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Maker of the month: Julie Bailey’s wabi-sabi jewellery

Jewellery-maker Julie Bailey showed her creative flair young...

...but was unable to follow the standard art-school trajectory until a little later than most. Her philosophy to “have ambition, believe in yourself and have courage” has pushed her to change 'not now's' into 'the right time will come'. Her work has recently been shown at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Craft Centre and Design Gallery Leeds, and imminently, at a number of National Trust properties as well as their online shop.

With a family history in gardens and flowers it’s no wonder that organic aesthetics dominate Julie’s work. But her work ‘is so much more… I’m drawn to things that have meaningful value, I can’t just do decorative faddy or fashionable’. It’s no surprise that the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi is her main inspiration: ‘it’s about intimacy, modesty and simplicity. But it’s not just a visual aesthetic, it’s a philosophy, a way to live well.’ She puts this influence down to her time spent in Singapore between the ages of 10-13 (aka ‘that awkward age of just being a pain in the arse’) when Julie’s father was posted there in the Royal Air Force and was given useful things to do.

Here, Julie was immersed in Far Eastern cultures: her mother would do ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) and Chinese jianzhi paper-cutting featuring ‘bowls of fruit or goddesses with flowing hair and flowers’, whilst she herself attended a Chinese dressmaking school. She learned to ‘measure the body, make a pattern, sew a box pleat skirt on a treadle sewing machine’, working alongside Chinese dressmaking trainees who made the same, ‘plus a jacket with piping and button holes, all tailored and fitted for a Barbie doll!’ These ‘craft experiences’ made a significant visual impression, but also constructed her world view. ‘They were very gentle people… As I’ve got older, I question how we go about in the world. I’ve come back to zen, ikebana and wabi-sabi’. 

INTAGLIO II COLLECTION ELEMENTS. Bars, ovals, and lozenges with the signature paper petals embossed surface before being combined into finished pieces. Fine silver and red brass.

After completing her school career back in the UK, Julie received an unconditional offer from Derby University to do a Diploma in Art and Design. But it wasn’t to be: ‘I was at boarding school and my parents had just bought their first house, so there was no funding. I had nothing. I had a bit of a meltdown and said, ‘well that’s fine, give me the train money and I’ll get a job when I get to Derby!’’ Instead, she had to get a 'proper' job, and had a successful career working at Revlon in London as a Marketing Manager. Then came marriage and children, and at 30 she said, ‘right! I still really want to do my degree!’

With an 11-month old at home Julie couldn’t go to university so she ‘toned it down’ and found a full time 2-year jewellery BTEC diploma course at a local college. What she thought was a trial interview earned her a place, and after two years training under practising jewellers she submitted designs for the National Platinum Awards, ‘bearing in mind that we were a small local college and the Royal College of Art usually win it.’ Of the six people in her year two were shortlisted and Julie received a highly commended second place. This led the college to offer her a research fellowship and invite her to try again… She received another highly commended. ‘I still didn’t think I was quite good enough. I only had this BTEC Diploma and everyone else seemed to have degrees.’ Now in her 40s, Julie went off to University of York St. John with the idea that a degree ‘would make me eligible to break into this world’. 

Jewellery by Julie Bailey. Image courtesy of the artist and National Trust

Instead, university allowed her to break free of the ‘if only’ rationale and define her idiosyncratic paper-meets-metal style. ‘I hadn’t appreciated truly the level of technical and design training that I had received and that my work was already at degree level. Being highly commended two years running at the National Platinum Awards should have told me that, but it was just this damn label… it was a confidence thing’. When Julie got to her second year York closed their jewellery department, and so she faced two choices: attend Leeds or Sheffield Universities or elect the printmaking specialism at York. Experimentations with the latter revealed a vast overlap of technical skills, and with that a load of possibility: ‘there is engraving, there is etching, there is embossing, there is burnishing back on mezzotint, there is mark-making, and you use some of the same tools… The world split open – I thought hold on a second I can do printmaking AND jewellery, and actually they inform each other and can dialogue with each other, and they both can use paper and they both can use metal and I was blown away!”

‘I realized that the etching press is like a rolling mill that you use in jewellery, so if you have a very soft annealed metal and you put your printing paper in and turn the pressure up really high, the paper will make an impression in the metal. And the metal will transfer whatever marks and impressions that it’s got into the paper. Equally, you can do it on the jewellery rolling mill.’ These light-bulb moments would carve Julie’s career, and after graduating in 2001, her studio identity ‘papermetal’ was born.

Florist's Choice Necklaces in embossed silver, corrugated rose bronze, red brass, and with oxidised elements.

After a couple of years spent teaching at various colleges and squeezing in printmaking when possible, Julie threw caution to the wind and moved to France with her jewellery bench on the back of her partner’s truck. ‘I got a corner of somebody else’s studio to put my bench in and I was gardening part of the week to help buy food and things, so real subsistence living but also a real commitment to giving myself that virtually full-time space to develop my work. Whilst teaching at college, I was often bringing college work home , always writing reports, or doing my planning.’ Whilst time away from jewellery had left her feeling rusty, she threw herself into making, ‘collaging and layering and cutting and placing things together and suddenly it all started to fall into place! The fallow periods don’t come because that way of working suggests the next move. When I’m making, the next new pieces are also gestating in there.”

The ‘natural next step’ came in the form of the National Trust call for makers to develop a bespoke product range inspired by their properties. With a ‘they can only say no!’ attitude, Julie set to work on a collection based not on a particular house, but a vast selection of the walled gardens. During last year’s extreme heat, aerial pictures of the gardens at National Trust property Gawthorpe Hall showed where historic formal gardens had once been: ‘the grass would die back and if the ground underneath had been a flower border or a hedge, that grass would behave differently to the grass next to it. It was almost like a brass rubbing’. Julie hunted for as many of these images as possible and ‘started looking at maps and plans of National Trust gardens, looking for shapes and symmetry. I kept refining back until I felt I got the essence.’ 

Gawthorpe Hall's 'ghost garden'. Photo courtesy: BBC

In keeping with her wabi-sabi philosophy, the collection strikes the ‘balance between artisan made and commercial viability versus the values of not selling out or ‘cheating’ as I call it’. Each piece is individually made and every petal cut by hand, but she also considers the business element so valuable to the sustainibility of the makers living. To this end ‘working with the National Trust as both a charitable and commercial organisation has been extremely valuable in terms of price-pointing the work’. The result is the stunning ‘Parterre’ collection, which will be available from October to buy on the National Trust online shop and at a number of properties, including Sissinghurt Castle – much to Julie’s delight!


The Crafts Council have once again partnered with the National Trust to launch their 2019 call for talented UK makers. Like Julie, one selected maker will design an exclusive collection inspired by their special properties. Read more and apply now.

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