Working in jewellery design

 18 April 2012

Diana Porter runs a successful jewellery business from her shop and workroom in Bristol. She describes how she got started in jewellery design and challenges of running a jewellery business.

Items from Diana's collection are stocked in over 40 shops and galleries throughout the UK.
Items from Diana's collection are stocked in over 40 shops and galleries throughout the UK.

Diana discovered jewellery design later in life. Her passion emerged in an adult education class, leading her to study full time for a BA (Hons) at UCE in Birmingham.

"Doing a part-time jewellery course completely focused me.  I loved the way that metal moved."

She scooped the UK Jewellery Designer of the Year title just six years after graduating. She now employs a workforce of 14, and items from her collection are stocked in over 40 shops and galleries throughout the UK. 

Diana’s accolades include the seal of approval from the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, and she is included in their prestigious ‘Who’s Who in Gold and Silver’ list. 

Prior to setting up her business, Diana had a varied career – as a teacher, actor and arts administrator running theatre groups. But she always wanted to develop her personal creativity, in particular making three-dimensional things.

Studying jewellery design

Diana says, “Doing a part-time jewellery course as an introduction to the discipline completely focused me.  I loved the way that metal moved and I became absorbed by making little sculptural things.

"I just wanted to do it all the time, so I chose to study Jewellery Design. My design awareness and ability developed dramatically while I was at university. It was three years to take stock and create.

"As students we were presented with numerous design projects -  and so I was pushed to develop my skills. The facilities available are vast and allow you to really experiment with different methods and techniques of jewellery making.

"My design awareness and ability developed dramatically at university. It was three years to take stock and create."

"I also learned a great deal about the history of art and design, which I loved. I would encourage anyone involved in design, to study at as high a level as possible.”

Diana advises that, “there a number of excellent courses on offer now, each with a different style of teaching.

"Do your research thoroughly to find a course which best suits your interests in jewellery design and making.”

Developing as a jewellery designer-maker

Diana set up her own business immediately after graduation. “My experience as a self-employed Arts Organiser gave me the tools to work for myself.

"It felt like a natural progression after graduating that I should work from my front room. The business grew organically from there, much like my jewellery!

"The business has now developed into a team of three full-time and two part-time jewellers who are based in the workshop behind my shop in Bristol:

  • I will design and make an original piece for my collection, or for commission.
  • The work is cast and the team finishes the castings.
  • Our Technical Director – a very talented jeweller – works to my designs to produce complicated commissioned work and also works with me on making the designs for the collection.

"I specialise in acid etching which I do by hand. I usually have several commissions requiring etching every week, usually involving writing words as a pattern onto rings."

Inspiration for designing jewellery

"The jewellery is a synthesis of my life experience. At college I was inspired by ancient images of powerful women - so my work is about women and assertiveness (Sibyls).

"I believe in challenging conventional ideas, both in jewellery design and in the way we organise our lives."

"Other themes and inspirations are: Spirit (the spirit in all of us), Wisdom, Change, and the idea of togetherness –   whilst being separate.

"I believe in design suiting the form; about words being ambiguous; and challenging conventional ideas, both in jewellery design and in the way we organise our lives. Some of my work is inspired by about tiny precious moments – ‘little diamonds’."

Achieving success in jewellery

"We are constantly surprised by the numbers of people who buy the work. We think it is because we now have a great reputation for contemporary, interesting wedding and engagement rings and attract customers from all over the country."

"My customers are both men and women – many of the ring styles are androgynous.  We have a wide range of engagement and weddings rings. We make cuff-links and pendants for men as well as many other products for women.

"We advertise in local and national magazines. Luckily for me there is a big interest and following of my work locally, so I am regularly featured in magazine editorials.

"I found that the best way to sell my work in the beginning was to hire a stand at jewellery trade fairs and take orders from shops. Now I would also launch a website straight away."

Running your own business

"When you start off as a sole trader, you have to do everything yourself.

"As the business grew and I employed people, I needed management skills."

When I started my business not only was I designing and making jewellery, I was answering the phone, preparing paperwork, taking photos, designing and organising publicity material and PR, doing accounts.

"The list was endless. It's common to work all hours God gives when starting a business and have no holidays. Your revenue is dependent on you alone.

"As the business grew and I employed people, I needed management skills. It’s hard to be accomplished at everything and easy to make mistakes that affect other people. "

Ethical awareness in jewellery

Diana is very keen to make her business as ethical as possible.

“When I was at college 20 years ago, nobody thought about the origins of the metals and stones we used. We just enjoyed making pretty things.

"Our awareness has grown over the last 10 years. As we have learned about the unhappy conditions of mine workers and the devastating effect of the chemicals used on the environment, I have tried to find out more about the issues.

"There is now an active movement within the jewellery trade to try and source ethical raw materials. For the future, I will be focusing on moving towards making all of our collections in Fairtrade gold and researching and obtaining silver from ethical mines."

5 tips for building a career in jewellery

1. Learn as much as you can

"Maybe an HND or equivalent to learn making techniques, followed by a degree in design, and then maybe even an MA.

2. Stand out from the competition

"The trick is to develop your design skills so you are producing unique work that you are passionate about. This communicates itself to the people who might want to buy it.

3. Perfect your making skills

"If you make one-off 'art' pieces, then you will need to charge high prices to rich people. You will probably want to teach your craft in order to make a living.

4. Make your work affordable

"There are various ways of reproducing your work, as I do, to achieve a limited production collection, which is then more affordable. Some of my fellow designers get their collections made abroad, but this is not something I am interested in doing.

5. Get some experience of the business

"Setting up a business in this current climate will not be easy. I would certainly recommend work experience in all aspects of the trade. This can only be a huge advantage to pursuing a career as a jewellery designer-maker."