Iron Pestle & Mortar by Blacksmith Bex Simon

Bex Simon

by Helen Johnson

Bex Simon has spent ten years building a position that she describes as ‘Britain’s leading female artist blacksmith’. Now, she is diversifying into product design, a move hastened by an appearance on TV.  She appeared on the show High Street Dreams, which followed her as she designed a pestle and mortar to be cast in iron or bronze.
Bex says, “TV is not for the faint-hearted. It was very stressful and traumatic, and I went into a bit of a black hole afterwards, worrying about what people might have thought of me. BUT, it was great publicity. Over two million people saw me on prime time TV, and since then people have logged onto the website every day to buy my pestle and mortar.”
Bex discovered metal as a medium at Art College, where she expected to study textile design. But, she says, “I saw metal work demonstrated and loved it. The results were so instant – I’m an impatient person. I’d had a go with clay, and it was slow, you had to wait for it to harden. But I saw welding and forging and was sold. The physical side isn’t a problem – I’m an active person, and run and swim when I’m not working.”
Bex progressed to Hereford College to qualify in blacksmithing, then returned home to London to build a business. Her inspirations include nature and the work of Gaudi, and she visits Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum. She adds, “When you study it, even the simplest plant has something really interesting.”
She says that finding premises in London was easy.  Currently, she shares a disused tram depot with five other artists. Bex says, “It’s a big place and we’ve all got our own space, but sharing is brilliant. If you’re alone all day, every day, it’s soul destroying. But we can bounce ideas off each other, help each other out with heavy lifting, and even have a moan over a cup of tea when things aren’t right.  It’s really good.”
Bex exhibits at prestigious events such as Chelsea and Hampton Court Flower Shows. She makes large and small items, mainly bespoke, for indoors and out.
However, she says, “The recession affected my commissions.  Although my work is functional art – I make a lot of gates – by September 2009 I was wondering if I’d have to give it up. I decided that I’d go for everything that came my way for a year, then stop if it didn’t work out.”
“That’s when the email came from a TV company, via the British Artist Blacksmiths Association. I think they wanted a blacksmith, as it looks cool – all those sparks and so on.”
“I was fed up: I’d worked hard for ten years and and now struggling to make ends meet, so I replied to the email with a sense of humour. I didn’t really believe it would happen.”
However, Bex was invited for a screen test and subsequently selected for the show. In each episode, two would-be entrepreneurs were mentored to develop a product. It was competitive, and the winner was selected to pitch to Heal’s, the designer store. It was quite a challenge for Bex, as she was expected to shift from crafting everything herself to designing a product for someone else to make in quantity.
However, she had already considered this. Bex explains “I did some casting a couple of years ago, but it’s expensive. My blacksmithing is all commissioned work, with half the price paid at the start, the rest on delivery. That keeps the cash flowing, and develops a body of work for the website.”
“I wanted to explore other routes, but you need cash to pay for casting up front. Then you need somewhere for the product to go. I tried it a few years ago with my anthuriums, but it didn’t work out, and since then, I’d been too busy with commissions.”
This time, however, the recession, the TV show, and Bex’s desire to start a family coincided to spur her to have another go at castings.
For the show, Bex developed a pestle and mortar that was ‘functional art’ – to be useful and look good in the kitchen. She says, “I chose sand-casting, as every piece is still slightly different and needs hand finishing. It is expensive, but as more are made, hopefully it will become more affordable.”
The TV show provided a consultation with branding agency Landor, and a stand at the Ideal Homes Show to gauge reaction to the products.  However, the rest of the costs had to be met by Bex.  She says, “It cost a lot of money, both in time, and in paying for sample products.”
Costs were the big storyline of the show, and caused Bex much heartache.  The TV show filmed her in tears over the issue, with the presenters focussing on cost as the reason why she was not selected to ‘win’ the show.
Regarding the tears, Bex says that “I’d barely slept, because it was all so stressful, then they talked all over me and I felt like a lamb to the slaughter.  It was only after they said ‘cut’, that I cried, but they kept filming and edited it in: I was so mortified and frustrated. I’m not normally a crying sort.”
After this scene costs were shown to spiral from £7 for Far East manufacture of the iron pieces to £250 for retail of the bronze pieces, and Bex felt the need to explain it all in her blog. Although UK manufacture costs more than the Far East, this is not where the main costs lie. Bex explains: “Not many people understand that a retailer sells a product for three times the value that a supplier sells it for, in order to make a profit and cover their costs such as VAT, high street rents, distribution centres, staff, etc. Working this through, if we get a product manufactured, shipped, packaged, delivered and warehoused for say £10, we must sell it for at least £20 to make profit and cover our overheads. The retailer will then sell it for £60 – six times the manufacture cost. If a distributer is involved then the mark up from manufacture to retail is more like ten fold.”
Therefore, wrote Bex, “If we could get an iron pestle and mortar manufactured in the UK for around £20, it would retail at £120.”
There were many benefits to participating in the show. Bex felt the branding agency was useful and says, “I’m still with them.”
The agency built on one of Bex’s stories: her pink anvil. Surprisingly in this day and age, Bex still meets people who struggle to believe that a woman could be a blacksmith. However, she has turned this on its head, using it to gain publicity. She tells her story: “When I went to choose my anvil, the guy didn’t really believe that a woman wanted an anvil.  But as I explained what I wanted, he began to believe I knew what I was talking about. Some anvils had been painted to protect them, and the anvil I wanted was covered in pink paint. The guy laughed and said ‘All that jargon, and you choose the pink one!’.”
But Bex had the last laugh, using the pink anvil as her business logo, a strong brand identity. As far as the TV show is concerned, the final outcome was a success ,although she did not ‘win’, she says, “Since the show, Heal’s have got in touch and our products are available in store and on-line.”
One of the reasons Bex wanted to diversify is that, to have a family, she needed to adjust her business so that she could spend time with her baby. Hence the idea of designing, releasing her from being the sole maker.
The success of the TV show has given her a foundation to build on. Bex’s husband, Dave Harris, has given up his job to join Bex and manage the product design business. He’s also turned out a dab hand in the forge, and Bex is teaching him to make components that she can assemble into finished pieces.
Bex still enjoys hammering metal, and plans to combine this with more design work. She says, “We originally planned to go abroad for casting. But the UK foundry’s done amazing work and we have now added a pink Union Jack to the packaging. The pestle and mortars are selling well through the website and I’m working on a range of new designs, ‘Art for Kitchens’, which we will be launching in February 2012.”
She’ll continue commissions for forged work and says, “I’ll employ ex-Hereford [College] people, as I know they’ll be well trained. I’ll show them what I want them to do and I’ll be there to co-ordinate it.”
With the future far brighter than it looked in September 2009, Bex says, “Dave’s proved a brilliant business partner – he’s as passionate about it as I am. We will make it work.”

See Bex’s work at
T: 0208 740 6250

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