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Jewels of the trade

22 May 2022
Jeweller Hannah Upritchard’s recent work has included pebbles and gemstones sourced from South Island beaches.

London-based Kiwi jeweller Hannah Upritchard on the charm of sentimentality, transforming beach pebbles into wearable things of beauty and accidentally spending the last two years in Ōtautahi. Interview Josie Steenhart

Tell us about your connections to Christchurch…

My family moved here when I was still very young and both of my parents are from greater Canterbury so my family does have a strong connection to Christchurch.

My earliest Christchurch memories are on the Avon River and walking through the botanical gardens to visit the bird displays at the Canterbury Museum – all of which I still love. Every weekend my extended family would go up to Victoria Park to picnic, clamber over the rocky outcrops and burrow through the tussocks. I still spend as much time as I can on and around the crater rim… such an amazing resource so
close to the city.

Finding myself again in Christchurch for the first time as an adult, it’s exciting to see lots of my favourite things have remained (the museum’s bird exhibit and the Botanic Garden’s Cunningham House) and that there are some fabulous new additions such as Tūranga Library, the amazing new cycleways and Frances Nation Shop and Grocer, which is run by my great friend Tessa Peach.

It’s great that Christchurch is feeling like a vibrant and growing place after the horror of the earthquakes a decade ago. I’m really happy about it.

You’ve been living in London for more than a decade, but sort of accidentally found yourself staying on in Christchurch for much longer than you thought…

Yes! I planned to be here for three months… I came over in January 2020 to donate a kidney to my mother and my intention was to leave once we had both regained our strength. Our surgery team predicted a three-month recovery period after the operation but actually it has been two years and we’re both still struggling with various difficulties caused by the surgeries.

New Zealand’s first Covid lockdown began three days before I was due to fly back to London and all of a sudden I joined a lot of displaced people who suddenly found themselves living extremely unexpected lives due to the virus. I feel very grateful that I was able to remain here and spend the time with my parents, two of my brothers and nephews. Spending so much time with my mother after giving her a kidney has been incredible. We’ve always been extremely close and it’s a luxury to have so much time to build on that.

Your sister Francis currently has an exhibition at the Christchurch Art Gallery and I know your dad and brother both work with wood – it sounds like you come from a really creative family…

My family are incredibly creative and we are lucky that neither of our parents ever encouraged us to make sensible or cautious decisions. It has allowed us to feel bold and audacious in our approaches and many of us have chosen creativity and artistic vision over financial security.

In my family currently we have a sculptor, a carver, two toolmakers, an AcroYoga instructor, a landscape designer and a jeweller. I know that my parents are very proud of us all, but I do sometimes wonder if they had any idea what they were getting themselves into!

What are your favourite materials to work with?

This probably sounds totally cheesy but my all-time favourite thing that I love to work with is sentiment! The actual materials that I’m using hardly matter so long as the meaning or message, the reason for the jewellery, is able to speak. Obviously meaning can be communicated through a variety of different materials, from gold and diamonds to beach pebbles and rusty nails.

Almost all of my work is bespoke and made on commission. People come to me with a person, occasion or memory that they want to celebrate.

Although my work is very contemporary and informed by a huge variety of arts, my work is always held on the functional, wearable side so an element of durability and comfort is essential in any of the materials I work with. I find my surroundings deeply inspiring and love to take where I am, in place and time, as a starting point to explore jewellery and what it means.

A great example of this are my mudlarked garnet rings with garnets taken from the banks of the Thames. Mudlarking is essentially foraging for ancient treasures in tidal waters of the Thames. The garnets have been nestled in the mud since they arrived from India on the boats and were dropped overboard by exhausted, overworked dockworkers.

I used the same mounts for a series of beach pebble rings that I made during the first lockdown while I was still recovering. The beach pebble rings are now in AVID gallery in Wellington.

I love incorporating found objects in my work – a habit I share with both my mother and sister. Recently I designed a set of ring mounts to house beach pebbles from around New Zealand. New Zealand itself is
quite a young country in terms of geology so most of the stones are volcanic or charming softly hued argillite, which I absolutely adore.

New Zealand also has absolutely amazing op shops, which have been a superb source of glass and ceramic beads, shells, mysterious metals, pearls and other oddities. So inspiring.

It’s obviously a long and wonderful story – there is a whole book written about it haha – but tell us a bit about your part in the Warren Ellis/Nina Simone gum tale…

The Warren Ellis commission was a huge surprise. One day I got a phone call from Warren asking if it would be possible for me to undertake duplicating a piece of Nina Simone’s chewing gum that he had lifted from a London stage 20 years earlier. Of course I was super excited to do it!

I was incredibly nervous the day he came to the studio – nothing like meeting a hero to set yourself on edge, and I was equal parts relieved and horrified to find that he was as nervous as me!

My task was to duplicate the gum without affecting the gum in any way – obviously this ruled out taking a silicone mould so I had to come up with an alternative method. In the end I decided to use Super Sculpey – a less oily/brittle version of the Fimo that we all used to play with as children.

Knowing that Warren was so worried about the gum, in an effort to be incredibly reassuring I photographed every step of the work for him to see that great care was being taken. Warren loved the photos I sent over and developed the idea of making a book around them so he could share this
amazing project with a wider audience.

This was such a great commission and I really recommend that people go and read the book! You don’t
have to be into music, jewellery or literature to really enjoy the book and its message.

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