BAJ Theo Fennell interview: jewellery advice from a national treasure

Wondered how iconic London-based jeweller Theo Fennell rose to the top of the UK jewellery industry and how you could too? Read on to find out in his own words.

BAJ:What is your advice for jewellery students looking to excel in jewellery? 

Theo Fennell: You must have a passion for jewellery, so immerse yourself in the world and culture of jewellery, go to exhibitions, look in shop windows and read up about it, it is your life. Learn how jewellery is made as, even if you can’t make it yourself, you cannot design something without knowing if it is possible. Learn enough about the price of materials and production and where best to acquire these, build up a catalogue of suppliers and services; trade fairs are good for this. Learn how to price your time and your pieces, because as many jewellery businesses go bust through bad costings as bad jewellery. 

Learn the rudiments of business so that you can ‘take care of business’. It is a Romantic illusion that great artists starve and creatives needn’t know about business. Even if you work for someone else you should understand how their company works and, incidentally, do work for someone else to begin with, learn from other people’s mistakes and not your own. You will pick up more tips from an existing business than you ever will from working on your own. Work incredibly hard as there are thousands of young people who want to excel in the jewellery world and only a handful will.

How did you develop your signature design style? 

If you want to be a designer, you have to have a unique voice from the outset otherwise you will never get heard in all the noise out there. This will develop and alter and strengthen as you progress but, if you believe in your own work, do not be put off by naysayers, just get stronger.

How do you translate a client’s idea into a wearable piece of jewellery? 

The more commissioned work you do the better you become at judging the needs of the customer, understanding the practicalities and giving an idea life. The more sympathetic and imaginative the client, the easier it is but, with experience, you can lead the undecided or unimaginative customer to what you feel is both practical and will suit them. You must have a very wide knowledge of techniques in all facets of the trade to even begin to take commissions, though.

What drives you to keep creating? 

Passion for the craft, my colleagues and my customers.

Which part of jewellery designing and manufacturing do you enjoy the most? 

The original concept and the finished piece.

How did you decide to pursue jewellery as a career? 

It was luck, I was offered a job in a silversmiths after art school, knowing nothing about the trade and, amazingly, I fell in love with the art of jewellery and silverware.

What is something which surprised you about running a jewellery business? 

Just how overwhelmingly broad the skills and knowledge are that you need. It is much more fickle than I ever supposed.

What is your favourite jewellery making technique? 

For sentimental reasons cuttlefish casting and for aesthetic reasons deep engraving.

We are currently running a collaborative live project with Theo Fennell titled ‘Circle of Life’. A group of our Jewellery Design and Manufacturing Diploma students in London and Birmingham are designing and making rings which showcase their technical manufacturing skills and tell an engaging story, with personalised feedback from Theo himself. 

Our collaborative project with Theo Fennell is one of the numerous live projects we run annually for our Jewellery Design and Manufacturing Diploma students to give them valuable industry experience in a creative, engaging way. Other jewellery businesses we have collaborated with this academic year include engagement ring specialist Lewis Malka and peridot mining specialist Fuli Gemstones. Find out more about our diploma here.

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