Etruscan and pre-Columbian metalwork influences inspire jewellery designer

Bespoke jewellery designer, Gillian Hillman specialises in handcrafting beautiful jewellery for the everyday woman and aims to produce striking, edgy pieces that are wearable and…

Bespoke jewellery designer, Gillian Hillman specialises in handcrafting beautiful jewellery for the everyday woman and aims to produce striking, edgy pieces that are wearable and comfortable. “I like to think that people will get to wear the piece frequently, rather than having something tucked away in a drawer for years.”

The Melbourne based designer has been making jewellery for three decades. Her foray into jewellery began when she put aside her economic studies at Monash University and took up a gold and silversmithing course at RMIT. She started working in the jewellery trade full time after deciding to postpone her graduating year until she had more bench practice.

“I realised that I would gain more from the design lecturers if my skills were improved. So, I took a year off, and worked for Stuart Ferguson, a manufacturing jeweller, making master patterns and then for a specialist handmade business called Puzsar jewellery,” she said.

When Ms Hillman returned to complete her Gold and Silversmithing Diploma, she won the jewellery prize for that year. In her final year of college she started her business, working initially on private commissions. For more than 20 years she exhibited at Makers Mark, in group exhibitions and solo shows.

Following her graduation, she took up various short business courses, aware that that as well as being a designer, she needed to know how to manage a business. In order to pursue making her own designs, she needed to be self-employed.

“My first full time workshop was in North Melbourne at the Meat Market Craft Centre, a fabulous old meat market that had been taken over and converted to a haven for crafts people with private studios, access and private workshops, as well as a large exhibition space. It included a craft shop, and Craft Council of Victoria had an office there for a while,” she recalled.

Over the years, Ms Hillman has visited many jewellery galleries, including the memorable Pforzeim Gallery in Germany. She is particularly inspired by Etruscan, and pre-Columbian metalwork and is an admirer of work by various German jewellers such as Herman Junger and Godwin Baum. Last year, she discovered a Scottish jeweller called Jacqueline Ryan, describing her work as “extraordinary, and a real inspiration.”

Initially wedding and engagement rings formed a large part of the Gillian Hillman Design offer but now, it has expanded to include necklaces, earrings and bangles, favouring precious metals, gemstones and pearls.

“I am currently enjoying working with large Australian baroque pearls from Northern Australia. I’ve set these with black diamonds – the lustre, the colour and the shape of the pearls is all very inspiring. Opals too, are so underappreciated, but so beautiful,” she said.

Ms Hillman says she is fortunate to have some “terrific suppliers” in Australia. During visits to Melbourne based fairs she has found they are happy to give her “fabulous stones and pearls” on consignment to show her customers.

As an artisan, Ms Hillman enjoys learning new skills from the ancient Korean technique of Keum-bu to forging, hydraulic press work and monumé and steel blanking. “Keum-bu is a bonding of 24ct gold to the surface of another metal, usually fine silver. Sterling silver, used for jewellery, must have a fine silver layer created on it to allow attachment,” she explained. “This is achieved by a process called depletion gilding, an involved and time consuming process, but highly effective.”

Each design can be tailored for each individual. Different face shapes, for instance, will need varying shapes and lengths of earrings. By working directly with clients, Ms Hillman can make sure each person has something customised to suit them. Appreciating that a lot of people can’t visualise well, she will often make a piece in silver to show the client before working in gold. This way, she is able to fine tune ideas.

“I love the way a small change in design can significantly change the look of a piece. I always have a significant collection to show customers who come by appointment during the year, and it’s a great starting point to have rings for them to try on before starting a remodelling or commission from scratch,” she said.

For more than 20 years, the designer has turned her St Kilda West studio into a mini gallery space featuring various artists’ paintings or her own photography, to welcome customers to view the entire collection. The annual exhibition is celebrated with opening drinks and remains open for the December period.

“The idea is to create a friendly relaxed environment in which people can try on pieces and look for gifts. Many customers have been coming to me for more than 30 years, which is really gratifying,” she said.

In recent years, Ms Hillman has partnered with the Ruffy Gourmet Store, a gourmet provedore located in Ruffy, Victoria, for weekend exhibitions- a cross promotional concept that includes champagne breakfasts and dinners. She also holds a jewellery exhibition in an annual picnic weekend at the vineyard of Ovens Valley winery, Mayford Wines, to celebrate the new vintage. “These events are mutually beneficial, but also a lot of fun.”

Ms Hillman moved her full-time business model into a part time one when she started her family and then analysed what was most important to her. She looked closely at what she enjoyed and whether it made economic sense moving forward. In her early days, she supplied up to eight galleries around Australia. Now, working directly with clients has becomea larger part of her practice and she finds it useful for feedback.

For Gillian Hillman Design, the pandemic this year has been a chance for the artisan to slow down and to do more study. “I love Peter Keep’s Jewellery Solutions videos. I am also serious about my French studies, which also take quite a bit of time. I walk each morning and listen to the French news and have online face to face classes each week,” she said, acknowledging that there have been some supply issues during this time.

“Like everyone else in Victoria it has been difficult but my gold dealer is still operating thankfully. The benefit is that I have reappraised my stones and found some beautiful precious stones I had overlooked

The idea is to create a friendly relaxed environment in which people can try on pieces and look for gifts. Many customers have been coming to me for more than 30 years, which is really gratifying

for years. My customers appreciate that we are in difficult times but after the lockdown we will be able to meet face to face and I can present drawings and samples for them to try on, soon, hopefully,” she said.

As a designer working for herself, Ms Hillman feels the best part of her work is the pleasure she derives from making jewellery and seeing the happiness on people’s faces. In addition, she cites the flexibility it has given her to manage a busy family of three children and a husband with a demanding job.

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