Emma Wilson on Capturing the Coast in Vitreous Enamel

Posted by Rae Gellel on

Coastal Echoes is silversmith and jeweller Emma Wilson’s heartfelt ode to Aberdeen beach, a collection that draws not upon postcard-like scenes of yellow sands and azure oceans, but rather the Scottish coastline in all its raw, unbridled beauty, with roaring seas set upon by lashing rain and ominous grey clouds. ‘’A sunny day with a blue sky and a blue sea is beautiful, but it’s also boring”, Emma explains. 

Using gently blended vitreous enamel in greys, blues and greens lifted directly from the Scottish landscape, Emma creates miniature water-colour paintings in the form of brooches, rings and hand-raised bowls. Her simple but skilfully realised work, underpinned by a deep passion for her subject matter, has earned Emma a place at Shine 2023, the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s annual showcase for new talent.

What first attracted you to a career as a maker, and how did you get started in the industry?

I always wanted to be creative. Even as a child, I was always drawing or making something. I remember deciding when I was about seven years old that I was going to go to art school. There's never been anything else. I also think we were really lucky at school, when we were in primary seven, we got to do an enamelling workshop with one of the art teachers, and make a little copper piece which had enamel on it, and at that point, I just fell in love with enamel. So I knew that when I eventually got to art school, that’s what I wanted to do. I really wanted to get back to that material. My grandma also worked in a jewellery shop, and I think that was a bit of an influence growing up, too.

I went to Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen and studied 3D Design. I graduated in ‘95, and then I moved to Birmingham for a years’ business training course in jewellery, and then had a studio until about 1999. Then I had my son and my daughter, so at that point I decided to go and be a mum for a while. When the kids were growing up, I did other creative stuff at home, like making sketchbooks and notebooks and stationery. I got back to jewellery and silversmithing five years ago when I was in Glasgow, before moving back to Aberdeen. So I'm now based in my studio here in Aberdeen.

Can you tell us a bit about the collection you’ll be debuting at Shine 2023?

So the collection I’ll be debuting is called Coastal Echoes, and it's based on my love for the beach and the coast, and just everything that you feel when you're walking along the shoreline, the atmosphere, the smells, the textures and the colours. Now that I live back in Aberdeen, I’m lucky enough to be close to the beach, and drive alongside it on my route to the studio. I’ll often stop for a walk and to take photographs, which I’ll then work from back at the studio. So it’s a very personal collection. I lived in Glasgow for fifteen years, and I really missed being by the coast and sea. It’s so lovely to have that inspiration on my doorstep again. 

What does your design process look like?

I’ll print the photographs that I took whilst I was at the beach when I go back to the studio, and I'll do lots of watercolour sketches from them. These will be quite abstract sketches, they're not trying to be a strong representation - it’s about trying to capture a bit of the atmosphere. If I took a photograph of a particularly stormy cloud for example or the colour of the sea, then I'm trying to just capture the essence of that, a feeling, then that will then feed into the enamel work in particular, the watercolours.

Aberdeen beach is inspiring to me because it's different every day, and also quite often, it's wild. It’s much more interesting when there’s a lot of clouds in the sky - a sunny day with a blue sky and a blue sea is beautiful, but it’s also boring. I’m definitely more inspired by lots of big grey clouds with different shades of colour in them, and rolling waves and dark greens and turbulence. The colour palette for this collection is mostly greens, greys and blues, because those are the colours I’d pull from the beach, though there is also a brighter green, that flash of colour that comes from the sun shining.

What have you learned from the process of planning and creating your collection?

This collection took quite a long time. I think it’s because I did so much development work first, a lot of sketchbook work, pulling together different ideas and trying to work out what it was that I wanted to pull from the source material and what I wanted to say. The sketchbook work developed into making copper and enamel samples, and then I cut out lots of pebble-like shapes in copper. I did lots of testing, as just because something works in watercolour, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in enamel, the colours are always a little bit different, and they don’t always work together chemically. I used a lot of colours to begin with, so I needed to pare it back a bit and simplify it so that it wasn’t too busy.

Most of the pieces only have two or three colours on them maximum, as I think simple is more beautiful. So testing, sampling and practicing was an important part of the process, it helped me to see where I wanted to take my work next. I learned that I needed to trust my initial instincts, because often I’d find I was over-questioning decisions and whether or not something worked.

How would you describe your design style?

I think of my design style as quite painterly and abstract when it comes to the enamel work at least. I hope the rest of the work isn’t over-designed. I'm always wary of making things that are too fussy because I want the enamel to be the focus. So for the set pieces, in particular in this collection, the settings themselves are very, very simple. Simple but quite chunky bezel settings which act as a frame for the enamel piece, because I want the enamel to be like a mini work of art that you can wear, so I try to keep everything else quite minimal and simple. Obviously, I also have to think about how the enamel piece is going to work technically and mechanically within it, so that's always a consideration. So painterly but minimalist is my style.

Has your new collection enabled you to explore new techniques and materials?

Nothing massively new to me, but I think I developed what I had already been doing. So I’ve developed my raising skills, rather than just raising bowls, I've also started raising brooches. Raising on a slightly smaller piece was new, so that's definitely an ongoing process and something that I want to develop more. I haven't done anything particularly new with the enamel, other than developing the painterly style that I was already starting to work on, so I’ve definitely improved that as I'm going along, and will hopefully continue to improve that.

Do you have a favourite piece in the collection?

That's quite difficult to choose. If I had to choose one, it would be the Rain Brooch, which is the biggest set piece and as its title describes, it hopefully evokes rain. It has beautiful blended enamel in it, blues and greys, with some silver inlay that captures the light.

What do you enjoy most about being a maker?

I think I enjoy the making the most, especially the enamelling. My happy place is just sitting laying the enamelling on, that's definitely the most relaxing part of it, it’s enjoyable, it doesn't feel like work, and experimenting with samples is always fun.

So who do you imagine would be drawn to your collection - do you have kind of an idea of your ideal client in mind?

I think it definitely appeals to people who like colour, and to people who like art, because I’d like to think of my work as little pieces of art that you can either hold or wear. People who like enamel will certainly be drawn to it, but I’d also like to convert some new clients into enamel lovers, because it’s such a beautiful material and it’s nice to use it in a contemporary way for the customer. 

What’s next - what are your professional and creative goals for the next two years?

In the next couple of years, I'd really like to develop this collection further. There are a lot of ideas that have come out of making this collection that I can take forward. I'm also learning some new skills at the moment, which I hope to include in work in the future, like engraving. I’ll be able to use transparent enamel over the engraving, which I think will be quite interesting and different to what I've done before. Professionally, I would hope to do bigger shows like Goldsmiths’ Fair or get into some galleries.

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