J Williams Jewellers owner Philip Sell has been a manufacturing jeweller for nearly 50 years. Photo / Bevan Conley
Diamonds are arguably a girl’s best friend, but these days a person may prefer a one-off jewellery design featuring a morganite stone or a magical worm – and they might be getting it made in
Whanganui has a long history of jewellery making and the city is now home to several specialist jewellers and others who make jewellery within their wider artistic practice.
Sue Dudman spoke to jewellers Philip Sell and Rani Stigsdottir and discovered that, despite their diverse work and experience, are both adapting and discovering new ways of creating jewellery.
J Williams Jewellers was established in Whanganui in 1903 and current owner Philip Sell has been a manufacturing jeweller for nearly 50 years. He’s been in the jewellery trade all his working life, starting out as a runner boy for engraver Arthur Wilks in an after-school job in which he would have to visit 11 jewellery-related businesses in Victoria Ave.
Banshee the Valkyrie is the jewellery business of Rani Stigsdottir, a recent arrival in Whanganui, who aims to become “a famous contemporary jeweller”. It’s been a 12-year journey so far and she is now working on different collections with a view to one day holding exhibitions and making one-off pieces.
In between these long-established and relatively new businesses, there are many other people in Whanganui making jewellery, both traditional and contemporary. Their work can be seen in their studios, shops and galleries around Whanganui and throughout New Zealand.
The traditional jeweller
J Williams Jewellers has been in its Victoria Ave premises since 1912 and today the shop retains many of the original cabinets, fittings and chandeliers.
However, these days customers can see the jewellers at work at the back of the shop, though the dirtier, noisier jobs are still done in the workshop on the upper floor.
Philip Sell bought the business in 1991 from Wanda Williams, the granddaughter of founder James Williams and daughter of Joe Williams who took over the business when his father died in 1948.
It’s a four-year apprenticeship to become a manufacturing jeweller. Sell did three years of correspondence and 8000 hours before sitting his trade certificate in 1971.
He trained with Adrian Jackson, along with Richard Sheppard, Alan McLachlan who now has a jewellery business in Paraparaumu and Adrian’s son Russell Jackson who also has a shop in Whanganui. Sell says they’re still mates and bounce ideas around.
Sell’s team includes Sam Hannah who has been at J Williams for 19 years since doing her apprenticeship there, Catherine Sharkey who has just sat her trade certificate, apprentice Erik Barker and CAD designer and engraver Allan Wells.
The trade has changed a lot since Sell did his apprenticeship.
“There were about 34 apprentices throughout New Zealand in 1971 and all were male. Currently there are 18 apprentices and half are female, but the apprentices were predominantly female for a while.
“It’s different to the watchmaker’s trade. It’s a completely different apprenticeship. There are 10 watchmaker apprentices at the moment, two are women. There are two engravers and setters apprentices nationally. Hand engraving is a dying art.
“The biggest change I’ve seen is the price of gold. In 1971 gold was US$261 an ounce. Now it’s US$1950. The highest it’s got is US$2200.”
In a jeweller’s workshop there’s gold dust everywhere – in the hand basin, the carpet, the floor sweepings. At J Williams they save everything and eventually send it away for the gold to be extracted, getting thousands of dollars back.
The price of gold means the jewellers have to be very careful when quoting on weight and make sure they get to that price, which might involve making changes to the thickness and width of the piece.
“It used to be $10 to size a ring; now it’s $50-60,” Sell said.
“That’s influenced design as well – pieces are a lot lighter now.”
The price of material has influenced design quite a lot, Sell said.
“In the 1960s there was a lot of traditional jewellery, handmade filigrees, coronet settings, narrow bands.
“In the 70s it was completely the other way – wide bands, chunky jewellery, illusion settings [which make the stone appear bigger than it is].
“The 90s brought chain stores like Michael Hill, catalogues, magazines and celebrities influenced style. Remember when everyone wanted the Lady Di ring?
“Now in the 2000s it’s more intricate patterns, micro pavé settings and using CAD [computer-aided design] for design.
“Eighteen carat white gold is very popular at the moment. It’s more expensive than platinum which used to be the most expensive precious metal. We’re seeing stones like morganite becoming popular.”
Sell said he resisted CAD for a long time but now J Williams has its own in-house CAD designer.
“To be competitive we have had to look at the way we go about making things. Once everything was done by hand; now we use CAD as well. Most of our work still starts the traditional way with drawing. We can do part in CAD and part handmade. With the flexibility of CAD you can come up with very elaborate designs.
“We do a lot of recycling using existing jewellery. That’s the sort of work we specialise in.
“I’ve probably found my niche in the last 15 years. I don’t try to compete with the likes of Michael Hill. Repair work is a huge amount of the business, 50 per cent plus. Every day we’re resizing rings, putting new bands on, retipping claws – that’s our bread and butter.
“Our big jobs are about 20 per cent out of town but we get a lot of locals.
“We don’t stock a lot of mass-produced things – we try to stock what other shops don’t have.”
One of the most high-profile jobs Sell has done was making a set of pounamu cuff links for Prince Edward when he was a tutor at Whanganui Collegiate.
But the piece he’s most proud of is one he made for his wife.
“We went to the Isle of Man TT races in 2017. The Isle of Man flag has a triskelion [three armoured legs with spurs on the feet] on it and we’d seen triskelions in the souvenir shops over there so I decided to do it as a surprise. It was a really fun piece to make and I took a bit of licence with it. My wife always gets comments when she wears it.”
The contemporary jeweller
Tucked away in a central city home is Rani Stigsdottir’s studio where she’s working on a new look for her popular Big Boss Bitch collection and obsessing about worms.
Twelve years ago Stigsdottir began studying with jewellery tutor Hanne Eriksen Mapp at The Learning Connexion then went on to Workspace Studios in Wellington where she now teaches beginners’ jewellery classes in lost wax casting.
“I became a way better jeweller since working with that group of women [at Workspace],” Stigsdottir said.
“I enjoyed being in a shared space – there’s a lot of problem solving in making jewellery. Having a crew is what’s going to push you forward and make you a better jeweller ultimately. It’s a lifetime of learning.
“I now have about 10 galleries or retail outlets in New Zealand as well as my webstore. I’m getting good at marketing on Instagram. There’s so much to learn when you’re a small business owner. My sisters help me and model the jewellery for photos.”
Her brand Banshee The Valkyrie came about because she didn’t want to be “the face” of her jewellery at that stage.
“I’m inspired by powerful women, the feminist movement, being strong, fairness. I’d also just come out of a band where I was the singer – it was almost metal and that’s where Banshee came from. Valkyrie is because I’m half Icelandic and I wanted to have a strong mythical female identity to support myself in my endeavours.”
The move to Whanganui with her musician partner was inspired by friends who had bought property here and the “awesome scene”.
“We had quite a few friends that live in Whanganui already. My partner had played gigs in Whanganui with his band for the last 10 years. One of his bandmates bought a house and other people inspired us to buy a house.
“We decided on Whanganui because it’s affordable to buy a home and we had friends already. He was talking about Kāpiti and I was ‘but we’ve got friends in Whanganui’.
“There’s a close-knit creative community. I feel like there’s more opportunity to grow here. My work went into the Sarjeant [Gallery] and Article [Cafe] just after moving here.”
Stigsdottir’s Big Boss Bitch collection has evolved from handcutting supports for necklaces made with cuisenaire rods to making large statement earrings.
“From handcutting, which I couldn’t do for the collection, I moved on to drawings and learned to make vectors and now I get them laser cut.
“I’ve found that women who are into art buy this style. I call them ‘compliment catchers’ – women wearing them feel sexier, stronger, more powerful and they’re making a statement.”
It’s been a learning curve. Stigsdottir has some giant versions of the range in her studio, the result of incorrect measurements given to the laser cutting company. She’s got one hanging on her front door and is thinking about using some of the others to make a chair.
She’s also moving on from the original brass range and is starting to produce silverplated jewellery.
In her studio, the still-evolving Big Boss Bitch range is on one side of the room and on the other is the new collection she’s developing – and it’s pretty much the opposite of the precise, geometric laser-cut jewellery.
“In my current work I’m obsessed with worms in particular. They have a sweet theme behind them. They’re magical beings. A lot of value we place on things that we shouldn’t value, but we don’t value a worm that helps the garden grow and sustains us.
“I’m making them in precious metal to make people think of them as beautiful creatures. They’re a symbol of spellcasting, making white magic happen.”
There’s also her Donor series which features hearts, brains and lungs.
Stigsdottir, whose Instagram handle is @gardenvarietywitch, is planning to take her new range to a witches market in Wellington to see what response she gets. She says markets are a great way to get feedback and help develop her work.
The problem-solving aspect of jewellery-making came in when she tried to create the worms and it’s taken some experimentation to create the right texture on them. She started out using the ridges on a milk bottle top but is now using a nit comb.
Stigsdottir has always worked part-time jobs while studying and since setting up her business. She currently works part of the week in Wellington and also at Whanganui bar Porridge Watson.
“My goal is to be a full-time maker but I want to be an artist,” she said.
“I want the worms to be one-off pieces that I can exhibit in Masterworks Gallery and Objectspace. I want to be a famous contemporary jeweller.
“I now have different collections I’m working on and I’m being more professional. I want to be more considered a contemporary jeweller and have exhibitions and make one-off pieces.”
Stigsdottir said she is inspired by German-born, New Zealand-based contemporary jeweller Karl Fritsch.
“I like how playful his stuff is. It’s insane and all one of a kind.”