As she prepares for the inaugural Goldsmiths North jewellery fair in Sheffield, Jennie Gill talks to Stephanie Smith about her powerful work influenced by industry. Pictures by James Hardisty.
For jeweller Jennie Gill, her Sheffield studio is much more than a workplace. It’s her sanctuary, too. “I absolutely love this space, she says. “Saturday mornings are my favourite. I just come in and put the kettle on and I’ve got little birds that visit me, blue tits and goldfinches.”
Jennie is one of more than 60 artists and makers at Persistence Works, a purpose-built, award-winning studio complex opened in 2001 in Sheffield city centre, with 53 studios across six floors. Jennie has been there since the beginning and clearly well established. She’s got her own tree on the balcony to welcome those visiting birds and the studio kettle is always ready to welcome human visitors, from gem dealers to clients who come to discuss a special piece of jewellery they want her to make.
The surrounding industrial landscape of Sheffield is a source of inspiration. “My work is quite raw,” she says. “There are industrial aspects to it.” For example, she uses old handmade nails, making a mould of them and then casting them in silver for pins, earrings and more.
She works in precious metals, especially silver and gold, and with precious gems including diamonds. “The metals are recycled or repurposed and the stones are all ethically sourced or repurposed – they are all traceable,” she says.
Her pieces have an organic yet opulent quality. “I work at the bench. I don’t design on paper,” she says. “I work with the metals and respond to the stones.
“I love working with vintage cut diamonds as the flaws and the inclusions tell their own stories. Stories are important to my work. I want to capture in each piece a sense of another life, maybe grander, maybe a completely different purpose, but always a past.”
She also makes in Whitby jet. “It’s so dense but so light and warm. That’s what I love about it,” she says.
Clients commission her to make rings and other jewellery pieces for engagements, weddings, anniversaries and birthdays, some coming back every 10 years for another landmark birthday. “My customers are very strong and have their own personal style,” she says. “People have to like my work.”
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Silver pieces start at £200 and go up to about £3,000. “I do work to budget but quite often it’s a once in a lifetime purchase. Or I recycle family stones from pieces that have moved down through the family.
“I can use the gold and the diamonds. If you have inherited a few rings you can remelt the metal – it’s 100 per cent recycled,” she says.
Originally from Whitby, Jennie went to York College and then Sheffield Polytechnic, now Sheffield Hallam University, graduating in 1991 with a degree in silversmithing. She lives in Nether Edge with her husband, Rob Baxter, who is head of Art and Design at York College, and sons aged 14 and 11. They also have a canal boat at York Marina.
When she first started out as an independent jewellery maker, she sold to fashion retailers including Phase Eight and French Connection, making all the pieces by hand, which meant long hours at her bench. “Then I had the two boys and I didn’t have the bench time so it meant that I just had to start making things that I loved,” she says.
This week Jennie will be one of 60 independent makers from across the UK taking part in the inaugural Goldsmiths North international summer selling fair at the Cutlers’ Hall in Sheffield. She will be joined by talented makers including Victoria Walker, whose jewellery is inspired by flowers and seed pods; Polly Gasston, whose pieces reflect the near east; 3D jewellery designer Max Danger; Mikala Djorup, whose jewellery has a Scandinavian feel and Letters to Jinny, who creates jewellery with secret compartments and hidden messages.
Organised by contemporary British silversmith Brett Payne and Rebecca Joselyn, Freeman of The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, the fair is supported by The Goldsmiths’ Company, The Sheffield Assay Office and The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire.
Jennie’s jewellery can be seen at The Dutch House at Crayke and at Rita Britton’s Nomad Atelier in Barnsley. Jennie says: “I absolutely love working with Rita – she’s just the most inspiring creative. I just want to bottle her.”
Later this month she travels to San Francisco to showcase her designs to the US. Every stone is unique and each piece has a story to tell.
■ Goldsmiths North takes place July 12-14, 10am to 5pm daily, at the Banqueting Hall at Cutlers’ Hall. Tickets can be bought on the door and cost £5 each, with visitors free to return on all three days with a validated ticket. Visit goldsmithsnorth.com.