Sometimes you just meet someone who blows you away with their resilience. How they haven’t stopped a life-changing event get them down. In fact they’ve turned it into an opportunity!
Deborah Beck was severely injured in an accident in her 30’s which put an end to her happy career as a personal trainer. Was she down about it? No! She instead decided to start a brand new career as a jewellery designer!
She’s now in her 4th year as a designer maker and as well as making gorgeous, statement jewellery, she also uses her work to promote environmental issues.
Oh and she’s also been awarded prizes for her work and had pieces featured on the TV! Inspiring or what?
Read Deborah’s amazing story here...
We need to get to know you! Are you a tea or coffee person? How do you take it?
Tea – and probably way more than is necessary in a day. I’m a converted Yorkshire tea lass now and I’m also definitely at the ‘builders’ end of the spectrum.
How would you describe your jewellery?
Contemporary silver and mixed metal jewellery with an environmental conscience and a clean and distinctive style.
What materials do you use?
I work mainly in silver, (eco and recycling as much as possible), sometimes with brass and I have also started working in a little bit of gold just lately too. I use ethically sourced precious and semi-precious gemstones if I’m stone setting and in my latest collection, ‘Plasticity’ I have re-purposed single-use plastic litter to set within my designs.
This is a third career for you, what did you do previously? Why did you decide to go into jewellery design?
Yes, it looks a bit like the ‘Seven Year Itch’ when you read my CV.
After studying for a degree in Drama at Manchester University I spent most of my 20’s working in Television Production as an Assistant Director. I worked mainly on drama series and comedies. My Dad’s parents were both stage actors and comedians (they had their own double act!) and I had really enjoyed drama at school. So I guess that pathway was a bit of a natural choice for me.
TV Production and city life was great for a decade. But approaching my 30’s I started to find the constantly changing addresses for work, the mega long days and night shoots, the stress and unpredictability and the sheer unhealthiness of it all a bit much.
I wanted a better life/work balance, to have time to exercise, to put down roots somewhere and I was also desperate to get some pets. So after a lot of thought, I retrained as a sports therapist and personal trainer and was very happy running my own business and feeling so much healthier. I was also running marathons, swinging kettlebells, engaging in as many forms of extreme exercise as possible and helping all sorts of people get fit, healthy and more mobile. I bought a house and adopted two rescue cats. All was good for about eight years.
So what happened next?
I was then involved in a serious accident. I smashed up my ribcage and had a collapsed lung. Several weeks were spent in hospital with transferrals to different specialist units. The outcome was a lot of surgical procedures, titanium plates on my ribcage, ongoing musculoskeletal problems and ultimately an end to my PT Career.
It was during rehab, which became a pretty dark and depressing time about 6 months later, when I realised my physical life was going to be pretty different for a while. I wasn’t going to be back at work or running marathons anytime soon. I needed something to help keep me motivated, lift my spirits and channel some creativity into.
My previous working hours had meant I was never free to take evening classes or commit to any courses, so when I was well enough I signed up for an art class and some silver jewellery making workshops locally. You could say a new addiction began.
Do you feel the previous careers have helped you in your journey as a jewellery designer?
As both an assistant director and as a PT, I was super-organised at all times. It would have been nice if this trait had followed me into jewellery design. One quick glance in my workshop will tell you a very different story. I cannot keep a tidy space.
But I think you need to be allowed to be a bit messy when you are being creative (and I can still find most things after a search!) I feel that each career has been right for me at the time. I wouldn’t change it. My career path is a perfect example of how unpredictable life is and how you should just go with the twists and turns and make the most of them. And always keep a sense of humour. That bit is vital.
I think each previous career has helped me to stay calm about changes, be adaptable, not get stressed out and enjoy each chapter. I have been self employed in each of my careers too, so I guess I didn’t have to take a great leap in that respect by becoming a self employed jewellery designer/maker.
How did you manage this career pivot? Did you retrain?
It’s a case of the old cliché ‘When one door closes’. I had a long time to think about what I might really want to do, as I couldn’t work at all for a while. Going back as a PT would be hard as I wouldn’t be able to get involved and I didn’t want to be a bystander.
I’d also neglected my creative side for a long while. Once I was well enough and hooked on the weekly silversmithing/jewellery making classes I was taking, I started researching and looking into the options of full time jewellery design courses at nearby colleges. I then took the plunge and signed up for a UAL L3 Diploma in Art & Design (Jewellery) at Manchester College.
What advice do you have for anyone else thinking of changing careers to become a jewellery designer?
Do it! Let’s roll out another cliché, life is short so do what makes you happy. Whether it’s jewellery making or any other creative passion you might have. And change is really great for the soul. Obviously, do some research to find out what courses might be right for you and be prepared also for a big drop in income!
For me, the decision was certainly aided by circumstance. I wonder if I would have been brave enough to make a second career change without having been injured (and without having a grounded background in design) but I can honestly say I am so happy now that I have this new life as a jewellery designer/maker and I am so enjoying the journey. There will always be so much to learn and there is always a positive to be found lurking in a negative.
Where do you create your jewellery?
Whilst studying and then for the following three years I had a workbench in my little box bedroom at home. I could touch three out of the four walls from my bench, but it was perfect and all I needed.
When the tools and equipment started to outgrow their environment and I was banging my head on an almost hourly basis, I knew I needed a bit more space. I’m now so lucky that for the last few months I’ve been working from the most amazing eco-build studio near to my house. It has so much light and is a space I can happily spend all day in, playing with bits of metal and listening to Radio 6 music.
What inspires you?
I’m particularly drawn to exploring environmental issues. I want my work to have a relevance to the ecological situation we are currently in. My dad was a professor of biology before he retired and he always encouraged us to have a very early interest in the environment and a deep respect for the natural world.
My first work, ‘Mangrove Co2llection’ was inspired by the issues of rising CO2 levels and global warming and came about after a trip I did on a kayak through the Mangrove forests of Guadeloupe. I learnt how vital they are for the planet and how they’re one of the world’s most at risk habitations. Rather than be guided by a naturalistic or literal response, I wanted the collection to have a very abstract feel to it.
My new work ‘Plasticity’ is inspired by the impact of human activity on the planet and the overriding major problem of single-use plastics in our environment. In this collection I’m also inspired by the shapes and structures of human industry, so the response in metal is much more industrial. I collect discarded plastic litter that I find on my daily dog walks along the river bank and repurpose it to use within my work.
I think the impact of the David Attenborough / Blue Planet documentaries really crystallised last year. After several years of thinking we should be doing more, we have now hopefully woken up to the true extent of the plastic problem and more and more individuals and businesses are acting, trying to find alternative materials and ways to reuse the plastics that have built up in our environment in the last few decades.
Your jewellery is very comfortable to wear, even though it’s quite bold. Is comfort and engineering something you consider when designing a piece?
Definitely. If you are going to want to wear an item for longer than about five minutes, then comfort is really important. I always try out all my designs on myself first. I will wear my test pieces for several days to see how they feel and where I might need to tweak things a little. Some of my designs are not necessarily the most practical but they should always feel good on the body.
Where did you learn how to create jewellery?
My very first taste of jewellery making was a ring making day with the jeweller Laura Baxter. I immediately wanted to learn more, so I started attending weekly classes at Sheffield Hillsborough College where I learnt some of the basics in metal work and silver. These classes were purely for fun. I also signed up for additional metalwork classes at Swarthmore adult education centre in Leeds because I had become completely hooked and wanted to spend more than just one afternoon a week in a workshop.
I approached a jeweller local to me, Jacqui Laithwaite-Rawes, to see if I could spend some time at her shop/studio, helping out where I could and observing her at work etc. My week started to fill up with metal work and I realised I really wanted to pursue it more seriously. So, after a year or so of all of the above, I applied for a full time diploma at The Manchester College.
Did you ever consider going back to study for a degree?
Ideally I would have loved to have studied for a three year jewellery design degree and had much more time to learn and experiment with materials, however, for various reasons and certainly financially, this was just not possible for me at this 3rd stage in my career. I managed to get a 24 plus loan to help me study for the year long diploma and it was a very good grounding in working with metal.
The tutor was Eve Redmond, a contemporary jeweller herself, who remains a good friend and support to me now. My promise to myself after graduating was and still is that I continue to sign up for lots of workshops and masterclasses every year to learn new techniques, practice existing ones, work with new materials and keep inspired.
I’ve done some great classes at Cockpit Arts, at K2 Academy with Katrin Spranger and Kelvin J Birk, at The Goldsmith’s Centre with Sonia Cheadle, amongst many others. Another real highlight last year was attending a three day workshop in Florence at the Alchimia Jewellery School studying with Lucia Massei.
What’s your design process?
For a new collection, I let ideas mull over in my head for quite a long time (I mean AGES!) before I feel I want to put a pencil to paper to sketch anything new.
I note down possible ideas and often research online for news, articles or photographs and images that might be pertinent. I like to immerse myself by filling my head with a new subject and then let my thoughts naturally turn to the topic when they’re ready.
It can often take this time, pondering things away from the bench on a walk or a jog, for an idea to fully form and for a few simultaneous ideas click into place – a bit like a Eureka moment! When I feel I have this part a bit more covered then I will start to sketch and doodle and employ various methods of design development.
I use repetitive drawing techniques to try and find a signature design or motif to run throughout the collection. With both my Mangrove and Plasticity Collections, I moved on to model making, first in card and then in base metal where I let the materials influence and dictate the development.
What’s the favourite piece in your jewellery collection?
I have a hand carved silver ribcage on a necklace that I searched for online and bought for myself not long after my accident. It was before I had decided to try out any jewellery making classes for myself.
What’s the piece you’re most proud of creating?
Again I think it’s a case of certain pieces marking pivotal moments in my journey as a designer/maker. A statement ring that I made for my graduation collection means a lot to me for various reasons. It was the seeds of the Mangrove Co2llection. This was the beginnings of my hopes for a possible career in jewellery making. It’s a ring I still love and still sometimes wear myself if I’m going out.
My Mangrove Co2llection Infra ear cuff which came about a couple of years later is definitely one of my favourite pieces to wear now. I’m happy with how it marries up the design element with ergonomics, wearability and comfort. It’s hopefully a subtle-statement piece.
I spent quite a long time testing it out and tweaking the way it fits and feels on the ear along the way. I have received lots of lovely comments about it from customers and from other designers too, which means a lot. It is one of my best selling pieces which also makes me happy.
Now that I have the beginnings of my new Plasticity collection, new favourites are emerging amongst the brooches and rings. I’m really looking forward to what comes next.
What’s your favourite part of being a Jewellery Designer?
All of it. What is not to love? Working with metal is continually inspiring and completely addictive. Even on the bad days, because you’ll always learn more from your mistakes or disasters. Sometimes that mistake becomes a ‘happy accident’ and leads on to something really interesting. Or it can take you in a direction you never expected.
The freedom to design and create what I want to is so rewarding. There’s always something new to learn. I make sure that every year I take some courses or workshops to practice new techniques or inspire me. I’m so lucky and thankful there are people out there who like my work enough to want to buy it. I work from home, choose my hours and I now have two rescue dogs (ultimate life goals!) who are in and out of my studio as they please. I’m as happy as I’ve ever been.
If you weren’t a jewellery designer, what would you be?
I feel incredibly lucky to have had two previous fulfilling and very enjoyable careers. So different from each other, but perfect for that particular time in my life. Now though, I really can’t imagine not wanting to be a jewellery designer/maker for the rest of my life.
If you really insist though, I think it would probably be in something to do with rescuing animals.
What’s your proudest moment of being a Jewellery Designer?
Whilst I was studying at Manchester I was awarded a special prize for my creativity. I was selected for the Undergraduate Summer School at Goldsmiths Centre, London. That felt amazing. Entering that beautiful building was in itself a real buzz.
Then in my first couple of years I applied for some events and was lucky enough to be selected for a ‘Ones To Watch’ gallery exhibition and to win ‘Newcomer’ and ‘Emerging Talent’ awards at my first two shows. I received mentoring and business support. I also got sponsored stands. This really helped me feel a little bit more confident in a room full of established makers. Those early moments have been pivotal in what’s still a relatively new career pathway for me.
More recently I’ve been really happy to have my work featured in two BBC TV drama series. It’s been worn by the amazing actors Tara Fitzgerald and T’Nia Miller.
I’m now in my 4th year as a jewellery designer/maker. I am so happy (with help, support and a few loans along the way!)
What are your aspirations for your business?
I would like to collaborate with designers in some other disciplines who are responding to a similar theme. I’ve had some interesting Instagram chats just lately with designers who are also working with alternative recycled waste materials.
I’d also like to collaborate with photographers, stylists, models and make-up artists. I think that could be really interesting. I aim to keep learning and developing, incorporating new disciplines and techniques. And maybe travel a little further afield for some shows and events. I’d love to do an event in Europe at some point, if I could.
I don’t have a rigid step by step plan, as I know all too well how life can throw a massive curveball. But I have a vague notion of how I’d like to keep progressing.
Who’s the most important person in your life and why?
Well, my partner and my immediate family know how much they and their support means to me. But beyond that obvious answer, it has to be my two Spanish rescue dogs. Crazy and demanding as they are, the time I get to spend with them everyday is so important to me.
My Mum’s also been a constant support and inspiration to me throughout my life. She’s the best re-user, recycler and handmade maker that I know. She’s also a perfect example and proof to me there really are no limits in life, and never should be. You can take that risk, go from a career you spent most of your life in. Retrain, learn different skills and do something new and exciting that you always wanted to.
Where do you feel most inspired?
At the bench when my ideas are forming in metal and you can just get lost in the work.
I also can’t imagine a day where I’m not out in the hills with the dogs – for the ultimate inspiration or to help clear my head. Time away from the bench can make something you were struggling with slot magically into place. My partner is always telling me that when things aren’t going right, just walk away for a bit. So yes, definitely, time out with the dogs even in the most hellish, hillside Yorkshire weather (which is often!) can work wonders.
How do you juggle all the different aspects of the job?
This is definitely a work in progress. If it was possible, I’d just be at the bench every day. I know I shouldn’t, but I always get the feeling that I am wasting valuable making time when I’m not in my studio.
I do realise the importance of excellent quality photographs of your work, of regular updates on your social media, of a smart looking professional website, a newsletter or blog etc. But the time it takes to do a good job in these areas can really drag me down sometimes. Then I either put them off or avoid doing them altogether!
Ideally it would be great to be able to afford to pay someone else to make a much better job of them than I can. But there are so many other costs involved in being self employed this isn’t really a viable option at the moment.
Even if I plan on a full day of making and get up extra early, I still sometimes find it’s after 10.30am by the time I get to sit at my bench.
Some days, I only manage to get there in the early afternoon. I guess the key is not to beat yourself up about it all. I go with the flow really. I’m not a creature of rigid structure, timetables or schedules in any aspect of my life. I firmly believe that you work better when you are in the right frame of mind for that particular task.