Jewellery designer and curator Katharina Kraus interview

Posted by Rae Gellel on

Our series of interviews highlighting Shine 2020 participants continues with Katharina Kraus, a Central Saint Martins’ graduate, jewellery designer and curator from Munich, Germany.

The movement and reflection of light on gemstones is a focal point of Katharina’s work, which has been exhibited internationally and won her a nomination for Young Jewellery Designer of the Year at the 2020 UK Jewellery Awards.

Can you tell me a bit about how you got started in the industry?

I was always a very creative, crafty child, and looking back on it now, my career path seems inevitable - I was making jewellery when I was six or seven years old. Later, when it came time to do my first internship, I convinced my family that I didn’t want to do a classic internship at a bank or a hairdresser, instead I wanted to do it at a jeweller’s. So, I knew fairly early on that I wanted to try jewellery making, and we persuaded a jeweller in Munich to take me on for a week’s internship. I made three pieces during that week, all very basic – one of them was a flower pendant, and another was a chunky silver ring with lapis lazuli on it.

From then onwards, I knew that this was something that I really wanted to pursue. It was a bit of a difficult time for me, because everybody else at school was choosing a straightforward career path, and I was the only one who was like nope, it has to be something creative. Looking back on it though, I’m really glad I stuck with it, I had what felt like to me, a very classic and traditional journey.

After I graduated from school, I immediately went into a three-year apprenticeship, and after I graduated from that, I started working for different jewellery galleries here in Munich before moving to London. There I worked for Julia Gallery in Notting Hill before moving to Oxford. A few years later, I came home, and spent several years working for different companies at the bench, before taking some time out to return to education. I undertook training as a Master craftsman at the Meisterschule in Munich, doing a really intensive, one-year course to hone my technical skills. It wasn’t so much about creativity but getting all the technicalities right, and I’m now very good at making hinges and fiddly clasps and making everything at a perfect right angle.

Whilst I loved the making in general, I missed the creativity. It was difficult to think about a piece creatively when I was so focused on questions like how can I change the design so that this piece is easier to make, or how can I make this piece so that it’s lighter, using less material. That was one of the reasons that I decided to apply for Central St. Martins, to add design skills on top of my making skills, and that was a really eye-opening time for me.

I look back on those years, and whilst they were difficult, they were also fantastic, as they completely took me outside of my maker box and put me in the designer box. It really expanded my mind and made me so much more creative and structured in my creativity. Now I’m coming back to blending those aspects together, and I really think that both sides enhance each other. So I love making a piece, but I also love designing it, and I love the interplay between the two of those - that’s the journey.

What can you tell us about the collection you'll be debuting at Shine?

The collection I'll be showing at Shine is called Solasta, which is a Scottish word for early morning twilight, and it explores the different colours of the sky and how the light shifts, but it's also an exploration of how light is reflected in gemstones, and how when you wear a piece, it can create light reflective effects.

It’s my second collection and I would say, a continuation of the work I did for my graduate collection. It expands on the theme of how you can cut and shape a stone, and how that will influence the way it reflects the light. I’m particularly interested in working with light reflection because for me, that’s what gives the stone its character, its fire, it’s what draws your eye to the wearer. It’s not just the colour of the gemstone, but how it catches the light and how it’s reflected when you move - it’s lovely.

When I’m making a piece, I try to be very structured. I always start with the design process, and I usually have an idea of where I want to go with a piece. I usually work with mood boards before I even start designing, creating a board to kind of capture the ideas and shapes and colours that I want to work with, and to get all my ideas down on paper. That helps to add a bit of focus, and from there I start slowly sourcing stones to match my chosen colour scheme. Once I have that, it depends; sometimes the stone tells me immediately whether it wants to be a ring or an earring, but sometimes I have a piece in mind that has a few different shapes in it, and then I would have that stone cut to specifically fit my designs. I work with a gemstone carver in Idar-Oberstein, which is the gemstone hub here in Germany. She cuts the stones by hand to my specifications.

Usually, once I have an idea of where I want the stone to go, I go into the workshop and make a handful of models. If I have the stone already, I’ll base my model on the stone, or if I have an idea for a piece, I’ll base the stone on the piece instead, by making wax models of the stone shapes to get a feel for proportion and size. So the process really depends. A lot happens for me between the phases of designing, sourcing the stone, and model making.

What does being chosen for Shine 2020 mean to you - both on a professional level and a personal level?

Honestly, I'm beside myself with the excitement to have been chosen for Shine this year, because I’ve been following the Goldsmiths’ Centre for quite a while, and you guys have a fantastic hand in selecting people. I’ve seen the participants from past Shine exhibitions, and there were some really fantastic makers among them, so for me, personally, it’s amazing to be selected. This year has been so turbulent for everyone, so this really is a highlight at a time where we’re all a bit uncertain where we’re going and what we’re doing, and what the next year, or next few years even, might look like. So for me, it’s been a fantastic project to focus my creativity and energy on.

I think most creative people like to work from project to project, I know that I always need a project on the horizon to keep my energy up, and this came at just the right moment. It also feels really nice to be in a group of so many talented people, honestly, I look around at all the other makers, and I’m like wow, somebody thought that I was a good fit for this group! While we makers do get a lot of compliments when we show pieces at exhibitions, I think jewellery making can sometimes be quite a lonely profession because you’re always working on your own, so it’s really nice to get together with a group again and share resources and ideas.

I love talking to other makers and connecting and networking, finding out how they’re dealing with the current situation, what their practice is like and how they run their business. It’s really motivating, it gives you a push because when you see how other people are doing it, you realise that you can do it too. On a professional level, it’s fantastic to be able to exhibit in such a renowned space and connect with clients who appreciate craft and hand-making, who are used to seeing a very high-level of maker and of jewellery, craftsmanship and design.

I’m also actually really glad I got chosen for Shine this year, even though I also applied last year. While I love my graduate collection and all the things it did for me and all the things I learned from creating it, I’m much happier with the pieces that I am presenting in my latest collection. The price range is much broader and there is more colour, and whilst it might not be as extravagant as my first collection, it feels a lot more wearable.

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

I have learned that planning is key, it is so, so important, and it's really difficult sometimes to plan something because creativity can take you on tangents that you don’t expect. You need to have a plan, but on the other hand, you need to leave a bit of room for creativity to strike and serendipity to happen, and I find that balance really difficult, particularly as the collection grows.

In the beginning, I feel very free in designing the first three to four pieces, and those are often my highlight pieces that kind of encapsulate the essence of the collection. I usually start with rings and earrings, but then trying to break those down into necklaces, or trying to hit different price points gets more difficult, because it’s adding more pieces to the puzzle. I have to really restrict myself from going off on tangents to make pieces, because for instance, I might already have used a stone of the same colour in the collection, or I might already have too many earrings. This collection is very earring heavy, every time I design a new piece, it’s earrings! So I have to be strict with myself and say no, we need more rings in this colour or at this price point. It can be difficult for me to see where the gaps are in a collection, sometimes you can’t identify the gaps until weeks later when you’re able to take a step back from the work.

What do you enjoy most about being a maker - for example, is the joy in the making itself, or in sharing the finished pieces with the world?

I love so many aspects about being a maker. The first aspect is that I get to meet people at their happy moments in life, my pieces get to be part of their weddings, engagements, births, gifts and graduations. Knowing that my work will live with somebody and will have a happy memory attached to it is very gratifying. Another thing I also really like about making is that you can physically see your day’s work. You can really see if you’ve had a productive day, if you’ve been at a work event or had a tough day, because your personal state of mind is translated into your piece.

For me, that is really satisfying, because you go home at the end of the day and you’ve made something that might, at some point, add meaning to someone’s life, that if all goes well, will be part of their life for many years to come. We’re creating products, but they're products that are fairly sustainable, that have a really long lifespan, so they’re not just a commodity. That’s one of the reasons that I make fine jewellery, to create pieces that last a lifetime. Sometimes when I’m doing an admin day and I spend all day emailing and creating word documents and excel sheets, it doesn’t feel like I’ve done any real work, all the work feels kind of fleeting, but when I come back from the workshop, I have something tangible to show for it.

What kind of person do you think would be attracted to your collection?

I have been so surprised by the people that buy my work, I’m surprised actually every time. It's been young people who are treating themselves to their first big purchase because they've just had a promotion, but I've also had people who've been collecting jewellery for years, and they've just come across me. So I find it really difficult to actually say who my clients are, because I've had clients from all ages and all groups; I've had boyfriends buying for girlfriends, husbands buying for wives and daughters buying for mothers. Honestly, what I love is when people who buy for somebody else bring the person by at some point.

I had a very lovely client a few years ago who was looking for an engagement ring and it was a very long process because he was so unsure of what he wanted. He came back I think three times, he looked at so many models and we had hours of discussions about his girlfriend, who she was, what her style was and at some point, I felt like I knew her because we'd been talking about her for hours. Finally, I made a ring for him and he went and proposed to her with that ring, and he came back two days after, and she’d said yes! It was so fantastic to meet her, because she was this magical woman in this man's life. I felt super connected to her because at that point, he had been talking about her for hours, and it meant I also knew him as well. They even brought their dogs to meet me. It was so nice!

What are you most looking forward to about participating in Shine 2020?

I love the webinars! To be honest, the opportunity to learn and to learn so specifically towards the very tiny niche that we're all occupying is amazing, that knowledge is so valuable because it is so specific to us as makers. For me, when I was selected, I knew that there was going to be some education aspect to the programme, and I thought that was great, because the older you get and the more you work, the less opportunities you have for education, and education always sparks my imagination.

So what’s next for you, what are your creative and career goals for the next two years?

This is actually a really interesting question, because I'm in the middle of restructuring my practice. Due to the current situation, I really took the time to look at what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, and to be honest, I'm still in the middle of evaluating where I want to go and if the plan that I had in place is actually worth pursuing in the current climate, and what other options I can explore. Having said that, I do have a project in the pipeline, I'll be creating an exhibition for New York Jewellery Week, which is coming up in November, and it will be about jewellery and sense of place, and how that has become suddenly important in our international, globe-trotting world; where you are, where your home is, where your loved ones are, and how that filters into inspiration.

I also have a podcast in the works with a few friends of mine that will be about designing and craftsmanship, focused on jewellery but also touching on other creative fields. That will hopefully launch in October/November. Finally I hopefully have a new collection coming, either in the beginning or middle of next year. 

The plan pre-COVID, which has been turned on its head, was to create a collection, create more stock, and maybe find a stockist or two, but my feeling now is that that’s going to be very difficult this year. Everyone I’ve spoken to has a very inward-looking perspective right now, similar to what we’re all doing, looking at our own businesses and how we run them.

Does curating other people's work have an influence on your own creative practice?

I'm a project person, I really, really love projects. For me, it's been about looking at what aspects of the field I really like and moving towards those. I love working with other artists, I love championing other artists’ work. I find it much easier bragging about other artists than I find it to talk about myself, and creating platforms for people to show their work where it's not necessarily about me, but it's more about creating a framework so that people and pieces can come together to kind of create a bigger story. I'm really looking forward to expanding on those aspects, even if they're not quite as concrete as making a piece.

Again, it's about connecting with people, I really think that's super important because otherwise, you're just stuck on your own and where does creativity come from if you're not having that talk with somebody else about their ideas and their inspirations, as that always feeds back into my work as well. So the answer is yes and no.

Looking at other people’s work is really helpful for me, seeing where they are, what techniques and themes and inspiration is behind it, it enables me to take a step back and look at my own body of work. Sometimes, my own work is so close and linked to me, I can’t separate myself or let go, so I’m trying to get better at storytelling. When another artist is good at storytelling, it really helps me to connect to their work much more during the exhibitions that I’ve run, so I’m trying to work on my writing and improving how I explain my pieces, but it’s a work in progress.

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