Meet the Maker – Helen Duncan from Silver Nutmeg
Helen Duncan’s journey into jewellery making starts, like the best stories, in the pages of children’s books. Intrigued by the magical power of the ring in The Hobbit and the wonder of Aladdin’s cave, Helen’s fascination with gems, amulets and talismans continued into adulthood and took her first to evening classes to study jewellery making, and then to the emergence of Silver Nutmeg, her handmade jewellery studio. Here Helen talks to potter and fellow Folksy seller Lorna Gilbert about her inspiration, the tale behind the name, why winter is her favourite season and how lockdown has affected her creativity.
Treat yourself to 15% off all Silver Nutmeg Jewellery with the code Silver15 (valid until 8th June 2020) – https://folksy.com/shops/SilverNutmeg
The beauty of being an independent maker is that you are in control of the choices you make and can follow your own path.Helen Duncan, Silver Nutmeg
Hello Helen, it’s so nice to meet you. I’m very taken with your jewellery and its beautiful textures. Firstly, I’d love to know about your journey into silversmithing.
Thank you, Lorna. I am really delighted to have the opportunity to share a little bit about what I do. I think my journey into silver jewellery making must have been fuelled by childhood stories. The description of the gemstones poured over by the dastardly Abner Brown in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights captured my imagination, along with the tiny rosebud that a dwarf forges in gold for the main character Kay. The pull and the power of the ring in The Hobbit, the wonder of Aladdin’s cave, and the mystery surrounding the beautiful jewel that goes missing in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone – these, along with ideas of amulets and talismans that crop up in other stories have all combined into a fascination with jewellery and the desire to make my own.
The name ‘Silver Nutmeg’ evokes something slightly whimsical and fairy tale, whether because of its association with the nursery rhyme or the idea of a fruit crafted in precious metal.Helen Duncan, Silver Nutmeg
I started off creating pieces with gemstone beads and silver wire, and then found that my local further education college ran evening courses in silver jewellery making. I started classes years ago, and still attend because there is always something new to learn.
My journey into silver jewellery making was fuelled by childhood stories – the description of the gemstones poured over by the dastardly Abner Brown in The Box of Delights and mystery surrounding the beautiful jewel that goes missing in The MoonstoneHelen Duncan, Silver Nutmeg
I’m intrigued by your name. How did Silver Nutmeg come into being?
I remember discovering Folksy way back in the noughties and dreamt about having my own shop. So, when I finally got to the stage where I had pieces to sell, I suppose I was still thinking about the shop’s identity rather than about me as the maker – so it didn’t really occur to me to use my own name. I wanted a name that partly says what I make, hence the silver, and has an element of individuality – the nutmeg. That just happened to be the next spice I thought of after ginger, the colour of my hair. Silver nutmeg sounded better than silver ginger, and evokes something slightly whimsical and fairy tale, whether because of its association with the nursery rhyme or the idea of a fruit crafted in precious metal.
I have a passion for printmaking and I hear you do too. I’d love to hear how printmaking
influences your making process and designs.
I was really pleased when I found out you enjoyed printmaking too. It’s great fun! I hadn’t really thought about it influencing my process and designs before you asked this question, but you’ve made me think about it and actually there are some similarities. I learned reduction lino printing at school and the texture I most enjoy creating in my silver pieces has quite a carved, linear look, although it’s achieved in a very different way. I guess in both cases it’s all about mark making. Funnily enough though, there is a process, called engraving, which I am itching to learn. It involves using tools not dissimilar to lino cutters to cut into the surface of the silver to create patterns and designs. Although I know that scoring into the hard, shiny surface of silver will feel very different to cutting a soft piece of lino, I feel compelled to give it a go!
I learned reduction lino printing at school and the texture I most enjoy creating in my silver pieces has quite a carved, linear look, although it’s achieved in a very different way. I guess in both cases it’s all about mark making.Helen Duncan, Silver Nutmeg
I have some favourite tools in my studio that I use all the time. Do you have any treasured tools?
Definitely! I love my little blow torch, which gets used all the time for heating the silver to make it pliable for working with, and for soldering. Granted it’s not quite as thrilling as using a big torch in a forge, but for the pieces I create, which are all quite small, it’s the perfect size to work with. I have several different hammers, and some old punches, and I love looking out for these kinds of tools at antique markets and car boot sales. I picked up an old hand drill the other year for just 20p. So, as well as being a good way to find interesting and unusual bits and pieces, these kinds of events are usually kinder on the purse too!
I think more people care about how things are packaged these days, but I think a lot of people still aren’t aware of the environmental impact of the jewellery industry. So, I hope that by choosing to buy recycled silver from suppliers, I am playing a part in helping that change to happen.Helen Duncan, Silver Nutmeg
I am passionate about the environment and always try to tread gently. I loved reading that you’re always striving to keep your impact on the environment to a minimum and also sourcing, where possible, ethically sourced recycled silver. How hard is this to do and do you think this is important to your customers?
I hope it’s important to my customers. Certainly I think more people care about how things are packaged these days, but I think a lot of people still aren’t aware of the environmental impact of the jewellery industry. Like so many things, I think change can be driven by demand. So, I hope that by choosing to buy recycled silver from suppliers, I am playing a part in helping that change to happen. Fortunately it’s not difficult to get hold of recycled silver in sheet and wire form (and even as solder) but I haven’t yet found anywhere that sells recycled chain. It’s also easy to recycle your own silver, which I do with my scrap by heating it until it turns into little balls which can be turned into pendants, or earrings, or little decorative elements. I also use a non-toxic, biodegradable pickle (the solution which removes oxides that form on the surface of the silver when it is heated) and avoid other chemical processes.
When it comes to packaging, I choose items made from recycled materials and which can be re-used. Everything then gets put into either a Green Jiffy bag or a cardboard postal box. The beauty of being an independent maker is that you are in control of the choices you make and can follow your own path.
Traceability is important, so I only buy gemstones from suppliers who are able to give assurances about the mines from where they come from.Helen Duncan, Silver Nutmeg
I still have a weakness for gemstones, which causes some internal wrangling. Traceability is important, so I only buy these from suppliers who are able to give assurances about the mines from where the stones come from. But the environmental impact is still something that needs to be considered and it’s not always easy to find out about this. At the moment I am only working with stones that I already have rather than buying new ones. But again, I think the more people are aware of the problems, the more we can work together for change.
The texture I enjoy creating most is inspired by the thick hoar frosts and feather frost patterns we get here in winter. I am very much a winter person and find it a really inspiring time of year.Helen Duncan, Silver Nutmeg
Your jewellery often has beautiful and intriguing textures. Can you tell me about the inspiration and the techniques you use.
I’m so pleased you noticed that. I find it quite difficult to capture the textures in my product shots. But the texture I enjoy creating most is inspired by the thick hoar frosts and feather frost patterns we get here in winter. I am very much a winter person and find it a really inspiring time of year. I heat the silver up (a process called annealing) to soften it, then once it’s been quenched in water and popped in the pickle, it’s ready to be textured.
I impress patterns on to the silver by hammering it on to a steel block, which I’ve custom-bashed (technical term!) with a hammer. The marks on the steel block transfer on to the piece of silver and that’s how the patterns are created. Another, much more subtle, texture that I like to create is done by hammering silver on to masking tape – again that transfers the texture of the tape on to the silver. I also hand polish my pieces – working through different grades of polishing sticks, which takes a lot of time – and use a brass brush on others which gives the silver a particular glow.
I love finding out about other makers’ work spaces. What’s your like?
Oh yes, so do I. Sadly mine is not as beautiful or interesting as those of a lot of my favourite makers, but I am really fortunate to have my own space at home. This year, more than ever, this has become something to really appreciate. It’s a spare room, and my workspace is a standard office desk that was going spare. It’s not ideal, as jeweller’s benches are designed to be at a particular height for working, so I have to be careful not to give myself a bad neck, but it does the job for now and a proper bench is on my wishlist!
Lockdown has given me a deeper sense of appreciation of all that I have: my own home, a spacious garden, walks in the countryside right from my door. I want that feeling of not taking things for granted to stay with me.Helen Duncan, Silver Nutmeg
I have felt very lucky during this lockdown to have clay to distract me when I’ve found it hard. How has the lockdown been for you and have you found anything out about yourself or your business that will stay with you?
To begin with I found it difficult to get any creative juices flowing. I found the whole situation too unnerving and distracting. But I gradually settled back into making and because of having that space at home, in many ways, the time I spend making isn’t that much different in lockdown. But it has given me a deeper sense of appreciation of all that I have: my own home, a spacious garden, walks in the countryside right from my door. I want that feeling of not taking things for granted to stay with me.
A typical week for me sees me wearing many different hats. How does a typical week look like at Silver Nutmeg?
Oh yes, lots of hats too! Just within the jewellery making there are lots of different aspects – from designing and making to photographing pieces; and from writing product descriptions and sharing what I make on social media to packing up orders and maintaining financial records. On top of that I also work as a freelance fundraiser specialising in seeking grants, particularly for the arts and heritage sector. And from time to time I write pieces for magazines too.
It’s maybe a tricky question to answer at the moment but what are your plans for the rest of 2020?
I have been working on some new designs inspired by Norse culture, and am wearing the prototypes at the moment (something I like to do with my designs before releasing them into the wild!) so I would like to get those finalised and added to my shop this year. That will keep me occupied for a while! I also really want to improve my photography skills. Being successful as an online seller is so dependent on good images, and photographing my pieces is something I would like to get better at. Most of all, though, I just want to be able to continue sending out little parcels of happiness. Having my shop has been particularly rewarding this year as I’ve received orders from people wanting to send gifts directly to friends and family. I feel honoured to be trusted to do that well and it’s a huge privilege to be able to help.
Use code Silver15 for 15% off all Silver Nutmeg Jewellery until 8th June 2020
Meet the interviewer
The maker asking the questions this week is Lorna Gilbert, a potter based in Leeds who makes pots to nurture your soul.
You can read our interview with Lorna here https://blog.folksy.com/2020/05/12/lorna-gilbert-ceramics
Visit her shop on Folksy here https://folksy.com/shops/thepottingstudio