Orcadian jewellery pioneer Ola Gorie marked her 80th birthday this month, giving Orkney’s busy and diverse crafts sector the chance to reflect on the impact she has had on the industry. Dave Flanagan has been speaking to Ola about her career and her legacy.
“Somebody had to be first,” says Ola Gorie, who is modestly dismissive of her status as Orcadian jewellery pioneer. Any pride she does allow herself to feel, from having laid the foundations for Orkney’s incredibly busy and diverse crafts sector, relates entirely to how others might have benefitted from her lead. “It is good because it employs a lot of people.”
And that’s pretty much all you’ll get from her on the subject of her standing within the Scottish jewellery community.
Helpfully, Ola turns 80 this month – a milestone she good-humouredly describes as “amazing” – presenting the ideal opportunity to pin her down for some reflection on what has been a remarkable career, even if she doesn’t necessarily agree with that assessment.
It’s hard to comprehend, when considering the proliferation of jewellery designers in Orkney today, that at the time of Ola’s graduation from Aberdeen’s Gray’s School of Art in 1960, nobody in the islands was working in the field, let alone a young woman. Any jewellery bought locally would have been made on the mainland, most probably by men.
Equally, jewellery back then largely fell into two categories – it was either very expensive and diamond encrusted, made for the upper classes and film stars, or cheap, poor quality work stamped out of thin silver or non-precious metal.
“I was always interested in jewellery,” says Ola, who grew up in Kirkwall. “There were two jewellery shops on Broad Street and I lived above the one and next door to the other. I was always seeing jewellery, which I think must have had some influence on me.”
With a talent for art evident throughout her childhood, there was never really any chance of Ola following her parents into the family grocery business of Kirkness & Gorie – this role fell to her younger brother Bruce - though her mother and father were hugely supportive of her decision to leave Orkney to study.
Gray’s gave Ola a thorough grounding in all aspects of artistic technique, from drawing and painting, to sculpture and design, but it was in the metalwork classes that she found her true calling.
“Metalwork included jewellery and that was where I thought, ‘yes, I like this’,” recalls Ola, who was the first graduate from her course to specialise in jewellery. “I think I enjoyed the design aspect and doing decorative work. I could interpret various things in jewellery, and I found it came relatively easy.”
Ola’s main teacher at Gray’s was a silversmith called David Hodge, who actually moved to Orkney after his retirement and still lives here aged 97.
Returning home to Orkney following her graduation, Ola was determined to carve out a niche as a jewellery designer and manufacturer in the islands, again with the full backing of her parents.
“To be honest, my initial decision to come back home to Orkney was purely financial,” she says. “There wasn’t a big movement in jewellery in Scotland at that time, or in any craft, so I’d have been scraping a living had I stayed on the mainland. Mum and dad said they’d support me and I could stay at home until I got my business up and running here.”
With classic understatement, Ola reckons the decision “worked out fine”. It was, however, completely uncharted territory in a business and creative sense. What might seem obvious to us now in terms of potential inspiration for Orkney’s jewellery designers was, in the 1960s, a huge untapped resource for Ola.
“I’d always been interested in local history,” explains Ola, who drew upon Orkney’s rich heritage to create some of her early jewellery designs - The Maeshowe Dragon was her first ever Orcadian piece and remains a best seller. “Dad had various historical books and that did give me some inspiration. As a student, I also had a holiday job in Kirkwall library, and pored over the old books about Orkney and its history, which was a formative experience. I had to make a living, so I saw a way of adapting some of the historical designs to make them into jewellery.”
The reaction to Ola’s interpretation of Orkney’s heritage in silver and gold was remarkable. Her portfolio of designs subsequently grew to include more Norse and Celtic themes, along with work reflecting the abundant wildlife of the islands.
“Everybody was very enthusiastic,” she remembers. “There were no Orkney souvenirs back then, apart from Orkney chairs and a bit of knitwear, so tourists were very keen to have something that was made locally. Orkney folk were also very supportive, buying jewellery either for themselves or as gifts. I think the idea that someone would bring a designer’s eye to jewellery, produce it to high standards in a craft workshop, and then sell it at prices that almost everyone could afford, was also quite new.”
The subsequent rapid expansion of Ola’s business was, she reveals, never planned - “It just kind of happened”. She took on an apprentice, but then got married to Tankerness man Arnie Tait in 1961, with the couple relocating to Canada – Arnie worked in communications there - for a few years.
“My mother took over the running of the business and I had also trained a local man,” says Ola, who went on to have three children with Arnie. “My mother got some more help in and kept the business going until we came back from Canada in 1969.
“Arnie had never made jewellery before but he learned to do the finishing and it developed from there. He was really the person who was in charge of production as I had the three kids and it was pretty hard going to keep everything going. My mother remained involved too, so it was quite a family affair.”
That collective family effort ultimately saw the Ola Gorie business expand into an internationally important jewellery design concern, employing dozens of people and providing commissioned work to the likes of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, Liberty of London, the House of Commons and the British Museum.
Ola’s contribution to the industry, both as a designer and as a pioneer, was recognised in 1999 with an MBE. She has a host of other accolades to her name, though doesn’t volunteer to discuss any.
In terms of her career highlights, Ola is also hard pressed to come up with anything she thinks is of particular note – “there have been bits and bobs” – but does look back proudly on her company’s decision to bring in professional marketing help at a time when few others within the industry were doing the same.
“We got a catalogue done by proper graphic artists and began to look constructively at how we sold things,” she says. “We were going to trade fairs in Edinburgh and Aviemore, which was a big thing for quite a long period. Eventually, we went to the Birmingham and London trade fairs and you had to become much more professional. Getting that first professional input was a quite a highlight for us.”
Ola’s been officially retired since the late 1990s, with her Broad Street shop, The Longship, now run by her textile designer daughter, Ingrid, and son-in-law, Duncan McLean. Fittingly, the business remains in the same premises occupied by Ola’s great grandfather in the days of the original Kirkness & Gorie.
“I’m quite happy to be retired now,” says Ola. “I had input into a new collection last year and do miss certain aspects of it all, but then you can’t do everything. I’m enjoying life outside of the business.”
Whilst she may never become entirely comfortable with her pioneering status, Ola was clearly moved to have found herself the subject of a 2010 Orkney Museum exhibition marking 50 years of her work.
“That was amazing,” she says, allowing herself a moment’s reflection on a path that has seen her grow, under her own steam, from young jewellery window shopper to figurehead of a thriving Scottish creative industry. “I never thought that it was something they might do.”
And, according to daughter Ingrid, Ola’s designs remain as much in demand as they always were – no mean feat within a highly competitive and continually evolving jewellery market.
“The oldest designs are amongst the most popular,” says Ingrid. “That just shows they really are timeless classics. There’s a real liveliness and elegance to her work, which makes it stand out.
“It’s hard for her to appreciate her legacy because she is so modest,” adds Ingrid. “When she started out there was nobody else in Orkney designing jewellery. Equally, there were hardly any women running their own business. She had to make a living, so it was needs must situation to an extent, but she also saw an opening and a market and from there it grew. That entrepreneurship is in her and it’s inspired lots of others.”
For her milestone birthday, Ola is initially keeping things low key, opting to head off to Edinburgh with the “female members of the clan” for a bit of fun and, quite possibly, some jewellery shopping.
“You never know,” she says, adding: “It’s just amazing to have such good health. I’m very blessed.”
Find out more about Ola Gorie Jewellery from the official website.