Does anything you are wearing have a meaning?
Pretty much everything. This grid of nine gems, for example, is the Navaratna, an ancient symbol from Mesopotamia that you find all across India and into Southeast Asia. Each of the gems relates to a planet. When you are born, these nine planets are in a certain configuration, and the idea is that by wearing the Navaratna you can balance out their influence. It’s always open at the back so the stones touch your skin.
Do you believe that it can re-balance you?
It’s not black and white but the longer I spend in different cultures and learn their beliefs about which stones might bring good energies or deflect bad, the more I feel drawn to them. I’ve had diamond rings that stone doctors have told me not to wear, and not even to sell, but to bury in the earth, and I’ve done it.
If you can’t afford sapphire then you can wear a ring made of iron from the shoe of a black horse.
Is there a stone you wear because a stone doctor considers it good for you?
This yellow sapphire.
Sapphire is considered a strong stone, but that strength has to be approached with caution when it comes to blue sapphires, which have the potential to be positive or negative.
So it may be that you have to start by wrapping the sapphire in silk for weeks, not touching it. And then that wrapped stone would be put under your pillow and you would sleep with it. And then the stone doctor would check to see how you are, and if you are OK, you would wear the silk the stone has been wrapped in, tied to your arm. And if that’s OK, you would get to the point where the pundit would say, ‘OK, you can put the stone into a ring, but the gold has to be 22 karats and it has to be on this finger and this finger alone. At 6 o’clock in the morning you must rise and bathe it in cow’s milk and place it on your finger before the sun rises.’
So not like strolling into Tiffany’s then...
In India jewellery is linked to fate. That’s why every street-sweeper and Bollywood film star has rings on his fingers. If you require sapphire and you can’t afford sapphire then you can wear a ring made of iron from the shoe of a black horse. That will have similar properties.
When did you become attracted to stones?
I started collecting them at the age of five or six, everything from gravel to beach pebbles to riverbed stones. Stones are elemental, they are part of the core and crust of the planet. There’s a tremendous energy to their formation under intense heat and pressure deep in the earth, and then the constant work of the sand and water that polish them over generations. But they also have great stillness. And strength. A stone is hard to break. As a child I would carry my stones about with me in bags from room to room. I’d place them in the bath before I got in, touch them, oil them, study them. I was a bit of a weird child!
A stone is elemental, it’s part of the core and crust of the planet
When did you start making jewellery?
In my late teens. I’d gather buttons from my mother’s sewing-kit, gems from my father’s cufflink box, drill them, and string them together. I liked objects with a story. So it was a case of ‘this is my great-grandmother’s ring and will link me to her’ and then I’d add a stone I’d found on a holiday when I was happy, and they all went into these huge tangles I wore round my neck.
A couple of times I have had thefts where whole banks of these things have disappeared. It’s paralysing, but quickly I would start again like one of those insects that, when its nest is kicked over, immediately starts to rebuild it.
I suppose it’s terrible to rely on material things in that way.
This riverine diamond, rough-cast for thousands of years by the river it rolled in
But stones don’t feel like material things when you talk about them, they feel like tangible symbols of emotional and spiritual things.
I was the youngest in a family of eight, and I was very shy. If you are like that then you either disappear or you create a façade. I wanted to hide behind a veil of beautiful stones. It was also a way to be present without having to speak.
If your stones speak, they are saying something very different from a flashing diamond necklace.
Yeah, I’m not generally drawn to those sparkles, where the stone is completely altered. I love the old Moghul cuts because back then they kept some mineral, some essence of rock in there.
Rows and rows of identical diamonds that have undergone a sort of plastic surgery for stones – that’s not exciting to me
Do you wear any stones like that?
This riverine diamond ring, rough-cast for thousands of years by the river it rolled in. It’s been worked by the current until it has the silky feel of the river itself. And this sapphire with a mist inside it. They heat sapphires now so they become completely uniform, and lose these ‘aberrations’. But I love the life of stones, their inclusions like the garnet crystals you sometimes find growing in diamonds. This old emerald is Moghul, you can see it’s not perfectly round, there’s a little bit of faceting on the bottom to give it a lift. You still feel the stoniness of it and that’s what I find so alluring. That idea of rows and rows of identical diamonds that have undergone a sort of plastic surgery for stones – that’s not exciting to me.
What’s the story of the white shell you always wear on your arm?
It was given to me by the Naga.
Ah, I’ve heard of the Naga...
People tell all sorts of stories about the Naga. In India they will say Naga eat snakes, Naga eat people. They are one of the tribal communities who have been seeking independence for decades. Ghandi promised them independence but it never happened. They live between India and Burma, and until the 70s or 80s they were headhunters. Religiously, they are animists and Baptists.
Quite a combo. How did you end up hanging with the Naga?
I studied Medical Anthropology at university. Then I went to Sarawak in Borneo to research the concept of mental illness among indigenous communities there. I stayed on and began working for NGOs.
Eventually I found myself involved with these two old guys known as the Elders, who were travelling around Asia on fake passports trying to drum up support for indigenous tribes. My job was to get them out of gaol every now and then. They were Naga.
I found myself involved with these two old guys known as the Elders. My job was to get them out of gaol.
At the time, I was working for the Asian Indigenous People’s Pact, which was run by a guy called Lui, also Naga. Lui’s humanity and his fairness with everyone were inspiring. When he became a communist, he rode an Enfield motorcycle from India to Moscow to find out more about it, that’s the kind of guy he was.
He couldn’t go home, they had confiscated his passport, but he would tell me these near-mythical stories about it. I knew every character in the village, every animal that roamed the forest round about. When I went to India I was determined to reach it. It’s in a restricted area, but eventually I got permission and made my way, crossing formidable mountains on the edge of Burma. It was Lui’s tribe who gave me the shell.
Do you ever take it off?
It has never left my arm apart from when the twins were born. I took it off then in case I clonked them with it. But after a few days I saw it was back on my arm.
Why do the Naga wear the shells?
It’s all about identity. They are saying ‘We are not Indian, we are not them, we are us’. Back then, when they gave me the shell, indigenous people’s rights were just beginning to be recognised in Asia and Africa. Even today in some countries, governments don’t recognise that, say, the Bushmen have different traditions and want to keep them. They are different and they are persecuted for it.
I was on a mission and jewellery was not part of it
Was it your intention to become a jeweller at this point?
Absolutely not. My intention was to make documentaries. What indigenous people were doing was vitally important and I felt everyone needed to know about it. Women’s rights, land rights, biodiversity – they were addressing all of it. I went with Lui to the United Nations in Geneva. People from tiny villages in the rainforest, people from deserts in Australia, people from the Arctic, all came together to exchange ideas on how to survive. I ran around in the background, interviewing everyone about what it meant to be indigenous. I was on a mission and jewellery was not part of it.
A rare free-form quartz from the Himalayas. It contains a rainbow prism, like an eye, believed to have magical properties.
What had happened to your love of stones?
It never went away. I started tumbling stones in little machines. All day long, all night long, you could hear my little kitchen tumblers rumbling the stones, speeding up the action of hundreds of years of sand and water.
I found myself making jewellery that was less about personal objects and more about playing with rocks. I’d leave the rocks as crystal formations, or roughly tumbled or unpolished. It was the eighties, and this was still an unusual thing to do. People got to hear about them. Shops would get in touch and say, we love your things, can we sell them? I’d make up excuses not to because I was still overly attached to the stones.
All day long, all night long, you could hear my kitchen tumblers rumbling the stones
You know when you knock at lots of different doors and the one that keeps opening is the path you should be following but which you somehow overlook? That’s how it was. The door to making jewellery kept opening but I kept knocking on other doors.
And then one day I had an epiphany. I realised I could bring my love of jewellery and my love of working with these communities together. I thought we could just, you know, make stuff together. My first project was working with Tom Ford at Gucci.
How did you go from trekking through the rainforest straight to designing for Tom Ford?
He just called me in. I remember saying ‘You have the wrong person. I’ve never studied design’ and he said ‘Yeah yeah, do what you do’. I got paid really well from that job and I took the money and went to work with the Bushmen. Two seasons in Botswana and South Africa with two different groups of Bushmen in a frenzy of making.
I realised I could bring my love of jewellery and my love of working with these communities together
The first summer was hard. The Bushmen had lost their land, and in South Africa, even their language. There was a sense that these were people trying to disappear themselves. But then I went back and it couldn’t have been more different. I could see them thinking, ‘Ah, OK, she’s back’. I saw them fighting to keep their culture alive. I saw their joyous side.
You don’t work with the Bushmen anymore?
No. Each project has its natural lifespan. One I did with the Batwa, the pygmy peoples of Rwanda, lasted just a year. Another in Kibera, a huge garbage dump on the edge of Nairobi, was three years. We trained artisans to make jewellery from recycled glass and scrap metal, and made a collection for Nicole Farhi, another that went into Matches, and another for Topshop. But most of our projects are long-term. I have worked for more than ten years now with a goldsmith in La Paz, Bolivia, an incredible craftsman who uses gold from the world’s first fairtrade mine, Cotapata.
Is there a project that you are especially proud of?
I’ve been working in Afghanistan for ten years and that’s where those words ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ start to have some purchase. Not in terms of where the gold and stones come from. That’s still difficult to ascertain in that part of the world. But in terms of people having meaningful jobs. Nothing stops a bullet like a job. Can’t remember who said that but it’s never more true than in a country ravaged by endless wars.
Can you give us an idea of what life is like there?
I work with Turquoise Mountain who have an institute of the arts in Kabul, training craftsmen. At first all our craftsmen were men. But now we have our first generation of lady goldsmiths and it’s wonderful to see them growing in confidence, to find a woman teasing a male co-worker, hanging a necklace over his big bushy beard to show me what it looks like, laughing, joking.
Now in Afghanistan we have our first generation of lady goldsmiths
The general situation in Afghanistan has worsened. When I first went there, there was a sense of optimism. As a foreigner, I could walk in the streets. Now I can’t do that. Kabul is all blast walls and barbed wire and machine guns aimed at young boys. But the workshop is an oasis.
Zolyakha, one of the goldsmiths, said to me that even the act of being able to leave the house was sustaining for her. And then to enter this other space where she does her creative work, she spoke of how that transports her away from poverty and conflict and personal problems in the way that meditation does.
I suppose that is what this is all about, the joy of making things
I went to Davos this year with Turquoise Mountain and The Smithsonian to talk about the place of craft in the fourth industrial revolution, and I found the same thing there. I was expecting all those CEOs and government ministers to be interested in craft as a development tool. But what they were really interested in was the psychological power of making things. They wanted to experience that for themselves.
I suppose that’s what this is all about - whether we are craftspeople in a war-torn country, or the CEOs of massive corporations - a belief in human creativity, the joy of making things.