Ellie Swinhoe is an incredibly talented jewellery designer. Her structural and statement pieces use a variety of processes, with the emphasis on bespoke and unique designs. She also owns Frome House, one of our new Light Locations. We spent some time getting to know Ellie and her infectious love of jewellery.
Quick little icebreaker – describe yourself in 3 words.
Fusspot, collector, creator
Tell us more about yourself – how did you get started as a jewellery designer?
I had always loved creating things but was always encouraged to follow a more academic path. I worked as a live event producer in London. I was in my late 30s when I had my life crisis moment and felt that I hadn’t followed my heart – I wanted to make things! I had looked at a jewellery course offered at Central St Martins School of Art for a few years, but had never taken the plunge – I signed up and within a week of working with metal I knew what I wanted to do. I was terrified, but I knew that I wouldn’t be happy unless I changed what I was doing and how I was living my life. I quit my work and I quit London – moving to Frome in Somerset to set up my studio to make my jewellery. Of course, it has its stressful moments, but I have never looked back. I love what I do, I love where I live, I have my loved ones around me – perfect.
What is your favourite material to work with?
If I could work with 18ct yellow gold all the time I would be a very happy bunny, but practicalities and cost mean that a lot of my big pieces are made in silver, which is also a fabulous material to work with. I add gold embellishment and detail to lots of my pieces. 9ct white gold is my least favourite material.
Do you ever experience artists block during the design process for a new piece of jewellery? If so, how do you get past it?
Yes, I do. I can sit with my head in my hands, my brain aching for many hours! A lot of the time the issues are about “how” I’m going to create what the client wants – that just means I have to sit and practice with base metal, maybe read my research books, and watch tutorials on techniques I haven’t tried before. As far as creativity goes, I look to the artists that I admire and adore – sometimes just the way that they have created a clasp or the shape of a stone, or a mix of colours will trigger all sorts of ideas. As soon as I open the books I am inspired to make – there are many, many more pieces I want to create.
The past 10 years have seen social media change the face of many creative professions. How has social media changed what you do?
Social media is absolutely vital for my work. My Facebook page and Instagram feed are how I keep in touch with my customers and they bring me a large portion of my new customers. Keeping in touch, being active, being in people’s minds – it’s so important. Luckily I now have lovely, loyal, regular clients, but they still use social media to connect with me. My work is such a visual thing – posting images is my prime method of advertising. I love communicating with my followers and fans – it’s a superb way to get feedback especially when I work alone in a studio with no one to bounce ideas off.
You produce commissions for engagement and weddings bands. Do people always know what they want? If not, how do you tease it out of them?
No – people quite rarely know what they want to be honest. Or they might think they know what they want, but after talking it through sometimes it appears that they are after something else. Clients that come to me don’t usually want an off-the-shelf solution – they can find simple bands on the high street. They either want something unique, unusual, something created from a sentimental item, or they might even want to come and make wedding bands for each other (I offer a wedding band workshop). Going back to the question – a face to face meeting, a cup of tea, a discussion about options and practicalities (and cost of course) will pretty quickly get to a decision on the rings.
You like to upcycle and recycle within your designs. What is the most unusual item that has seen a new lease of life through your work?
A silver tankard and a couple of silver napkin rings – transformed into a wide silver cuff for my client who found the pieces in her mother’s home after she passed away. Huge sentimental feeling around these items – a long story which she has written a book about!
What project(s) are you working on at the moment?
I am making a fabulous ring from 6 old gold rings which all contained diamonds – the new ring will feature all 14 of the diamonds – it’s going to be magnificent! I’m also making wedding bands in 18ct white gold, and I’m preparing for 2 wedding band workshops.
You live and work in Frome, which is known as a hub of creativity. What is special to you about the area?
I didn’t know that Frome existed until I visited an artist friend whilst I was visiting Longleat with my daughter. From that one visit I was determined to move here – it is quirky, edgy, fun, creative, involved, and active. People here believe in community – it’s a huge part of this town. And yes, it is packed with artists, musicians, jewellers, and incredible craftspeople. You might have heard of the Frome Festival which takes place in July – a week of performance, music, art, poetry, open gardens and a lot of partying – it is brilliant. Add to that the Frome Independent Market which takes place on the first Sunday of each month and you can’t help but love this crazy but wonderful town.
Your workshop is at home, your home is a shoot location and you rent your coach house out for Airbnb. How do you separate your work and your personal life or do the two always merge?
I’m afraid it does all merge. I have moments thinking that I’m going to get myself a studio away from the house so that I am not distracted and can be more productive, but the thing is that I love variety and I love my home. This house, our home is also my business. In the summer, jewellery commissions can be fairly quiet – it’s the usual thing of everybody away and doing other things – but our Coach House was solidly booked for those summer months. I was crazy busy – happily so. In the winter, Coach House bookings are quiet and I have loads of jewellery to make. It all works out pretty well.
Final question. With all the things you have learnt so far in your career, what advice would you give your teenage self?
Don’t let worry grind you down, work at what you love, you will have good days and bad days – accept that sometimes you need to walk away and refresh!