From a tiny makeshift workshop in a corner of her dad’s garage to her own business and now Birmingham’s Jeweller in Residence. We chart the sparkling rise of Vanessa Miller
Vanessa Miller’s love affair with making jewellery began when she enrolled in evening classes at Midlands Arts Centre. By the end of her second session she had already set up a small workshop in the corner of her dad’s garage where she continued to make jewellery until eventually applying to study full-time for an HND in Jewellery and Silversmithing at Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery.
After graduating in 2016, Vanessa hasn’t looked back, setting up her own business and recently being named the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter’s second Jeweller in Residence. The prestigious title means that Vanessa, whose own business is based in the JQ, will work from the museum regularly over the next year. She is creating a new jewellery range on sale exclusively at the museum shop as part of a project which aims to promote local designers.
The competition run by the museum in partnership with the university’s School of Jewellery, asked entrants to design a two-piece jewellery collection inspired by the iconic snake range produced by the historic Smith & Pepper factory, which the museum is built around. Vanessa took inspiration from the Smith & Pepper sketchbooks and reflected some of the classic shapes into her winning designs.
She said: “I was thrilled to be named Jeweller in Residence. I’ve never won anything before! My hopes are that it will raise my profile as a jewellery designer maker helping me to grow as a business.” Vanessa says last year was a difficult time for her personally, which makes the Jeweller in Residence award all the more exciting and invigorating for her.
“This year I am getting back on track. I am updating stock in existing galleries and reaching out to new stockists. I want to research and apply for new courses to develop my skills and learn new skills so I can offer something new to my customers. And of course I will be creating two new pieces to add to the snake collection for sale exclusively through the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter.”
Designing and making jewellery is more than a business for Vanessa – it’s a passion. She says: “I love it. It’s probably what’s on my mind most if not all of the time. I love that I can design something that I then make come to life through manipulating metals or carving and casting.”
Vanessa makes unique silver jewellery, ranging from small charm necklaces and earrings to larger detailed pendants, brooches and rings – some with moving elements. She says: “My work is inspired by nature, the wonders of the world around me, holidays abroad and carefree, happy childhood memories. I aim to capture something unique and special about the subject and design with a smile in mind.”
She also enjoys hand forming, modelling and carving to create unique three-dimensional designs in precious metals. “My work is embellished with gold and set with semi-precious stones. I enjoy making small repeatable designs, one-off pieces and working to commission.”
While Vanessa loves creating her own ideas for pieces, she finds working to commissions just as rewarding. “When a customer comes to me with an idea or with old unwanted jewellery wanting something new created, I find this an exciting challenge,” she explains. “There’s also a little mix of apprehension as sometimes I am presented with a material that I’ve not worked with before or I need to learn a new skill to achieve what I’ve designed and I love that. I find the end result very satisfying and it’s a wonderful feeling seeing the customer’s reaction! I love sharing my skills with my students too and watch them develop and explore and learn.”
As part of her Residency, Vanessa works once a week, usually on a Wednesday, in the museum’s perfectly preserved workshop where visitors can watch what she is making and chat to her about her skills. “It’s a real privilege to be presented with the wonderful opportunity to work in such a historic and important building here in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter,” she says. “The staff and volunteers are all so lovely and I’ve had some really interesting conversations with visitors.”
We wondered what’s the most expensive and challenging piece Vanessa has designed? “That’s a pendant I made as part of my residency at the School of Jewellery BCU. I made three pendants, all are containers to hold small objects and inspired by the Japanese inro with an underwater nature theme. One was entirely hand-fabricated, textured with a hand-cut shoal of fish design with gold detailing on the container and on its chain and clasp which presented me with some real challenges.”