Jewellery designers show intellectual metal

February 18, 2005

Plenty of jewellery will have passed hands earlier this week as proffered tokens of love. But jewellery design is not just about the heart, it is also an intellectual pursuit.

At least, that is, according to Norman Cherry, head of the University of Central England's School of Jewellery. He heads Europe's largest jewellery school, the only such stand-alone institution in the UK, with more than 500 students enrolled on courses ranging from diplomas to doctorates.

The school has been situated in the centre of Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter since its establishment in 1890. Its present building was a jewellery factory and, then a trade school. Not long after, the school spread beyond its humble factory origins. And Professor Cherry is keen to push its academic credentials.

He said: "The school has always had this relationship with industry, but we are about much more than that."

From their first week, students are asked to consider the relationship between jewellery and the body.

"It's not Mickey Mouse stuff, these really are worthy intellectual pursuits," Professor Cherry said. "It's not just about teaching people specific rules about designing for handmade or industrial products, you can liken it to engineering in that sense."

Students consider theoretical, historical, critical and contextual studies while they learn the craft of jewellery making.

"On one hand, we are teaching students basic things such as how to make a ring but also asking them about the relationship of all this stuff to the body and adornment and a historical, almost archaeological approach," he said.

Students go on either to work in industry or to set up their own businesses. And here, Professor Cherry is keen to promote innovative design and technology in all aspects of academic work and in industry.

"Design isn't just a little add-on, it has to be part of the most intrinsic thinking. It should be important in product management rather than something that comes in at the end as an afterthought," he said.

Links with industry are important. Gaynor Andrews directs the higher national diploma in jewellery and silversmithing, overseeing students designing their own ranges and selling them in retail space in the Quarter.

This gives them an idea of business and the chance to make money, which goes towards study visits to jewellery fairs. The school is inundated with industrial collaboration and competition offers.

"We choose the projects with educational value rather than just work experience and winning money," she said.

Apart from producing highly trained jewellers, the school boasts a direct influence on industry, not least the introduction of laser welding into jewellery making. Having bought a machine, the school trained its students and laser welding is now widely used in the jewellery-making industry.

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