Big ideas: in the studio with British jewellery designer Jenny Sweetnam
Considering the weight and size of Jenny Sweetnam's jewellery, her east-London studio is tiny. It’s a struggle to fit more than three people in the bijoux box, piled high with tools, sketchbooks, and a workbench strewn with the arcs and hoops of her latest designs.
'Axis’ is a tight edit of five, statement earrings. ‘In that sense, it’s a small collection,’ Sweetnam laughs. The pieces themselves are enormous. Slim gold and silver circles and elongated ‘U’s are suspended on delicate, concealed hinges. The smallest spans 10cm, the largest, almost half a metre.
The young Bristolian designer, who lives on a houseboat, has always made things big. ‘It’s my gut instinct,’ she says. It’s been that way since she was studying at Edinburgh College of Art (2006-9), where, drawn to the bold, graphic possibilities of textile design, she initially studied fashion. But, inspired by visits to the many traditional jewellery workshops in the city, she switched to silversmithing. ‘One of the first tasks we were given was to work with wire,’ she recalls. ‘Everyone else in the class made tiny rings – fiddly bits and bobs. I came up with this giant thing that draped over your shoulder.’
Jenny Sweetnam’s ‘Swivel’ silver earpiece
The earpieces aren’t just big for the sake of it. ‘I’m fascinated by the movement of the body, and particularly the negative space between the ear, neck, and shoulder,’ she gestures. Unlike her last offering ‘Luna’ (2016), which was static and rigid, ‘Axis’ is made for movement. The hinges allow each piece to swing and sway with a slightest head tilt, conversing with neckline. ‘I want the jewellery to become animated by the wearer,’ she explains.
The result is like a choreographed duet, which makes sense, because Sweetnam is inspired by contemporary dance (particularly the highly experimental Netherlands Dance Theatre Company), attending performances at Sadlers Wells regularly.
Although she would one day love to create jewellery for performance (her dream collaboration would be some kind of theatre-dance-fashion concoction with Issey Miyake) this collection is firmly placed within the luxury jewellery market. She creates just one, slim collection a year, and insists upon the highest quality materials, sourced from nearby Hatton Garden. ‘There’s nothing quite like working with high density gold. It’s so responsive and luxurious,’ she says, while hand shaping a new design. It’s quite an effort thanks to the size of the raw gold – and the tight elbow room.