Wheathampstead jewellery school is top of the class
THE SKILL of the talented is making what they do look like it’s the easiest thing in the world.
Their passion, their knowledge and their enthusiasm is so contagious it feels like being in their presence will cause some sort of skill transference.
Rachel Jeffery and her team of jewellers inspire this sort of confidence when I arrive at their one-day ring/bangle workshop in Wheathampstead. They are not thrown by my lack of experience or when I tell them that most practical endeavours I’ve embarked on have ended with a final product only a mother could love.
Less is more is not a design ethic I’m very good at putting into practice and instead I have a tendency to use every available tool, material and design in the hope that I’ll bring to life something spectacular.
But Rachel and her very friendly team assure me that beginners – which seems a flattering title given my history – are more than welcome at these workshops, promising me great things by the end of the day.
And they aren’t wrong.
Over a few short hours I anneal a piece of silver, use jeweller’s hammers to create a vortex bangle, pierce it with a fine saw, solder the piece together, clean and refine then polish it to perfection. I become acquainted with lovely new terms and words such as bangle mandrel, flux, pickling fluid, jeweller’s rouge, fire stains and at the end of the day I leave with a beautiful, stunning silver vortex bangle.
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All of this I do at an authentic jeweller’s bench in the workshop, which is next door to the shop on Mill Walk.
The process of creating jewellery is something wonderful to behold and you can feel the satisfaction of those working here. Everything that is in Rachel’s store has been made in here – everything.
Rachel makes the silver bangle alongside me, showing me each technique before I do it. Annealing the metal – heating and softening – is where we start. Using a blow torch we have to make the metal malleable and Rachel demonstrates how this is done, without melting the metal and rendering it useless.
“I’ll be very impressed if you manage to melt that piece,” Rachel smiles and gestures to the 25cm silver bar I’m holding: it feels like a lot of silver to ruin – but Rachel is on hand and shows me how to read the colour of the metal and when to stop heating it.
Once it reaches the right temperature I place it in cold water. It makes a satisfying crackle and then a pop and as soon as it does, Rachel reaches in to where I’ve just placed red-hot metal and grabs it. My heart leaps but when she hands it to me it’s as cold as stone.
Despite its cool feel, the metal is now at my command and we set about shaping it into a circle, cutting it to align the ends and then soldering it – the trickiest part of the whole process because it requires patience, a gentle touch and a little bit of expert guidance.
The piece is then pickled for a few minutes and comes out with a white coating complete with copper streaks. Removing it with a file is the most energetic part of the day and I am easily distracted by the gentle workshop atmosphere and chatting to Rachel.
With 22 years experience and a business that turned 15 years old recently, Rachel’s passion burns brightly. She takes great delight in designing, creating and sharing her pieces and she’s a very encouraging tutor.
A goldsmith and silversmith, Rachel designed a piece for the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday after The Salmon and Trout Association commissioned her to and it wasn’t just a token gift, it’s still in the Royal family today – the Duchess of Cornwall wore it in her engagement pictures to Prince Charles.
My bangle is filed and needs to be polished, the most satisfying element of all is seeing the sparkle emerge as you polish, despite what you’ve subjected it to. The forgiving nature of metals is why Rachel was attracted to gold and silversmithing, and it’s easy to see why as she explains that almost always, the piece can be adapted, altered and – if needed – saved.
Using a technique I’ll refer to as Top Secret in a bid to add a further air of mystery and, rather selfishly, to ensure I’m one of a limited number of people with this type of bangle, we create a wave in the metal.
Finally, a pattern is added to the surface using an embossing hammer.
I slide it onto my wrist where it sits perfectly – dainty, modern and hand-made by me!
But I’m not naive enough to think it was all me. Rachel’s subtle guidance gives you the chance to create with the safety-net of knowing you aren’t going to ruin anything and the added bonus of coming away with something special.
Calm, welcoming and full of creative energy, the workshop is a great place to spend the day, an evening or even a term if you’re so inclined. And there’s space for up to eight people so it’s a great idea for groups and parties. The welcoming atmosphere means it’s perfect to go alone too and you’ll come away with several new friends.
The hands-on experience showed me the basics but there are a myriad of courses on offer at the Rachel Jeffery Jewellery School – and even bespoke courses for those looking to hone particular skills. To find out more about them visit www.racheljeffrey.co.uk or call 01582 833800.