The House of Garrard has a long history of bespoke jewellery, reaching back to its founding year in 1735. Many of the world’s most famous creations have been handcrafted in its workshop, using techniques unchanged for centuries.
Complex, intricate and detailed, these techniques can make all the difference to a jewel’s impact and aesthetic appeal. They also take years to master, and the best way is at the bench: watching experienced craftsmen at work, listening to their advice and repeating the same steps over and over again.
It’s for this reason that Garrard’s Chief Executive Joanne Milner worked with the Company of Goldsmiths to revive the House apprenticeship scheme in 2016. “We need to keep our traditions alive by passing them on through the generations,” she says. “Now we can give talented young people the chance to learn from the best.”
For Rob Dean, Garrard’s first apprentice in over a decade, the journey has been one of discovery. “I never really enjoyed school. In my last year I was looking for something else to do, took a metalwork course in the evenings and really enjoyed it.” He then found his way to the Goldsmiths Centre – a recently established charity founded by the Company of Goldsmiths, running courses in jewellery and silversmithing. On the Centre’s year-long foundation programme he was surprised to find he was drawn to the “small work” of jewellery.
After a trial at Garrard he decided to train as a diamond mounter. “This is where you make the metal framework that holds the stones,” he explains. “For example, gemstones aren’t a set shape. You have to make each collet by hand to fit the stone, then you bring in proportions, making the bezel a certain thickness and adding the claws. You’re following the design but translating it from two dimensions to three.”
“We need to keep our craftsmanship traditions alive by passing them on through the generations” Joanne Milner CEO of House of Garrard
The apprenticeship is practical and immersive, lasting five years and building from simple tasks to the creation of a masterpiece. Rob is indentured to Master and Freeman of the Goldsmiths Company David Webster, who oversees his progress and spends his working days learning from Garrard’s highly experienced Master Craftsman Harvey Wrangles and others in the workshop.
“I’ll generally show him something and he has to replicate it many times until he gets it right,” says Harvey, who insists Rob learns the old techniques as well as the new. This includes working with a blowtorch rather than a laser - “playing with fire,” as Rob describes it - and learning the properties of different metals.
“Platinum and gold hold the heat in one place so when you’re soldering it flows better,” Rob explains, “whereas silver has a lower melting point. You have to be careful if you’re attaching pieces to a structure so you don’t lose the solder mark you’ve done before.” When clients visit the workshop they’re often surprised to see the team handling sheets of gold and platinum, not realising their bespoke commission is being made from scratch.
The process may be time-consuming but it has its rewards. “The laser leaves a black soot on the top and the solder doesn’t flow so nicely,” says Rob. “Doing it by hand is more satisfying – I like knowing I’ve made the whole piece myself.” Where he started with features like back holing, the honeycomb of perfect holes that ensure the back of a jewel is as beautiful as the front, he’s moved on to realising designs.
That includes recently completing a pair of emerald earrings in white gold that were begun by Harvey. “They’re my favourite stone,” says Rob, “so lovely and clear but you have to be super careful you don’t damage them with any heat.” He’s even crafted a tiara, which was awarded silver prize in a Goldsmiths competition.
“Many craftsmen in their whole careers never have the chance to work on a tiara,” says Sara Prentice, Creative Director. “It’s one of the most complex things you can do and Rob’s already made one.” She’s already looking forward to working with him on the masterpiece design that will conclude his apprenticeship. “We’ll talk about what he wants to create and showcase all the skills he’s learnt. I’m hoping to incorporate a Garrard signature: a transformable feature like a pendant within a tiara. Then he’ll really be a master.”