The birth of a child, followed by the first of many Covid-19 lockdowns in the UK, proved to be a time of creative renaissance for Stroud-based jewellery designer, Heidi Hockenjos. After studying wood, metals, ceramics and plastics at Brighton University and completing a HND pre-apprenticeship course in London, Heidi quickly advanced into an apprenticeship with a master Goldsmith, before falling into a successful career in Hatton Garden, the heart of the jewellery industry.
For fifteen years Heidi worked as a manufacturer and designer for leading brands such as Sia Taylor and Polly Wales, accumulating a wealth of industry knowledge and a passion for rapidly dwindling traditional craft skills in particular.
It was not until everyday life ground to a halt in 2021 however, that Heidi, now settled in Gloucestershire, finally found an opportunity to explore her own personal style and inclinations as an artist. “I had a baby, and Covid-19 followed straight after that - it gave me the time and space out of designing and manufacturing for other people to start to develop my own work.”
This period of introspection culminated in Heidi’s first independent jewellery collection, Unearthed, which was selected for exhibition at Shine 2021, the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s annual celebration of new and promising talent.
Unearthed features pieces that are luxurious yet understated, with the beautiful raw qualities, colours and textures of the materials allowed to take centre stage. Made using recycled gold and juxtaposing precious and semi-precious stones cut into gentle, natural-looking shapes by Heidi herself, Unearthed’s overall aesthetic is evocative of ancient heirlooms or artefacts - it has a timeless feel, the sense of being from a different, albeit indeterminable era.
“My design style has got a really pared back opulence about it, it's very refined and delicate. I try to take away everything superfluous. So, I make all of the findings as small, unobtrusive and delicate as possible, and seek to bring together different elements like the texture of the gold, the colour of the stones and the different colour combinations. I bring out those colours and textures, and make the piece as impactful as possible, by scaling back my own designs. Each piece is like a small sculpture, and every element is carefully considered - I think about how all the details contribute to the whole piece.”
Unearthed is also a body of work irrevocably tied to a period of great personal and artistic transformation for its creator, and this is reflected in the title, which references Heidi’s unearthing of her own creative voice whilst developing the collection.
“The name Unearthed describes what was happening throughout - I was unearthing the way that I intuitively work with these new materials, and the way that they inspire me and give me new ideas for each piece that I’m making. I've learned how to work independently as a designer in my own right, and how capable I am as a maker. It’s become clear to me how all of my experiences throughout my career have led me to this point. What's really nice and what's been a huge joy is that I can recognise a distinct aesthetic to my work, which I wasn't expecting - I didn't know what was going to come out. Once I sat down and started to make this new collection, my aesthetic became more and more apparent over the course of designing and crafting each piece, but particularly whilst doing the photoshoots and documenting the work afterwards. It's like I couldn't see it until I was able to step back from it."
In particular, Heidi found mastering the skill of stone-cutting to be a significant creative catalyst for the collection, and expects it to be an area of continued focus throughout her career as an independent maker. This foray into a new specialism was largely inspired by a pair of earrings dating back to Persia, 400 BC, which feature cloisonné, an ancient decorative technique which is increasingly scarce in the modern world.
“Stone cutting is a completely new discipline for me and has been a really lovely way to revive my passion, as the process has inspired me to make lots of new pieces. I’ve also always been inspired by jewellery from ancient civilisations. The Persian earrings that influenced Unearthed are really intricate and beautiful - I just saw them and that was it, they inspired me to cut stones into very small, intricate shapes, and to incorporate them into my own arrangements, and that initial point of inspiration has led onto this whole collection.
The technique of cloisonné is not necessarily what people think it is. When people think of cloisonné, they tend to think of enamel work, but the original cloisonné jewellery was made with gemstones cut into intricate, interlocking shapes, arranged into formations on a base of gold. They were then set in place using strips of gold wire or sheet. I'm still very much at the early stages of using this process within my work, but I hope that it will continue to develop.”
Notable throughout Unearthed is also Heidi’s decision to combine both precious and semi-precious stones; in her 18ct Gold, Moonstone and Sapphire Selene Earrings for example, pale pink sapphires preside over inverted teardrop moonstones, the gentle pastel tones intershot with rainbow colours in direct light.
“I've chosen the softer, easier to work with stones that I can really form into my own shapes, such as turquoise, lapis and labradorite. What I love doing is pairing those with really highly faceted, modern cuts like Round Brilliant cuts, and stones that are considered more precious like rubies, sapphires and diamonds. In combining precious and semi-precious stones, and having them compliment each other, I’m trying to elevate the stones that are considered less precious. I like the challenge of using forms that we all know really well, but finding ways to create work that’s unique and offers something different.”
Another technique employed throughout Unearthed is the lost wax casting process, used to transform “softly textured wax forms into really rich, warm gold elements.” This interest in ancient techniques such as cloisonné and wax casting is reflective of Heidi’s overall commitment to ensuring the survival of archaic crafts, an ethos that was instilled during her years spent in Hatton Garden, where a network of age-old specialisms is formed across workshops, many of them steeped in history and tradition.
“What I really love about the jewellery industry is that it really does rely on all these specialisms, techniques and disciplines working together and collaborating. So, it was during my time in Hatton Garden that I became certain I wanted to learn as many skills as I could and become self-sufficient as a maker, to emulate what I could see around me. In doing so, I wanted to be a part of preserving some of these traditional crafts, that it feels like we’re in danger of losing - like box makers, or traditional hand engravers. They are the only people who can do a particular thing in a particular way, and once they’re gone, that skill is lost forever.”
A knowledge of the wider industry is of course an asset for any independent maker, and although Heidi is at a relatively early stage in the curation of her own business, she has already applied this knowledge to establishing priorities for her brand. At the top of this list are ethical and sustainable practices. On her website and in conversation, Heidi is transparent about how she is at the start of a journey towards sustainability, still engaged in the process of finding an ethical source for her materials. This openness is widespread among the newer generation of makers; the days of shrouding the origins of precious metals and gemstones are fading - instead, all cards are laid on the table, and customers want to know exactly where their money is going.
“Having the conversation is part of the battle,” Heidi attests firmly. “I've had quite a lot of experience in trying to source stones through stone dealers and suppliers. At times, I’ve found it quite an uncomfortable, alienating process. I’ve walked into these places and felt like I wasn’t a valued client because I’m not a big designer, spending large sums of money. So, I’ve tried to move away from buying stones as much as possible, and I like to cut the stones that I’m using myself.
To make this collection, I’ve used a lot of dead stock and inventory that has built up over the years. Moving forward, I’m in the process of finding more ethical sources for everything I use, these materials can never be truly sustainable as in they’re never going to go back into the ground. I am however able to source them from companies working with mines that treat their workers well and offer them fair pay. I have yet to establish all of the connections I need with these ethical suppliers, I’ve begun the process of identifying them and having conversations and my aim is that by 2023, all of my stones will be sourced ethically."
Aside from her goals for her own brand, Heidi also aspires to highlight the work of makers in the Southwest, where opportunities for artists and craftspeople are far harder to come by than in her former London base.
“What I've identified really since making this collection is that there's a real lack of opportunities to sell high end work outside of London, yet I feel that the Southwest has got so much to offer. A separate goal within the next two years is an idea that's just in its early development stage, but I am setting up a platform with a creative partner of mine to sell the work of a handful of carefully selected makers, In the first year, it’s going to take the form of a pop-up shop in the Stroud, and in the second year it will hopefully be an online platform for high end makers from the Southwest, to show and sell their work.”
Unearthed may be Heidi Hockenjos first collection as an independent designer, but it’s likely to be just the first creative offering from this ambitious and talented designer, who is palpably in love with both the industry and with making itself.
“It's quite a subconscious thing, but I think that the main reason that I make is because I really enjoy the feeling of being taken out of my head, and into my hands. I enjoy the calming effect of these meditative, repetitive processes. I love working with beautiful, natural materials that each have their own unique properties and nuanced ways of working.”