Plasticity is the title of the latest jewellery collection by Yorkshire-based jewellery designer, Deborah Beck, a condition described as the “the quality of being shaped or moulded”. For the environmentally-conscious Deborah, the daughter of a biologist, it is the many catastrophic ways that humans have shaped and moulded the planet that inspire this title, and that form the central theme of her work.
Throughout the collection, discarded plastic bottle caps, plucked from hills and riverbeds by the jeweller herself, are given a fate beyond merely cluttering the environment for centuries to come; they are melted down and transformed into elegant wearable sculptures, the sharp, clean lines reminiscent of that of human industry.
Can you tell me what first attracted you to a career as a maker and how you got started in the industry?
It was a bit of a strange entry into the industry - I had two previous careers. I worked in television for about eight years and then I retrained because I wanted a better life-work balance. I then became a personal trainer in the health and fitness industry, but I had quite a serious accident; a steep fall resulting in a smashed rib cage and a collapsed lung. For about three years, I was in rehab, and not in a very good place. I couldn’t go back to the career that I'd had as a trainer, not for a long time, anyway. So I started looking at positive ways to stimulate my brain.
In my previous careers, I’d not been able to explore creative outlets much, so I signed up for some painting, drawing and sketching classes, and then I saw a jewellery course advertised at the local adult education college. That's how I got started - by doing some terms. I've always enjoyed wearing jewellery and had an interest in it, but it wasn't something that I considered pursuing until the circumstances of my life changed.
Then, during evening classes at the college, I found that I absolutely loved it, and decided to follow up with a jewellery diploma course. I just felt a spark - the sense that this had the potential for something more serious than just a hobby. So that’s how it’s started. Each decade of my life has been different, and it might sound like a cliché, but it shows that life doesn't always follow one straight pathway. I’m hoping my jewellery career is here for good now though, because I love doing it. I don't really intend to change paths again, but I guess you never know what life will throw at you. Being a jeweller suits my lifestyle down to a Tee - I love the flexibility. I've got rescue dogs and rescue cats, and I love working at home and being with them.
Is there anything from your past careers that you can apply to your career as a jeweller?
It's certainly been useful in some respects. For my first career in television, I did a drama degree in Manchester. My dad’s parents were on the stage, and I had that interest initially, before I realised that it wasn’t for me and went behind the camera. I have been able to employ a little bit of what I learned from working in the TV industry to presenting myself on camera, for social media and sharing my story. In terms of my career in health and fitness, I get lots of my inspiration when I'm out and about in the countryside here, being active. I jog and walk my dogs for miles up and down all the hills, and my inspiration for collections is always the environment and environmental issues. It's also positive to have that outlet when you’re sitting on your backside all day, at the bench which is totally different to being very, very active in the health industry. It’s good to have that release and a mixture of the two.
You're very engaged with ethical and environmental issues - can you tell us a bit about how that interest started?
The environment is a big influence on my work as a maker, and some of that comes from my dad. As I mentioned, my grandparents were on the stage, and he was going to follow that career path, but then he became a biology teacher and a professor instead. Growing up with him, he taught me about ecosystems and the importance of protecting the environment and nature.
Then when I was at college, studying for my jewellery diploma, I did a lot of research into environmental issues, reading essays and books by Friends of the Earth, so that's when I began to develop that interest. In terms of making my practice more ethical, I’ve done a lot of research into how wastage can be kept to a minimum, and into using non-toxic processes, and so on.
Can you tell us a bit about the collection that you will be debuting at Shine?
The collection is called Plasticity, which is a combination of the words “plastic” and “cities”. I read one essay that had the two words next to each other; it spoke about how we human beings have impacted the planet over centuries, through agricultural methods, energy production, transportation networks, and nuclear testing; through our plastics and our cities. I’d been struggling with a way to approach such a vast topic, but seeing those two words together really struck me.
I looked up the definition of plasticity; how one object is transformed or deformed by the force of another, and it was a perfect way to describe what human beings have done to the planet to scar it. For the past year or so, I’d also been collecting plastic litter that I use in the collection - mostly single-use plastic bottles and bottle tops - so the title had a personal aspect, too.
What inspired you to incorporate single-use plastics into your pieces?
Initially, I'd read about fordites, which were created through old auto factories spraying cars, and the plastic in the paint solidifying after decades. When they pulled this substance out of the ground, it came out with these swirling patterns, and could be cut. You can actually buy fordite at gem shows, and I thought it would be perfect material to comment on what humans have done to the planet, but when I tried it out in some of my early test pieces, I didn’t like how it looked.
So I started doing more research into using recycled plastics. A few years ago, there wasn’t much information available about how to shred plastic or melt it down safely at home, but now there is a lot more out there, whole community groups devoted to it, even. So I thought I’d do some experimenting. Initially, the test pieces were quite poor, and I was thinking this is never gonna work, no one's ever going to want to wear this, it looks awful. Once I’d cut through some of the horrible, cruddy layers however, and started sanding the plastic down, you could see these lovely patterns emerging, and there was suddenly leeway to transform it into something someone might want to wear.
I walk my dogs twice a day, we go all over the place, down hills and along the river, and I incorporate what I find into my pieces, it’s usually different coloured bottled tops which I melt down. It's quite a lengthy process, and I tend to restrict myself in the colours I use, sticking to a particular colour palette so that the pieces don’t look too “busy”. In the start it was very unpredictable, and I had quite a few failures, but the more I practiced, the more I could achieve the result I was aiming for.
For example, if someone asks me to make a pair of earrings with certain colours really prominent, I’ve learned what quantities of plastic to use to achieve those results and how to mix it. I can go for an abstract result, with a kind of painterly effect, or someone might want swirling patterns, and those pieces often end up looking like little images of the Earth from space, which is ironic in a way. The two sides of the plastic can contrast too, and be very different. At the moment actually, I'm developing a new line for the collection, which has a revolving setting, allowing the wearer to choose which way they want to wear the piece. I’ve also been looking at using wax casting to make signet rings, with a small piece of plastic set inside.
What have you learned from creating this collection so far?
That it's unpredictable, but to stick at it when you think oh, this is going nowhere, this is a disaster. During early experiments with a little grill, I had a whole box of plastics, little charred bits, undulating and ugly looking, and I thought, this is never gonna work. It took trial and error to develop the work, and just as I’d be thinking it was hopeless, something nice would emerge. So my advice is to stick at it - it’s a process, and you have to trust that something positive will happen.
So how would you describe your design style overall?
I always go for clean lines and reasonably simple shapes, because I think you need to just let the plastic talk. I give it space. It's really important to see all the sides, so I don't want to encase it in a closed bezel, because why go to all the effort of developing all these beautiful layers, just to hide them? So, I always keep my settings as open as possible, and I think that helps give the work a cleaner look. This collection is all straight lines because it's based on shapes from human industry. In previous collections, like one which was inspired by mangrove forests, I've done a lot more curves and flowing shapes, but overall, I’d say my style is pretty abstract. Although I'm inspired by environmental issues and nature, I never go for literal representations. Overall, it’s quite an urban, sculptural and abstract style, which is hopefully also reasonably elegant.
By combining plastic with something more precious like silver, I aim to elevate it as a material. Although most of my pieces are everyday pieces, I still want them to have the air of fine jewellery, not something you just throw on.
Has this collection enabled you to explore any new techniques or materials that you haven't before?
Well, certainly, ways of working with plastic, it’s been a long, varied avenue to go down. I think there’s even a term for it now - plasti-smithing? However, I’ve also been trying to develop my silversmithing and precision skills in conjunction with working with plastic throughout this collection - this is a very big priority for me at the moment.
So what is your favourite thing about being a maker - is it the actual making, or is it having the final product in your hand and finding it a new home?
I guess it's everything. The lifestyle of being able to work when you want to. I've got my dogs and they're a really important part of my life, and being a maker enables me to work from home, which is a big improvement in terms of my work-life balance.
I also love sitting at my bench, and having to work through different problems. The most satisfying thing is when something emerges that you think really might go somewhere. I love all of it, from the designing and making, to doing a show and meeting people and having them respond to my work. Even if someone doesn’t like it, I still appreciate a strong, marmite reaction.
What kind of person do you think is attracted to your work?
I think people who like the story behind the pieces, the environmental aspect.
I had one lady buy a piece for her daughter who worked in an environmental department somewhere that had been doing a big project about plastic. She said she’d never seen anything like it, and it was so appropriate for her daughter. I think the pieces can play with people’s expectations - it’s quite a common thing for someone to think the material is agate or marble, and when you explain the story to them, they’re like, “oh wow”. They’re very surprised to learn that it’s plastic.
We’ve come to think of plastic as this scourge of mankind and of the planet, and in many ways, it is, but then it can be re-used for this purpose, and not even look like plastic anymore, and become quite beautiful, that’s quite a fascinating thing. People are a lot more open to wearing materials that aren't traditionally precious these days, as our culture becomes more environmentally aware.
Is there a particular piece in this collection that you would say is your favourite?
I really like the simple brooch, which was probably the first piece I made in this collection. It’s an abstract square, the sides aren't uniform, and it’s got a horizon symbol, which is my little style feature.
I also like my necklace, I wear it all the time; it's small and simple and every day, but people are always drawn to it, because it's asymmetric and it's got a burst of energy to it.
Someone bought on and they said they had it on the wrong way round, which was kind of a compliment - because even though they could see all the backplate and rivets, they still thought it was a nice necklace! That’s a bonus of the plastic - it's nice on all sides.
So what's next for you - what are your professional and creative goals for the next two years?
I'm looking at doing a collaboration with another maker. I'm particularly interested in working with artists who might explore environmental issues within their work. I have a friend who does sculpture and textile design centred around animals, so we have been discussing a route of collaborating where I create bases, and she creates animal sculptures for the bases. That really interests me - working with other makers who can inspire you to develop in different ways. In terms of jewellery, I'd love to do some shows, like the Goldsmiths’ Fair, or even a show in another country, which I’ve never done before.
Although I am planning to keep developing collections using plastic, I’m hoping to combine that with much more refined metal work, as pushing and developing my silversmithing skills is also a big priority for me right now. My next collection, which will be called R-evolve as it will include pieces with revolving parts, requires much more precision - silversmithing that is carefully measured and accurate. This is the main focus for my future work.