Natalie Harris, designer and gem setter

 29 November 2012

An opportunity to work with a jeweller who specialised in precious stones helped Natalie build up the skills she had always wanted to learn. She is now a self-employed jeweller and gem specialist.

Natalie's jewellery practice specialises in setting precious stones.
Natalie's jewellery practice specialises in setting precious stones.

Hometown?

I'm based in Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire.

What job do you do?

I’m a self-employed contemporary jeweller.

I do everything in my business myself: designing pieces, making them, accounting, taking photographs of my work, and marketing.

How did you get started in jewellery?

When I was 15, I did some school work experience at a small independent jewellery shop in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

I went there as my 'Plan B', to be honest – at the time, I really wanted work experience at the vet!

However, I really enjoyed it. It led to a Saturday and holiday job. 

I’d always been creative. I preferred the more artistic subjects at school. When it came to choosing my A levels, they were all creative subjects.

What qualifications do you have?

I did three A levels at Macworth College, now Derby College.

I deferred university for a year and did a BTEC national diploma in Art and Design at Chesterfield College. Then I went to Loughborough University and completed a degree in Silversmithing and Jewellery.

"Getting practical experience working with gems was a great help to me."

My bridge between education and going it alone as a jeweller was a postgraduate year at Bishopsland Educational Trust. It's a training workshop for jewellers and silversmiths. 

At the time there were only eight places a year, so I was very lucky to get in. You live and work there, and they give you access to a workshop.

They teach you how to do accounts, take photographs of your work, and price your work effectively. They also teach good stock-keeping. The year I spent there gave me a real leg up into working as a jeweller. 

I loved it, and if you've studied jewellery and can get a place there when you qualify, I really recommend it. 

What other jobs in jewellery have you done?

During my year at Bishopsland, I realised that to make a proper living as a jeweller, I should really learn to make wedding and engagement rings and work with precious stones. I hadn't covered this at university at all.

One of the tutors let me know that Malcolm Betts, a London jewellery company based in Notting Hill, had vacancies, and I got a job there. 

I really got to see how a small successful jewellery company is run.

The majority of the work involved precious metals and stones, so I got the practical experience I really wanted. That was a great help to me, because as a student, you can’t afford to work with gems.

Often university courses want you to be exploratory and conceptual, but I wanted to make the kind of jewellery people would wear every day.

All in all, the year at Bishopsland and the job at Malcolm Betts really developed my skills. 

After working for Malcolm for three years, I had a lot more confidence, so I decided to try working for myself. 

I left London, moved back in with my parents, and got in touch with the Prince’s Trust. They gave me a loan and put me in touch with fantastic mentors who I'm still in touch with now.

I also won an award and got the funding to do the kind of marketing I hadn’t been able to do before.

What do you do at work?

I have a studio where I do all my work. It's attached to the Harley Gallery at the edge of Sherwood Forest. 

I much prefer having a studio to working from home – it means I can shut the door on it and go home.

"I've had fantastic mentors who I'm still in touch with now."

Some days, I just solidly make jewellery all day long. I make a lot of wedding and engagement rings.

I set all the gems myself. With gem setting, you make the metal fit the stone – the stones come ready to be fitted. Gem cutting is a separate skill.

If I need engraving, I get an engraver in London to do this for me. 

I also do these things:

  • ordering metal supplies and stones
  • researching different stones to use and finding out what's available
  • keeping up to date with my social media accounts, including my Facebook page
  • doing accounts
  • taking orders
  • giving customers quotes.

What’s the best thing about your job?

I like being my own boss, and being able to decide what I do each day.

And the worst thing about the job?

The pressure of being on your own – the freedom is a double edged sword.

There's no one to do anything for you, help with a job, or do the bits you’re less interested in. If you’re snowed under with work, no one else is going to do it.

How do I get into jewellery?

These are my bits of advice:

  1. Find out what you want to specialise in
    Decide which area of jewellery, and which style and materials, make up your specific interest.
    There are so many different skills within the jewellery industry. You can’t be perfect at everything.
    For example, I’ve got friends who only do enamelling, whereas I’ve never done any of it. There's a lot of variation in jewellery, and a lot of different ways to work. Find the specialism for you.
     
  2. Get the experience you need
    Whether it's a paid apprenticeship or work experience, find it and pursue it.
    If university isn't an option for you, look for short courses or night school.
     
  3. Be professional
    If you want to start a business, you need to be consistently professional.
    No matter how much someone winds you up, makes ridiculous requests, or pays you late, you need to keep your manner courteous. Remember, you are building up your business’s reputation. 
     
  4. Look for funding and advice
    Try and get associated with something like the Prince's Trust. They tend to help people under 30, but there are a few similar organisations out there. Seek help when you need it – you don’t have to do it all on your own. 
     
  5. Find a mentor
    Try and make friends with someone who is doing the thing you want to do. Offer to go and help out so you can see how it works. Ask them how they do their job, and what their advice would be. 

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