London-based Goldsmith and jewellery designer Jessie Thomas’s work is distinctive in its unfussy aesthetic. Baroque pearls, hammered gold and organic shapes feature frequently. And it was from her father that Jessie learnt her trade. David was a pioneer of the new style of avant-garde gold jewellery that emerged in London during the 1960s: he trained under Georg Jensen and the Swedish Crown Jewellers and his pieces are held in permanent collections of institutions including the V&A.
Why is it important to you to continue to make each piece by hand? A good question! With Computer Aided Design software (CAD) now being used so prolifically in creating jewellery (and being done so well), it often feels pointless to hand make everything. Equally, that is my training and skill set—I suppose I feel loyal to making jewellery in the more traditional way. I like to think that the hand adds something that a computer can’t and people still have an appreciation for that.
You’ve referenced before that jewellery making (as opposed to design) tends to be quite male dominated, owing partly to the fact that it requires a great deal of physical strength. What drew you to that part of the process? I think, as was common with a lot of trade apprenticeships, men were typically recruited into those jobs. Women often went through the art schools into the industry instead. Now that has changed completely; the goldsmith apprenticeship scheme is around 50 percent women and there are some brilliant female goldsmiths working now. It is a fairly physical job, which doesn’t come naturally to me but I do enjoy it. I have one very strong hand now!
You work together in a workshop and retail space with your father and you’ve spoken before about some of the incredible tools he makes… tell me more? It’s a long tradition for goldsmiths to make their own tools; sometimes you need something very specific for a job that doesn’t exist and you just have to make it yourself. We have a lot of old machinery like a milling machine and an old grinder that you can use to adapt tools for your use. If you need a steel tool for a job, you make what you need, heat it, then harden it by dropping it in a pan of oil. It’s fairly archaic!
You use recycled gold in your pieces; why was that important to you? I don’t enjoy that the materials used in creating jewellery have a negative impact on the planet. That we can use reuse gold that already exists means that we don’t have to source new gold through mining. Goldsmiths have always smelted and reused clients’ gold and it is great that is now a widely available option. Fairtrade gold is also a great alternative option that we offer.
I read that some of the techniques you employ are rarely used elsewhere… Tell me more? I think over the years workshops develop techniques to help create a piece that haven’t been employed much elsewhere, and then that information gets passed down. Often I design a piece and then we will sit down and work out how to make it so it actually works as a wearable piece and often this involves employing techniques that aren’t so common. It’s all good designing an interesting necklace, but if the stones turn over and the main section moves and lifts up in the air when you turn your head, then it’s a bad piece. So it’s all about working out a balance between those things.
Are there any subtle similarities between your work and your father’s that may not be obvious to others? Many not-so subtle similarities! He creates work that is far more advanced and skilled than anything I could make… something to work towards. But in terms of design I definitely follow him in placing simplicity and wearability as the most important tenets. Perhaps I like things to appear more contemporary, whereas he looks for pieces to be as timeless as possible. In general we have a very similar aesthetic.
Affordability is part of your brand DNA – how do you maintain that and why was it important to you? I think it’s important to have a place to buy well-made pieces—whether bespoke or off the shelf—that isn’t the high street but also isn’t a high jewellery house. By making everything myself I can control pricing. However, the intrinsic value of the materials we use in this industry mean pricing is influenced by something that is outside of our control and that’s just something the industry has to deal with. I uniformly use a certain level of diamonds and always 18ct gold or platinum, so people feel safe in the quality of my pieces and know that they will hold their value.
Where are some of the places you visit or travel to stay inspired? Italy and Greece. The Etruscan and Hellenistic periods were the peak of jewellery making, so I like to go visit the collections they have there. The V&A jewellery rooms are amazing, and I often go to see David pieces, Gerda Flockinger, 1920s Cartier, and basically everything they have there.
Where do you source your materials and what are some of the most far-flung places you’ve visited to source stones? I bought a tiny sapphire in Sri Lanka once! I got fairly overwhelmed there; I’m not a gemologist—I know what I like and I can tell an unusual, special stone, but I have people I trust to source for me. We’ve used the same diamond dealer for thirty years; everything is from Antewerp where the best cutters are. I also work with someone who sells very special-old cut diamonds and larger antique-coloured stones.
I know that of course all the designs are your own, but your dad often helps with tips and tricks—can you reveal any? After all these years he just has an inherent understanding of how a piece of jewellery will fit. That’s something that comes from decades of practice. I think his main tip is form: bend up an earring up so it curves with the ear, keep a ring thin at the back so it’s comfortable to wear, hinge a bracelet so it doesn’t turn over. The list goes on!