Charlotte Garnett is a jewellery designer who graduated from world-class institutions such as Central Saint Martins and Sarabande: The Lee Alexander McQueen foundation. We sat with her to chat about her pieces, which uniquely aim to artfully relieve anxiety and fidgets.
We ring the bell for Alexander Davis’ shop on regal Duke Street in Mayfair. Neighbouring Selfridges, this is not a bad place to have a shop and come into work each day. This is where Charlotte Garnett completed her apprenticeship with the namesake fine jeweller, and she now works there, assisting Davis with his dazzling high-end pieces.
We walk in to the small showroom space, where Charlotte’s own pieces are beautifully displayed upon the table, and begin our conversation. I ask her the very basic question of how she came into her current profession, and marvelled at the depth of her response:
‘It’s really a lot to do with my own mental health journey. I always wanted to make something that had a functionality… I came from a painterly background but found that the 2-dimensional quality of the work wasn’t doing enough for what I wanted to convey because people can see a painting and be impacted by it, but once you leave, the feeling dissipates. So jewellery was the next step for me, it’s something you can take around with you all the time, and something that transcends generations. It naturally goes with having a lot of meaning and a lot of sentiment. So I started doing jewellery and tried to find way to put emotional, autobiographical concepts with it. I find that the best way to put across a design is when it’s honest and sincere.’
‘Anyway, I went to CSM, which is known as an extremely high-pressure environment. As well as being the top institution in its field, the pressure comes with it. It was during that period I developed anxiety in my second year. As I was trying to find ways around it, and to deal with it, I was trying to come up with my third year project. I pitched to my tutor about doing my collection on subcultures, but she could tell that wasn’t what I was really thinking about, and pushed me to tell her what was really consuming my mind. And she said, “Look, if you’re going to produce emotional work, make it about what your emotions are really about!” And I did, and it was the best advice I could ever have been given because then what was all-consuming and in-the-way became an all-driving force.’
As I fiddle with each of the pieces before me on the table, I am drawn to a particular piece–a ‘nubbin’ piece–that is a gorgeous dusty pink. I am amazed to discover that it is not dyed at all, but that the Zimbabwean pink ivory wood that it is made of grows naturally in this way. I ask about the materiality of her pieces, and its importance in her practice.
‘Materiality is really important for my pieces because it’s all about the touching experience. I’m very picky about what materials I choose to use. My research wasn’t so much the typical art school research, but instead involved a lot of psychology papers. I read a paper about visual memory and how an image can recall a certain emotion or memory. So with the resin in some of my pieces, I was trying to capture either a habit you want to be getting away from, or something that actually brings you comfort in a positive way. For example, this nubbin piece—this was inspired by my best friend, whose anxious habit was to twist up tissues and leave a trail of bits of tissue all around her. So that’s what I put in the resin for her, but arranged it to look like rutilated quartz. Same with my piece with the cigarette ash mixed with gold leaf. There’s something of McQueen in them as well—really enjoying that non-material bias. An artist should be able to have that different perspective to see beauty in places other people don’t.’
‘I later realised that what might be missing for a lot of people with the resin was the actual surface texture, so that’s when I moved on to the woods. And ebony really spoke to me not just for the colour-way (I love a bit of black and gold), but it’s such a dense grain, it has such a silky-soft buttery feel to it, that it provides textural comfort in and of itself. It’s the same kind of psychology as how stroking a cat makes you feel better.’
‘To counterbalance both these light materials (resin and wood), I went with the metals. Against the wood, that’s quite a cold against a warm texture. Also the weight of it—it propels the momentum of the piece in your hand and encourages the movement of it.’
I pick up on the fact that she mentioned McQueen. I know from Charlotte’s Instagram that she has met Shaun Leane – McQueen’s primary collaborator when it came to jewellery – and ask about how they met.
‘When I won the Bright Young Gems competition with my graduate collection, I got to exhibit with the top 5 graduate designers in IJL (International Jewellery London). At IJL, Shaun happened to be exhibiting downstairs, and I couldn’t let that opportunity pass me by. I had to grab a hold of him and get him to have a look at my collection. He had a look and took a business card, and I was just happy to have him see my work. But unexpectedly, he rang me a week later and I nearly passed out from excitement to have Shaun Leane on my phone. He asked me if I knew about McQueen and Sarabande – which of course I did – and said he had put me up for it, showed the panel my work, and if I was interested I could go along and have my interview. So that’s what happened! I then became one of the first members of Sarabande, which is a charity foundation set up to support emerging designers and artists that might not have the means to survive in London otherwise, like McQueen had a struggle with. I was chuffed to bits to be a part of his personal legacy. I’ve watched it grow from the ground up, watch the community grow, and it’s like my little art family – I love it!’
‘How did being a part of Sarabande influence your career and practice?’ I ask.
‘It really helped me to be more of a professional. I find there’s a massive gap when you come out of an art school like CSM that’s massively design- and concept-led. It’s not so much about “Which technical skills do you need to have a job, and make your bread-and-butter money which will be engagement rings?”
‘When I was at uni I was creating the art-based conceptual pieces which—in my art school eyes–I saw as products. “Easy-peasy, now put them in the shops.” But what I didn’t realise is that shops have boxes to tick. It has to be under the necklaces category, or under the rings category, and my work doesn’t fit those categories. I love that about my work! I really enjoy the fact that I don’t tick boxes, I think that’s what it should be about. But what Sarabande has helped me to realise is that to get that message across to people, and to be able to have it on that larger scale, my work has to be recognisable as jewellery in some sense. That will allow the segway for people to come into it and say, “Maybe I will push myself that bit further to interact with a piece that I wouldn’t even necessarily recognise as jewellery.”’
What is so unique about Charlotte’s pieces is that they are indeed jewellery, redefined. They may not be worn on your person at all times, like a ring might, but Charlotte describes them as an extension of yourself. They are second nature–you reach for and fiddle with them mindlessly. And they’re bespoke, too. Each detail and design element in her pieces has a function specific to each person. Nothing is done extraneously.
‘Everything has some kind of visual or kinetic element,’ she says. ‘After wearing my pieces and listening to customer feedback, I found a lot of people were attracted to the pointed ends of the pieces, and getting that pressure relief there as they press their thumb into it. The spinning earrings, the spinning necklace, these have that element of pressure relief as well. You can therefore get a different experience from spinning the earrings, or pressing the point.’
‘I talk to people a lot about their fidgets and kind of zone in and see them right away, but I prefer to have people realise it for themselves. Because then when they’re commissioning a piece from me, they can think about all the scenarios where their piece might come in handy, and they see the value of it for themselves without having me to tell them why it’s valuable or useful.’
Charlotte explains to me that jewellery is traditionally meant to serve as some kind of family heirloom, embedded with meaning and passed on through the generations. Jewellery is supposed to be personal and meaningful for the individual, and Charlotte tries to bring that element back with her own practice.
I wonder what’s next for her – what she’s looking to do next.
‘Collaborations is one of the things I’m really looking forward to in the future. Working with Mary Katranzou was my first collaboration, so it was really in at a deep end, haha. But having a collection go down London Fashion Week was fantastic, and I want to continue on that path. It’s important to stay fresh by working with other people. It sets the ball rolling and gets me thinking about things I could make that I normally wouldn’t come up with myself.’
‘In that same vein, I’m really interested in making a collective that speaks to where the jewellery world sits in regard to fashion. We’ve talked about jewellery and how I feel that it’s lost its sentimentality. I think that’s because of the impact that fast fashion has had. All kinds of accessories – millinery, shoes, bags – they’re all subcategories of fashion. Instead of being allowed to be their own category, they are secondary to fashion. I’m not going to pump out work according to the fashion calendar. I owe it to my customers – I have to test each piece thoroughly. It took me a year to work out all the kinks with the necklace I’m wearing now – I wore it for a year every day to test it. So I’m not going to rush myself.’