East London based artist and jeweller, Emily Frances Barrett, is creating curiously unique jewellery from natural and found objects.
Following a degree in Illustration at Brighton University and moving to London to work as a model maker, Emily completed an MA in Fashion Communication and Promotion at Central Saint Martins where she fully realised her interest in jewellery. The self-taught jeweller is currently an artist in residence at Sarabande, The Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation.
Emily’s work rejoices in the beauty of decay and explores the uniqueness of how man-made objects and organic materials can oppose one another but both offer such intrigue. From cigarette butts, clay pipes and river worn glass, to flowers, shells and butterfly wings, every one of her pieces is refined whilst celebrating imperfection.
Adopting the role of a scavenger, Emily is embracing the creation of her truly one-off and remarkable work.
Solly Warner caught up with Emily to chat about some of her earliest jewellery making memories, how her obsession with nature started and why sustainability is an important part of her business.
How long have you been making jewellery for? When did it all start?
I’ve been making jewellery since I was as I child. I was obsessed with collecting beads, buttons and shells and making these into jewellery, it’s something I’ve always done instinctively. Much later after many twists and turns in my creative career path, I ended up writing about Jewellery for my dissertation on my MA where I had a bit of an ‘Ah Hah’ moment when I realized Jewellery was something I really wanted to pursue further. A good friend of mine is a jeweller and let me use a bench in his workshop when I finished work each day, over the course of about 8 months I started to teach myself the basics of silversmithing. I didn’t really start designing and expressing myself through Jewellery until I got a studio of my own at Sarabande 2 years ago.
Can you remember the first piece of jewellery you ever made? Do you still have it?
The first piece I made in Silver was a really heavy bangle I made for my brothers 21st Birthday present when I was 15. I did an evening course in my home town of Lewes in East Sussex, and I remember thinking how magic the whole process of working with metal was. My brother still wears it every day and although it was a long time before I really came to work with precious metals again, it must have been when the seed for my love of working in precious metals was sewn.
You’ve collaborated with designers such as David Koma and Jordan Luca for their Spring/Summer 2020 collections. Are there any particular designers you’ve always dreamed of working with?
I can’t say I’ve ever dreamt of working with any one designer and many of those whom inspire me are dead which is a bit of a hitch! But someone with a real vision like Vivienne Westward or Junya Watanabe would be incredible to work with. In future it would be great to take my work into other contexts outside of fashion and have an opportunity to work in different mediums. I would love to collaborate brands, artists and designers to create home wears, furniture and other functional or decorative objects.
So, you also worked for the art duo, Jake and Dinos Chapman for a few years. What was that experience like and how was it helped you progress?
Working with Jake and Dinos was always great fun. I moved to London specifically for that job and knew no one when I arrived, so the studio really became like my friends and family for a few years. Alongside painting tiny Nazi’s most days, I was surrounded with some of the funniest people I’ve ever met, with the most bonkers yet brilliant minds. We definitely had some crazy conversations, I miss those. I can’t say precisely how it’s helped my progress but the experience certainly opened my mind as well as some doors I’m sure.
Have you always had an interest in nature? Where has this obsession been sparked from?
As a kid I spend most my time outdoors, I had millions of pets from giant African land snails, baby tortoises, stick insects, rats, polecats and chickens. I’ve always at peace in nature and endlessly inspired by the natural world, its pure fantasy! Sometimes I can’t believe some of these things exist so it’s always been a source of inspiration for me.
Can we ask how you source your butterfly wings? We’re assuming you’re not running around fields chasing after them?
I source them from a great UK based company that sustainably acquire their specimens from various countries across the globe. They source and therefore support third world countries who rear insects and sustainably harvest to help support local communities.
What are some of the benefits of working with items that you find in nature or just out on the street?
Searching for and finding things yourself is always more rewarding than buying something off the shelf or at the click of a button, I love the thrill of the hunt! Nothing is guaranteed as you can never know what you’re going to find, it’s far more exciting to source things in this way. No one find is ever the same either, that’s the real beauty of organic and found objects, they’re totally unique and one off by definition.
You use a centuries old process called mudlarking when creating your jewellery. Can you tell us when you first discovered this process and how does it work?
Mudlarking is the process of scavenging on the river’s foreshore to find items of value. In the late 18th and 19th century it used to be something that poor or unskilled people did in order to make ends meet, they’d look for anything that could be sold to make money. I read about it somewhere and thought it was a great word and sounded exactly like my kind of fun, so I went down to the foreshore with a friend one day and I instantly got the bug! We were there for hours, I found so many beautiful old things. When I got home I cleaned the mud off all my finds and put them in an old display case, where they stayed for a good year or so before I did anything with them.
Jorja Smith has recently worn some of your pieces for a magazine shoot. What was your reaction to this?
Jorja has such a raw talent, so of course it’s a real pleasure when someone you respect wears you’re pieces and looks amazing in them!
You have some products on Aspect Online that are made to order. Why is reducing waste and promoting sustainability important to you?
I’d like to think I have a conscientious as I care about the impact of my actions, so it makes sense to try my best to be create a substantial business from the beginning. At this point I’m still a small business and I can’t afford to have money tied up in loads of stock or have unsold stock returned to me after the season, therefore the ‘Made to Order’ model is a lot more practical in terms of cash flow as well as in not aiding the unnecessary creation of products that become a waste of time and resources. If this past year is anything to go by it seems customers are becoming more conscious in how they shop. Those who choose to buy from small businesses and makers understand that we are not Amazon Prime, the making process takes time and requires a level of patience from both the producer and consumer.
INTERVIEW BY SOLLY WARNER