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Seema Bharti, enameller for Amrapali in Jaipur, India
When I was a little girl, I loved watching my father and grandfather at work — they were both enamellers. I adored art, drawing and painting, and the colours of enamel fascinated me, so I decided to make enamelling my career; my father trained me. Today I am an enameller for one of India’s largest jewellery houses, Amrapali, and I’ve been doing this for 12 years.
Enamelling involves grinding glass crystals into a paste, removing impurities, using a handmade wooden stick or brush to apply the enamel on to engraved metal and cooking it for around a minute. It’s a very important part of Amrapali design, so my days are filled doing something I love. It requires huge patience and dedication.
Enamelling is becoming rarer. There are no formal schools which teach it. Good enamel workers keep the art exclusively to themselves and do not part easily with their skill. A few years ago, wages were very low and people didn’t find enamelling lucrative.
But an increased appreciation now means more people have started learning it. I’ve recently begun reviving old colours and designs and creating new colours.
Aung Chay, goldsmith for Pippa Small and Turquoise Mountain in Yangon, Myanmar
When I arrived at Turquoise Mountain, the arts charity founded by the Prince of Wales, the goldsmiths made fun of me, asking why I wanted to continue making handmade jewellery. But when they saw the intricate floral earrings I made, they were impressed and asked me how I’d made them. I told them: “Try to figure it out yourselves!”
I trained with my uncle when I was 13; he was a master goldsmith in my village. At first, I didn’t enjoy it but I saw it would earn me a living and enable me to stay near my family.
Now, 22 years later, I love the challenging and intricate work.
In Yangon, most of the jewellery sold is now machine-made. The labour cost is cheaper and the process is faster. I don’t know another goldsmith making 100 per cent handmade pieces. Most Burmese jewellers are learning to use machines, but I am persistent with my craft and happy to keep the ancient tradition alive.
Francis Mertens, designer-maker and founder, GAR131.com, in Antwerp, Belgium
For over two decades I designed and handcrafted diamond jewellery for world-class jewellery houses, many on Bond Street, although I am contractually not allowed to name them. The diamond dealers and jewellery houses I worked with appreciated not only my skills and creativity but also my geographical proximity to them.
For example, I specialise in pavé set titanium jewellery. The diamond setting process is highly time-consuming. It typically takes a day to set 75 diamonds by hand but if the jewel breaks I’d have to start again.
But the global economic crisis, the fact that many jobs in jewellery craftsmanship are facing international competition and the advent of 3D printing, means that much of the high-level design and manufacturing I was hired to do has moved to China and India. Many jobs are now under threat.
Creatives like myself are concerned as we witness exceptional industry knowledge disappearing as brands look elsewhere. When work slowed, I decided to combine new technology with old craftsmanship to ensure heritage and old techniques are not lost. The internet offers designers like myself a platform to sell direct to our clients and to earn personal recognition for our unique skills.
In December, I launched GAR131.com to showcase the work of jewellery artists, including undiscovered talents, selling our creations and mostly one-off pieces to the public.
Jasmine Alexander, creative director for her own brand, in Surrey, UK
This autumn, I’m launching my first collection to be produced in large numbers. I bring to my jewellery the dedication of an ancient Greek sculptor casting miniature bronzes to perfection, obsessing over every minuscule detail and regularly introducing creative and technical firsts. But this is the beginning of a completely different business model for me.
I studied goldsmithing and honed my technical skills on the jewellery bench. In 2010 I was an official ambassador for British Jewellery Week, and in 2014 I created a jewel with miners Gemfields to celebrate their collaboration with [actress] Mila Kunis. I spent years repairing jewellery so I love the technical aspects and computer-aided design; some jewellers eke out an existence using CAD fairly uncreatively.
I used to focus purely on one-off and limited-edition artist jewels. But today, to only focus on handcrafting pieces is a hand-to-mouth existence.
My new collection of 14 pieces took 18 months to create. It’s part of my long-term partnership with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society [a marine preservation organisation which uses direct action] and I’ve never been more proud of a work.