How do BAJ’s Live Projects prepare students for a career in jewellery design? A conversation with Head of Academy Kate Rieppel

The British Academy of Jewellery has a wide range of courses for learners interested in a career in jewellery design. Whether it’s a three-year diploma, a CAD jewellery design course online, or a specialised short course, we have something for everyone. But in addition to these qualifications, BAJ also offers students invaluable opportunities to get hands-on industry experience. From organising live projects in collaboration with established brands, to helping students find jewellery placements through our extensive industry network, BAJ does everything it can to prepare its graduates for life after the academy.

As this kind of preparation becomes increasingly important for jewellers, Head of Academy Kate Rieppel explains BAJ’s latest live projects and tells us about the academy’s other career-focused initiatives.

BAJ Head of Academy Kate Rieppel

How do BAJ’s live projects work?

“We reach out to different brands or designer/makers that we know are of interest to our learners and then we work closely with them to develop a brief. We want the live project to be something that the brand and the students can both feel really proud of so we try to come up with a brief that’s really intrinsic to the company that we’re working with.Generally, we want to work with brands or individuals who want to engage in a mentoring relationship with the students. Students get the brief directly from the company, or the person representing the company, and that person will come back several times throughout the project, so that students have the benefit of receiving that one to one feedback from an industry expert.”

A student in a BAJ workshop

What does BAJ have going on in terms of Live Projects at the moment?

“At the moment, our Year 1 (Level 4) Technical Diploma students are working on a design-based project with the fantastic jewellery brand Alex Monroe. They are exploring the ideas of ‘Adaptability/ Versatility/ Longevity’ and tasked with creating a bespoke piece of wearable jewellery. At the end of the live project, three students with the strongest designs will be selected and offered a work placement experience with Alex Monroe. The whole process of the live project is a great way for students to gain insight into the real workings of the jewellery industry.We also run live projects throughout each academic year that are open to all students.  These take the form of internal and external design competitions that usually result in an exhibition – this year we were limited to virtual exhibitions due to Covid –  but in a way these are really nice because the reach is so much wider virtually.  We try to create briefs that are very open so that they relate to our curriculum at all levels. We always want to have at least one project going that everybody can contribute to in some way.” 

How do you think our project with Alex Monroe will help our learners to develop their jewellery practice?

“I think that it’s an opportunity for them to see what’s happening in the industry and get feedback from a professional: someone who is actually dealing with the difficulties and challenges of working within the industry, but also finding a way to enable their creative side. That’s the tricky part, being able to have a unique voice as a designer or a maker, but also tapping into what the consumer or market wants.Also, doing a live project and presenting work to an external body or person is a completely different experience to presenting work to fellow classmates or tutors. The live projects really give the learners a sense of professionalism and a chance to up their game and see what it is like to present ideas to a ‘client’.”

Students are currently working on a live project with jeweller Alex Monroe

How else do BAJ’s live projects prepare our learners for careers in jewellery?

“Live projects can open students’ eyes to other types of careers they might go into. A lot of students come to us with one job in mind, but live projects can show them that, actually, there are quite a lot of different routes into the jewellery industry. You can be a designer or a maker, a production assistant, make for someone else, or you could go into marketing, sales, retail, gemmology…the list is really endless.” How does BAJ choose the jewellery brands it partners with?“The jewellery brands that we choose have a lot to do with student feedback, but we also look for companies or brands that we think have similar values to us as an organisation, in terms of ethical making practices, or a real hands on approach, for example. We’re also interested in companies that have a cutting-edge element, whether that’s in their design aesthetic, or some kind of technique that they’re using.” 

What’s been your takeaway from the live projects to date?

“We’ve done live projects that include a student exchange, such as PLE and Erasmus, whether it’s physically or as an exchange of ideas. Those projects are really good, because, if you’re working with students from other schools, their institutions might focus on particular techniques in a different way, and it’s just another way of exposing students to what possibilities are out there. The most inspiring thing is when a student takes part in a live project and the have a preconception of what they want to do as a jeweller, and then the live project changes their whole focus. I have seen this happen more than once and it is so great to see someone’s eyes opened to the possibilities. It’s a way of getting experience within the course that you would normally have to wait until after graduation to get.”

Student work for our current Alex Monroe project

Why is it important for our learners to work with industry briefs?

“Having an industry brief can put a lot of parameters on the learners that they might not have experienced previously. So it’s a good way to show students how they have to tailor their own work in order to be able to function within the industry. I think it can help students identify their strengths and their weaknesses, and give them a little bit of help in deciding which path they want to follow.When you’re given an external brief, it also takes you outside of your comfort zone in a positive way. It can show you that you can take what you’re doing and push it to a completely different level, or a completely different design idea or aesthetic. Many of the skills that BAJ students gain are so transferrable. Receiving a brief is about taking the skills that you have and finding that ability to alter or expand them to fit with different aesthetics or purposes. A lot of people don’t realise how transferrable their skills are without some pushing or guidance, because they just stay within their comfort zones.” 

In what other ways does BAJ prepare its students for careers in jewellery?

“BAJ is aware that there are a lot of different pathways that you can follow into the industry. So we are as open as we can be and give students as much information about the different careers they might choose to pursue. I think one way of doing this is through bringing in live projects and industry experts. Most of our tutors and staff are also practising within the jewellery industry themselves and this is an amazing asset to our learners. Some tutors are  freelance jewellers, some have their own businesses, and some even came to jewellery as a second career, so there is a really wide base of knowledge among the BAJ team for students to tap into.”

BAJ London

How does BAJ help its students to link up with potential employers?

“We regularly advertise positions for jobs for our students when we come across them. Also, at the end of the year, we have a graduate exhibition that we invite people from the industry to. We also encourage networking events, and bring in industry experts to speak to our learners through events such as our masterclass lecture series. This year has been tricky because we would normally have more in person events – but we have still had some really fantastic opportunities for our students to access members of the industry.”

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