Let’s reform how we teach jewellery design

 8 August 2014

Jewellery design students are leaving university without the skills they need to be professional jewellery designers. We must act now to reform how we teach jewellery design, both for the sake of the industry and the future employment success of young people.

If jewellery design education was improved, more graduates would find employment success.
If jewellery design education was improved, more graduates would find employment success.

Apprenticeships and other associated courses are the way forward for goldsmiths. We have been delighted by the support from the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths Apprentice scheme with our own workshop apprentice. Their framework is perfect for aspiring goldsmiths to learn their trade ‘on the job’.

Successful designer-makers wish their universities had taught them certain key skills.

Professional jewellery designers are rather different from goldsmiths. While they need to be able to make jewellery to some extent, they don’t need to become as fast and proficient at it. 

However, it is still important that they gain a lot of fundamental knowledge around making, including materials, processes and construction. Without this kind of knowledge, they would be completely reliant on others to understand what is possible in both commercial and technical terms. 

The focus of a jewellery designer

A jeweller designer must draw upon certain skills and knowledge. They must have: 

  • an excellent understanding of the materials
  • knowledge of the design process
  • communication skills
  • creativity
  • knowledge of the market and the industry. 

Even within some jewellery companies, many people misunderstand jewellery design for industry and think it is just about art or only about CAD. But there is a lot more to it than that.

The problem with jewellery design degrees

The nearest fit that we currently have for young people wanting to get into jewellery design is the jewellery design degree, or similar. They are usually fairly art-based.

They perhaps have a place for those who want to enter academia, work within the gallery or museum world, want to go off at a tangent within the wider context of design or possibly want to start a small business designing and making everything themselves on a very small scale. 

They are not currently the right start for most of those who actually want to enter our jewellery industry.

Last time I checked, there were 26 different jewellery design (or similar) degree courses listed by UCAS and at least a further 70 courses which incorporate jewellery design, such as applied arts with jewellery. 

Consequently, I estimate there are about 900-1000 students coming out of higher education each year who consider themselves qualified in jewellery design and who are looking for employment, or to start a business, within the precious jewellery sector. 

Graduates are missing key skills

In my experience, the vast majority of jewellery design graduates end up leaving the jewellery industry and retraining in other industries when they fail. 

I employ 14 design graduates as jewellery designers from many different courses, and they tell me that very few of their peers from their respective universities are still working in the jewellery industry.

There is something wrong with what or how they are being taught.

In some cases they are the only one of their peers still working in jewellery three or four years after graduating.

I have also spoken to many successful designer-makers – the graduates who have ‘made it’ – and they all say that they wish their universities had taught them certain key skills that were missing from their degree courses. They believe they could have achieved success much more easily or quickly with those skills.

Many university leavers don’t even seem to be aware of what industry professional needs to know. When we interview jewellery design graduates, most:

  • do not know the difference between white gold, platinum and palladium
  • can’t name more than about eight gemstones
  • don’t know how gemstones are set into precious metal
  • think that jewellery made from glass or wood will last a lifetime in constant wear
  • expect to take three months to design one piece of jewellery.  

Even the best graduates have skills gaps​

It is true to say that there are varying qualities of young people graduating from each course. And we realise that there can be a large difference between what is taught and what is learned – it could be that some of these things were taught but that this learning was not reinforced by ‘doing’ and by putting into practice. 

However, we consistently find that even the best graduates that we meet have the above gaps in their understanding. So I cannot accept that it is just down to specific failings of the hundreds of individual graduates that I have spoken with over the last 15 years. There is something wrong with what or how they are being taught.

These jewellery knowledge gaps are so significant that I regularly find that it is just as useful for me to employ graduates from design disciplines other than jewellery because there's not an enormous difference in their useful knowledge, and often an improvement in their professional or commercial attitude. 

I notice that other designers who have studied something like product design or textile design seem to come out of university with a better work ethic and a more realistic perspective on being a design professional than most jewellery design graduates.

What's wrong with the teaching of jewellery design?

I am not sure how the jewellery design skills being taught in the UK got into this situation and can only speculate.

If jewellery degree courses could include these simple skills, then the industry would immediately be in a better state.

I have been told that perhaps universities previously had their own agenda, which has resulted in just about all HND courses ‘becoming’ BA courses. 

I have been told that 10 years ago this produced BA courses which were not truly useful jewellery design degree courses. Nor were they relating to industry, as they had done when they were HNDs. Perhaps this still continues now. 

But for whatever reason, here we are now. 

Let's improve jewellery design education

To try to move forward positively from this point, I’ve been working on a list of subjects that we in the industry should expect to be covered during a jewellery design (or similar) degree. 

I have sought many industry opinions, from small companies to large manufacturers and various jewellery education providers, to help fine-tune this list.

There will continue to be many young people who want to go to a university no matter what, so a degree route will continue to be sought by many jewellery design candidates.

However, education is changing. This kind of qualification should be available to students via a further education route in the future too.

If the establishments offering these jewellery degree courses could be influenced to include these simple skills, then the industry would immediately be in a better state.

More graduates would find employment and success, either in jewellery design or elsewhere in the industry.

Harriet Kelsall is a Jewellery Industry Advisor for Creative & Cultural Skills. Find out more about Harriet's work at Harriet Kelsall Bespoke Jewellery.