Maya is one of four recipients to recently have been awarded a Goldsmiths’ Centre Career Catalyst Grant. Now in its second year of supporting designers to innovate their practice, she’ll be using the grant to learn optical stone setting under the tutelage of Alexander Sidorov, a craftsman internationally recognised for his exquisite stone-setting abilities. Here she talks to writer Louise Miller about the award and how it will take her jewellery to the next microscopic level.
Congratulations Maya, this grant is such a wonderful opportunity. How did you hear about it and what made you apply?
Thank you, I’m so raring to go with it. I heard about it from a jeweller friend called Lucie Gledhill, who took part in the first year of the project. Applying now was for a number of reasons really, the timing seemed right with pandemic restrictions easing and travel being more possible. But mostly, I felt like I’d got to the point where setters were telling me the things I wanted to do weren’t doable. I was starting to feel like I needed to know more of the technical setting skills myself, so I could maybe find a new way of getting closer to what I want.
You’ll be learning optical stone setting. This sounds very technical- could you demystify it a little?
Optical setting is actually not very technical, well it is technical but it’s not complicated, it literally means setting with magnification. Most often that would mean setting with a microscope. Lots of jewellers use flip down goggles that magnify what they’re doing but for optical setting you would be sat in front of a microscope looking through that to enhance what you can see. That’s all optical setting means, so you are looking in much more detail and able to be far more accurate. In a beautiful way, you’re entering this tiny, microscopically detailed world and sometimes, when you pull away from it and look at what you’ve been working on, it’s not even really visible! You can get too much into the detail but that’s also what I find really exciting.
What drew you to the technique and what are your hopes for it once you’ve mastered the skill?
I think it’s an inspiring micro world to enter into and a whole new level of detail that I can explore and refine. Even if there is a point at which the detail isn’t visible to the naked eye, refinement on that scale will produce a differing sense of tactility and finish. I’m hoping that will translate into my jewellery by creating a new wearer experience, even if you can’t exactly see what is different and that’s what makes it exciting for me.
Can you tell me about some of the equipment you’ll be using? The microscope looks very high-tech. You must have felt like it was Christmas when all those boxes arrived.
It did! There were three boxes that arrived from Antwerp and also a beautiful photographic book of all the amazing settings that you might be able to master. I have a new microscope with a light and stand. The stand is for making the microscope exactly the right height for my body. I also have a quick release pendant motor for cutting and burring and a Max graver, which is an air setting tool that connected to a compressor. I’ve set up a new bench as you tend to work at a lower level than traditional goldsmithing, so the microscope can be at eye level. I’ve now got two separate making areas, one for goldsmithing and one for optical work.
You’re travelling to Antwerp in Belgium to study at the Alexandre Diamond Setting School, founded by renowned setter, Alexander Sidorov. Do you know what to expect once you get there and what the training will involve?
I’ve watched a lot of videos online in preparation so that’s given me a good idea of what to expect. I also know a few people who have already been there and studied with Alexander. I’m sure it’s going to be really challenging.
As part of the training, you’re also being taught by master craftsman, Marcel Salloum. Can you tell me more about him?
Marcel has been setting my work for me for probably over ten years now. He’s a wonderful, very skilled craftsman and I respect him very much. He’ll be helping me with setting up and making sure I’m using the equipment and practising correctly so that I’m up to standard to make the trip to Antwerp.
Have you ever done anything to develop your technical skills before this, especially post degree?
Yes, in 2016 I went to Italy and spent some time with Giovanni Corvaja. I stayed in a nunnery up the road from his studio and ate breakfast on my own in the chapel. Then I’d go and study gold alloying and fine wire work in his beautiful workshop. I also spent time with Charlotte De Syllas at her fantastic workshop in 2017 learning gem stone carving, I can now cut my own gems and have been experimenting with none traditional matt finishes.
Running a jewellery business must take up a lot of your energy- did you wonder how you’d ever be able to find the time to invest in yourself alongside the day-to-day needs of the business?
Absolutely, running a jewellery business takes up a lot of energy and time but it’s all for nothing if I’m not being creative and growing and stretching myself. It feels like that’s the first priority and maybe it’s the everyday running side of things that would come second, so I can continue to develop creatively. Definitely the creativity within my practice is what is most important to me.
You are planning to produce a new necklace made with gems that have been optically set. You’ll be unveiling this at Goldsmiths’ Fair later in the year which is a great chance for people to see it. Do you have any other plans to share your new-found knowledge and skills with others who want to learn about it?
I’ll be talking about the technique at the fair and welcome opportunities to discuss it more broadly. Plus there will be another blog post to share all the things I learn in Antwerp and the pieces I make. I’ll be at Goldsmiths’ in person and probably very keen to chat about everything I’ve learnt and show the pieces I’ve made. You can also see me at Cockpit Open Studios soon after with the new piece and new additions and refinements to my current collections. I’m open to people contacting me about optical setting in general. There’s a lovely phrase Giovanni Corvaja said that has really stayed with me, ‘any craftsman who has managed to develop and grow skills has a responsibility to pass them on. They aren’t just for you, they’re for sharing.’ And I’m very open to sharing what I’ve learnt.