Australian Landscape Jewellery (ALJ) is the distinctive vision of two Australian artists: jeweller Suzette Watkins and photographer Mike Fewster. By combining the two interests into one innovative business concept, ALJ incorporates the beauty of our country’s landscape into the jewellery designs. As an ALJ customer, when you purchase a piece of jewellery, you also receive the accompanying photo that inspired the design – how nifty is that?
In anticipation of their participation in the upcoming Hahndorf edition of the Gathered Design Market (11 – 13 December, 2020), I was fortunate enough to have a chat with Suzette and Mike about ALJ – here’s their story:
Tema: Can you please tell us a bit about yourselves, Suzette and Mike?
Suzette: Before I started making jewellery, I was the Director of the Alice Springs Cultural Precinct. Mike was a teacher, who headed the education unit in the Alice Springs Prison. I swapped my office desk for a jeweller’s bench in 2006 when I started learning to be a silversmith at TAFE SA. I’d been making jewellery before that, but this was the real beginning of the silversmithing. We love travelling and the outback, so inspiration was all around us. Mike has been a photographer all his life, but it wasn’t until we left Alice Springs that he had the time to really concentrate on it. We looked for a way that we could continue to do what we loved (travelling around Australia and taking photos) as well as scratching the itch I felt when interpreting this country in jewellery.
Tema: How long has ALJ been in business for and how have you found the journey of being a small-scale business based in SA so far?
Suzette: We’ve been doing ALJ as a business since 2006, and the journey has been pretty full on. We’ve done a heap more travelling, been artists in residence at Ayers Rock Resort most years since 2009. Additionally, I’ve worked hard in the studio (often 60 hours a week when the big orders from galleries have come in), but I can honestly say it’s been a great ride so far!
Tema: How would you brand your style of jewellery and why did you choose to focus on this style in particular?
Suzette: The name Australian Landscape Jewellery can sound a bit boring, but we couldn’t come up with anything else that explained so well what we do. My jewellery is very organic. Few straight lines, distressed silver and occasionally steel or copper, semi-precious and precious stones, but always stones that are less worked – more organic again, I suppose. The Australian landscape can be quite rough. No straight lines out there either (apart from the roads!) So, it was inevitable that the jewellery which was interpreting this landscape was going to try to find that look. I don’t try to reproduce the place exactly. Instead, I go with the feel of the place, the colours, etc. Most of my work is quite abstract and I rarely get ‘pictorial’, although it has happened. I’m a silversmith, so all my work is in sterling silver, sometimes with a hint of gold. All my findings are sterling silver as well, so people who are wary of nickel silver or silver-plated can feel reassured that it’s all straight sterling.
Tema: Since your inception, how has ALJ grown, in terms of the diversity and variety of designs in jewellery?
Suzette: The number of designs has grown enormously since we started. I find it difficult to let go of a design that ‘works’ so I have shelves and shelves of pieces that rarely get an outing. You can’t show everything at a market, so some items have to be left behind when choosing what stock to include. While what I’ve been making has progressed in terms of intricacy and design, I think I’ve really stayed true to my basic design tenet – responding to the landscape. I’m using more precious stones now (diamonds, sapphires and especially Australian sapphires) as the designs evolve and call for that kind of detail.
Tema: Can you please tell us a bit about how your travels across Australia inspire you to pump into the beauty of ALJ?
Suzette: It’s a complicated process. Mike and I are usually drawn to the same places. He starts photographing and I keep looking at what interests me. I might sketch a detail of the landscape, take colour notes or sketch the whole sweep. Sometimes, I ask Mike to focus on a specific area, but mostly he takes what interests him. It’s when I’m back in the studio looking at my notes and sketches and his photos that I consider how I might reveal this or that aspect of the landscape. We mostly travel in a Toyota HiLux with a camper-trailer and camp wherever the spirit takes us. We’re pretty self-sufficient. Sometimes, we take off with just a tent and a swag, and sometimes just the swag. It depends on the country that we’re heading into. We carry lots of water and good solar panels for the fridge and generally live pretty well while we are out there.
Tema: What do you think helps ALJ stand out from the rest in the industry?
Suzette: No one else is making jewellery that so directly responds to the landscape. With each piece of jewellery, we put in a card with Mike’s photo of the place that inspired that piece. People can see the direct line between the landscape and the jewellery. Mike’s photos are works of art in their own right, so it offers two views of the same place in two different mediums. The back of the photo card gives information about what the place is, where it is and what I’ve made the jewellery from.
Tema: Why should customers support ALJ?
Suzette: Our items are outstanding value for money (where do you get solid sterling silver at these prices?), because of our great quality and our unbeatable after-sales backup. Plus, we love to talk and have a laugh with you. Our pricing is so good because we have spent a lot of time finding and developing our suppliers. We have cutters who provide us with stones that are cut to our specifications and glass beads that have been custom-made. We have also commissioned other artists to make work to be included in special pieces – we have put our heart and soul into this.
Tema: How did you navigate through the COVID times with running your business successfully?
Suzette: COVID was a real wake-up call. After WOMADelaide was over, every single event where we had planned to be exhibiting was cancelled. All the galleries and shops closed and didn’t require our jewellery or photographs. We were not going to starve, but our income dramatically reduced. JobKeeper was particularly welcome. Mike and I spent a lot of time on the website. If we had to rely more on online sales, the website had to look as good as possible. I blogged a bit, but it was ramping up the social media that made the most difference. The more I posted on Facebook and Instagram, the more visitors came to the website and we saw an increase in our sales. I got to be a bit more savvy about how to use both of these platforms – improving the targeting of hashtags, improving the photos I took and making sure I included our website in all posts.
Tema: Do you primarily offer standard designs or are you open to custom orders as well?
Suzette: I LOVE doing commissions! I spend a fair bit of time making sure the client understands the way I work. I ask them which designs they like in my jewellery and get a ‘feel’ for the way they are thinking. We discuss price, stones, timelines, and expectations. Usually I offer a rough sketch which they can accept, modify or reject and we go from there. It’s very much a two-way process: I like to involve the client as much as possible. It helps a bit if I already know the place, but it’s not essential.
Tema: Do you primarily operate online or have you got a few stockists around, where customers can access your products?
Suzette: In normal times, I have several galleries around Australia selling my work. At the moment, it’s basically T’Arts Gallery in Gay’s Arcade (off Adelaide Arcade), Gannon House Gallery in The Rocks in Sydney and the galleries at Ayers Rock Resort. Some of the others are coming back to selling again, but I think it’s going to be slow-going.
Tema: What are some products of yours that you think are customer favourites and why do you think that might be the case?
Suzette: Lorikeets has been a customer favourite since I first made it. It’s full of bright, happy colours and goes with so many things. Desert Night Sky tends to be the stand-out for the younger crowd. It’s got sparkly Swarovski crystal and freshwater pearl stars against a background of the desert sky, all held together by sterling silver wire. Tasmanian Waratah pendant is a new one but has already come to be very popular. Just sterling silver on a sterling neck ring. The Tasmanian Waratah is different, and so is this pendant. Earrings, earrings, earrings! Each earring has a necklace (although not always the other way around) but earrings are a perennial favourite. Small, light to post and all sterling silver ear wires. Who doesn’t love earrings? And (nearly) all can be made with clips for those without pierced ears.
Tema: What can your customers anticipate from your participation at the Hahndorf edition of the market?
Suzette: They will be able to see a fairly wide range of my jewellery and Mike’s photos, with items starting from $40. At a fair like this, I usually have some higher-end pieces as well as the more accessible pieces as I think people like to know what I can do – this is especially true of people who might be considering a commission. Mike’s photos are striking and quite large, so it’s hard to miss us and we usually light our stall pretty well, There’s no point in having jewellery if it’s not well lit! We also have a special offer for people coming to Gathered SA’s Hahndorf Christmas Fair – if you buy 2 or more pieces, we give you 20% off.
Australian Landscape Jewellery will be participating in the upcoming Hahndorf edition of the Gathered Design Market from December 11-13, 2020.