Learning through magic, castles, and alchemy

So, I had the basics of jewellery making but I needed to learn so much more. Well, needed and wanted to.

On my search, I found a booklet produced by the Craft Council of Ireland that detailed short courses in all kinds of craft. I found a course in Dublin run by Cormac Cuffe from his garden shed. While it was advertised for six people, I was the only booking for the first day so I was lucky enough to have my tutor’s full attention. I learnt a few new tricks and brushed up on the things I had learnt some five years before. With these new basic skills and my first gemstone set, it was back off to Sligo to practice but not before Cormac had given me a list of jewellery business suppliers. On this list was the name of a Master Goldsmith and precious stonecutter, Erwin Springbrunn. As luck would have it, he was based near French Park only 40 minutes drive from our home.

So, when one day my Mum asked me to make her a pair of silver earrings with blue faceted stone (aquamarine, her gem of choice), I dug out my piece of paper and made a phonecall. I arrange an appointment, got directions and with Lara, my friend, set off to county Roscommon. It was a magical mystery tour that become even more magical when we arrived at our destination. The house was set in the midst of an oasis of a garden with neat wood piles stacked against the sheds. Erwin greeted us at the door and welcomed us into his home. That was one of the most fortuitous meetings of my life (another being when I meet Doris, Erwin’s wife, on my next visit). I left that day with a beautifully-cut pair of blue topaz stones, having made a new friend.

On our visits, which quickly became family trips with friends, we would discuss jewellery-making skills and techniques and so much more besides.

Erwin told me he felt too old and set in his ways to take me on as an apprentice. This, coupled with the fact that I wanted to be a stay at home Mum, meant my learning would have to be in fits and starts. Erwin would give me a master class in any particular technique I needed help with. I consider myself to have been incredibly lucky to have had a master at hand who gave of his knowledge so willingly. Both he and Doris could not have been more generous to me and my family and in fact they became part of it.

It was sometime after this meeting, around 2005, that I took myself off to West Dean College. Just down the road from my hometown on the South Coast of England, the college was the home of Edwards James, a lover of the arts. James was a patron of Salvador Dali and the surrealist movement (which adds some funky decor to the place). His foundation was established in the 1970s in order that all kinds of courses in the arts could be run from there. There, I took a week long course in advanced jewellery construction. Not only was the workshop very well equipped, but the tutor Sarah Macrae, was fantastic. The workshop was open till 9 every evening, a real treat for me as I was used to grabbing half hours here and there to work before clearing the table of tools for dinner. Five whole long days of jewellery-making with a tutor at hand was a dream. On top of this, West Dean also runs a culinary arts course, the produce of which was on the menu three times a day for all of us students. Did I eat loads? Yes I did! Ah, and I should tell you that all of this takes place in a 19th century castle in beautiful grounds. Well, if I had to be away from the family, I was going to do it in the right place … I really should look into going back!

For a full five days I gave all my attention to learning, watching, listening, reading, and making. I learned a lot.

West Dean College. Photo; tripadvisor.co.uk

Meeting Erwin and my week at West Dean were pivotal points in my career. After this, it was just a case of making as much as I could, reading and asking lots of questions. It can be a slow and frustrating process working on your own as you learn, but you do learn a lesson well after making the same mistake 10 times!

In the 13 years since then, my work has found its own style. I am often told by clients and friends that they can tell one of my pieces straightaway. Style and design changes with the maker’s ability; as a skill is honed, so too is a confidence in the thing we want to portray. Once known as alchemy, a word used to describe achievement of the highest standard, we mostly know it now as the stubborn determination of a creative person or artist. A flare or talent for a thing is handy to have, but nothing beats pure stubborn determination.

One of the great things about learning and mastering a new skill, for me, is to then pass those skills on. Teaching is a very enjoyable aspect of my work. Watching someone else realise the possibilities at their finger tips, is very rewarding. I teach on a one to one basic from my home/workshop in Co. Sligo. In this way I can give my full attention and have a student learn to their full potential. I run one day and weekend courses throughout the year. Learning and teaching are both important parts of what I do.

Goldsmithing is an old, in-depth, and continually growing discipline. I intend to squeeze as much learning of it into this lifetime.

Here’s to learning and loving it.

Me at my first bench in a shed that was not much bigger.
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