Having gained a wide range of varied educational and professional experiences, BAJ graduate Clio Saskia now runs her own jewellery brand, creating fascinating pieces inspired by exotic animals. Having established herself as a successful jewellery designer, she receives a number of bespoke orders – creative and original commissions that are currently her favourite part of the job.
At this year’s Goldsmiths’ Craft and Design Council (GC&DC) Awards, she won the Gem-A Award for her striking “Snake Knuckleduster” ring. Here we speak to her about her career so far and about how taking a hands-on jewellery making course at BAJ put her on the path to becoming an award-winning jeweller.
How did you find your way to studying jewellery manufacturing at BAJ?
I started off when I was 19. I moved from Holland to London to do a foundation course at UAL (University of the Arts, London) and then I went on to study contemporary sculpture at Camberwell College and, throughout that time, I experimented with lots of different creative techniques, but the actual subject matter – fine art, contemporary art – didn’t really mean anything to me. So for me, what I found interesting was the techniques and the processes that I was exploring..
I ended up studying status and concepts of beauty, and that led me quite clearly to jewellery, because it’s such a fundamental thing: all cultures have forms of jewellery that they adorn themselves with.. How people wear jewellery to project something to others is what I find particularly interesting. I ended up making earrings for these traditional busts that I’d made for my final degree show and I spent half the time making the earrings, so I thought, “oh, maybe I should look into that.”
So I did a couple of short courses in ring making and a bit of drawing and design stuff. Then, in 2015, I moved to Australia for six months and I bought a plot where I mined some sapphires and some zircons. Then I studied with a master jeweller who had a spare bench. I did that for about a year, then I came back to the UK and thought it would be a good ideato do an actual qualification.
So that’s when I found BAJ. I was also looking at other jewellery schools, but the vocational aspect of BAJ teaching was what really appealed to me, because I wanted to learn practical skills. I knew what I wanted, and BAJ offered that in particular.
What was it like in the BAJ workshop when you were studying there? How did you find it?
I did the part-time course, because I had to work at the same time to pay for it. I loved it, because you learnt new techniques. The teachers were really good, and it was really nice being around other students of different ages. There were quite a lot of people with varied backgrounds, so as well as learning the techniques, you also heard about other peoples’ lives and learned from their experiences, because you’re all sort of trying the same stuff together.
I do think my experience was so good because the tutors were so knowledgeable. I definitely came into jewellery thinking that there was a right and a wrong way to do everything. But actually speaking to the tutors, I realised that no, there are like 20 ways of doing something. It just depends on which one is right for you or not.
Which aspects of jewellery making did you particularly enjoy when you were studying?
I’m quite an alternative, creative person, so I had lots of ideas that I wanted to make, but I didn’t have the technical skills to do it. At BAJ I was learning the techniques and then figuring out how to apply them to my style of work. It’s interesting, because people come from different backgrounds and they want to learn the technical skills, but everyone wants to apply them in slightly different ways. So there’s people who want to become bench jewellers, creative designers, all sorts of different things. It’s really all about taking the bones that you get taught there and applying them to your preferred area.
How did you find the atmosphere at BAJ?
The tutors are really enthusiastic and they’re there because they enjoy teaching and are obviously very, very skilled. So what’s great is that, if you ask, there’s a lot of extra things that you can learn from them during the course that’s not actually in the curriculum.
What have you gone on to do since finishing your studies?
While I was still studying, I got a job as a workshop manager at a jewellery company in London for six or seven months. After that, I was working as a technical assistant part time at a university while I was doing my own work, also part time. I got into the Setting Out course at Goldsmiths’ Centre in 2019, finished that in 2020, and now I have my own business. It’s mostly bespoke and collection stuff, so selling online, with a few stockists.
Tell us about the GC&DC Award you won for the ring you made. How did you go about creating that?
That was one of those things where I quite often have an idea, and then I go “oh no, that’s silly, it’ll never work” or “no-one’ll want it.” But in the end I thought, “no, I have to make it. I have to see how it looks.”
I like to imagine how real animals would sit on you or interact with you, and then try and recreate that in a piece of jewellery. So there are loads of snake rings where the snake just goes round one finger, and I was like, “I don’t think snakes would actually do that.” So that’s how the whole-hand ring came about. And then, because it took me quite a long time to carve, I felt like silver would be a bit of a cop out. So I thought, “I’ll just do it in 18-carat! Why not? I’ll give it a go!” It turned out quite well.
And when it comes to using gemstones, rather than going, “here’s an animal and here’s some gemstones,” I feel like it should make sense. It should be incorporated, look natural, look like it’s part of it, rather than looking like it’s just sort of plonked on top for the sake of having gemstones. So that’s the main reason why, with the snake’s mouth, I decided “oh, I think it would try and eat one of the gemstones.”
Was it something that you created specifically to showcase for the award or was it something you made for your brand with the idea to sell?
I’d really love to get into more red-carpet, celebrity dressing, and it was one of those things where I thought it would just be so cool on stage or on the red carpet. So I didn’t make it specifically for GC&DC. I know some people do, but it was my first year applying and there are only so many things I can afford to make at the moment. It just happened to be a situation where I was like “right, I will submit that, because it makes sense and it’s sort of out there and weird enough that it could be found interesting.”
Are you going to sell it now?
It is on sale, but it’s really heavy and there’s a lot of gold in it, so it’s going to have to be someone pretty special to go, “yes, I can afford almost 14 grand to spend on a ring.” I’d like to use it for musicians or actors. I’d love to use it as this sort of hero, statement piece, but we’ll see what happens.
And what’s next for your jewellery making? Where do you see things going?
Well, at the moment, loads of people have been saying that bespoke work and redesigns have just become so busy suddenly. I think people have been sitting at home, going “I have this brooch and I never wear it, what shall I do?” And they’ve had time to actually go and look.
I honestly think that All That Glitters has probably had quite a big effect on people understanding how you can approach a jeweller to get a piece made, because it’s one of those things that I think a lot of people feel is not for them, or they don’t understand the process and therefore don’t feel confident or comfortable to approach a jeweller to talk about it. And with All That Glitters, people now go, “oh, I understand now. Maybe I’ll do something like that!”
So, at the moment, I’m flat-out doing bespoke work, which is my favourite part, just because you get to meet really interesting people, with loads of different stories. As I started off saying, it’s really fun to try and understand why people want a particular piece of jewellery, what it means to them, how they feel like it conveys who they are to other people when they wear it. I just find that one of the most interesting parts of jewellery. I’d love to continue doing less conventional, more exciting, bespoke work, and at the moment there are quite a few pieces I’m working on that are really fun.
About six months ago, I also launched my first collection, which is going quite well. I’m quite happy with it. But that, to me, is a case of sitting down once a year to design a collection, release it and see how it goes. It’s not that much of a passion of mine to make smaller things. I want to do the big dramatic stuff!
What’s your advice for someone if they want to get started with jewellery making?
It depends on their background and where they’re coming from. But if you’re younger and you feel like you’re very practical and you like working alongside someone else and having a mentor, then I’d really suggest doing a course like one of the ones at BAJ. That way, you can get a really good feel for the practical side of things and then try to get an apprenticeship or work experience, something like that. There’s so much that you can learn very quickly – it’s just a case of getting that actual practical, hands-on experience, which is essential.
And then, if you’re someone who’s more interested in design, so if you’re looking at jewellery design, or maybe gemmology, then I’d probably recommend trying to get involved in one of the larger companies. There’s a really broad range of experience that you can get working in a structure like that. It really depends on who you are, but I definitely recommend doing a course of some kind and then going on to do work experience or an apprenticeship.
You can [launch a brand]on your own, but it’s just so much work. And there are so many questions that it’s much easier to get the answers to if you’ve got tutors or mentors who you can just ask. For me personally, I like having that guidance and then figuring out what areas within that I can be creative in.
In terms of the customer, I think people often underestimate how important it is to understand who you are selling to. So let’s say that a customer is looking for ethically sourced gemstones, they probably aren’t going to want them in a piece using non-recycled silver. It’s really important to understand what your customer base is looking for.
The aspect of creating a broad, full collection is also challenging, because I think most designers are drawn to specific things. I love making rings, for example, but I can actually find it quite difficult to make designing pendants and bracelets fun. You have to be a bit disciplined in understanding that even though you like making one thing, you actually have to do the other stuff that you find a bit harder as well, in order to create a cohesive, full collection. Your collection has also got to have the right price points: you’ve got the cheapest earrings and the cheapest ring, then you’ve got mid-range pieces, then you’ve got the more expensive stuff. It takes a little bit of research.