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Heirlooms of the future

Words by Dan Warden

Life-changing inspiration, nowadays, is rarely found on the shelves of a university library.

Now at the helm of a thriving, sustainable jewellery business on the outskirts of Penzance, with a growing team of creative artisans, I ask Justin Duance to tell us a bit about his background and how he first came to start making jewellery.

“Coming to the end of my A Levels, I was still a bit of a drifter with no real idea about where I was going. I had played in various bands with some success and really just wanted to travel, surf and play music. Fortunately, my mum had a slightly different vision for me and nudged me in the direction of more education. Since I was creative and was always making things, I decided to do a foundation in art for a year at Portsmouth University. This was a course needed to move onto a degree in a creative subject.

“However, travel, surfing, music and a general lack-lustre attitude wasn’t working for me very well at Portsmouth. I never understood the briefs and was pretty uninspired. After a few months of this meandering I found myself in the library and spotted a book on contemporary jewellery. I had no idea jewellery could be anything you want it to be. It doesn’t have to be made from precious metals and covered in gemstones; really it can be anything. Jewellery could be made from plastic or concrete and treated as a small, or sometimes not-so-small, work of art. I was actually inspired! I never looked back, completing all the projects as small pieces of three-dimensional art. I continued in education and studied a BA in Jewellery and Silversmithing at Sir John Cass Faculty of Art in London.”

Initially, Justin focused on men’s jewellery. Or, rather, jewellery that he would want to wear, which he explains tended to be quite chunky, combining organic materials and metals. “Although not necessarily male or female, I did get a reputation for making men’s pieces,” he says. “Not many contemporary jewellers were making pieces like this 22 years ago, and I think it helped me when starting my business. In reality, I would say that I had equal male and female customers, going to show that there isn’t really such a thing as ‘men’s’ jewellery – it’s just a matter of style and preference.”

So what about his connection to Cornwall? How and why did Justin come to launch a business here? “I was born in Truro, but my father was a Civil Engineer so when I was little, we moved away and I spent my formative years in Iran and Sudan. However, all of our extended family lived in Cornwall, so we would regularly come back.”

Justin’s first outlet was actually in London. “You wouldn’t say I ‘launched’ the business,” he says. “It was more a fortuitous circumstance dealt by the hand of fate. In the days after university I struggled to get a job, so one day I decided to take some of my jewellery into a shop in London. They wanted it, and I never looked back, deciding to make and sell my jewellery rather than getting a job. I always had a jewellery bench in my bedroom to make pieces at home, so it was an obvious step. I was lucky,” he admits, “I never had to get a job, selling enough to survive and gradually build a business from it.”

But as is the case for so many with ties here, Justin’s familial roots in Cornwall never ceased to call. “My dad lived in Penzance and there,” says Justin, “he helped me taking my work into local galleries. Before I knew it, I had my work in more galleries in Cornwall than anywhere else in the country, so as soon as my lease was up in London, I returned home.”

Justin’s focus, as a designer, has always been on using the contrast between materials and how they interact. “We consider our jewellery unisex; at the end of the day, what people wear is up to the individual. We’ve made all sorts of things for all kinds of people. I think my focus has always been to make jewellery approachable, to make pieces that people will wear every day, that mean something to them. Our jewellery isn’t held on a pedestal.”

It is, however, constantly evolving. “The jewellery style has changed a lot over the years,” reflects Justin. “The designs are influenced by the team. It is a group effort and everyone’s style and technique go into creating what we have to offer. Having said that, we still make designs that I made 20 years ago. Pieces then started off with a more angular, architectural feel, but now I really like more organic styles so you can see the piece is made by hand. Mostly, new pieces are dictated by a technique or a new material.”

Justin recalls only a few years ago, when he and his team found a source of fully traced rough sapphires, which led to the launch of their Rough Stone Collection. “In more recent years, we’ve started doing more bead setting, which has led to us finding creative ways of setting stones as if they have grown in the metal, like our Sandcast Scatter Rings. It’s a particularly good technique for vintage stones that are more irregular in size.”

Already influenced by the team, techniques and the sourcing of new materials, Justin explains that customers are also a constant source of inspiration. This translates into an understanding of the personality, history and uniquity that augment the family heirlooms that so many customers bring to the workshop, which in turn creates the challenge of developing new, beautiful and sensitive ideas to help reimagine these most treasured of items.

Over the years, Justin has undertaken some amazing commissions, including cluster rings made for a customer wishing to combine her late mother’s engagement and wedding rings; a couple who were pianists who wanted wedding rings to represent their musical character; and a complete re-imagining of an art deco ring – sand-cast, with the diamonds set into the texture. And while the nature of commissions that come through the door vary wildly, one thing remains constant, and that is that no one commission is the same. “It really depends on what we are starting with,” says Justin. “Mostly, we are working on something that is based on a design we have worked on before, or the customer has some heirloom jewellery they want to change into something else. The type of gemstones, or amount and colour of gold; all can dictate the final design,” says Justin. And therein lies the joy of jewellery design for him and his crew.

“There are now ten people working here,” he explains. “It’s amazing to have all the influence and skill of so many brilliant people, and I wouldn’t be where I am now without them. That’s the beauty of a team.”

Having lightly touched upon them, I ask Justin to explain the idea of sand-casting, and how the thought first came to him. “I started trying to use sand-casting to cast precious metals around rough gemstones in 2008,” he says. “I really liked the texture that the sand left and shortly after started using beach sand to create a more distinct texture. I really like how you never quite know how the ring will turn out.”

It took him some time to refine the technique, but it was worth it. Here in Cornwall, at a time when customers are increasingly on the hunt for products with both personal meaning and individuality, it was truly a move of ingenuity. “At first, we would use sand from Newlyn, where our workshop was based. We started telling our customers about the Newlyn sand, and this evolved into the odd person collecting their own sand from a place special to them for their jewellery to be cast in. We now have an ever-growing collection of hundreds of sands from all over the world that customers can choose from. It’s a lovely way of personalising your piece – the sand not only creates the texture; tiny grains are also captured within the metal, so you can carry a little piece of your favourite place everywhere you go.”

As a creator, Justin values the inspiration he takes from materials and techniques; how a new technique could create or influence a new style, or dictate the design of a piece. “Jewellery should mean something to its wearer,” he says. “Sometimes the most valuable piece might not be precious, but one given by someone special or bought in a special place and time.” As a business, he summarises the ethos as “ethical”. Not just in the pieces they make and the materials they use, this ‘ethical’ standard is applied to the lives of everybody who works there, in Justin’s words, “making the business work for everyone’s lifestyle choices, and having an inclusive attitude to any major business decisions.”

“We are a close team and the business is run by everyone in their own way. I wouldn’t say I’m the one who has made it what it is today. Everyone who works here has worked towards our success. We feel a bit like a family; we celebrate birthdays at the workshop with feasts and cake in our lunch break, we go on days out… happy jewellers make better jewellers, after all!”

On that note, I find myself wondering about the space in which they work. How does it inspire creativity day-to-day? Located in the woods outside of Penzance, the quiet location is very much immersed in nature. The workshop walls are lined with jars of sand from all over the world, given to the team by customers; all the tools and equipment collected over the years make it a space for creating interesting bespoke pieces of jewellery – “even down to the old hammers from my grandpa”, says Justin.

Within this space, visitors will find that sustainability and strong ethics are very much at the business’ foundations. Incorporating recycled materials (all silver and gold is 100% recycled) as well as fully traced, and sometimes pre-owned, gemstones and diamonds, Justin explains that “the cuts aren’t always so perfect, but that means you get something with more character”. In fact, he is excited to tell me that he has now found a reliable source of vintage old cut diamonds, their irregular hand-cut shapes pairing perfectly with the stunning sand-cast bands. But that’s not all. The team recycle almost everything they use, with only minimal waste; the workshop is heated using a heat pump, with electricity drawing from renewable sources only. The business was even awarded ‘Plastic Free’ status by Surfers Against Sewage.

As an example of all of this, Justin reveals a commission for one customer and her late mother’s engagement and wedding rings. “She didn’t want to wear all three as they were, but wished to feel a connection to her mother,” he explains. “She commissioned us to make a piece combining the metals and all the diamonds. We based it on our cluster ring, and arranged her stones in such a way that looked natural whilst not being too ostentatious.”

“Another client had a beautiful art deco ring that had belonged to three generations of women in her family. The piece was far too small for her and didn’t suit her style – she did say she had always been the black sheep of the family!” says Justin. “She asked us to turn it into an extra texture sandcast ring with the diamonds set into the texture. It couldn’t have been further from the original and she was overjoyed. Even though the piece looks completely different, it is still made from those same materials and carries all the sentimental value and memories.”

In short, whether it’s a brand-new piece of jewellery, sand-cast with the grains of a beach far-flung, or the re-imagining of a multi-generational heirloom, a piece of jewellery from Justin Duance is the product of a better way of business. The team’s approach to sustainable design encapsulates character, sentiment and joy in equal measure, and their continual adoption of new, sustainable practices ensures a future-proof model for the creation of adornments that promise, themselves, to become treasured heirlooms of the future.


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