Welcome to the 50th episode of the British Academy of Jewellery Podcast. This milestone marks a journey that began during the challenging times of the April 2020 lockdown, with the aim of supporting and engaging with the jewellery industry. It’s both surprising and exciting to have reached this 50th episode, and it’s been a pleasure for the host to select, interview, and promote prominent figures in the industry, as well as jewellery makers and thinkers.
To celebrate this special episode, the host, Sofie Boons, decided to share more about herself, her work, and her research with the audience. For this occasion, she reached out to a fellow jewellery podcaster, Carol Woolton. Carol is renowned as a jewellery historian, recognised for her role as a stylist and editor at British Vogue, and the author of multiple books on jewellery. While she’s accustomed to interviewing guests on her podcast ‘If Jewels Could Talk,’ this time, she posed the questions as a co-host.
Carol’s insightful questions and presence added a unique dimension to this special episode of the British Academy of Jewellery Podcast. A big thank you to Carol Woolton for joining Sofie Boons in celebrating this milestone.
In this podcast summary, we will give you an overview of the key topics of discussion. If you’d like to listen to the Podcast in full, you can do so here.
Despite her background in fashion, Carol’s path led her to immerse herself in the realm of jewellery. She started her career at Vogue, where she eventually became the Jewellery Director. Her enduring passion for jewellery led her to promote the subject’s depth and cultural significance, even amidst the fashion-dominated environment of Vogue.
During the lockdown, Carol felt the desire to connect with others and delve into the rich stories that jewellery pieces hold. This led her to start her podcast, “If Jewels Could Talk.” Through the podcast, she explores the multifaceted aspects of jewellery, from historical roots, like tracing a bead’s journey from India to a Viking grave, to contemporary discussions with figures like Brooke Shields and director Emerald Fennell.
Carol views jewellery as an intersection of various realms, including religion, design, romance, fashion, and art. It’s a subject that continually captivates her, and she enjoys delving into its diverse facets through the podcast. She’s even writing a book inspired by the podcast, further extending her exploration of this fascinating world.
As Carol Woolton eloquently puts it: “It’s always been jewellery, and it’s my subject, and I’m endlessly fascinated and always love talking about jewellery.” Her passion for jewellery shines through, making her a captivating host and writer in the field.
Sofie’s fascination with creating three-dimensional objects and her artistic inclinations led her to consider a career in jewellery making. Her path took shape when a tutor recommended exploring jewellery courses due to her precision, attention to detail, and passion for crafting objects.
Sofie vividly recalls the pivotal moment when she stepped into the jewellery workshop at the Royal Academy in Antwerp. It was an immersive experience filled with the scents of metals and an atmosphere that resonated with her. This sensory encounter sparked her interest in jewellery, even before considering its connections with people and culture.
After completing her education in jewellery, Sofie pursued a career as a jeweller, creating pieces for exhibitions, galleries, and clients, under the moniker the Alchemical Jeweller. However, she also felt a longing for an educational community, which led her to teaching roles at various institutions.
Sofie’s journey eventually led her to the British Academy of Jewellery (BAJ), where she started as a tutor and which she ended up leading as Head of Academy until 2019 . Despite her love for this position, where she oversaw curriculum development and international projects, she decided to shift her focus back to research and making at the University of the West of England’s Centre for Print Research. This decision was made just before the COVID-19 pandemic, which inspired her to start the BAJ podcast as a way to support graduates and the industry during lockdowns.
Sofie’s dedication to education, research, and her passion for jewellery shines through as she continues to host the BAJ podcast, sharing valuable insights and knowledge with her audience on a monthly basis.
Known for her innovative jewellery designs, Sofie reveals the inspiration behind her self-proclaimed title: “The Alchemical Jeweller,” a journey that began during her time at the Royal College of Art (RCA).
Sofie’s work is a testament to her dual fascination with jewellery as a medium and the sensory realm of smell. Growing up her father was a chef and Sofie found herself helping out in his catering shop, she developed an intimate connection with scents. Her father’s role as a chef meant that the air was always filled with enticing aromas. Smell was a constant presence, intertwined with her childhood memories.
As she embarked on her journey as a jeweller, Sofie’s work explored the intersection of materials, craftsmanship, and sensory perception. Her innovative pieces reimagined traditional approaches to jewellery, introducing fresh and exciting concepts:
Scent-Infused Jewellery: Sofie’s designs incorporated scent in ingenious ways. For instance, she created a pen with disappearing ink that left a fragrant message on the skin, an enchanting fusion of the visual and olfactory senses. Additionally, she crafted a book that allowed people to concoct their own solid perfumes using ingredients readily available in their gardens and kitchens, redefining the relationship between scent and jewellery.
Alchemy and Transformation: The term “alchemical jeweller” perfectly encapsulated Sofie’s artistic identity. Like alchemists of old, she possessed an insatiable curiosity about the transformation of materials and matter. Her work delved into the metamorphosis of jewellery, pushing the boundaries of traditional craftsmanship.
“[I have seen two] jewels that relate to smells and one was by the French Jeweller Julia Lawrence, Boomer who some years ago at I think it was at Masterpiece Fair, who launched a rose and a rose that actually did then have a scent… then when I was at the Tucson Gem Show a few years ago and there was a Brazilian jeweller who worked with crystals, Rutilated Quartz mainly, and she made sort of teardrop shapes to hang on hoops as earrings, but in the back, she drilled tiny holes. You bought them with little essential oils which smelt of flowers and you just dropped them in every day, and the idea was that you had the sort of benefit of the crystals and their energetic power as well as the essential oils all day.”
There is also a long-standing history with jewellery and scent. The use of pomanders, small silver decorative containers filled with aromatic substances, as a precursor to modern perfumes. These were extremely popular during the 17th century and were used to mask the smell of unwanted odours and reduce the risk of infection and spread of disease.
The BAJ Podcast
The BAJ podcast has evolved to cover a wide range of topics that resonate with its audience. Initially, it provided practical advice, particularly during lockdown, offering guidance on how to make the most of one’s time. However, as the podcast developed, it expanded its focus to include diverse subjects that captivate listeners.
One significant aspect is the exploration of unique materials and innovative techniques used in jewellery making. The podcast features conversations with individuals from various backgrounds, shedding light on sustainable jewellery practices and highlighting ways for jewellery makers to be more environmentally conscious.
What sets this podcast apart is its audience, which primarily consists of individuals already acquainted with the jewellery industry, including students and graduates. It caters to their needs by offering valuable advice, insights into others’ practices, and a platform for important conversations. Unlike some podcasts that meticulously plan topics in advance, this one thrives on spontaneity and informal discussions. Each episode unfolds naturally, with one conversation leading to the selection of the next guest or topic. It stays current by commenting on industry trends and broader societal issues.
The podcast delves into pressing matters of the jewellery world, such as sustainability and the challenges of creating in a digital age. It prompts listeners to contemplate the role of jewellery in a changing world, moving beyond a self-centred approach to consider how jewellery can contribute to the greater good.
The podcast encourages artists, designers, and jewellery makers to voice their opinions and actively participate in shaping the future of the industry. It serves as a platform for engaging in critical discussions that influence the direction of jewellery-making in a rapidly evolving world.
The BAJ Podcast follows a flexible pattern, with a focus on jewellery design, techniques, and materials. Going forward topics of interest include discussions on 400% thinking and non-Western perspectives, emphasising diversity. Sofie encourages listeners with great ideas to reach out, and the podcast intends to keep challenging contemporary jewellery topics with new and diverse guests in the future.
Listen to the BAJ podcast here.
Sofie holds a Craft Council Research Fellowship and works as a research associate at the Centre for Printing at the University of the West of England. She shared that her research centres around the growth of crystals, specifically man-made crystals, which she explored during a visit to a crystal production company in Germany. Her limited knowledge of, and interest in lab-grown crystals, despite her extensive experience in the jewellery industry, led her to embark on a Ph.D in the subject.
Sofie’s research comprises three case studies. The first one delves into the valuation of man-made crystals and their contextual significance. Additionally, she investigates waste materials generated within the crystal industry and explores their potential applications in jewellery design. She even conducted a workshop encouraging participants to repurpose waste materials like diamond dust and tool grit, promoting sustainable approaches to material reuse.
Carol expressed reservations about the sustainability claims associated with lab-grown gemstones, particularly diamonds. She highlighted the energy-intensive process of creating these gemstones using heat, pressure, and substantial amounts of water. Carol emphasises that while lab-grown gemstones have gained attention, there is no shortage of natural gemstones, making their sustainability claims less convincing.
“I think that the method of, say, culturing pearls came about because there were no pearls left. It was either culture them, or have no pearls. I think we’re not in that situation with gemstones. We have a tonne of gemstones.”
In response, Sofie discussed the importance of considering who produces lab-grown gemstones, where they are produced, and their intended purpose. She mentioned that lab-grown diamonds are commonly used in industrial applications, like tools for producing machinery, where reclaiming and reusing the waste generated can indeed be a sustainable approach.
Sofie elaborated on her research, which includes three case studies. The first involves investigating the valuation and utilisation of man-made crystals, particularly focusing on waste materials from the crystal industry. The second explores creating entirely new materials with unique properties, such as glow-in-the-dark crystals, which could revolutionise jewellery design. The third case study involves growing stones, and potentially rejuvenating damaged or old gemstones by embedding them in new pieces of jewellery.
Carol then added to the discussion by mentioning Chinese designer Wallace Chan, who has developed porcelain that is not only aesthetically beautiful but also remarkably durable, being five times harder than steel. This innovative use of materials, like porcelain and titanium, showcases the potential for designers to explore new and sustainable options in jewellery creation.
Carol emphasized the importance of sustainability, highlighting how jewellery’s durable nature makes it a sustainable choice compared to fast fashion. She encouraged jewellers to focus on quality, uniqueness, and customer involvement to compete with big brands entering the jewellery market.
Sofie added that investing in arts education and supporting creativity, particularly among young individuals, is vital in today’s challenging climate. She stressed the need to ensure that arts education continues to receive support.
They discussed the significance of having a unique point of view and personal creativity in the jewellery industry. Carol cited examples like Elsa Peretti and Chanel, who left a lasting influence on how people wear jewellery, even decades later. She encouraged Jewellers to embrace a new jewellery revolution and find innovative ways to express the current moment through their creations.
“It’s very hard for other jewellers to compete with this (luxury fashion and jewellery houses), so I encourage by saying “The only way you can beat is to do what you do and do it really well”. Offer a fantastic service to handmade, to make it unique because people do want something that’s unique to them and the more they’re involved in the story of their jewel, the more special it is and the more magic it holds within it.”
Overall, the complexities of sustainability in the jewellery industry emphasise the importance of considering the source, purpose, and creative possibilities of lab-grown and alternative materials, underscored by uniqueness, and arts education in the jewellery industry today, while also challenging jewellers to initiate a new revolution in jewellery design.
If Jewels Could Talk Podcast
Carol has several exciting episodes lined up for the 5th season of her podcast. She plans to feature episodes on Coco Chanel, Daphne Guinness, a focus on master jeweller Suzanne Belperron, and a special episode dedicated to the iconic jewellery lover and collector, Elizabeth Taylor. These episodes promise to offer unique insights and stories related to these influential figures in the world of jewellery.
Listen to If Jewels Could Talk Podcast here.
Carol’s charitable work
Carol co-founded a charity called “Leopard Awards” in 2016, along with Theo Fennell, Stephen Webster, Solange Azagury Partridge and Susan Farmer, who is an industry specialist in diamonds and stones.
The charity aims to promote British jewellery by recognising individuals outside the industry who have elevated the role of jewellery in their fields, such as sports, film, music, and more. They also focus on mentoring young people and supporting them in entering the industry, often collaborating with organisations like the Princess Trust. Additionally, they are planning an exciting new project to introduce jewellery as a viable career option to individuals who may not have previously considered it. This initiative will be launched in November.
Find out more about the Leopard Awards.
Sofie ended the episode with a short reflection on jewellery podcasting as an activity, resulting in episodes not unlike articles, books and other research publications that will serve as insightful markers of key historic developments, and evolutions in the jewellery field, and in some cases beyond. With the world having to grapple with serious challenges it is important there are several resources out there that enable us to engage with topics that are current and important for our future.
Listen to the episode in full here.