Lovely to have you here Rose. Tell us a little about yourself, what you do, including what was the catalyst that made you become a more conscious jeweller?
I’m an environmentalist, opal miner and multilingual explorer creating luxury jewellery from the insides of phones and electronic items!
I was born in England but moved to Indonesia with my parents as a baby when they started a research base camp in Borneo. I spent most of my childhood surrounded by tropical rainforest and amazing wildlife – I think that was the catalyst for becoming a conscious jeweller! Seeing all that beauty, you want to keep it intact forever.
What makes you smile the most when making jewellery?
I love seeing pieces come to life, and to see the joy they bring when someone wears a piece. I remember a lady buying an ammonite pendant from me at a fair once, and she was so happy she actually danced in circles – I couldn’t stop grinning for the rest of the day! With commissions especially, transforming a person’s dream into a reality is just wonderful – there’s nothing quite like that smile.
How would you describe the philosophy of your brand and what does the name “Cicely Cliff” mean?
Our philosophy is to redefine luxury.
We want people to live a luxurious lifestyle with beautiful jewellery, without having to compromise their ethical beliefs. We try to create a positive impact on local communities whilst causing minimal environmental damage – our focus is on sustainability throughout the business.
Cicely Cliff are actually my middle names, and “Sweet Cicely” is the botanical name for myrrh which is precious and treasured – it seemed fitting!
In your opinion, what is the most important thing to look for in ethical fashion and its accessories?
It all comes down to “Who made it?” “What is it made of?” “Where do the materials come from?” If someone was exploited to make it or if the process of getting materials are harmful to the environment, then it’s not a good product. Search for items where you get full business transparency – you should be able to trace an item back to source.
How did you learn to create the jewellery you make? Are all your pieces handmade and where are they produced?
I learnt to do macramé (a knotting technique) in Australia and this was followed by accidentally ending up on an opal mine where I learnt to work with this magical stone and wanted to show it off to the world! All the pieces are handcrafted – the opals are all hand cut by myself and the silverwork is done by a couple of local artisans in Bali, one of whom I’ve known for over ten years. It is a real honour to work with them and create such beautiful things together!
What are your favourite gems and materials that you use in your designs?
Hands down my favourite gemstone is opal. It is just so mystical and unique – it’s a bit like a puzzle with each piece – you never quite know what is going to come of it until you’re finished!
What was the first piece of jewellery you designed?
Hmmm… This is quite tough actually. I’ve been designing pieces as presents for years. It may have been redesigning a lapis lazuli and pearl necklace for my mother when I was in my teens. We transformed two broken necklaces into a fun multilayered statement necklace with droplets of silver!
What are you fascinated by at the moment and how does it feed into your work?
I’m obsessed with opal (always) so I love working with it as much as possible… But at the moment I’m fascinated with the shapes of trees. We’re just coming out of winter in the UK and I love the shapes of tree skeletons revealed by the lack of leaves… I’m looking at the inner workings of nature, I guess. We’ll see if it comes to anything!
Your designs are strongly influenced by nature – what is it about the nature world that inspires you so much?
Nature has always been a huge factor – I’ve grown up surrounded by some pretty wild aspects of it. I’m inspired by the power of nature; no matter how delicate something may appear, it has incredible strength behind it. You get the most incredible shapes and patterns which, when you think about it, are mind boggling. Think about the amount of patterns you get in flowers!
How and where do you source materials used in your designs?
I helped mine the opals and do the lapidary work. Other gemstones come straight from source or from suppliers who ensures their stones are from ethical sources.
All our silver comes from a refinery which extracts precious metals from electrical devices such as phones, tablets, cameras, fridges, and other household items. This means we’re effectively turning e-waste into luxury jewellery. When we work with gold, it comes from Fairtrade mines – I’m studying to become a Fairtrade Gold Ambassador which is fascinating.
What amazing and little known gemmological fact about opals can you share with us?
A really cool fact is that opal is actually colourless! They are made up of see-through spherical silica particles, the colours actually come from the refraction of light according to the size of the silica particle.
Can you describe a typical day living and working on an opal mine?
Mining is tough! I have a lot of respect for opal miners. You typically work 6 months of the year (during the Australian winter, when temps get down to 0C) as in summertime temperatures get up to 50C and machinery stops working.
You’re going down to 30meters (100feet) underground and digging tunnels hoping to find an elusive gem – it’s like hunting for a hidden bank vault. Where I worked is very remote, 1100km from the coast and about an hour drive to the nearest town. There’s no running water, no electricity, no heating – it’s incredibly dry and you don’t get rain very often. A typical day would involve having breakfast before collecting firewood and then heading down to the mine to dig. You’d stop for lunch before going back down for the afternoon, then come back up and make a fire before switching the generator on. Once dinner is done you’d go into the workshop and make the most of the electricity to do some cutting on the wheels – if you’ve been lucky enough to find something. Then you head to bed and start again the next day!
Why do you specialise in Australian opals? Are they more ethical than other stones?
Opal mining is very different from other types of mining. It’s done on a small scale, with only a couple of people per mine. I prefer Australian opals because the people who do it do it for the love of opal. You don’t get a salary as there’s no guarantee you’ll find something. Miners could easily get another job, but they choose to hunt for this mysterious stone because they want to, and for me that makes the difference.
The Department of Mining in Australia regulates the mining, and I particularly like the sustainability of it. When you dig for opal, you break up rock hard ground (which is so hard trees actually get blown over in the wind because their roots can’t grow deep enough) and make it possible for greenery to grow. By law, when a mine is closed down, miners have to reseed the broken ground with vegetation in order to maintain the land.
What are some of the tools you use on a regular basis?
Sketchbook and pen – I’ve nearly always got them on me and I’m always imagining new ideas and designs. When I was on the bus the other day I saw a cool hair-do and had an idea for a pendant! In the workshop I’d say we use the torches, hammer, saw and rollers most often. Because everything is made by hand, the team I work with hand roll and hand pull each piece of sheet and wire we use.
How long do you often spend on one piece of jewellery? What is the process behind creating a piece of jewellery?
A piece can take from a few hours to a few days.
I’ll often start with a stone and rough sketch around it. I’ll then draw it with measurements and details and discuss the work with the artisans. We melt silver granules down into a nugget and put it through a hand roller to create either silver sheet or wire. This is crafted into the right shape and stamped with the Cicely Cliff trademark stamp before being hammered, bent and soldered together to fit around the stone. It is carefully polished before being sent to the Hallmarking Office in London, and then individually displayed in a beautiful handcrafted wooden box!
Commissions are similar, though it is obviously tailored to client specifications. I send a questionnaire specifically engineered to figure out the clients likes and then do research based on the ideas or styles I’m given. We decide what materials will work best and I draw up designs which we throw back and forth until perfect. At this point I work alongside the craftsmen to create the piece, and give progressive updates throughout the process. I’ve found this is great fun for the client as they get to watch the bespoke process step by step, which is incredibly exciting!
In your experience, which is the most challenging part of the jewellery design process?
I often get these crazy ideas which are totally unfeasible. Like “ooooh! Wouldn’t it be cool to have silver nuggets floating around that stone like a galaxy”… which is just impossible. Things have to be connected, however discretely, in order for everything to hold together! It makes my team laugh though, I’m a dreamer.
How do you know a piece has been well designed? What is “your way” of evaluating a finished piece?
I look at the quality of the workmanship and think how long that piece will last; is it going to last for a few years? Or will it last for generations? The pieces I design are created to be treasured for generations – like the pieces our grandparents might have had. In my mind there’s no point in buying anything which you can only wear for a short amount of time.
Please tell us a bit more about your packaging and its sustainability specifications.
As I mentioned before, our focus is on sustainability but we still like the luxurious touch. As such, our handcrafted boxes are made from exotic woods, but the wood is repurposed from cut-offs coming from building sites and furniture makers. Minimising waste and using what we already have is our game!
Rose, how can one take good care of the jewellery bought so that the quality and shine is retained?
My biggest tip to keep any jewellery looking better for longer is when you are getting ready, put your jewellery on last. The chemicals in scent, cologne, hair spray and makeup can tarnish or mark your jewellery, so try to avoid putting it on until last minute! I also have a free booklet people can download from my website with tips for easy care of all types different of jewellery.
Where can our readers keep up with your work and get connected with you?
We do an occasional newsletter with tips about jewellery care, information on sustainability and cool little known facts you can wow your friends with!
How do you find managing the more business side versus the creative practice and blending the two?
I’m definitely more of a creative so paperwork and admin work are not my forte… But it’s unfortunately a necessary thing when you run your own business. You’re the head thinker, web ‘expert’ (haha), marketer, packaging buyer, accountant, order packer, copy writer, designer and coffee maker, all wrapped into one! I’d definitely rather spend all my time creating, but that’s just not possible.
Do you feel supported by your community to continue pursuing your craft? What are the greatest issues for you as an ethical jewellery designer?
Definitely! It’s not just friends and family, everyone I speak with is supportive. So many people aren’t aware of the alternative options, so it’s great fun to see the look on their face when you tell them they have enough gold in their household electrical items to make a wedding band! When you’re finding ways to transform items we use every day into luxury jewellery, it’s quite the conversation starter!
Sourcing materials is one of my biggest issues because of the research necessary to find ethical gemstones. Other than opals, tracing to source can be tricky and often people are surprised by the price difference between ethical and non ethical gemstones. I try to explain it in terms of the hourly wage and conditions of a miner, and see how they’d feel about working in those conditions whilst earning that much. Most of the time people weren’t aware of the background story and often change their mindset – that’s why I think transparency in business is so important!
How can we be more conscious consumers to affect change in the fast fashion industry? Can you share some tips for others trying to lead more sustainable lives?
I think with so much in the news it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The best thing is just to start small.
Get something you know you’ll get a lot of wear out of, or that means something special to you. Don’t be afraid to spend a bit more – you really do get what you pay for, it’ll last longer.
Ask where it comes from. If you’re not sure, ask more. People are often happy to tell you more about the story and the background of a piece. There’s no such thing as a stupid question!
One thing that bugs you about humans is…?
I’m not a big fan of negativity. I always try and see the positive – find the silver lining/glass half full sort of thing.
Please share your wildest story of growing up in Indonesia.
Haha, there are a few! I was almost eaten by a python when I was a baby, I think it was winding its way down the wall to my crib along some nails in the wall. Snakes actually weren’t that rare a sight, we slept with the windows in our longhouse open – my parents were of the opinion it was much better that things could get OUT rather than be stuck in there with us!
Tell one surprising fact about yourself.
People are always surprised when they hear that I grew up in a rainforest, I guess I don’t appear the wild jungle child I am inside!