Our latest 'Introducing Orkney's Makers' feature heads across the Churchill Barriers to Burray and the home of Karen Duncan Jewellery.
How did you first get started in the jewellery industry, and was it something that you’d been interested in from a young age?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve always been interested in working with my hands, right from an early age. As a teenager I was really fortunate to work with the renowned silversmith David Hodge at his workshop in Burray during the school holidays. David taught Orkney jeweller Ola Gorie, amongst others, and he really opened my eyes to the possibilities of silversmithing. I loved seeing the transformation from raw material to finished objects and I think that really whetted my appetite.
At school I really enjoyed art and technical drawing. I became a trainee with Ola Gorie after leaving school and went on to develop the skills involved, not only in making jewellery but also running a business.
Was setting out as a self-employed maker in 2007 a big step for you at the time?
Yes, it was a really big step, but an exciting one too. I’d worked at Ola Gories since leaving school and had become production manager there. But at that point the production side of the business was closing so I decided to take a bit of a leap of faith and set up on my own.
I established a workshop here at my home in Burray. That works really well for me. I’ve got these fabulous views out over Water Sound and the Churchill Barrier No 4.
It’s where I’m at my happiest, creating new designs, experimenting with different textures and colours, trying to perfect each piece - and if I need a bit of extra inspiration all I have to do is look up out of the window.
The business has grown to the point where you've had to take on staff. That’s obviously an indication of the success of your work, but also a big responsibility. Was that an easy decision?
I actually started off with one part-time member of staff right from the beginning. That’s developed to the point where I now have four part-time staff. It’s great because it means that I don’t have to spend my entire day dealing with things like admin. But I do still make every single piece of jewellery myself. So, between that and the design work, I’m definitely kept busy enough!
It’s great to have got the business to that stage though, where it’s hopefully bringing an economic benefit to the wider community.
As you say, you’re based in Burray. Are your immediate surroundings the influence for your designs?
Yes, very much so. The Blocks collection, for instance, is one of the most popular collections. Inspiration for that came from the Churchill Barriers which I cross pretty much on a daily basis. The huge concrete blocks themselves and the quite random angles that they interlock with creates a really striking geometry that I was keen to capture. They’re also quite emblematic for anyone that lives in Burray and South Ronaldsay.
Your latest design is based around a story that many folk won’t be aware of, isn't it?
Indeed, I think very few folk know about the Burray Hoard. Our Burri collection is based on an interpretation of the hoard, which was the second largest Viking hoard to have ever been found in Scotland. It contained over 140 items of bullion and approximately a dozen coins deposited in a wooden bowl and was discovered here in the late 19th century. The original pieces are now held in the National Museum of Scotland.
Our other latest collection, Echna Swan, is based on the two swans that appear each year on the Echna Loch here in Burray.
Do you think that perhaps focusing on those very local stories, keeping off the beaten path as it were, helps give your collections a freshness?
Yes indeed, people love it when there’s a story behind something, and if it’s not a well-known story then all the better! I think there are still plenty of stories to find here and there’s always something I see that I can then envisage in my designs. All I need to do is step out my front door.
There's a bit of a new development for you this year too - you’re joining the Creative Orkney Trail. Why did you decide to take the plunge?
It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while and I’m really looking forward to it. I love the idea that folk can come and actually see what goes into making our collections. People are fascinated by that process and we just really enjoy explaining what we do, so hopefully we’ll be welcoming lots of visitors throughout 2023 and beyond.
Find out more about Karen Duncan Jewellery and visit the official website.