Today I have great pleasure in talking to Harriet Kelsall about Harriet Kelsall Jewellery, her life, her hopes and her beautiful jewellery. I have Becky and Albert to thank for this lovely introduction, as Harriet designed Becky’s engagement and wedding rings.
Hi Harriet, thank you so much for taking time out to talk to me – and the coffee’s great!
Tell us a little bit about yourself – where are you from?
I was born and grew up in St Albans, which you know well, and went to the high school from 7 to 18 and did my O levels and A levels there – I am that old! My dad is a retired GP in St Albans and he also makes jewellery. He used to come home at night and make jewellery for family and friends, so I used to spend a lot of time with him at his bench watching him. From an early age I could tell the difference between a cubic zircon and a diamond. One day he asked me to draw a ring and then we’d make it. I drew, in my childish way, a ring with a huge amethyst stone and we made it together. He showed me how to bring something into three dimensions from a drawing, and I still have the ring today. He was very inspiring. He’d learn how to make things, and I’m the same – if you want something, you just figure it out. My mum stayed at home to bring us up, then as a mature student she got a first class degree in English. Now she lectures for NADFAS and does guided tours of the cathedral. My dad is the archivist for the cathedral, and I got married there, so it’s very central to our lives. My mum wanted me to parade down the central aisle and have a horse and carriage at our wedding, but that’s not really me, I preferred the Lady Chapel, tucked out of the way, and a car hidden in a back street! We had our reception at the Water End barn – we chose to have lots of friends to a modest venue, rather than a few friends at a posh place!
Do you have a family?
Most of my family are still in St Albans. My sister runs a yoga centre in St Albans, and I’m married to Tim who is a sound engineer and dubbing mixer – he does film and TV sound. Increasingly Tim helps me with my business. We have Thomas who is 6, and Eleanor who is 2, aka Ellie Belly Boo! Thomas is very musical and has just got a scholarship to sing at King’s College chapel choir in Cambridge.
Are you in the middle of a project now?
We are always in the middle of 1000 projects! Top 3 – work related, decide what’s best for the business, whether to stay here, open a new branch, also we are trying to update our web site which as you know is quite time consuming , and sorting out our customer data base which has got very complicated! Home-wise, we have just finished an extension, and we’ve been concentrating on Thomas’ audition, so we’ve been busy!
How long have you been in the business?
I started in 1998, but I’ve been making jewellery from when I was young. As a teenager I had a family friend who was an artist, and she used to have a stall in Covent Garden market to sell her work. She suggested I put some of the jewellery I had been making on the stall. I thought brilliant, and I made a nice little pad to show it all off. She came home and pretend to be cross with me because I had sold more jewellery than she had paintings!
What do you love about your job?
I love the customers. Our jewellery is always about the story behind each person. For example, someone might say, ‘When we met, I was chasing a peacock around the zoo and when it fanned it’s tail it was an amazing moment!’ So then we’ll make a ring inspired by a peacock’s feather. Or a couple who met while sailing, so they wanted a ring inspired by the sea and sailing. As designers we never know what’s coming through the door next and we love that. We never do the same thing twice, it truly is unique, like your work! There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not inspired by our customers’ stories.
What do you feel is the most challenging thing about designing jewellery?
It’s probably educating people about what they can expect from a piece of jewellery. People don’t realise that metal can scratch and be quite soft and malleable. Even steel scratches. so we make sure they understand their jewellery, and how perhaps they shouldn’t wear it when doing sports or gardening! If it’s an emerald it will be about as durable as your fingernail. We are one of the first jewellers to be allowed to use Fair Trade Gold, so we like to present the options with different metals – which one do you like, which one suits your lifestyle? It’s a very inclusive process of design. We design for each individual, so it’s not about our egos, it’s about our customers and what they want. We want them to leave feeling like they designed the ring themselves, and we just gave them all the tools they needed to create something they love.
What do you think are the trends this year?
It’s a funny time because 18 carat gold is more expensive than platinum. Six months ago I would have said platinum and palladium, with lots of blue. Now it’s up in the air – some people are going for gold because it’s expensive, so it’s more popular than it was. White metal is popular, as people are very influenced by Kate Middleton’s engagement ring, although they may not admit it. We’re doing a lot of clusters, not like Kate’s but more contemporary, often blue and white. Quite a lot of green, a bit of rose gold, paver settings are still big, and there’s a revival in twist rings, which we love.
What has been your most memorable booking and why?
Quite a few! All for different reasons. One guy wanted to make an engagement ring as a surprise, so he brought in a plaster cast of her hand and whopped it on the desk for us to size her finger! Another time a disabled man and his wife came in, and they had tragically lost both their young children in a car accident. So I had to design a piece of jewellery that brought that into a positive context. I looked at their birth stones and created a ring that celebrated the happy memories of the children. On a lighter note, there was the guy who wanted a life-size toilet roll as a pendant for his wife! We tried to figure out why, and it turns out that he and his wife had been leaving messages for each other on the toilet roll at work as a joke! Antoinette did the design, and suggested scaling it down. We ended up with this lovely little pendant which you wouldn’t think was inspired by a toilet roll unless you knew the story. It’s a little tube of silver with diamonds spiralling round, and the chain goes through the middle. It’s a really pretty contemporary pendant. Then we had the clown, he came in full clown costume and made balloons for everybody… Mr Stripy Wipey!
What do you think of the wedding industry at the moment and where do you see it in 5 years from now?
I think the wedding industry has lots of positive things going on – people are looking for something different. The marriage licensing has opened the doors to all sorts of venues – I love that, and it’s rare that we get customers from the same two places. There’s knock-on to other areas of the industry and brides are now thinking maybe they don’t need a conventional piece of jewellery and they could design something really funky for their wedding or for their bridesmaids as a present. They can have things custom made. (same for me – it’s not staid and traditional poses any more it’s active, vibrant and energetic)
What was your most embarrassing moment?
I’ve got so many…
A website and/or blog you like?
Yours! That’s really embarrassing isn’t it? I’m not saying that because you’re sitting in front of me! I don’t compliment peoples’ websites easily but as soon as I saw yours I was so drawn in by the brilliant photography – everyone’s going to think you wrote this aren’t they [Yes!] but it really re-enforced what I was thinking about our website – it needs to be more about the photography. Seeing your website was really inspiring!
What talent would you most like to have?
I’d like to have a time machine – that’s not a talent, that’s a dream! I believe that you should just do something if you want to do it, so I’d like to have more time to more things. I’d like to do stained glass – I don’t not have the talent, I just don’t have the time to focus on the talent to do it. I’m sure that’s true for everybody, it’s just that some people are limited by thinking they can’t do it. I think everybody can do anything. It would be nice to be able to spell… I sing too, but I’ve dropped out of the choir because having the children made it too much to juggle.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My children and my husband, they are amazing.
Something that is overrated?
(looong pause) Free time! It comes back to what we were saying earlier about admitting that the reason I work all the time is partly because I really like it. People read my tweets at 10 at night and ask what am I doing still working? Actually, it’s because I really enjoy it [that's a healthy admission though, otherwise you're struggling with your conscience all the time]
Your favourite film of all time? Are you a film watcher?
Very much so, my husband is a judge for BAFTA so we watch a lot of pre-released films, and before the hype. We saw American Beauty and we were absolutely blown away by it, whereas some people who saw it after all the hype felt a bit let down by it. Last year was amazing for films, although I don’t think the people who won the BAFTAs were always the right people. I think ‘Precious’ was amazing. It’s quite tough to watch, as was ‘Lovely Bones’ for different reasons. The other film which didn’t get anywhere was ‘The Road’ – amazing, if you like bleak. There is hope, if you look really hard! I like quite tough things because I feel very lucky in life and I see everything in a positive way, so dark films challenge me.
A book you’ve enjoyed recently?
I’ve just read ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery. That’s my favourite book this year. I’ve really enjoyed Chris Cleave’s ‘The Other Hand’, and also William Boyd’s ‘Any Human Heart’. I’d recommend any of those and they’re not too dark either, unlike my film choices!
What ambition have you yet to achieve?
Many – I’ve not finished yet! We have fantastic designers here and we have a lot of growing to do as a company. A lot of people peak having got where they want to be. I don’t feel that I’m there yet, not that I’m ambitious or I want to be really really famous. It’s not about that. I see the potential in the people around me and within the industry, and I want to make things happen. One ambition is this – I get really frustrated with independent high street jewellers, many of them aren’t as good as they could be, they’re quite samey, their displays are all similar, with the velour ring pads, and the watch stands. The jeweller is moaning about the internet or moaning about other people taking business away. He’s using boring materials and displaying it in a boring way. I look at universities who turn out lots of very talented designers and it’s a no-brainer to put those two things together and actually get these jewellers to design something better, and design some interesting shop fittings too. I’d like to go into small jewellers and help them grow and turn their businesses round.
What would you say has been the main key to your success in your business?
Probably the fact that I’ve never been afraid of failing, because if you fail at something you always learn. So many people don’t do what they really want to do because they think what if it goes wrong, what if… I’ve always made sure I can handle the worst-case scenario before I’ve done anything. Not being afraid to fail and being able to grow from failure is important.
What advice do you have for anyone wanting to become professional and do what you do?
Two things; firstly, find a niche. Our niche was bespoke jewellery, as it didn’t really exist when we started. There are lots of things that don’t exist that should exist in the jewellery industry – there are loads of specialist things that designers could be doing. So first find a niche and drive at it.
Secondly – do it while you’re also doing your day job. Do a busy job until 7 or 8 every night then come home and make jewellery for a couple of hours. Do that for a year then you’ll be able to see if you’re good enough while you still have the security of another job. Only if you’re doing it as well as your first job will you have the energy to push it through. It’s hard work – if you love it enough, you’ll do it.
Three tips for brides?
1. Don’t be afraid of getting stuff made – it’s not always more expensive and it will certainly be better value for money. It’s the same with photography, isn’t it? Don’t feel you’ve got to go for something really boring, it may not cost much more to get something much better.
2. On your wedding day, you’re so busy worrying about everything that you don’t have time to enjoy it. Somebody said to me take at least five moments in your day to mentally stand back, stop thinking about the clock, and look around you. Think gosh, this is lovely! All these people are here to celebrate our special day! Take those moments – they are the ones you’ll remember.
3. It’s hard for brides at the moment they have to fit a lot into a budget. I would say don’t skimp on the things that are really important – I would say the important things are the things you’re going to keep for the long term – the rings and the photographs. Do you need all those favours, of course you want wonderful flowers, but do they have to be so big on every table? Spend less on more, in a good way. Certain things you can make savings on, but certain things you’re going to keep for ever – those are the things to not get too budgetty on. If you make a lot of your own things, it’s much more personal, and much more bespoke.
What is your most treasured possession?
I’m not really into possessions, I’d say my jewellery but particularly the jewellery my dad made me – he’s not making much now, as his hands are a bit slower than they were, but the pieces that have his hallmark on, like my christening bracelet (which my daughter now has), and my wedding ring, which I made sure he made for me, are very precious.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Those wonderful moments really enjoying a day at home, when you’ve had a good week at work, having worked satisfactorily hard, and you’re with your family, and there’s nothing worrying in your mind. And no-one is weeing on the floor (that’s my daughter, not my husband!) We grow our own vegetables so we love harvesting veg and planting seeds. But it has to be without any worry from work on your mind.
What would your superpower be?
I’d like a time machine, as simple as that. Just one. I’d stop time to catch up on things I need to do, and I’d go back in history to see see how things felt when you were actually there. I wouldn’t try to change anything – just observe for interest!
Is there something you’ve always wanted to try?
I’d love to be involved in making a TV documentary where I would go into a failing high street jeweller with an owner keen to turn it around and help them make their business work. I’d also encourage them to employ the right design graduate to help change things around, matching the brilliant experience of high street retailing with a fresh approach, with fresh jewellery designs and display ideas. People trading on the high street have to be so much better now there’s competition on the internet. My own view is that the likes of Tescos have actually improved our high street because the businesses who will survive will be ones who offer something better. Also I’d love steal a year from time and to go to a developing country, like Madagascar, where they have great gemstone deposits, and start off proper Fairtrade gemstones. We are really proud to be one of the first jewellers in the world allowed to to use Certificated Fairtrade gold. I’d love to help other aspects of the industry improve further too.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
To trust my gut instinct (via Gerry Robinson)
Your favourite indulgence?
Fresh flowers, which I rarely actually indulge in, but I do love them when I have them.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
Something else creative – making pottery, stained glass, cooking, photography, growing plants. I love anything that involved creating something better than the raw materials.
Tea or coffee?
Cat or dog?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?
Continuing to be the UK’s leading bespoke jewellery design company and helping to lead the industry towards better quality jewellery that is made in this country. I’d like to be inspiring young designers and young entrepreneurs. I’ve been working with both the Peter Jones Academy in North Hertfordshire, and I hope to be working with Doug Richard’s School for Creative Start-ups.
If you had one wish…
Back to the time machine again!
You can see Harriet’s web site here
http://www.hkjewellery.co.uk/ and you can email her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
And my page here about her