The Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker is a tiny, globular species of fish notable for an unusual suction cup on the underside of its body, used for sticking to surfaces like rocks. An ungainly swimmer with bulbous eyes, this comical-looking animal seems an unlikely subject for a piece of fine jewellery - and yet it has inspired a stunning 18 carat gold lapel pin that jewellery designer and Shine 2021 exhibitor, Clio Saskia, has come to count as among her favourite creations.
“I just felt that this creature was so amazing, so precious, that I had to make it into a piece of jewellery,” she explained in a recent interview with the Goldsmiths’ Centre.
Whilst many jewellers draw inspiration from the natural world, few are more devoted to capturing the characteristics and idiosyncrasies that makes each species unique than Clio. Her latest collection, Wild Things, continues this reverence for biodiversity, transforming species such as the Spotted Cat Snake, Common Five-lined Skink and Poison Arrow Frog into jewellery that is often akin to miniature, wearable sculptures in fairtrade, 18ct gold.
An interest in 3D forms has been a mainstay of Clio’s artistry since the very early days of her creative development, when she studied sculpture at Camberwell College of Arts: “At Camberwell, I mostly focused on concepts of status and beauty through Grecian sculptures, and applying contemporary ideals to them,” she said of this time.
Whilst wildlife and nature have since come to dominate her jewellery thematically, the ideas explored during her degree are still subtly present in her recent collections. “I was looking a lot at the reasons why people have worn jewellery throughout the ages, and what it reflects about their personalities and what they present to the world. That really continues within my work today. As does my love for animals, which has formed into this expression of character for people who wear my work.”
It was also during her time at Camberwell College that Clio was first introduced to the lost wax process, an ancient technique that lends itself to the creation of highly intricate forms. “During my second year, I figured out that I wanted to make replicas of some bigger pieces that I’d cast, and the course technician taught me how to do rubber mould making and the lost wax process. I instantly became obsessed with it.”
As her sculptures began to diminish in size over time, eventually reaching a jewellery-scale, Clio sought out training in traditional jewellery-making techniques, whilst privately researching and experimenting with wax carving. “Most of my wax carving is self taught. I just love sitting down and practicing - it makes me really happy. Whilst my goldsmithing skills are professionally-taught, my wax carving skills simply come from the fact that I love doing it.”
The fine attention to detail throughout Clio’s work - such as the gently mottled ring in Wild Things that recreates the texture of a Bearded Dragon’s skin - are often the result of a combination of hand-carving and casting in wax, and forging.
“The way I use techniques is specific, and I try to tailor them to the animal that I’m making. For example, the snake ear cuff that I’ve made is almost completely hand-forged, and I felt that was necessary to recreate that incredibly serpentine, smooth, flowing form. Wax didn’t feel like quite the right material for that. Another example is the Poison Arrow Frog pin - there was no way I could do that in metal, but wax completely lends itself to that sort of warty texture, and tiny, bubbly toes and eyes.”
To select and then recreate species of animals at such a high level of detail requires a considerable amount of research. Clio’s love of nature means this is seldom a chore, however - her recreational and creative pursuits are often one and the same. “I feel so lucky to have the excuse of doing research to scroll through Instagram to look at all these adorable, tiny creatures, or go to the zoo to photograph them, or out into the garden to video bees and butterflies. I also watch a lot of nature documentaries, and pour over natural history books with illustrations that show microscopic detail.”
Choosing which creatures to transform into jewellery is a more arduous process however, not only because of the vast variety of plant and animal species that are at the maker's disposal, but also simply because not all are suitable for crafting into wearable items; “there’s probably twice as many animals that I'd like to make, but I just haven't found the right way to place them on the body.”
Ultimately, the attribute that sets Clio’s work apart from the plethora of nature-inspired jewellery on the market is its devotion to capturing the true personality of each animal, rather than merely using these creatures, in an abstract way, to influence the design of a piece.
“I like to think - if this animal was real, where would it sit? How would it move? How would it interact with us? That's really been the inspiration for this collection, because I find that a lot of animal-inspired jewellery is still very concerned with gemstones and the precious materials, rather than truly celebrating the identity of the animals themselves.”
The result is precious metal animals that gleam with character and life, imbued with a sense of fun and mischief. In Wild Things, some take the form of dramatic, statement pieces, like the spectacular Seaweed Sway earrings, glittering with blue and green sapphires and long enough to brush the wearer’s chin, whilst others are more subdued, smaller pieces, suitable for everyday wear.
“To start with, all I wanted to do was make crazy big, huge, challenging, dramatic pieces, but realistically, for a collection, you need a variety of work, because not everyone is going to feel comfortable going to work wearing an enormous snake ear-climber for example. It's also been quite fun for me to learn how to apply my skills in a really delicate way, with these textured, elegant little pieces that I've managed to incorporate into the collection.”
Even Clio’s more ambitious and attention-grabbing creations emphasise comfort and wearability, however. A knuckle-duster ring, inspired by the secretive, mildly venomous Spotted Cat Snake, spans four fingers and gleams in a way that almost implies movement, yet it is surprisingly comfortable to wear.
“Everyone who wears it is taken aback at how comfortable it is. You probably don’t want to type in it at the office, but you can certainly hold a drink, eat your dinner, and go about your daily business wearing this knuckle duster, because, through trial and error, I have figured out the form that actually works with the hand.” Clio says of the ring, which also features natural ombré sapphires that glitter along the serpent’s back.
“I'm really passionate about the idea that people have to be able to wear these things. Rather than just have something sit on the hand uncomfortably, it has to become part of you and you have to really enjoy wearing it.”
Another of Clio's passions is ethical and sustainable business practices. Since trying her hand at sapphire mining in the years following her degree and seeing first-hand its impact on the environment, she has sought responsibly and ethically sourced materials for her work, utilising recycled, fairtrade gold and fairtrade gemstones.
“After completing my degree, I moved to Australia for six months and bought a sapphire mine in the gemfields in Queensland, because, well, why not! To buy a plot, you choose a little area that you think might be successful, and then wait for your license to come through. You’re allowed to mine that land, but must return the land to the way you found it - so it’s incredibly ethical. That’s part of why I’m passionate about working with suppliers, and gemstone dealers who care about the environment - because I've seen how much of an effect mining can have.”
Clio even relies on recycled materials for promotional and packaging materials, and is striving for carbon-neutral delivery for clients within the UK. Measures such as these are widespread among this year's line-up of Shine exhibitors, and illustrate that Clio's love of nature, which is so palpable in her work, is more than superficial; she strives to protect the very habitats that serve as her creative inspiration. It is yet another indicator of how this promising maker is bringing a fresh, striking and unorthodox approach to the age-old tradition of nature-inspired jewellery.