Women in the Making: jewels that shine

Joanna Hardy describes her route to becoming a jewellery expert and her new exhibition of female designers, including one, Gurmit Campbell, who returned to the craft after a mid-life sabbatical

I remember as a small child going to have afternoon tea with my godmother, jeweller Margaret Biggs. She had been the first woman to achieve distinction in her gemmology exams, in 1929, and became the first female president of the National Association of Goldsmiths.

She would hold court in her Georgian drawing room, surrounded by glass vitrenes full of mineral specimens. Oil paintings by her sister Mary lined the walls, each depicting different gemstones.

Being exposed to the beauty of these minerals at such a young age developed my fascination for these wondrous things, crafted by nature. Little did I know that this was the beginning of a passion that has continued for more than 30 years.  

A rookie jeweller

At school I had the opportunity to make jewellery. That led me to study goldsmithing and, later, gemmology (the science bit).

After I finished studying, I sought employment, and eventually landed a job for the Diamond Trading Company (De Beers) where I graded and valued rough diamonds

I had visions of going off into deepest Africa wearing my khaki outfit and buying rough diamonds on the open market. But it was only the boys who were sent out to the bush. Then, as luck would have it, I saw an advertisement in a trade paper for an assistant polished diamond dealer, to be based in Antwerp, Belgium.

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My new show, Women in the Making, endorses my ethos about craftsmanship and unique design

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The audacity of youth is a marvellous asset when applying for jobs, especially when the position is beyond one’s skill set. I had never dealt with polished diamonds, but somehow I managed to convince the company to give me the job.

My first day was a disaster. I was asked to sort and grade a parcel of diamonds but instead I just stared, clueless, at the precious heap in front of me.

When my new boss returned he could see that he had been sent someone who knew nothing. Instead of sending me straight home, he said: “Well, you’re here now so I best teach you.” I stayed there for eight years.

Antique jewels and auctioneering

It was a phone call from Phillips the Auctioneers offering me a position in the jewellery department that made me look beyond the world of diamonds.

Antique jewellery and coloured gemstones were suddenly being introduced to me and I knew very little about either.

Before my interview, I spent many weekends in the V&A and the British Museum looking at their collections trying to memorise styles and makers in the hope of becoming vaguely knowledgeable. 

Somehow it worked and I got offered the job. I found it fascinating and there were certainly a lot more women in the antique business than in the diamond trade.

The world of jewellery and gemstones is a fantastic arena to meet the most amazing people and, if you are lucky, see some incredible jewels and stones.

But you will only be privy to the best in the world if you have built up a trust, respect and reputation within the industry, and that takes many years.

It’s like a big family; a very tight-knit community. One false move and you’re quickly ostracised.

The auction bug had bitten, and I went on to spend 14 years as Sotheby’s senior jewellery expert. There I curated an exhibition called London Rocks, which was where I put all my experience into showcasing the artistic merits of jewellery in a grown-up manner.

One of Gurmit Campbell's striking necklaces
One of Gurmit Campbell’s striking necklaces

Women in the Making

Which brings us to now. From next week, I am collaborating with the Beetles + Huxley gallery in London to showcase four contemporary jewellers, alongside the gallery’s more usual photography exhibitions. 

The show, Women in the Making: Four Contemporary Jewellers, endorses my ethos about craftsmanship and unique design. If I can help to broaden people’s awareness and help them become discerning jewellery appreciators and collectors then my mission has been accomplished.

The four women who are showcasing their jewellery are all incredibly talented, and are a mix of backgrounds, ages and styles.

Appearing alongside Jacqueline Cullen, Ornella Ianuzzi and Alice Cicolini is Gurmit Campbell, who has returned to the jewellery world after a mid-life sabbatical (inspired, perhaps, by high50, as her husband, Robert Campbell, is its founder).

Her sensual new works are striking pieces that will speak to high50 readers in the way they embrace the femininity and sexuality of the mature woman.

“It fascinates me to see how jewellery or an art installation translates our process of being, how our body’s perceptions influence what is perceived by our mind,” Gurmit says.

Her ‘wearable sculptures’ are influenced chiefly by architecture, but are designed, most definitely, to be worn. The materials used include diamond, emerald and mother-of-pearl set in 18-karat gold and titanium.

It is empowering to wear something that has been beautifully crafted by women for women, and with any of these pieces there is the added assurance that the jewellery will be unique. (See Gurmit’s inspired ‘sperm ring’ – below, middle right – for proof!) The only label you’ll be championing here is originality.  

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Women In The Making is at Beetles + Huxley in Swallow Street, W1, from 28 April to 24 May 2014