Gallery: How lost Romilly found her silver lining

You've cracked it if you find something you love and can turn it into a job, too.

Steven Russell

You've cracked it if you find something you love and can turn it into a job, too. Romilly Norman reckons she's discovered her Happy Zone. Not that the journey hasn't been without its cul-de-sacs, as Steven Russell discovers

IT was only in the past five years - perhaps not even that long ago - that Romilly Norman realised the secret to life was to strive to do something that made you happy. The threat of losing her job because of financial turmoil within the NHS made her take stock and consider changing direction. (Happily, that worst case scenario never actually materialised.) Even more of a wake-up call was the fatal illness of colleague Michelle Bown - a friend with whom she shared a passion for posh handbags and Sex and the City. The 34-year-old had an aggressive form of skin cancer. “I spoke to her a few months before she died and told her what I was thinking of doing, and she said 'Just do it! You've got to do it, because you never know what might happen,'” explains Romilly.

The dream was to start a jewellery-making hobby-cum-business - one that at the very least would offer creative satisfaction and at best might grow into a fully-blown enterprise should the day-job disappear.


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Romilly began making bead jewellery with semi-precious stones, but it didn't really take off and she felt she was banging her head against the wall. Then a serendipitous commission for a set of silver cufflinks proved the turning point.

“Now I know where I am. I'm happy!” she says with her infectious giggle. “It's just clicked into place. Beading I did enjoy at the time, but I didn't feel fulfilled until I started working with sterling silver.”

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It hasn't been easy - artistic confidence levels tend to rise and fall like a yo-yo - but “it's a release and I love it. I'm happiest in my home environment, with my studio there. [Behind the garage and, inside, painted a calming green.] I feel lucky. Some people perhaps don't have the guts to do it” - make changes - “and so are miserable in their jobs. But you've just got to do it. You've got to try to make yourself happy.”

Romilly, 33, is an East Ipswich girl whose parents ran a knitting shop in Woodbridge Road before selling up and opening Rumbles Sandwich Bar in the town centre. It was later sold to a staff member, which left mum Chrissy able to concentrate on her own artwork.

Romilly obviously inherited much of the creative DNA and dabbled with jewellery-making as a teenager, though she put that on the back-burner when she had to decide whether to plough an artistic furrow or pursue “a real career”.

Trouble was, careers advice at the time she left Northgate High School tended to point non-academic girls towards nursing or administrative roles. Romilly spent about six years with Suffolk police, latterly working in the alarms response section, but it didn't float her boat.

“I couldn't be in an office environment for much longer,” she admits. “Sometimes you'd have to deal with a really grumpy person and I didn't want that anymore. I felt that wasn't me.”

She pursued college qualifications with an eye towards hospital work and took a pay cut to join the NHS 11 years ago. Romilly worked in a trauma and orthopaedic ward at Ipswich Hospital, as a health care assistant, and then switched to operating theatres a decade ago. She still enjoys working shifts there, about three days a week. It dovetails nicely with the jewellery-making.

As an ODP - an operating department practitioner - she spends much of her time helping with matters anaesthetic.

It was in 2005 when the job scene began to look a bit rocky. “I thought 'I need to sort something out in case I go. On the other hand, my speciality might not make redundancies . . .' But I couldn't risk it. I wanted to look at something I really wanted to do. Because I've always had a love of jewellery, it was that.”

As a young girl, Romilly used to look through her mum's jewellery box, but it was really the influences of her two grandmothers that were telling. Nanny Cambridge loved anything that sparkled. “Along with her fur coat I remember her solid gold charm bracelet jangling every time she lit a cigarette. My Nanny Ipswich's jewellery was more subtle, but with her we used to watch old black-and-white movies on a Saturday afternoon.”

True legends such as Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner brought sparkle to the screen, “wearing gorgeous outfits with jewellery that was larger than life - something that I wanted to aspire to as I grew up”.

She laughs about how she went at it like a bull in a china shop upon starting her hobby-cum-business. Too much money went too early on things like advertising. Too much was spent on materials. “I didn't have a piece in my mind and then make it; I'd buy beads I liked and think 'Perhaps I could make something from this . . .' Some of the beads I never did do anything with. I was a bit of a wally, really, spending all that!” It took about a year “before I really got myself organised”.

Romilly didn't sell anything via her website for a year and a half - and then got three sales in a month. She did run jewellery parties for friends and other folk, though, and attend craft shows.

Things meandered on, and orders came in, but at the start of 2008 she recognised feeling quite lost about where she was heading.

Then in the May a customer asked for a pair of silver cufflinks. “I thought 'Oh god!' I was petrified of soldering! I thought 'Ooh! Heat! Flames! Me! Not good!' But I forced myself to learn; and it's worked. I learned how to solder, learned how to set things, made the cufflinks - and that kicked if off with sterling silver, really.”

And that was it: a bit like coming home after months in the wilderness. “Now I know where I am. I'm happy! It's just clicked into place. Beading I did enjoy at the time, but I didn't feel fulfilled.”

Romilly was largely self-taught, digesting books and other information she got her hands on, though she did find a professional silversmith who's become something of a guru: Richard Whitehouse, in Manningtree.

“I was a bit fraught, because I got a bit stuck creating these cufflinks, and searched and found him. He runs courses and there was one place left. It was meant to be, so I grabbed the opportunity to learn how to solder. I can't believe I was such a chicken before!”

She still goes once a week. “He's there making his own pieces, but if I or the other girls need advice we can ask him. He's like my safety blanket! He gives you the confidence to push yourself and learn more.”

The 12 months since have proved busy, with cufflinks - ironically enough - among the biggest sellers. Her enterprise - selling ready-to-wear and bespoke jewellery and accessories - seems to be weathering the recession. And she's got her own hallmark, too.

“It's just lovely. I feel . . .” Validated? “Yeah. Really happy that everything's worked well. I also think I'm happier because my confidence has gone up.”

Ah yes; that fragile self-esteem. It was buffeted a bit by “my first real exhibition” - the Suffolk Open Studios Showcase in May.

She'd done craft and wedding shows, but Romilly admits being very nervous before the start of this extravaganza - anxious about being a jewellery-maker among a group of (predominantly) traditional artists with bags of experience. The preview evening was daunting. Romilly's blog tells it best:

“. . . the car park was full, made me feel even worse; walked through the door and it was busy - lots of noise [from] all the talking, and rich people every which way I turn. I felt so uncomfortable . . . People looked at my cabinet but no red dots. [They signify a piece has been sold.] I went to see the other jewellery lady and her cabinet was great - a proper lock, not one from eBay -and she had a red dot. Well, that finished me off and I just wanted to go home. I then walked around with my hand on my shoulder, pretending to keep my handbag up, but really I was hiding my name tag.

“In the walk to the car I had lost my confidence. I felt inferior; actually, I felt rubbish. I just wanted to get home and drown my sorrows.”

Spirits soon rose, thankfully. She went along on the Monday to do her voluntary stint “behind the counter” and discovered she'd sold a piece - Swarovski crystals attached to a sterling silver adjustable ring, to be precise - “though I didn't realise at first because it didn't have a dot. So I said 'Can I have a red dot and stick it on?' And I did!

“By the time I came to pick up the following week, I'd sold five pieces and was really pleased. I realised that people came mainly to see the art, and for someone like me it's a bonus.

“I think that dot, even though it's just a piece of sticky paper, psychologically for artists can either boost or deflate them. You think 'My stuff's not good enough, because it hasn't been sold.'”

Something she is relishing is her first Suffolk Open Studios weekends, where artists and craftspeople open up their workrooms so visitors can see what they make, how they do it and where they do it. (Her mum was a member in the past.) She knows people will be coming because they're specifically interested, so that awkwardness won't be there.

As well as her work at the hospital, Romilly reckons she devotes at least 20 hours a week to her jewellery enterprise. She pays tribute to partner George for supporting her passion - and for supplying cups of tea when she's toiling away in the studio.

There's no such thing as wasted downtime. When she went to Cornwall for a few days, Romilly took some items to work on in the car and during the time away: two rings to be made, and three pieces to file before posting them off for hallmarking. “I always need to have something to do, because I can't just sit still.”

She also carries a notebook in which to sketch anything that could be incorporated in a future design. Inspiration can strike anywhere - even on a bus. “Many of my ideas come to me when I am not expecting it. If my handbag was stolen, I would be more upset at my notebook going than my purse!”

Can she put into words how and why making jewellery makes her happy?

“I would say it's because I have all these creative thoughts in my mind, all the time, and it's good to expel them, put them in a piece, and see the finished article. And it's even better when somebody buys that piece. I've got it all there” - she taps her head - “and I want to share it; and my way is to express it through jewellery.”

And what of the future?

“What I would really love is to just work for myself as a fully-fledged successful jeweller and not have to rely on another job to make ends meet. And be recognised nationally, so people could look at the logo and say 'That's a Romilly piece!'”

She grins. “And dreams can come true - or so I've been told.”

ROMILLY Norman's studio is open between 11am and 5pm on June 20 and 21, and June 27 and 28, as part of the 2009 Suffolk Open Studios event. It's at 132 Whitby Road, Ipswich. Contact details: 01473 412539; info@romillynorman.co.uk; www.romillynorman.co.uk

General details: www.suffolkopenstudios.co.uk

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