SURREY JEWELLER CAROLINE BROOK CAPTURES THE DELICATE DETAIL OF AN ACORN IN SILVER
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.”
Words: Diana Woolf Photography: Clive Doyle
ARTIST CREATES GLASSWARE REFLECTING THE CHARACTER OF THE CORNISH COAST
Vivid blue bowls crowd the shelves of Malcolm Sutcliffe’s whitewashed studio in Penryn, Cornwall. In the far corner, a large furnace emits a fiery glow each time the door is opened.
Malcolm set up his studio in a former bakery 14 years ago. “I had been working in glass for more than 26 years when my artist wife Jean and I decided to relocate from Chesterfield where we had a studio to Penryn. In our youth, we both had summer holiday jobs in St Ives, getting engaged while we were there. We always hoped to live by the sea, and looked in Devon and Cornwall until we found this place.
“I always wanted to make things, and I became hooked on glass making in college. I got good technical training and discipline working in a small glass company, in terms of honing my skills, but it was not artistically satisfying,” he says. He wanted to be in full control of the whole process, from creating to selling. “I wanted to create a glass blowing studio with a gallery to display and sell the work in. It took a while to get established here but we have successfully done it now for 14 years which we are both delighted with.”
When they moved in, the building was in a terrible state. “It hadn’t been used as a bakery for 26 years, the windows were smashed and there was no water,” he says. “It took six months to get the furnace and studio up and running but we have never looked back.”
Since then, the sea and coastline have become an increasing inspiration for his art. The design of his seascape bowls and vases conveys a sense of movement and immersion. This is created through the vivid colours and textures he adds to the glass, and also by the shape of each vessel. His elegant Wavy Sea design reflects the white-tipped waves against the blue of the sea and the sky. The convex surface of the bowls brings the scene and patterns to life. It is as if they leap from the glass.
His designs range in size from dainty perfume bottles 4in (10cm) high to magnificent bowls measuring 19½in (50cm) in diameter.
Malcolm’s working day starts at 7am when he removes the previous day’s pieces from the ovens, and runs until 5pm when he finally lays down his blowing iron. The muffled ongoing rumble of the furnace is accompanied by the odd tinkling and pinging of small pieces of surplus glass as they cool and detach from the blowing irons. He is constantly on the move, deftly rotating, swinging and raising the blowing iron to his mouth to breathe into the vivid globule of molten glass at its end.
The furnace is used to heat the raw material, known as batch, to create the molten glass. This is 65 per cent silica sand, in pellet form. Inside the furnace is a brick box with a ceramic crucible, a container that can withstand extremely high temperatures.
Initially, it takes two days to get the temperature of the furnace up to the 1240°C required to create molten glass. It must be fired up slowly so as not to crack the crucible. The batch is shovelled into the furnace over the space of five hours. Doing this gradually helps achieve a better, more even melt.
After seven hours, the molten glass is as fluid as water. Malcolm then turns the furnace down, leaving it to reach its working temperature of 1055°C overnight. By the morning, the glass has the consistency of toffee and is ideal for working.
“The crucible holds 50kg of molten glass, which will last a week before I need to refill it,” he says.
Heating and cooling
In addition to the main furnace, there are two smaller ones, known as glory holes. The glass is returned to one of these frequently during the blowing process to soften and shape the vessel. Malcolm needs two to accommodate the different sized pieces he produces. He is able to produce only one or two of the largest bowls in a day. In the same time, he can make up to six smaller bowls.
The final element is the annealing oven. Annealing is a process whereby glass is heated then allowed to cool slowly. Doing this removes internal stresses and toughens the glass. “Everything I make has to be annealed,” says Malcolm. “As soon as I’ve finished blowing a piece, it goes in there at 500°C and stays at that temperature. At the end of the day, I set a programme timer that cools the oven slowly overnight, then the pieces come out in the morning. If they were left at room temperature to cool they would break.”
Creating the picture
To create one of his bowls, he begins with a blowing iron. This is a hollow tube of stainless steel with a nylon mouthpiece at one end. Opening the main furnace, he dips the bare end into the crucible of molten glass. It is rotated continuously so that the glass is collected evenly.
He now moves to his chair, as he needs to trundle the iron rod along the extended arm, causing the glass to rotate, gently shaping it. The small globule is placed inside a rounded hole in the centre ofa block he carved from cherry wood. “In many ways the surfaces and tools used are just as important as the glass,” he says. “For example, I use cherry wood because it doesn’t burn particularly quickly. It’s also close grained so it doesn’t mark the glass too much.”
The blocks are kept in water to remain damp. The water turns to steam when touched by the glass, lubricating the block so no marks or ash are left on the piece.
He now begins to add colour. A first layer of cerulean blue for the sky is gathered by dipping the piece into a bowl of powdered glass, which sticks to the hot surface. The glass is returned to the reheating furnace for a few seconds to soften so the powdered glass will adhere to it. A layer of white powder is then added to the blue. This will form the gentle cloud background of the design.
“To create a swirling sky effect, I throw water onto a table called a marver and spread it with my hand,” he says. “I twist the rod as the glass is run along the wet surface.”
The marver is made of thermal insulation to cope with the high temperatures. Malcolm saved it from a derelict science laboratory when he was a student. “As well as not catching fire, the material doesn’t take the heat from the glass like steel does,” he says.
Adding the white-tipped waves
After twisting it to his satisfaction, Malcolm returns the piece to the reheating furnace before a further layer of blue is added. More glass is gathered from the main furnace until the vessel resembles a light bulb in size, glowing red and orange. At this stage the colours underneath cannot be seen. The wave motif starts to be added with aqua-coloured powdered glass, Malcolm darting to and from the reheating furnace after each application. “I use a spoon to apply white granules because it allows a precise application of colour. These will become the wild crests of the waves when the bowl is blown. I’m trying to get a painterly quality, with the same feeling of depth,” he says.
The glass is blocked again using a slightly larger cherry wood mould, and is then ready to be blown. A burst of compressed air that comes from a gun dangling from the ceiling blasts the bottom to chill it. This is done to ensure the glass remains thicker at the base. Malcolm puts the rod to his mouth and blows steadily, expanding the bubble inside. The glass is returned to the glory hole after each blow. Now a tool known as a jack, which resembles a large pair of tweezers, is used to gradually score the rim closest to the blowing rod in preparation for its detachment. One of the jacks has cardboard tubes on its end, wet like the blocks so the glass is, as Malcolm explains, “riding on a cushion of steam”. A wad of damp newspaper is also used to manually shape the bowl.
If he wishes to create a more natural pointed shape, he swings the rod gently in a pendulum motion. “The idea is to make the glass do all of the work. All I am doing is gently coaxing it with the tools to get it to do what I want. Mainly I rely on heat and gravity and turning.”
Once the bowl is at the desired size, the glass is transferred to a punty. This is an iron rod whose name is believed to be derived from the French word pont meaning bridge. It is tipped with a wad of hot glass and attached to the bottom of the vessel to hold it while the top is finalised. Only a small aperture exists at the top where the blowing iron was attached. If this needs to be widened to create the rim of the bowl, Malcolm holds the piece close to the reheating furnace. Then he uses his jacks to slowly widen and shape the mouth. “It is a gradual process to open it out,” he says. “As soon as it is touched with cold wet tools it stops being malleable and needs to be reheated.” It can take at least 15 trips over 15 minutes to and from the kiln to shape the rim. It is during this stage that the final colours and patterns begin to emerge.
When the rim is smooth and at the right size, Malcolm chips off the punty rod and puts the bowl straight into the annealing oven to cool. When it comes out the following morning, it will have its punty mark – the ring-shaped scar on the base – ground off using a drill. Sometimes a piece will be sandblasted to enhance its colours and remove the reflections, depending on whether he feels the design will benefit from the glass having a matt or satin finish.
Once Malcolm has started making a piece, he has to see it through without pause. “There’s no stopping for a cup of tea. I can’t hang it up and have a think because it would crack and fall off of the blowing iron,” he says. “There’s a fluidity to the process and a spontaneity that would be lost if it was deliberated over in stages and I like that. Each piece is unique. Sometimes the colour has a mind of its own and will do what it wants. That is entirely natural and reflects the free blown nature of my work.”
Words: Eleanor Gaskarth Photography: Clive Doyle
The feature about Malcolm Sutcliffe's glassblowing studio originally appeared in the July / August 2015 issue of LandScape. For back issues click here or to subscribe to LandScape click here www.malcolm-sutcliffe.co.uk