A contemporary exploration of ancient design and jewellery with Cameron and Breen

Posted by Rae Gellel on

For Martin Cameron and Laura Breen, two halves of the Northern Irish jewellery-making duo Cameron and Breen, inspiration lies in ancient relics, castle ruins and stone carvings - representations of their country's richly complex history and culture.

To create modern treasures, the pair pass pieces back and forth between their benches, each time impressing the jewellery with an aspect of themselves, their signature techniques and style. Laura hand carves in wax, whilst Martin sets glittering emeralds and fiery garnets which glow against yellow gold.

Cameron and Breen

The work is further distinguished by hand engraved spiral patterns, reminiscent of those adorning ancient castle walls, and by the use of rock crystals, serving as windows through which curious scenes can be viewed.

Hello Martin and Laura. So, what attracted you to careers as makers? And how did you come together to work as the collective Cameron and Breen?

Martin: I started out by studying Jewellery and Silversmithing at Belfast School of Art, and I always had a really keen interest in silversmithing. That’s also where I started making more sculptural work. Then I moved on to doing my Masters, also at Belfast School of Art. After the Masters, I wanted to change in scale and also material. I felt the allure of gold and gemstones and made that transition into jewellery.

Cameron and Breen

I worked for another goldsmith, before subsequently setting up my own business. It was two years after that, in 2000, that I established Cameron and Breen with Laura. Our work started out quite organic and very inspired by the landscape, but over time, it changed and became more about culture and what was within the landscape, and that was really the beginning of our collection.

Laura: I've always had an interest in art and design, even as a child, and that was something I continued to hold onto throughout my studies. I went to Belfast School of Art, and Martin was on the same jewellery and silversmithing course as me. I'd never worked in metal before, so this was really exciting. The possibilities offered by a sheet of metal, the idea that it could be created into anything, something very fluid even, or that something very organic could come from such a rigid material, I found compelling. After university, I took some time out and went travelling for two years.

During that time, I realised that I really missed making. So, I came back to Northern Ireland and got talking to Martin, and that's when Cameron and Breen started. I brought back my interest in different cultures and different ways of life, and I suppose that then sparked an interest in our own history, our own culture and our own country.

Could you give us a little insight into how you work together?

Laura: The design stage for us is probably very unique! We’ll often start by looking at a history book, or visiting a museum - just something to generate that initial spark of imagination. The process could also begin with a particular gemstone that has a unique quality, like a bright colour or a different cut, and we use that as a basis to start drawing.

Sometimes we work together in our sketch books, sometimes we work apart, it depends. Our drawings will be very basic at first, and then we begin to work in wax, which is my part of Cameron and Breen. I'll make the pieces come to life, making them three dimensional. I'll then pass the piece to Martin who will create the settings for the gemstones. Next, the piece comes back to me, and I do a lot of the hand engraving or adding pattern or texture. Then the piece goes to cast and once it comes back from casting, Martin sets the stone in metal.

Cameron and Breen

So, each piece starts as something that we've thought of together, and it goes back and forth between each of our benches multiple times before that piece is finished. I think each piece is probably a fifty-fifty collaboration, part of both of us. It's got both of our signatures and both of our techniques really embedded into it.

Can you tell us a bit about the collection you’ll be debuting at Shine 2022?

Martin: The collection that we’ll be showing is the cumulative result of years’ worth of design, research and development of our own style and our inspirations. Across the Adorn collection, there's a lot of engraved elements, and those are directly inspired by stone carvings across the Irish landscape, and a lot of heritage sites. We literally have castle ruins on our doorstep, which is a huge source of inspiration. The gold spiral which is quite iconic in our work draws from stone carvings and also from Bronze Age goldwork. We've visited museums all across the world. So that theme of ancient relics, cultures and heritage is found throughout the collection.

Cameron and Breen

Laura: The most prominent gemstone that we use in the collection is the rock crystal, and we discovered this when we visited the National Museum of Ireland. There is a large cross called the Cross of Cong. It's a very ornate silver piece from the 12th century, and what's really interesting about it is that in the centre, there is a large rock crystal cabochon, and behind that, it’s said to hold a piece of the True Cross.

Once we’d seen that in person, it opened a whole new conversation for us as to what we can put behind a rock crystal, so that it’s like a looking glass into our culture and history, it’s telling a story. That's an element of a lot of our pieces, for example the Tide Necklace and the Protector Brooch have engravings behind the rock crystal, or our Bronze Age swirl. It adds another three-dimensional aspect to our pieces.

Cameron and Breen

What have you learned through the process of creating this collection?

Martin: I think because the collection and our style has taken so long to develop, the most significant thing we've learned through the process of making a collection is really the importance of patience in the design process and also being open to the organic development that happens. So, we'll make something with an initial idea, but it'll change, and we've learned to embrace that and go with that natural flow of development. I think, if we hadn't done that, if instead we had forced a lot of designs, or stayed adamant that a lot of pieces were to be made in a particular way, we wouldn't have the kind of cohesive collection that we have for Shine.

Cameron and Breen

Laura: I think have that we have fun with it as well! We try to let the materials take on a personality of their own. As we're working with them, we don't necessarily have a set idea or a set design in mind. When we start it’s something quite vague, and then whilst a piece is being passed back and forth between us, we add our own signature to it. I think that's probably something we've discovered. Every day we're learning something new by talking to each other, and by compromising on certain things. We're always really happy with the end result.

How would you describe your design style?

Martin: I think our style is probably quite different to a lot of makers through our process. Everything starts with a conversation. Because there's elements of both of us in the work, our inspirations and our style are varied. We have the sense of ancient jewellery and ancient cultures, but then equally, a contemporary, curious and fun element in there as well, especially with the rock crystal pieces, like our Protector Brooch that has a face behind the rock. Our work has a whimsical element, but at the same time, it has that ancient connection. Our design style is a collaboration of two quite different things, to form one concept.

In the process of developing your collection have you been able to explore any new techniques or materials?

Martin: Probably the most recognisable signatures throughout the collection is the gold spiral, which is inspired by the Bronze Age spirals in the British Museum. In developing that design feature, a lot of experimentation happened, because we wanted to add that ancient raw look to the work, but also make it feel contemporary, so it had to have a fluidity to it. We wanted the spiral to be very tight, and you can see that within the Shield Earrings and the Tide Necklace.

First, we tried engraving the spiral, and we thought about making it in wire, but again, just through the development process, we found the best way of doing it was in a soft wax. So, we make each one of those by hand. They're sculpted out of soft wax rather than carved, with every piece being quite unique. There are techniques and processes that we have to develop specifically for that one piece, but that spiral is probably one of the most prominent elements across the whole collection.

Cameron and Breen

What do you most enjoy about being a designer maker?

Laura: For me, it's the joy of actually making and having fun with the wax. I didn't learn wax carving at university. That was something I self-taught after university. I like experimenting with the wax, playing, carving, sculpting and melting. There's so many different possibilities and different routes you can go down. It’s challenging myself with a material that you can do anything with that I find most enjoyable. When the wax gets cast and made into jewellery, and you see it on the body, that’s obviously really exciting, but for me, it’s starting with that initial blob of wax and creating something really interesting with it that I love the most.

Cameron and Breen

Cameron and Breen

Martin: I'm someone that gets a lot of satisfaction out of the finished product. I enjoy seeing things go from the initial idea stage to the design stage, and then being able to hold it in my hands. It’s such a long process, and I enjoy then sharing that finished piece with everyone, especially people who follow our work. Photography has also become a big thing for me, and it's important for us to photograph that work in a particular way that helps tell its story. Also, recently we have had clients request custom pieces or one-of-a-king pieces in a Cameron and Breen style. It’s always gratifying to see people who trust what you do, and want you to make them something that is completely unique to them.

What kind of person do you think is most attracted to your collection, and to your design style in general – do you have an ideal client in mind?

Martin: We find the people who buy our work are completely varied. We get clients of all ages. Most commonly, however, I think people who are drawn to our work have a creative background. They care about pieces that are handmade, they care about pieces that have a skill behind them.

Laura: Our customer base is a mix of men and women. More and more men are coming to us wanting a piece that's unique to them. They are showing a real interest in highly decorative pieces, that are either covered in engravings or are covered in gemstones. It's really exciting for us to make gemstone pieces for men.

Do you each have a favourite piece from the collection that you're presenting?

Martin: I think my favourite piece is probably our Boudicca Earrings, or our Horde Ring. The earrings because they really sum up the type of jewellery that I always envisioned myself making years ago. They are emeralds set in yellow gold, but also I really like the title Boudicca, it tells the story of what they are, along with the materials used. Obviously, historically, emeralds maybe aren't Irish, but it has that kind of connection to it. It’s the same with the Horde Ring, it has the iconic Bronze Age dress fastener shape, and then the name Horde as well is very evocative. For me, that’s a sign of a successful piece of jewellery when it tells a story about what we were thinking about when we made it.

Laura: My favourite piece is the Regalia Earrings. They're the largest earrings we have created so far, and they're my favourite because they have been in the making for a long time. I initially sketched them quite some time ago. I had a vision in my mind for what I wanted them to look like. We both played about with different gemstones to get there, and different colour combinations. We decided on the blue topaz and the yellow citrine, and I think they're a lovely contrast. Due to them being such a big earring, it was going to be expensive to get them cast in gold, but I didn't want to compromise and get them cast in silver, as I think they really needed to be gold to glow around the face. So, we did have to save up for quite some time, and they were put to the side for a while. Once they came back cast in gold, we knew we'd made the right decision and set the stones. They were worth the wait!

What are your future professional and creative goals?

Martin: After Shine, now that we have a cohesive collection, we want to really start pushing our work beyond Northern Ireland, so we will be doing the selling fair Elements in Edinburgh and we're hoping that's going to kickstart our journey into attending fairs in the UK and maybe Europe as well. We really want that to be quite a big side of what we do. Our research will also be ongoing as well, we will continue developing the work and finding new sources of inspiration.

Cameron and Breen

Laura: I think we're going to play with scale a bit more and work on bigger pieces. That’s probably why the Regalia Earrings are my favourite as well - they're big and bold. We hope to play with that more, and also experiment with other materials and casting materials, not just gold and silver, but bronze as well. I want to look beyond just carving the wax and engraving the wax and having this piece of engraved metal at the end. I want to look into using the rock crystal as a base for engraving, and engraving designs into the gemstones that we use.

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