I was born in Quebec, and moved to Wiltshire when I was seven. As a child, I would always ask my mother, ‘Ooh, can I see your ring?’ then I’d study it and probably wander off with it. I used to travel a lot with my mother and I’ve always been fascinated by different stones from around the world.
Whether it’s river stones, beach pebbles or gemstones, there’s a very primal sense of a stone being made from the Earth, and the shape and chemical composition is made by the energies of our entire planet or universe. I really like the idea of wearing a bit of the Earth.
My love of travelling and exploring diverse cultures led me to study anthropology, which in turn led me to human rights and a masters degree in medical anthropology. I started working with NGOs and local grassroots organisations in Southeast Asia, in Borneo particularly, and jewellery wasn’t on the agenda at all until someone said: ‘I like your bracelet, can you make me one?’
While I was working with NGOs, I became fascinated by the jewellery worn by different people in different places, and the meaning of the pieces and the materials they’d use. In many places, jewellery can tell you a lot about a person in the codes of beads or gold – if they’re married, or if they’re from a certain caste or tribal lineage, for example.
I remember having an epiphany at one point where I thought, ‘I’ll make jewellery, but I’ll see if I can link it to some of the disadvantaged communities I work with’. I then started taking jewellery more seriously, and for my first collection I went to India and worked in gold.
When I go to work with a community, I start by researching the history of the area and the culture, going back as far as the Iron Age, as a lot of the time it’s archaic designs that are the most beautiful and simple, and there’s often a theme that runs through the centuries. I’ll also look at traditional textiles, and what people wear now in the contemporary communities.
This year, I’m celebrating a 10-year partnership with Turquoise Mountain, an arts charity founded by HRH The Prince of Wales to invest in traditional crafts in Afghanistan and Myanmar, helping to train and employ artisans to promote traditional skills like jewellery making.
In a conflict-torn country such as Afghanistan there’s a vacuum for jobs, with huge unemployment and very little opportunities. So much is imported there, and creating jobs is really crucial. I was once in the workshop in Afghanistan and there was machine-gun fire outside. Despite the danger, it’s so important for me to go there personally to see the craftspeople.
And its worth it, because in the past 10 years we’ve sold more than 4,600 pieces of jewellery crafted by the men and women of Turquoise Mountain, and this in turn has allowed for the creation of 11 independently supported jewellery businesses in Afghanistan employing 68 artisans, as well as the training and employment of 150 craftspeople in Myanmar alone.
Jewellery really has the potential to change lives, and our projects give communities a renewed respect for traditional design, plus pride in their creations and a path towards economic independence.