Kitchen table gems...
PUBLISHED: 15:25 04 November 2013 | UPDATED: 15:25 04 November 2013
Growing up as the “original Blue Peter kid”, Melanie Blaikie was destined to be a creative soul.
“As a child I was forever making dolls’ clothes out of J Cloths, cutting up egg boxes, painting and knitting,” she says. “Over the years I have made my own clothes, cushions, blinds and curtains.”
But little did she imagine her love of bright, shiny and sparkling things would take her into what she describes as “probably my dream job” – valuing diamonds for De Beers in London.
From there she somehow fell into a role where she ended up designing jewellery for some of the biggest names in the business – Asprey, Garrad and Tiffany. But that’s not to say she’s lived a charmed life.
Melanie ended up living in Ipswich only after being made redundant when the family jewellery firm she worked for went down, and was again put out of work when her new employer in Suffolk – the jeweller Croydons – also folded.
But, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, so Melanie picked herself up and went back to her Blue Peter roots.
As a result she’s ended up as an instructor in the art of making jewellery from a remarkable substance called silver clay, has written a book on the subject and has just launched her own online classes, where people can learn the techniques in the comfort of their own homes.
“I am really excited about the website,” she says. “Making things has brought me so much satisfaction over the years and as an instructor it is lovely to see people going away from workshops with that same feeling of satisfaction. Having the website takes it to the next level as far as I am concerned.
“It gives me – and other craftspeople also on the site – the opportunity to share our techniques with so many more people, many of whom would never have the chance to go to a workshop.
“I didn’t think so at the time but being made redundant all those years ago was actually a time of opportunity. It can be a time to follow your heart.”
Most artists and craftspeople have a studio in which they work, a creative space littered with the tools of their trade and work at various stages of completion.
Not Melanie. Her studio is and always has been her kitchen table. That’s one of the reasons she was drawn to silver clay in the first place. But more of that later.
First, I want to know, how did she end up working for De Beers?
“I was always drawn to jewellery because each piece is like an individual artwork and so easy to carry around with you,” she says.
“But when I left school I had no idea what I wanted to do. I certainly wasn’t thinking about making a career out of jewellery. I seem to remember that I wanted to be a nurse at one stage, actually.
“Anyway, I was looking for my first job and answered an intriguing ad in the paper. It just said something like, ‘interesting job for a young person’. I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose; let’s give it a try’. When the information came back, I learned it was a job to train as a diamond valuer with De Beers. I suppose they didn’t want to give too much away in the first advert, for fear of attracting the wrong sort of interest.
“With my love of all things sparkling and making things, it was a brilliant job for me.”
Melanie, who was living in Hertfordshire at the time, soon found herself learning how to value diamonds.
“I suppose I must have been about 18,” she says. “I did three months in their training school and then continued to learn on the job, going into different departments to learn different aspects of the business.
“There are a few things you have to look for when valuing diamonds – weight (carat), cut, colour and clarity.
“The diamonds came to London from mines all over the world. You get to recognise the different characteristics of the stones from each mine and each country, you value them and they go off to diamond centres around the world for different uses.
“Most of the diamonds that are dug up are actually poor quality and get used for industrial purposes, in oil fields and drilling, for example. Some can be worth just a few dollars but, at the other end, you can get stones of real quality that can be worth thousands of dollars per carat.
“Although I was working with these incredibly precious stones and there was high security, it was just a day at the office for me. You can get quite blasé about it.”
Melanie worked at De Beers for seven years and from there went on to a family business in Hatton Garden, famous as London’s jewellery quarter and the centre of the diamond trade.
“I had always had an interest in creating things and this particular company made high-class jewels for quality jewellers, who would call up if they wanted something specific for a customer and ask if we had it,” she says.
“Sometimes we didn’t, but rather than telling them that, I started saying: ‘We haven’t got it but we could get the stone and our workshop could put the piece together, or I could do some sketches and your customer could have some input into the finished piece.’
“This turned out to be very successful. Jewellery tends to be made for special occasions and people often like the idea of having something bespoke.”
Melanie’s Blue Peter leanings had served her well yet again. She began sketching out designs for customers and before long had created a role where she found herself effectively designing jewellery.
“I didn’t have any formal training,” she says. “It was just natural flair but I’m sure my background of cutting up felt and thinking how to make lots of different things from anything that I had to hand helped.
“It went from there. I ended up travelling around the country and taking my designs to the best jewellers in town and saying ‘If you want to commission this piece, we will make it for you or your customer’. I really enjoyed that job and was lucky to have that role.”
By now it was the early 1990s and the financial storm clouds were gathering. Melanie was made redundant and decided to up sticks − to Ipswich.
“The business I had worked for had been hit by the recession and I knew, at that point, that I wouldn’t get another job in the same field,” she says. “I had to do something completely different. I thought it was time to leave London. When I was very young my grandparents lived in Saxmundham. I’d always had rose-tinted memories of my lovely holidays there and thought I would really like to go back to Suffolk.
“I did a couple of fact-finding tours to Ipswich to get an idea of where I might live and work and ended up getting a job at Croydons, the jewellers, working on the shop floor. It was really interesting to see a different side to the industry but after two years Croydons went into receivership and I was made redundant again.”
This time, Melanie decided she was just going to take the first job that came along, regardless of what it was. She ended up working for a government scheme to help people who were long-term unemployed return to work, persuading companies to provide work placements. Although it was vastly different to what she was used to, she loved the role.
“There was a sense of doing something worthwhile and with a positive result at the end,” she says.
After a couple of years, the company’s business was taken over by Suffolk County Council and Melanie became a local government employee. She still works part-time for the authority.
“Office work is great but it’s not very creative,” she says. “After a while I missed the jewellery and that creative outlet, so I thought I’d enrol on a silversmithing course for beginners. Up until that time I had designed jewellery but never actually made any myself. I just wanted a hobby, but once I started learning silversmithing I could see it was far more complicated than I had realised. There are a lot of processes to learn and you need specialised and expensive equipment. I gave up after a couple of terms when I realised it wasn’t something I could do at home easily as a hobby.
“Soon afterwards I must have been reading somewhere about this stuff called silver clay, which wasn’t even available in this country at that time, probably about 11 or 12 years ago. You could work with it at your kitchen table and in a couple of hours have made something and be wearing it. It was so different to traditional silversmithing. This was something I could do.”
Melanie ordered her first supplies of silver clay − which is made from silver powder mixed with water and a binder that holds it together − from America and sat down to have a go.
“It’s very easy to work with,” she says. “You start by rolling it out and can use cutters or place it in moulds − all the techniques you would use with traditional clay.”
Despite its simplicity, Melanie felt she needed to do a class to learn more, but couldn’t find anything.
“There was no-one teaching it in this country at all then,” she says. “So I drew on my background resources and all those Blue Peter years and thought I would just have a go myself. I made lots of mistakes but I could see that what people said about it was true: it was easy to work with and you didn’t need any special equipment.”
Once moulded into the finished shape and dry, the “clay” needs to be fired. Although Melanie now has a kiln, it is by no means a necessity. It’s just as effective to fire the jewellery on a gas hob or a portable gas stove.
“You just put a metal mesh on top of the ring and it fires in minutes,” she says. “After firing you polish it up with a wire brush and burnish it − you can use a teaspoon or crochet hook for that. You need no specialist equipment for any stage, just things people will have at home.
“The finished result can even be hallmarked with the number 999, which denotes a better quality of silver than sterling silver.”
Melanie admits the clay is relatively expensive (£25 for 10g) and for that reason is always careful to plan her designs in Play-Doh first, something she always encourages students to do too.
“If it works in Play-Doh it will work in silver clay,” she says. She started teaching others to make their own silver clay jewellery a decade ago and ended up writing a book, Silver Clay Workshop − get started with Silver Clay Jewellery, when students asked her if there was one she could recommend.
“The only books available at that time were American or Japanese. They weren’t always that accessible for British readers, whose tastes are often different anyway. The Americans are into big, chunky designs and as a rule we don’t tend to be.”
Over the years, her classes have become so popular that her weekends are booked up until 2015.
“I do classes all over the country and have to turn a lot of work away,” she says.
It was this situation and the realisation that not everyone could physically get to a class, perhaps because of where they lived or their personal circumstances, that made her first think of setting up an online school.
Her website, www.imadeitcrafts.co.uk, has gone live in the last few days and features a selection of other (mainly local) tutors and crafts alongside Melanie’s silver clay and polymer clay (a technique for making colourful beads that are fired by baking in a domestic oven) workshops. Courses can be watched over and over again once purchased.
“With silver clay you can do everything you can do with ordinary silver − and more,” she says. “When I look back at my early creations I can see I’ve become more skilful over the years, but the phrase I live by is still ‘keep it simple’ and that’s what I tell my students.
“I get inspiration from all kinds of things for my designs. It could come from looking at a detail in a Persian carpet or an unusual piece of furniture. But whatever I make, I still do it as I always have done − at my kitchen table.”
■ For more information, visit www.imadeitcrafts.co.uk and www.silverclayworkshop.co.uk