In the second week of Makers’ Month here in Norwich, I visited Sonkai Jewellers to meet Senior Jewellery Designer Susan Blackler.
Title image: Susan Blackler by Gail D'Almaine
As luck would have it, on the same day that I was going to write to her, Sara Sweet - who founded Sonkai with her Partner Craig 12 years ago - got in touch with me, with something very exciting: about a month ago, Susan had entered a design in the Goldsmiths Craft and Design Council and had recently found out that she won a gold for the Fairtrade Jewellery Award.
So, last Friday when the sun was shining (did you see it?!), I made my way through the city to get to Sonkai just as they were opening the shop for the day.
I wrote about this jewellers just before Christmas in one of our shopping spotlights (pretend it’s November and read it here), and I was really pleased to be invited back. It’s the kind of place that feels immediately comfortable, simply because there’s stuff going on: Craig (who is a highly trained Goldsmith) is working on the bench with apprentice Lydia, Susan works on her designs at a desk beside them, and tiny plastic dinosaurs chill out inside the glass table where I take a seat.
If you don’t know anything about Sonkai, their very unique thing is that everything is designed and made in-store. You can go in, and if you have a bespoke piece, or need something altering, changing, fixing, reviving or resurrecting, their small team will work with you to make that happen. Susan - who is their senior jewellery designer - works with hand drawn illustrations and CAD models of the pieces, to then pass to Craig and Lydia to be realised. She is warm, and clearly passionate about what she does.
Firstly, Susan explains more about her award, which was presented to her at the historic Goldsmith’s Hall on the 26th of Feburary. The Fairtrade jewellery award is sponsored by Ingle and Rhode. The brief was to design a fine jewellery, ring, pendant or pair of earrings that are sympathetic, symbolic and supportive to the natural world and global preservation issues.”
Susan's ring represents water conservation and is called "Parched Earth". In her words, "At a time when we are constantly bombarded with media images of flooding and extreme storms it would be easy to forget that drought and desertification are problems of global dimensions. As many as 60 million people living in Sub-Saharan Africa may be forced to migrate as a result of desertification. The appearance of arid land is particularly visually striking and I hoped to capture this in the 'parched' matte finished texture that I have applied in this ring design. A meandering line of diamonds pave set along the lower edge represent precious water and as we move up the piece - through the 'earth's crust' - the water is gone and the 'soil' fractures - becoming 'dry' and matte.
This very special ring hasn’t been made yet, but here is what the finished article would look like…
Susan also won Gem-A’s Gem Empathy Award in 2016, for her spectacular, futuristic-yet-somehow-art-deco cuff design based around a ‘fantasy cut heliodor’ (it looks as mystical as it sounds, trust me). The cuff has now been made - you can see it in the store.
However, Susan started her career on a very different path; she actually is a trained medical professional, and worked as a junior doctor after qualifying. Although there were parts of the job that she really loved, she left the hospital behind 11 years ago, and her and her husband Steven moved to Florida for where Steven learned to become a helicopter pilot.
Amidst all of this change, Susan started making bridal jewellery. Inspired by her own experiences getting married, she began her own work, albeit “nothing involving heat and flames”. She sold her pieces on Etsy and in a shop in London, and unbelievably managed to maintain this business even when she moved with Steven to Macau - a 20 square-kilometre island of casinos just off the coast of Hong Kong.
The pair were in Macau for 2 and a half years, before moving to Norwich in 2013 - a place neither Susan nor Steven had lived before. So why Norwich? It's warmer than Aberdeen - the other city that they were thinking of moving to.
I asked Susan how she got the job at Sonkai. She told me she was so nervous about coming in, that it was Steven who eventually "manhandled her through the door" and got her talking to Sara. "It was timing", Susan explains, "I came in and it turns out they were about to start looking for someone". Sonkai had just got some new CAD software too, and as Sara was heavily pregnant at the time, Susan did a short 3D beginners course to learn how to use it. This course is the only official training she has ever done.
The rest of it is "learning and tinkering in your own time" And of course working with Craig - who is so highly skilled in his craft - is "invaluable" (from the bench Craig also chips in that his winning personality is also invaluable).
Susan designed all of Sonkai's current ranges (Reed, Pebble and Flint), and is currently working on a new range based on the Norwich shawl - an item the city was famous for in the 19th Century. After extensive research, Susan has just started working on some hand drawn concepts for some intricate, lace-like like metalwork... We can't WAIT to see the finished articles.
All in all, it's been an exciting couple of years at Sonkai - the team made history in 2016 by designing and making the civic chains for the Lord Mayor of Norwich, and looking around the shop and hearing about their plans for new and expanded ranges, it sounds like there is plenty more excitement to come. Susan will hear about when her award-winning ring will be created soon, and until then we are on the edge of our seats waiting to see it. Once 'Parched Earth' has been made, it will be another glittering testimony to her incredible talent, designer's eye and technical skill.
Sonkai is open Tuesday - Saturday, 10am until 3pm
As well as selling their own ranges, they do bespoke pieces, resizes, cleaning, re-modelling and everything in between. They're also really nice so do visit if you have something in mind!
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