Community spirit has very much been at the heart of Orkney’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Local shops, services and residents have gone out of their way to make sure folk around the islands feel safe, secure and supported.
That generosity of spirit has been showcased by Orkney’s businesses too, with the team at Ortak Jewellery recently answering an S.O.S from a stranded student to help her continue to learn the tricks of the jewellery-making trade.
“It all started with a bride’s cog I was dropping off at Ortak to be engraved,” says Jenny McElroy, who is currently in the second year of her Silversmithing and Jewellery degree at Glasgow School of Art. “Since the pandemic began my course has had to be re-written and, because Glasgow has been in various stages of lockdown since last autumn, we’ve not been able to get into the studio to learn the technical skills we need.
Jenny hasn’t been able to travel back to Glasgow from her Orkney home since Christmas either, so her visit to Ortak seemed like the perfect time to ask if they’d be able to help.
For Mike Gardens, Managing Director of Ortak, the answer was always going to be ‘yes’. “We already have work experience spaces here for local school students so it was just a really easy fit,” he says. “We had a few emails back and forth with Jenny’s department head at Glasgow School of Art and that got the ball rolling.”
Since settling down at her bench in the Ortak workshop, Jenny has already been putting her skills to the test. “I’ve made a teaspoon,” she laughs. “It’s part of my material research for the Cutler’s Guild competition. I’ve learned to solder on various metals, I’ve laser engraved a working QR code and I’ve been hand engraving too. I’ve done stone setting and explored different finishes, including oxidisation. It has just been a fantastic experience so far.”
Although it has come out of adversity, the opportunity at Ortak could prove to be hugely beneficial to Jenny as she continues her studies and moves towards a career in the jewellery design industry. Her time with the company won’t be graded as part of her course, but it has given her confidence and experience that she would otherwise have missed out on completely.
Learning these practical skills is going to make my transition to my third year so much easier, and I’ve also learned so much about the manufacturing side of the industry too.
Orkney has long been a centre of excellence when it comes to jewellery design and making, with many well-established companies and careers launched locally over the years. It’s an industry that continues to evolve, with new talent and skills always coming to the fore.
“It’s critical for the sector to future-proof itself by finding young people and getting them into these roles,” says Mike. “Ortak has always been at the forefront of training and innovation, using the most up-to-date technologies while at the same time maintaining the time-served skill sets of the silversmiths. I really believe it’s an ideal place to learn.”
Indeed, Mike highlights the experience of the company’s most recent recruit as an example of the benefits the next generation can bring to even the most established brands. “The latest addition to the Ortak family, Laura, worked for us whilst completing her degree,” he says. “She’s now one of the pillars in our design room – absolutely bursting full of enthusiasm and new ideas. That kind of energy rubs off on us all.”
It seems like the collaboration between Ortak and Jenny has been a great benefit to both parties, and is one that will stand her in good stead as she navigates the rest of her course and her burgeoning career.
“It has been exactly what I was missing this year,” she says. “Being around such skilled silversmiths and being able to tap into their vast experience, and get one-to-one support, has just been invaluable.”