Silver Screen – “I’ve danced between the two worlds of silver and animation.” 

Jewel Citizen speaks to silversmith Shannon O’Neill

 

When Shannon O’Neill was growing up she wanted to follow in her big sister’s footsteps and become a professional dancer, however fate led her to tread a very different path. She took off to India at the tender age of 18 and studied sculpture at the University of New Delhi, later returning to the UK, where she graduated from MMU with a first class degree in 3D design. Although Shannon worked mainly with wood and ceramics in Manchester, it was in her third year that she started to experiment with silver.

 

Jewel Citizen – Shannon, what first drew you to working with silver? Was silversmithing actually part of your degree course?

Shannon O’Neill – The course covered wood, metal, ceramics and glass in the first year, before I chose to specialise in wood and ceramics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JC – While still at university you won the prestigious title of ‘The Goldsmiths’ Young Designer of the Year’ award. How did you come to enter the competition?

SO – Coming up to Christmas in my final year, I was in need of extra portfolio work. Thanks to the encouragement of my tutor David Frost, I entered a design competition (The Young Designer Silversmith Award) and much to my surprise and delight, I won.

JC – What happened as a result of winning the competition?

SO – Part of the prize was to go to Nayler Brothers, The Crown Jewellers, to make the piece. Fortunately, it was made in two halves and because of their guidance and patience, I was able to work closely with the master silversmiths. By watching what, how and with what hammer, for the first half, I was able to copy immediately afterwards for the second half. Tony Bedford and his team were so inspiring – it was one of the best and most intense learning experiences of my life. It’s such a great material to work with and in the end I realised that I preferred my designs in silver!

Shannon’s career took off after graduating from MMU and she went on to work for a couple of weeks with silversmiths such as Michael Lloyd, Richard Fox, Angus McFadyen and Brian Clarke. She worked to commissions and also produced her own designs.

JC – A lot of your work has a sculptural quality about it. Has the time you spent in India been a strong influence?

SO – No doubt that played a part, but I think that all my experiences have helped inform what I make. It began with the dancing, then discovering clay and Rodin and Brancusi at art college, together with a general love of creating.

JC – Can you talk us through the stages of a commission?

SO – In most cases there’s a brief, which may be specific or not. I like to research the topic and then just let it all percolate, until something pops out onto the page. Occasionally it just comes, but often there’s a lot of tweaking and old-school photocopying, before I submit my design. I like to approach it by purely focusing on the design, before I figure out how I might make it. It’s not the most sensible way to go about it and can get you into trouble, but I find it works for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Examples of Shannon’s work

 

JC – Although you’re back in the UK these days, you lived in America for a number of years and worked in stop-motion animation. Wasn’t it quite a leap from silversmithing to working in the film industry? Were any of your silversmithing skills useful in such a diverse career?

SO – I’d just left college and was in need of some cash, when I got my first job in animation, working on Tim Burton’s, ‘Mars Attacks’. I think being able to solder was the main reason for being taken on, but my degree had taught such a broad range of skills, that it made it a perfect step into the world of puppet-making.

JC – And so you returned to the UK and are now working in conservation at Burghley House near Stamford, Lincolnshire, the grand Elizabethan home of the Cecil family. It must be amazing to work in a place and be surrounded by so many works of art.

SO – Yes, it’s a magical place to work. In addition to all the incredible works of art in the house, the beautiful gardens provide an abundant supply of nature – which is good for the soul and informs my work. I just have to remember to keep looking and trying to see it with fresh eyes.

 

The ‘Heaven Room’ contains the largest solid silver wine cooler in England – it’s tricky to get a sense of scale, but it’s seriously large enough to bath in.

 

JC – What’s the most unusual restoration request you’ve had while working at Burghley?

SO – One of the most challenging (not unusual) things was the conservation and repair of a Roman marble statue. It’s such an honour to be able to work so closely with such beautiful, historical pieces – to try and find the spirit of the original maker and leave it without making your mark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Busy conserving one of the historical sculptures at Burghley House

 

JC – Although you’re busy at Burghley you still have time for silver. Tell us about a very special commission that was unveiled at The Victoria and Albert Museum in February 2017…

SO – Following an initial selection process last summer, I was lucky enough to be chosen, to design and make the 2017 ‘Randox Health Grand National Trophy.’ With just 12 weeks to make the 45cm tall trophy and three replica goblets, I needed to enlist some of the best silversmithing expertise available. Thanks to The Goldsmiths’ Company and Andy and Carl at Padgham and Putland, I’ve been able to work alongside and be mentored by some of the very best and most experienced silversmiths in the country. This piece would not exist without their immense input and for that I’m hugely grateful.

 

The 2017 Randox Health Grand National Trophy

 

JC – Do you receive many commissions to make jewellery? Is it something you enjoy or do you prefer larger-scale silversmith work?

SO – Yes, I often make jewellery, either by commissioning or making the work that often just wants to be made. It’s great to play with scale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

left: Piercing out a bracelet / cuff; right: the finished piece

 

JC – What would you say to anyone thinking about silversmithing as a career?

SO – I’m not sure I should be giving career advice to anyone! Sometimes I think that you don’t choose your path, rather it chooses you. Life is too short to wonder ‘what if?’ If it’s something you think you might want to do, just have a go and enjoy the process. At some point you do have to decide how much you want it – if things are starting to work out and if it still excites you, then do it. Finding a great tutor is a help too!

JC – Shannon, it was a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to speak to Jewel Citizen.

SO – The pleasure was mine.

To read more about Shannon’s work visit her website www.shannon-oneill.co.uk

“It’s not always about bright and shiny!”

Jewel Citizen talks to ‘The Gold Polishing Guru’ Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is a gold and silver polisher at the top of his game – ‘The Gold Polishing Guru’ as he’s affectionately known – who has a string of post-nominal letters after his name. He’s a fellow of the Institute of Professional Goldsmiths and is also their official ambassador.

In his long and illustrious career he’s polished everything from Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding gifts to a solid gold coffee table for an Arab sheikh.

In this photo Stephen can be seen polishing an 18 carat gold sculpture of Kate Moss as a naked angel.

 

His skills are so esteemed that he’s been tasked with polishing the Queen’s teapot, as well as other royal pieces held in the Tower of London. But it’s not all about high profile clients and deluxe objects because Stephen now teaches his skills to a new generation of jewellers and aspiring polishers.

In the very first of our Jewel Citizen Interviews we speak to Stephen about his career and current projects.

Jewel Citizen – Stephen, you started a foundation course at the Medway Arts College in Rochester, Kent, when you were just 15 years old. With a surname like Goldsmith did you ever consider a career making fine jewellery?

Stephen Goldsmith – It’s a question that is often asked because my name is Goldsmith, but in truth I was advised by the careers officer about the foundation course because I was very good at metalwork and art.  They thought my dream of being a cartoonist wasn’t going to work out in the long run!

The pre-apprenticeship course covered all aspects of the trade including jewellery design, mounting, setting, silversmithing, polishing, and ceramics.

One of my tutors was a silversmith and worked at C J Vander near Hatton Garden. I really wanted to be a silversmith but there was an opening for a silversmith’s polisher and, being desperate to work in the trade, I applied for and was accepted onto a 4 year polishing apprenticeship. It offered 3 years day release in silversmithing at my original art college in Kent which meant I could visit my mother in Canterbury at weekends. On the way back to London I’d stop off at Rochester to study silversmithing. This worked out very well because it gave me more of an understanding of how things are made.

As an young apprentice in the 1970’s.

 

JC – What was it like being an apprentice polisher in the 1970s? Was it very different then compared to how you’d be treated as a trainee today?

SG – Very much so. I worked with 7 other polishers and approximately 15 silversmiths, a team of cutlery makers, and 3 silver spinners. There were apprentices all over the building and, as most “boys” do, we made the tea, cleaned the workshop and ran errands. I only took orders from my master and was not allowed to take advice from any other polisher in the workshop; I was not allowed to address my master or other craftsmen by their first names. The apprentices of today wouldn’t even make you a cup of tea let alone call you sir!

The apprenticeship of today is very different. There’s a lot of form filling and there are yearly inspections to make sure the apprentices are being trained correctly. The Goldsmiths’ Company oversees the training and there are regular social and training events held at the Goldsmiths’ Centre, a charity run by the Goldsmiths’ Company.

Make Your Mark at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London.

 

JC – Tell us about your career progression once you’d completed your apprenticeship.

SG – My apprenticeship was indentured by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, who made sure I was trained accordingly. There were various strange rules to observe, such as sleeping under the bench, no swearing, no gambling and no fornication!

Once I had completed my time, I had to produce a masterpiece and then go to Goldsmiths’ Hall to show the Prime Warden that I was worthy of receiving the Freedom of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. For this I made a silver gilt centrepiece and was accepted as a Freeman, after which I made my way to the Guildhall to receive the Freedom of the City.

Shortly afterwards I moved on to Stuart Devlin and worked with 7 polishers and a team of craftsmen. Their style was different, very forward thinking for the time, in much the same was as Theo Fennell’s is today.

Then it was on to Nayler Brothers, the main workshop for Garrard’s, who were at that time the Crown Jewellers.

JC – You’ve polished items for many rich and famous people including royalty. Can you remember which Royal Wedding gifts you polished for Prince Charles and Princess Diana?

SG – I remember polishing a silver centrepiece, which held a punch bowl and tumblers. It was an extremely busy time as we had had the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year in 1977 and the Royal Wedding in 1981, so there were lots of presents and commemorative items to be polished.

Many will know that I looked after the Queen’s teapot, which held just enough for 2 cups! What is less common knowledge is that I also polished the inscription plates for the coffins of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother.

I taught Camilla Parker Bowles’ (now Prince Charles’ wife, The Duchess of Cornwall) former butler how to look after silver.

JC – What do you think are the most important qualities that a gold and silver polisher needs to have?

SG – Attention to detail plus patience. In my own work I’ve become much more arty in my finishes, and Theo Fennell gives me free reign to embellish as I see fit.

Stephen at work polishing a piece of fine jewellery for Theo Fennell.

 

JC – If you were able to choose any item in the world to polish what would it be?

SG – It’s a difficult question as I have polished most of the famous sports trophies in the world apart from the World Cup. Although I’m not a soccer fan I might as well complete the set!

JC – The next question is for our jewellery-devoted readers. Is there anything you’d recommend to keep our jewellery looking its best and free from scratches? Any do’s and don’t’s?

SG – Looking after your jewellery is easy. Wear it!

You need a bit of knowledge about the hardness scale (Mohs scale of 1 -10 with 10 being diamond and the hardest), and which type of stone will scratch another. Did you know that most of the dust in the air contains quartz? Quartz has a hardness of 7 and there are plenty of stones softer than that. So be very careful if you rub your dusty jewellery because the quartz in the dust might well scratch it. Another example is that a diamond will scratch an opal or pearl so don’t store them in the same compartment in your jewellery box. When cleaning jewellery never rub the stone first but wash it with soapy water. And don’t wear your jewellery to the gym!

JC – These days you’re often away teaching your skills to students in workshops, courses, and master classes. Can a jeweller or precious metal worker learn the skills in one of your short courses to make their work really stand out from the competition?

SG – You can’t learn everything I know in a day or two but I do try to give students tips from my experience and help them lift their creations to another level. Quite often my former students will return for a completely different course and usually this involves helping them with a particular project.

JC – It was a pleasure speaking to you Stephen. Finally, where do you teach? How can we find out more about your workshops and master classes?

Stephen in one of his recent polishing master classes.

 

SG – I teach wherever I’m asked to go but am mainly based at The Goldsmiths’ Centre in London, JASSO near Oxford, and at In the Studio Jewellery School in Kegworth. I teach in Ireland at The School of Jewellery Ireland in Dublin, and also at the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland based in Kilkenny. I teach in my own studio. And finally I run courses for companies who need my services and will work throughout Europe.

Full details can be found on www.goldpolishing.guru