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Erica Sharpe

by Michael Ball

Published: January 2014

Traditional craftsmanship, attention to detail and original design are all qualities that come together in the work of award-winning jeweller, Erica Sharpe. I visited Erica’s studio and shop in Somerset earlier this year, where she told me how her business had developed.
“I’ve always made things. My dad, a zoologist during his working life, was from an engineering background and understood the whole process of ‘making’ things. He bought me a woodworking toolkit for my eighth birthday, so I was busy learning to use tools and producing things like bird boxes, at that age. By the time I was seventeen and got my first car, I could service it.
My parents gave me free reign with art materials – I was always painting. My mum was a botanist, who drew botanical illustrations. She taught me how to really observe things. I think the patience needed for this can be developed from a young age. It is valuable to realise that not everything is instant, and that if you just keep trying and applying yourself, then eventually, things come together.
I went to art college and did a foundation course, there was some jewellery-making as part of the course and I immediately found a huge affinity with it. Being able to sketch something, transfer that into a three dimensional idea and then actually make it, polish it and wear it, was an amazing discovery for me - it ticked all the boxes! When I had finished the foundation course, there was some pressure to go on to university – my reaction was ‘absolutely not’. I was just really hungry to make things and feared that I would not be pushed hard enough on the practical side of creating.
The way it turned out was quite remarkable – I opened the newspaper and there was an apprenticeship advertised in an Indian jewellers’, so I applied for it. I created traditional Indian wedding jewellery from high carat gold, and I learned as I worked. Every morning, I was allocated an ingot of gold. It was weighed out, and at the end of the day, whatever I made, along with any left over, including dust, was collected and weighed back in. If a little snippet was dropped on the floor, it really mattered! This gave me the confidence to handle and care for precious metal. There was a lot of fine filigree work involved and we used a fly press to create tiny, patterned components that were then made into the finished piece. With only one melting point for solder, constructing pieces required careful control of heat. These skills, extensive use and love of 22ct or pure gold, have been valuable in perfecting my current granulation work.
After my training, I left to work in a contemporary jewellery studio in Bath. There, I worked on commissions, making stock, carrying out repairs and alterations. Once again, I adored working at the bench and learning new skills.
Still keen to improve, I followed several jewellery master classes with Michael Page, the head of the Sir John Cass Jewellery School for many years. His workshop was on the edge of Dartmoor and immediately connected with the beautiful natural environment and remote location. He was busy with commissions, so I offered to stay and help in my holiday, free of charge, just for the experience. I ended up being offered a post with Michael. The work that we created and restored was amazing. I learnt to craft very fine diamond mountings – with everything completely hand made, rather than cast. These traditional skills are more unusual now, because everything has become much more computerised, but it gave me an understanding of metals and construction that has proved of immense value - I have the advantage of being able to work on a commission from design, creation, through to final polish. With many businesses, these are managed by different people.
I remember one morning, Michael said: ‘You could establish a nice little business, Erica. Why not set up on your own and make beautiful pieces?’ I had been so locked into learning and making that the idea of becoming a solo designer-maker hadn’t occurred to me. Inspired by the stunning countryside surrounding me, the thirst for designing, drawing and painting returned, and my own ideas for collections and one-off pieces began to form.
I moved back to Somerset and shared a tiny studio with three others working on different crafts and selling our own work. I put a display case of my work in the window and my first collection – the Swan collection - gained interest from the local press. The street had significant footfall, and I started to build up customers. Some work I sold to other high-end retailers and I did some fine restoration work for the trade too. I focused on my immediate location and growing my customer base. One of the most important contributions in building my business was just being there and meeting people. After a year, the neighbouring shop became available for rent. The landlady kindly let me trial there for six months, rather than signing for a long lease. After a few months, I became so busy that I was looking for someone to help me with the paperwork and within a few years, I employed several assistants in the shop and trained my retired Dad to help with polishing and soldering!
I have always enjoyed meeting customers and designing and developing individual jewellery for people, who often have remarkable stories to tell. I am now pioneering ethical jewellery production and offering my customers Fairtrade gold, silver and platinum and other materials obtained in socially and environmentally conscious ways.
Over the years I’ve been recognised with a number of awards from prestigious organisations, which has been a real honour. However, one of the most valuable things in my business is recommendation by ‘word of mouth’, because people are pleased with what I’ve created for them. I don’t think you can put a price on that. It’s to do with loving and being passionate about what you do, dedicating your energies and sharing it.”


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