Our latest 'Introducing Orkney's Makers' feature takes a closer look at the story of local jewellery designer, Sheila Fleet.
How did you first get into jewellery-making?
When I was 13, I remember an aunt from the United States sent me some old costume jewellery and a lovely Art Nouveau pewter jewellery box. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and I kept all my treasures in it. In 1963 I went to Edinburgh College of Art and as a hobby in the evening I went to a lapidary club. There I got my first shot at making a silver ring with a piece of Iona marble which I had polished. I was hooked. When I had the opportunity to take jewellery-making and design at the art college it was a great fit for me.
Many years later after I qualified, I was working as a jewellery designer in Surrey and I loved checking out the many antique shops. One day I found a replica of my Art Nouveau jewellery box and had to buy it. By this time, I had some real jewellery to put in it and I still treasure this box as the memory which sparked my early interest in jewellery.
It's a creative industry that's been so important for Orkney over the decades. Why do you think it took off so strongly in the islands?
Jewellery regalia-making can be traced back to Viking times in Orkney, with five to six metal worker-making sites around Orkney. There's one at the Brough of Birsay where they found two clay moulds for the making of chapes, which were protective tips for scabbards. In more recent times it has been taken up by graduates from art colleges in Scotland, like Ola Gorie and myself. We have trained many in-house (and many of these craftspeople have gone on to set-up their own business).
Because of its size, jewellery can be very easily shipped around the world - as I often say it's much easier than something like wrought iron gates. Also, with websites we can reach out to folk all over the world. Orkney’s history, from stone age times to the Vikings, is world renowned and we get visitors from far and wide who, when they return home, still contact us to have things made through the website.
Was it tough setting up your own business - was it a bit of a leap of faith?
Yes, it was a bit of a leap of faith looking back, but it has been a great experience and journey which still continues to challenge me.
The business has grown so much since it began. Do you still get time to be creative and to design?
I don’t get as much time as I would like but I still design, I am never stuck for ideas and have at least four or five waiting to be developed at a time.
How important are the landscapes and seascapes of Orkney in influencing your work?
The land and the seas are like a breath of creative air to me. I never tire of a beach walk in all weathers. These walks inspire all my sea collections, like my favourite, Pentland.
Do you have a favourite place to go for a bit of inspiration, or just to clear your head?
There are several! Dingieshowe, because it is only a few miles away and a great beach. Yesnaby, because it has an awesome shoreline and cliff stacks where the Atlantic waves crash in on a stormy day. And, Hoxa, where I grew up, with the heather on the headlines and the sounds of the sea birds, mingling with sound of the sea as it washes over pebbles on the beach at the Sands O’Wright. It’s a very relaxing place.
You can find so much fascinating history in Orkney - is there a period that particularly interests you, and has had a particular influence on your work?
We are very fortunate that the archaeology of the Stone Age and Bronze Age is on our doorstep, as well as the Viking period. Orkney has been described as an open-air museum and this has certainly been a rich source of inspiration for me. My first collection, The Birsay Disc, was based on a lead disk found at the Brough of Birsay. I then have collections based on the Standing Stones, and closer to home our Pictish Sea Horse collection, which was based on a stone carving found in Tankerness, and the penannular brooch, which was inspired by a large pin found at Pierowall in Westray. I like to think that I take inspiration from history and interpret it, giving it a modern twist. I don’t know if there is a particular period, my inspiration comes from the artefacts rather than a period.
Nature influences a lot of your work too - is this a time of year when you're particularly noticing what's going on around you?
Spring is always a sign of new beginnings, with snowdrops flowering and later daffodils and bluebells. So far, I have not designed a daffodils collection although it is my favourite flower of spring as they transform Orkney's landscape into a blaze of yellows. Perhaps a future idea….
It's an incredibly challenging time for everyone at the moment. As an individual - and as a business - how are you coping with all the uncertainty?
I always seem to fill my day with things to do to keep myself busy. As for the business, I am ever-optimistic and feel it is a challenge we will overcome by being creative and approaching things in new ways. I think technology and new designs, while still training new skills of jewellery-making, is the key to the future survival of our jewellery business.
Find out more about Sheila Fleet Jewellery via the official website.
The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020