There is no better gift than a piece of jewellery especially chosen for you by a friend or loved one. And while every piece is undoubtedly a treasure, there is something particularly special about a piece created by an artisan jewellery-maker and maybe even customised to suit your particular needs.
'Each item is precious'
Natasha Rollinson lives in North Belfast with her husband and their puppy, working mainly on limited edition collections, bespoke designs and one-of-a-kind pieces.
During the pandemic, she has continued designing and selling jewellery through her website www.nrollinson.com and says it's an absolute joy to be able to follow the passion she has had since childhood.
"I've always had an eye for detail, and as a child I loved making and collecting," she says. "I knew that I wanted to make jewellery from the first time I worked with silver at 16 during a summer course at the Edinburgh College of Art. I remember hammering the silver to shape and form it and really loved learning the process - so it seemed like a natural path, and one I've followed ever since.
"I studied and trained intensively in jewellery throughout Ireland and the UK before working as a goldsmith in London and returning a few years ago to open my studio showroom in Belfast."
Natasha creates contemporary jewellery, working from a palette of precious materials to offer refined collections and bespoke designs.
"I enjoy working directly with clients to commission and I do a lot of bespoke work," she says. "These pieces are made with the client always in mind, crafted with care and built to last. I am also trained in gemmology and diamond grading and can make traditional or contemporary engagement rings and a range of other items. We are committed to responsible sourcing, so our diamonds are always conflict free and we deal only with trusted, certified dealers so can advise on ethically sourced gemstones.
"When working to order, we can work in recycled or fair mined gold (as a registered Fairtrade goldsmith).
"Remodelling work is also popular, and we can smelt gold in the studio and reuse or repolish heirloom stones. I love the sentiment involved in these jobs and the idea that we are carrying on the cycle of an heirloom.
"And our wedding bands are still made by hand the old-fashioned way; hand-forged from bar, meaning you can choose all the little adjustments needed to get them just right."
Natasha says there have been some great initiatives to promote local craft and she is 'very proud' to be part of the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland's MadeLocal campaign and Craft NI's Annual Craft Trail as she strives to keep everything as local as possible.
"Our pieces are proudly made in Belfast and any outsourced processes such as casting, setting or hallmarking are kept within NI, ROI or GB," she says. "I work very hard to keep a small, short supply chain and urge people to seek the provenance of what they are buying and consuming as it is so important in terms of sustainability, which is an ongoing responsibility for every brand and something I am constantly refining and improving in all aspects of my business - alongside our core values of provenance, quality and craftsmanship."
Her commissions generally take from four to 12 weeks (depending on the design) but there is always a selection of ready-to-wear pieces available for immediate shipping. And while the process can be laborious, she couldn't imagine doing anything else.
"It is a slow process with many steps to the final outcome, but the transformation from raw material to finished piece is very grounding," says Natasha. "It's a good feeling and I get excited about new ideas, shapes and processes, as well as hunting for and collecting stones. I could never see myself doing anything else.
"Also, the creative process is special because jewellery holds so much sentiment and emotion. Each item is precious, not only in monetary sense, but also in the emotional connections held within pieces and their history. I get to make items that often mark cherished moments in people's lives, which they connect with and pass on to create future connections. That is something very special which I feel very lucky to call my job."
"I would encourage people to support local crafts"
Céline Traynor, originally from Newry but currently living and working in Belfast, also feels privileged to be able to create something which can hold special meaning for the wearer.
"I was always going to do something related to art and after my A levels I did a foundation course at Ulster Polytechnic," says Céline who lives with her partner and 16-year-old daughter.
"Up to this point I had drawn and painted, but it was here that I first got the chance to work in various 3D media, including metal. I loved it and this led me to apply for a degree in fine craft design where I learned various jewellery making techniques and worked on design projects to apply these skills.
"After graduating in 1988, I moved to Dublin to work with Emma Stewart-Liberty, at the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre and in 1997, I started my own business, sharing a workshop with like-minded contemporary jewellers.
"There was good camaraderie, encouragement and healthy competition and the Crafts Council of Ireland offered exciting projects which furthered our techniques and visibility in Ireland and beyond. Then I moved back to Belfast in 2002 and my brother Garvan later joined me in a workshop in the city centre."
Designing and making jewellery for the past 23 years, Céline's work has been displayed in galleries at home and abroad and she has also won several awards. She sells through www.craftni.org and also www.celinetraynor.com and over the years, her practice has diversified to include community work and commissions.
"I work mainly in precious metals, silver and gold and melting customers' own metal to make something new has become more popular, due to high gold prices and an eco-friendly reuse of metal, whilst maintaining sentimentality," she says.
"I have delivered craft sessions to people in various situations, making pieces tailored to their abilities and needs, which can be taken home or displayed as art pieces.
"This way of working is different from bench work, but really satisfies me as an individual artist. I would encourage people to support local crafts, as this benefits the local economy, champions uniqueness and allows the continuation of certain skill sets."
"I love seeing the finished piece"
When Jill Graham began her creative career, she had intended to work with textiles but kept finding herself drawn to metals, so after completing a degree in silversmith, she applied for a job with a local goldsmith.
So enamoured was she with the work, that in 2003, Jill, who is originally from Tyrone but lives in Co Down with her husband and young son, set up her business www.jillgraham.co.uk making resin and silver jewellery which she sells to shops and galleries around the world.
"I get my inspiration from organic structures and the materials themselves," she says.
"I love tactile quality and would use texture in a lot of my work, I also love the contrast between silver and different golds and use this to add detail to my work.
"Making a piece of jewellery can take anything from one hour to several weeks as it just depends on what you are making. I love seeing the finished piece especially when it is a one-off item which you aren't sure how it will turn out.
I also love to see people wearing my jewellery and knowing that this will be a future heirloom to be passed down."
The creative designer says that not only is a hand-made piece of jewellery a very special item for anyone to own, but she would encourage people to buy from small producers in their area, as doing so will be beneficial to the local economy and the work is likely to be unique.
"Now more than ever, it is important to support small artisan businesses as they form part of the backbone of the country and will allow you to have something a bit different," she says.
"Wouldn't life be boring if we all went around wearing the same generic mass manufactured stuff?
"So let's strive for something that is a little more unique and tell the story behind it."