Our latest Business Focus feature takes a look at Ortak, one of Orkney's most iconic jewellery brands. The company is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and is beginning to once again make its mark both in the islands and globally.

Orcadian jewellery brand Ortak has come a long way since its humble beginnings in a garden shed, 50 years ago.

Founded by local man Malcolm Gray, who originally took up silvercraft as a hobby, Ortak grew to become one of the UK’s leading jewellery manufacturers before running into financial difficulties in 2013.

Unable to turn around its fortunes, the business went into administrationin March of that year. Dozens of jobs were lost as the company’s Kirkwall workshops fell silent and its UK network of shops closed.

At the time, the demise of this once famous Orkney brand sent shockwaves through the island community.

It was far from the end, however. In May of 2014 the Ortak brand - including the intellectual property rights and original designs and patterns of the jewellery moulds and drawings - was bought over by a group of investors who formed a new company, Ortak Ltd, backed by a £136,400 grant from development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

One of Ortak's unique designs being handmade
One of Ortak's unique designs being handmade

Michael Gardens – a former member of the previous company’s production staff – now heads Ortak Ltd as its managing director.

“It’s a much more streamlined and focused operation these days and we’re steadily regaining our share of the UK jewellery market,” said Michael. “Retail is particularly strong, with trade sales in Scotland more or less back to where they were before. It’s great to see former clients returning to the Ortak brand.”

The firm – which employs 16 staff at its Kirkwall workshop, and gallery in the town’s Albert Street - is currently working closely with Signet Jewellers, using the group’s UK network of retail outlets as a test bed for Ortak products. Ortak is also making roads into the international jewellery trade, with a well-established foothold in Japan and a growing customer base in the USA.

Choosing the designs to mark this important milestone in the brand’s history has been a company wide effort.

Ortak Managing Director, Michael Gardens
Ortak Managing Director, Michael Gardens

“For our 50th anniversary, we thought it would be good to give our staff the chance to review our entire historical catalogue of designs – we’ve got around 14,000 in all - and choose key pieces that could be updated or adapted,” explained Michael. “It’s not something most of the staff ever get to do, so it’s been a good way of involving the whole company in this important celebration of the brand.”

Each of the Ortak designs used for the Anniversary Collection pieces has been given a refresh and gold accenting. Releases are being timed to coincide with special dates or occasions throughout 2017 - the first Anniversary Collection pieces tied in with Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Michael is staying tight-lipped about forthcoming releases, but promises they’ll be special.

“We were keen to make 2017 a whole year of celebration, rather than have one single anniversary event,” said Michael. “In addition to the Anniversary Collection pieces, we’re also running a number of special promotions throughout the next few months to say thanks to our loyal customers.”

Orkney has a very high concentration of quality craft jewellers, with each designer bringing something unique to the marketplace. Ortak was once famed for its designs that drew inspiration from Orkney’s history and landscape, but there’s a more contemporary approach in evidence now.

“Orkney will always be an inspiration to us, but we’re also enjoying expanding our horizons and exploring fresh, new designs to create more modern pieces for a wide range of customers,” said Michael. “We have a very collaborative approach these days too, working closely with suppliers, creating pieces for other designers who don’t have workshop facilities and offering bespoke services for all our customers.

Some of the beautiful jewellery handmade in Orkney by Ortak
Some of the beautiful jewellery handmade in Orkney by Ortak

“Throughout it all, quality and workmanship remain our top priorities. That never changes. At Ortak, we’re always acutely aware we’re representing Orkney and that pride in our homeland is hopefully reflected throughout all our work, and our relationships beyond the islands.”

Michael adds: I’ll be retired in 50 years, but I certainly hope we’ll still be going strong in 2067!”

For more information on Ortak, visit the Orkney Crafts Association website.

You can also follow Ortak on Facebook and Twitter.