I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Michele White of Artisan Alchemy Gallery contemporary gallery exhibiting bespoke fine furniture and fine jewellery based in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham … @artisanalchemy
Artisan Alchemy is an interesting mix of contemporary bespoke fine furniture gallery and a fine jewellery gallery featuring your own work – how did you think of mixing the two and why do you think is such a winning combination ?
I have to admit that it wasn’t an idea that came to me out of the blue. A colleague told me about a bespoke furniture exhibition each August which also exhibited other crafts, including jewellery. I visited with the idea of exhibiting there. I applied and was accepted and have been exhibiting every year since then, except this year of course.
There are various reasons my jewellery and this furniture are such a good mix. The ethos of fine furniture makers and jewellery makers such as myself is the same. We make from the best materials we can in the most perfect way we can. The combination works well for these reasons but I often find with visitors men spend time looking at the furniture and women are more interested in the jewellery. Of course this is a gross generalisation !
As an acclaimed British jewellery designer, how did you first discover you had a talent and a passion for designing jewellery ?
Both my parents were artists. My mother a very talented dressmaker, a self taught pattern cutter. I think I inherited her ability to work out 3-dimensional problems in her head. She would often go to bed with a problem and wake up with the answer … I have the same almost magical ability.
When I left school I trained as an art teacher and I taught ceramics as my first career. The basics of design are the same whatever the medium. They have to be modified to adapt for clay or metal, but the basic mechanisms are the same.
I came to jewellery completely by chance. After my marriage we moved to Birmingham which was my husbands home town. I was teaching autistic children until I started my own family. After my third child started school I wanted to occupy my mind and hands again. For some years we had owned a white Persian cat which I combed every day. So I decided to learn to spin some of the hair I had collected. But I only wanted to do an evening class and it was not available at the local college. I looked down the list and ‘jewellery‘ caught my eye. So that was it.
It was a local college and after one and a half years the class was closed to save money. Fortunately it was near Christmas when there were vacancies in the Birmingham Jewellery School, now Birmingham City University – One of the most important jewellery schools in the country. The passion has not lessened over 35 years.
It’s been mentioned that your jewellery designs have a subtle Art Nouveau style to it – is this a particular period of jewellery and design that appeals to you ?
How can you tell what influences what ? I have always found it difficult to design with straight lines.
I became aware of the designs of Rene Lalique when I first started studying the history of jewellery.
They fitted in totally with my type of design. Another important connection is the use of beautiful but not necessarily valuable minerals and gemstones in art nouveau pieces , especially those of Lalique.
The Gallery is in an amazing space in the heart of the fashionable Birmingham Jewellery Quarter, how did you find the building and were you always looking to be based in the quarter ?
I started in a very small dilapidated Victorian workshop in the jewellery quarter in 1986. Being surrounded by most of the suppliers and services one needs makes life so much easier. I suppose after almost 30 years there a number of items came into consideration. Partly it was that the building was falling down around us as the landlords did not want to spend any money on renovation. It was freezing in the winter, and far too hot to work when the sun came streaming through the broken windows in summer. As I said having everything around that I need for my day to day work keeps me in the jewellery quarter. There were also beautiful buildings being developed at that time. I just happened across the one from which I now run my gallery and workshop by chance, and the development was at a stage where I could influence the way my part was being configured.
With such a large community of designer makers in the Jewellery Quarter, in fact the biggest in Europe do you find that being part of the community helps business or that you are all competing for the same customers ?
There is a lot more cooperation than competition among the designer jewellers as far as I am
concerned. Until last year a group of us had for over 20 years run a Christmas exhibition in the foyer of Symphony Hall. A core of members including me had been involved from the start. Now things are all up in the air.
My work is totally different from any of theirs so there is no competition.
The furniture you feature is all made by British makers but it also seems to reflect an incredible diversity of talent and styles across British makers so do you think there is really a definable “British” style in the same way that people think of an “Italian” style of lamps for example ?
The furniture I source does not have a particular style. I have a number of criteria. Style and design are not among them. Firstly it must be beautifully made. Not necessarily with traditional techniques, but it usually is. Then design is very important. I don’t mean that necessarily I would want all the pieces in my own house but I do want them all to be eye catching in some way. It could be just a very quiet way, or it might be a flamboyant one, but it must have some flair …It must ‘speak’ to me.
I like the makers also to have a similar ethos to me … Small businesses making individual pieces from well sourced materials.
Your own jewellery designs often feature gemstones and seem to always take very organic forms, how much is your work influenced by nature and how much do the individual gemstones and their shapes influence the jewellery that you create with them ?
As an artist I feel that the whole of my life experience goes into my work. Artists have a great
awareness of everything that goes on around them. They internalise all those things and they may come out in any way at any time, so it is impossible to state any particular influences. Having said that of course the gemstones I use influence any particular designs … But who knows what makes me choose any particular gemstone !
Some of my favourite pieces that you have made are your award winning Birmingham Road, Canal and Railway silverwork “maps”, does this come from a strong affinity to the area through your life and upbringing in Birmingham or is it something that came for moving to Birmingham and discovering it’s centrality in transport and in the UK ?
The award winning set of pieces Birmingham: road, railway, canal was actually made in response to a call from the RBSA for an exhibition called’ Birmingham’. Although I am not necessarily enthusiastic about being given subjects , occasionally it might push me in a direction I wouldn’t otherwise take.
It maybe that I would take advantage of that to branch off for a short time . These pieces do not
have any gemstones which was somewhat of a departure.
Do you feature other jewellers work ?
I do feature the work of other jewellers in my gallery, but as the furniture makers they have to have a similar ethos to mine. There must also be an emphasis on design: definitely not traditional, and design led rather than following fashion.
I have one maker who approached me at a fair and showed me his work which is fabulous in the real meaning of the word. He had been working as a jobbing jeweller all his life but had been making these fantastic pieces along the way. He had no outlet for them . I knew I was shortly opening my gallery and took his pieces straight away..His work is greatly admired.
You have a love of trees and this is a favourite motif for your work – from the style of your work many people would expect you work from a crofters cottage in the middle of nowhere close to nature but you are based in the middle of a vibrant city – how does this work for your inspiration etc ?
I grew up in london in an area where my husband always says there was ‘nothing green ‘. Actually
this is not completely true but it was not exactly the countryside. There were trees and open green spaces but I don’t think as a child I was terribly aware of them.
We bought our first house which was in birmingham in 1971 and then I began to get interested in
gardening. We have been in our present house for 40 years and I have spent that time establishing a garden which I now open for the National Garden Scheme, even though we are less than 4 miles from the centre of the city.
Along with the flowers and shrubs my love of trees has grown over this time. Their magnificence and gracefulness is an endless source of wonder to me. I love to just look out of my bedroom window over my front garden- not very big- but where I have many trees growing , all of which I love for their different qualities, especially my 4 ginkgo trees. They are still small so … The sound of a circular saw within earshot makes me shudder. Mutilating trees is an anathema to
As you can see this is a hobbyhorse of mine.
What advice would give to other aspiring creatives and makers ?
The only advice I could give to aspiring creatives and makers is that they should follow their passion.
It may be that it is necessary to get a ‘proper’ job alongside to allow them to eat and keep a roof over their head. There are very few people who have the luck to follow their passion and make a living – and it is luck.
You have to be in the right place at the right time, and preferably don’t make waves. But if you are happy with your days work that is worth a great deal of money. I think many people have found that out since coronavirus hit.
You mentioned the dreaded “C” word, as it has affected all of us in terms of business and sadly many many people in terms of loss of friends and family – how have you managed and how are you finding recovery from a business perspective ?
Covid has of course affected me as it has everyone. Fortunately during lockdown the weather was glorious and I was able to spend day after day working in my garden. I did an enormous amount of reorganising which was very satisfying.
Once I could do so I got back into my workshop and continued with making. We couldn’t open the gallery until July so I furloughed staff and opened as soon as I could. Since then we have been working consistently on social media, to keep ourselves in front of the public.
Footfall has been very sparse in this area so sales have been nothing like they were before, but I am hopeful that they might perk up for Christmas. I always make sure that I have lots of small objects; boxes, mirrors, trays, lamps and even small tables which are great for gifts.
Even though you have a huge space to display furniture – how do your source and decide what furniture and which makers you want to showcase in the gallery ? do you regularly try new makers ?
I consistently source furniture. We watch for makers we haven’t seen before , working in the way
that is important to us. It is difficult currently because makers are not finding it a good time to make speculative pieces. They need to prioritise orders which will bring in immediate payment. But I have no doubt that this time will pass and we will still be here to take advantage of better times.
Michele thanks for giving us a virtual tour of the gallery space and jewellery making in the quarter , I really appreciate the opportunity to learn about your work & inspirations … Thanks again.