While jewellery is often all about glittering diamonds, trademark packaging, and glitzy store fronts; Tessa Metcalfe is all about finding beauty in the gutter. Her unique and whimsical one-of-a-kind pieces have put her at the forefront of London’s new generation of jewellery designers.
Born and bred in Hackney, Tessa Metcalfe finds a treasure trove of inspiration in London. Her narrative driven design philosophy turns vermin into true works of art. Her Clerkenwell boutique is a reflection of her own colourful personality; an amalgamation of flowers, antique finds, and semi-precious stones scattered around the countertops. We sit down with Tessa Metcalfe and discuss her deep fascination with animals, the fantasy underworld of London, and the unexpected rules she lives by.
Born and bred in Hackney, where did your interest in jewellery began? What inspired you to start your own label?
I fell in love with antique jewellery first. I studied illustration in Brighton and I got really into collecting antique jewellery. I then realised I liked antique jewellery more than illustration so I spent most of my student loan on antique jewellery. I kind of wanted to be like those women back in the day, who wore all their jewellery to show off their wealth. I liked that tradition — so I wanted to have 4 rings on every finger every single day; and I thought why not make my own? That’s really where the obsession came from.
Before starting your namesake jewellery brand, you began with Taxidermy. How do you incorporate this passion into your designs?
All of my jewellery is cast from pigeon’s feet, all collected from the streets of London. I taxidermy the pigeons and then cast their feet, with these I can make a really beautiful piece of jewellery. I get answerphone messages from drunk friends giving me directions to dead pigeons all over London.
You graduated with an illustration degree from the University of Brighton. In what ways does your background in illustration influence your design aesthetic?
I think the main thing I took from studying illustration was the idea of visual communication. The course was quite concept based, so the most important thing for me was to take an idea and to be able to put it into a piece of jewellery — translating that narrative. That’s how I can say that I am illustration based, but not actually draw a lot. For me, with any design, the message or the story is really important. It’s not just about making something that is pretty; it’s about having the narrative behind it.
What is it like starting out as a young jewellery designer in London?
It was really hard work. I’m self-taught so there is still a lot to learn. I’ve had to learn my craft in a very unconventional way because I haven’t been taught. For me, that means that I’ve kept all the joy and fun stuff about jewellery. I’ve never had someone tell me I was wrong, and that makes you overcritical. I just play! I do things wrong, but then I fix it and I learn. It has taken a long time, but I’ve preserved the initial love for the subject that I think studying can sometimes destroy.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges to being an independent brand?
I don’t think I see big brands as any kind of comparison to small jewellery brands because they are just big businesses. There is no love in it. The mark-up is too high and it’s all about making loads of money. With any small business, you are choosing to do something you believe in and you are doing it to the best of your ability. You have such a close relationship with your customers and you want to give them the best product and service you possibly can. That gets lost in a big company, and you never get to talk to someone who really cares about the company.
It’s an independent vs corporation thing and that ethic crosses over to my whole life, I don’t go anywhere that isn’t independent. I just think that every time you spend money, you vote for something and I wouldn’t give my money to someone I don’t think deserves it. Ethics are really important — and rules. I don’t wear different colours at once! — And this is just one of the many strange rules I live by.
The Homage Collection is inspired by the city of London and is all about “finding beauty in the gutter” Tell us a bit more about this collection and the philosophy behind it?
I think it is very easy to make something pretty out of something that is not considered to be pretty. For me, there is simply no challenge there. I’d rather choose something that’s not considered to be pretty and make something beautiful out of it; in an attempt to change a person’s opinion, or to put some kind of a narrative in the piece. People hate pigeons, but if you cast that in gold they suddenly become a desirable object and people look at it differently.
Jewellery is all about aspirations. It’s all about looking closely at something that’s in front of you, instead of aspiring for something unachievable. The collection is inspired by London because I grew up here and it’s all I know. I read a lot of fairytales as a kid and they all have animals in them that have amazing adventures, each one having individual goals and dreams. I liked that idea, and that’s how I started to get inspired by animals. I got obsessed with pigeons, and I liked the idea that maybe they have their own lives, and that they went on their own adventures. I realised that people didn’t like pigeons and that changed the way I thought of them, and also made me want to change people’s perceptions of them.
Pearls of London, Delusions of Grandeur, and Claws of Engagement are just some of your signature ring styles. Talk us through your creative process and how you go about making a signature Tessa Metcalfe piece.
I’ve always been a fan of wordplay, I guess it’s just a way of looking at something differently. For example, the Claws of Engagement are made as engagement rings. I think you can have humour and be playful with jewellery. I just think everything should be fun and if it isn’t, then there just is no point.
I have lots of creative processes; I work with clients quite closely and we’ll discuss an idea together. I have a client who wanted a ring as a tribute to her cat that had recently died, and she was called Ruby. I’m really into heart shape stones at the moment, and also cutting stones and setting unexpected things underneath the stones. Together we designed this ring in a beautiful citrine, with a hidden ruby underneath like a hidden heart for her cat. At the moment, I’m sort of designing things with my customers. Luckily I’m at a point where they trust me and give me artistic freedom and they are excited by that. It gives me scope to work with; and their stories and ideas are where my inspiration stems from.
What is next for you? What can we expect from Tessa Metcalfe in 2017?
I’ve got the new collection which is coming out, and it’s all love hearts and teardrops, definitely narrative based again. Within the jewellery community, teardrop shapes aren’t used as they are considered shoulder stones, or they will be used really traditionally. And then the love heart shapes are not used at all as they are considered really naff. I like the idea that both have a narrative, one is sad and one is full of love and you can’t have one without the other.
Finally, how do you think young creators like yourself are changing the face of London Fashion?
I think people are changing. I’d like to think people are becoming more aware of where their products come from and what they are investing their money in. I hope people are thinking more about that and choosing to spend a bit more money, on something that’s going to last longer and has more integrity. I think there are a lot of products existing in the world, so I generally buy second hand clothes or shoes from small independent businesses. I only use recycled metals; and all the diamonds I source are all antiques as I think the whole industry is corrupt and I don’t want to be a part of it. I think there are enough physical things that exist in the world, and that we shouldn’t be a society that just churns out stuff we don’t need.
Portraits by Chris Baker
Words by Hannah Tan