things but we’ve got a good network. When you’re doing shows you can catch up with everybody. If you are stuck for an idea or want some advice, you can contact people. It depends how you work, whether you need that kind of network. It’s different now with things like the internet, you can do it that way. Building a good mailing list of your customers is most important.

“…it was sculpture, fine art but design as well. I was able to do metal work, textiles, wood furniture. I had quite a good grounding in different materials which I think helped.”

In terms of sustaining a throughput of customers, has that been a difficult thing to do?

You start off doing shows and you can never make a judgement if it went well or not. You don’t know until maybe 2 or 3 years down the line. Some people come back to me 3 years after the show. You have to keep doing shows and you slowly build up, and then you will get people who come direct to you. But some people just come through the website. Somebody phoned me up last week and just said I’m looking for some enamel jewellery, can I come up to your workshop and have a look? He was in London and he just came up on the train. He commissioned a broach and some earrings.

That must be quite exciting when people come out of the blue.

Yes, exactly. So in a way with having the website and everything, I don’t supply many shops with pieces. It tends to be exhibitions and certain galleries. But it’s mainly going out and doing 3 or 4 shows a year which tend to be quite specialised.

Are there any locally?

I do a couple in London and there is one at Buxton dome when the festivals on in July. That one is probably my most local, but I’ve started doing open studios here which was really good. I did one in November and made sure I invited people. You don’t just invite people in Derbyshire, you’ve got to widen it out a bit and people come from around the midlands area as well.

I’m quite interested in how you’ve gone through college and then went on to learn engraving, were you already building this business at the time?

I was deciding what I wanted to do whilst I was learning.

Were you having to support yourself in some other way then?

I did part time jobs. Some jewellery work and some design work.


So it’s always been within the realm.

Yes. It’s always been there. I think it was when I got my previous studio at Banks Mill in Derby. It was when I’d just finished at Birmingham and I decided to make a body of work with skills I’d learned and have them photographed. I got a work space at Banks Mill which was quite low rent and I was working part time. As I started building up work and orders and doing shows, I found I needed to be doing it full time which is a bit of a step. As soon as I did it though I could just put more time into my work and more time into marketing.

Is marketing a hard part of what you do?

It’s not natural to me.

Do you have help with that?

Jewellery is notoriously tricky so I do use a photographer for that. I tend to think I can do the marketing myself but really it’s a website which somebody else does for me. There are new ways of marketing all the time and I am a bit slow on that I think. I could improve.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve made or been commissioned to make?

I do enamel on other jewellers work and commissions that aren’t my style. I did a ring and I just had the side panels of it to do. It was a very high structured ring and it had to look like waves in the ocean. I got it first and it was a big lump of gold, quite heavy. I engraved my design and then it got set with about 50 diamonds around it. It was very interesting to do because it’s not really my style. But commissions I get are jewellery so you get people who want quite specific things. You have to really listen to what the client wants. I like doing that because sometimes that gives you freedom. It challenges you.

So if somebody commissions something like a ring and they had quite specific requirements, would you do drawings for them first? How does that work?

It just depends on the person, some people will come with images they’ve seen. I’ll do a drawing and I’ll usually make a model because it’s 3 Dimensional so you need to see it. If it’s colours I’ll do test strips and test colours so they can see. If they are having a piece and they are spending x amount and it’s a gold piece, you want to make sure the colours are right. That’s just part of the commission so you just cost all that in. People appreciate that because when they get it, it’s going to be what they want.

What’s the most recent thing you’ve made or what are you making at the moment?

I’m just doing a ring for a jewellers in preston. They want a certain design putting on it so it’s just sitting in the vice. It’s going to be engraved and then enamelled over the top.

Is there a specific term for that process?

Champleve and basse-taille enamelling. Really it means you cut out a field, or a cell and then you fill it with enamel. In enamelling there are different techniques. I use transparent colours on precious metal so you see the design shining through. They are the techniques where you combine engraving with enamelling.

How long would something like that take?

The engraving is the longer process, depending on the design. Some metals are harder than others, but it probably takes me about 2 or 3 hours to do the mark out and cut the engraving. Then the enamelling, it’s actually preparing the colours you have to wash and grind them, but the actual firing of the enamel is very quick because it’s high temperature and the piece will be in the kiln for about a minute maximum. So that’s quite a nice contrast of quite intensive engraving when you’re sitting focused and then the enamelling is quite quick and instant so you get results.


Is there a cooling period before you can touch it?

Yes, but it’s not like glass blowing or ceramics where you have to leave them. You can bring it out the kiln and it will be orange and within minutes it will be cooled so the colour comes out. Within 10 minutes you can pick it up and work on it again and then you can fire another layer. So it’s quite fast.

In terms of producing the colour you said you had to grind it. Is that a base product?

All enamel is specifically man made glass. It’s a silica with oxides added to it to make colours. They all melt between a certain temperature. They come in lump or powder and you grind it, crush it, wash it to get rid of any impurities and you are left with a fine powder. You mix it with water so it’s a paste and then you apply it over the engraving.

So an application, if you are doing it over an engraving, has to be quite precise does it?

Yes. I use magnifiers and pen nibs.

So that must take a little bit of time.

Concentration. The colour is separated, so the engraving helps separate the colour because you’ve cut different levels. You can get quite a neat line separating the colours, but you just have to be very careful. There’s a fine line between looking good and looking like a boiled sweet. Or you could just leave it in the kiln too long and then it melts. You set different colours a bit like ceramic glazes. Different colours will melt at different temperatures so you just alter it. I have a pyrometer so you just program your temperature in.

Presumably when you’re experimenting that’s when things like that could go wrong?

If you are mixing different colours and they don’t come out right or it doesn’t like the metal and the colours come out wrong.

What sort of metals are you working?

I use silver which is very soft and then different golds. 18 yellow gold is easy to work with, 18 white is a bit harder. I do engrave platinum but I don’t enamel that. It expands at a different rate to the enamel so it will fire and then explode. You can enamel on certain metals but not others. If it has too much zinc it won’t enamel onto it. So you do have to have a little bit of science and understanding of metal and how it’s made up and how it works. So if things do go wrong, you know why.

Do you put yourself on courses, refreshers?

You don’t get refreshers in enamelling! You find that most of the books that you can get, which are few and far between, are really old and out of print. They are kind of obscure. But really it is trial and error and learning.


Are there forums?

Yes there is the British Society of Enamellers. They’ve got a website and they do quite good meetups and international exhibitions so we can all come together and do group exhibitions. They are quite well organised. Hand engraving is really self taught.

I suppose with it being so niche that’s not surprising. Do you look to any other designers or jewellers for inspiration?
I try and look at different makers, not limited to jewellery. There is an engraver called Malcolm Appleby. I just like the way he treats engraving. He’s quite contemporary, quite artistic and he does it with chisels. When I was learning engraving it showed you what you can do with it. It doesn’t have to be restricted to lettering.



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