In a quiet corner of a family home on the edge of the Surrey Hills, a replica of an acorn is being shaped in silver. The perfectly proportioned nut, still in its cup, was a chance find during a stroll on nearby Headley Heath. Now it is being recreated, a long-lasting reminder of its autumnal perfection.
Working on the acorn is jeweller Caroline Brook. Accompanied only by the background murmur of the radio, she makes gold and silver pieces inspired by nature. “I love the work,” she says. “I like the idea of the permanence of what I make, and the fact people nearly always buy it for a reason, usually as a gift.”
After leaving school, Caroline worked in a bank. It was only when she was in her early 30s that she finally succumbed to her love of making things with her hands. She enrolled in a series of evening classes. “I signed up for sculpture, but the class was cancelled, so I ended up on the jewellery course. I was completely hooked from the very first day,” she says. “I have always liked detail, so I fell in love with the tools, such as the tiny files and tiny saw blades. I appreciated the way the metal was so malleable that you could just form it to create anything.”
She attended evening classes for three years, then was offered work experience in London with a Hatton Garden jeweller. Initially, she helped out with paperwork, but was soon working on the jewellery. Caroline ended up staying there for seven years, serving what was in effect an apprenticeship. “It was a fantastic environment, being in a real workshop and learning from a master,” she says.
Today, 20 years on from her first course, she works from home in her peaceful studio space. Here, she has a traditional jeweller’s bench. Taller than a work bench, it allows the craftsperson to sit tall, without hunching over the work surface. It has a curved indentation on which sit clamped tools and a jeweller’s peg. This is a wedge of wood on which the jeweller places the metal being worked on.
Beneath, there is a drawer designed to catch any pieces of scrap metal or gold dust. This can then be melted down and re-used. There are boxes of tools with wooden handles and a series of blow torches. A section of beech tree trunk was found on a walk on the heath. “A beech tree had been cut down and pieces were left,” says Caroline. “It is perfect for hammering and punching metal, as it absorbs the shock.”
She makes a range of jewellery including rings, bracelets, pendants and cufflinks. Almost all her pieces have their roots in nature and the gentle Surrey countryside surrounding her home. “I have always been attracted to nature. I walk every day with my dog and watch the seasons come and go,” she says. “I search for objects and pick things up that appeal to me like tiny acorns, twigs and branches or pretty stones. I really enjoy the search for that special piece.
“I picked this acorn up because the detail was incredible. It was a lovely size and very delicate. I liked the volume of the cup, its texture and the way it’s quite a deep cup with a little acorn in the middle,” she explains.
To turn the acorn into a silver pendant, Caroline has to make a clay mould. This allows her to create a cast of the nut that accurately reproduces all its detail. “I have the skills to make my own version, but what appeals to me is the idea of preserving a piece of nature forever. I want to capture its beauty in precious metal,” she says. Casting highlights the intricacy of the natural detail on objects. “You don’t realise the lovely texture on an acorn cup until you see it cast.”
The next stage is to prepare the silver. For this piece, she uses sterling silver, an alloy containing 92.5 per cent silver by weight and 7.5 per cent other metals, usually copper. She prefers to work with fine silver, which is almost 99 per cent pure. “It is very malleable with a nice white colour. But it is softer, so not as good for this type of piece,” she says.
The metal is heated using a blow torch, and becomes liquid after approximately five minutes. Caroline then quickly pours the metal into the mould. This is very tricky. The silver hardens the moment the heat is removed. If the pouring is not timed correctly, the mould can be ruined. If that happens, the process has to start again. The metal can be melted down and re-used, but the burnt areas of clay have to be thrown away and a new mould created.
The silver acorn is removed from its clay casing and the finishing process started. First, Caroline removes the sprue, the stem created by the remaining metal in the pouring channel. A piercing saw with a very fine blade is used to do this. The rough edge left by the cut is then smoothed with a fine file, without removing any of the surface detail.
To make the silver acorn into a pendant, Caroline attaches a jump ring, the little silver loop through which the chain is threaded. This is made from silver wire and is neatly soldered to the base of the acorn. The soldering can be a fiddly procedure, but one that she enjoys. “I have endless patience, and love working with small things,” she says.
She cuts small pieces of solder to fasten the jump ring on the acorn. These are applied to both the base of the cup and the jump ring, and then the area is heated.
For this fine work, she uses a traditional jeweller’s mouth. This involves blowing through a rubber tube, controlling the flame with her breath. The solder has a lower melting point than the silver, so the flame melts it but leaves the precious metal untouched. The melted solder acts as glue, joining the jump ring to the acorn.
The soldering work leaves a dark discolouration created by oxidisation. An acid compound called pickle is used to remove this. The silver is added to a mix of pickle and water in an old slow cooker. It is then gently heated for approximately four minutes. When the silver is taken out, all the black oxide has disappeared.
The final stage of the process is polishing. This turns the whitish finish into shining silver. Caroline polishes the acorn by hand using a fine mop head made of lambs’ wool attached to a pendant motor. This mechanically rotates the mop head, allowing the polish to be applied evenly. The process takes 20 minutes.
Hand-polishing allows her to retain the all-important contrast between the smooth acorn and its minutely dimpled cup. Once the polishing is finished, the acorn pendant is threaded with a chain and is ready to wear.
It takes a full day to make this tiny, delicate acorn pendant, for Caroline time well spent. “I always feel that I need to make things with my hands, and my hands just want to work,” she says. The detailed work involved in making jewellery particularly appeals to her, but she also enjoys making something special for other people. “I often hear the stories behind pieces such as engagement rings. People like to tell me their stories and I like to hear them,” she says.
“I love the fact that my pieces are something that people will wear and cherish for a long time.”
Making a mould
Caroline uses the Delft clay casting method. The process was invented by a Dutch goldsmith in the 1980s. This is perfect for jewellers such as Caroline, who work on a small scale. It allows her to cast items without recourse to expensive tools. To make the mould, a small, circular aluminium ring frame is filled with Delft clay, which is oily and sticky. The frame comes in two sections which fit on top of each other. The larger ring measures approximately ¾in (2cm) high and 1½in (4cm) in diameter. The smaller is approximately ½in (1.5cm) high. Small marks on each ring mean they can be carefully aligned when joined together.
Creating the shape
Caroline firmly packs the clay into the smaller bottom ring and pushes the acorn into it. She then fills the bigger ring with clay and places it on top. It is essential to check the rings are aligned and the acorn is completely buried in clay. She then taps the top with a mallet. This gets rid of any air pockets. It also ensures the shape of the acorn is neatly moulded into the clay.
Now the two rings are separated and the acorn removed. Caroline uses a knitting needle to create a channel through the upper ring of clay. She pushes up from the acorn indentation to the outer edge and widens the hole at the top with a small bladed knife. This is called the sprue hole. The molten metal will be poured through this.
A series of smaller holes will let out the displaced air and steam created when the molten metal is poured. The rings are carefully re-joined to finish the mould.
Mark of origin
Caroline’s larger pieces require hallmarking before she is able to sell them, although pieces like the acorn pendant which weigh less than 7g are exempt from this legal requirement. Caroline sends her jewellery to the Sheffield Assay Office where it is stamped with the year it was made, the quality of the metal and the Sheffield stamp. It also has her maker’s mark: the initials SCW within little diamond-shaped frames.
Acorn pendants from £55
Words: Diana Woolf Photography: Clive Doyle