“I’d always wanted to be a jeweller and made beadwork jewellery,” begins Liz Dee, “but the careers advisor at my school advised me against being a jeweller as it could be a precarious career and I’d make much more money in dental technology. So for some time I was a dental technician, a lab-based role building dentures, crowns and bridges from acrylic, porcelain and metals, and using cobalt-chrome and wax replacement casting, as well as creating orthodontic appliances by bending wires and making clasps. It was a precision job and many of the skills and techniques overlapped with those used by jewellers. However, as you can imagine, it lacked any scope for creative flair! I loved working with my hands but I still wanted to make things which were beautiful and decorative.”
Liz was born and bred in South Africa, although her mother was British, and when she came to the UK to investigate her roots, she stayed. The dual influences, or the disparity between the two places, have shaped her jewellery which celebrates the natural world with a freedom of spirit, and teams quirky fun with delicate elegance.
“I am inspired by many things,” explains Liz. “However, my garden is the source of many of my ideas. While it isn’t large or magnificent, it is on the edge of a village backing onto a pond, and it’s unusual because it goes off at an interesting tangent. I work in a wooden workshop on the patio, and chickens roam outside, with my two dogs. My range includes bird brooches and funky flowers – I keep meaning to do chickens as they’re such a different shape to my other birds!
“I’ve been a volunteer for the local South Bucks RSPCA for many years now, fostering and caring for exotic birds rescued locally – parakeets, cockatoos and parrots like African Greys that have escaped, been abandoned or need rehousing for other reasons. So, in the garden there’s also an aviary of exotic birds.
“I love birds of all types. As a child in Africa, I used to rescue baby mousebirds and Cape white-eyes which were small cute little things that fell or were blown out of the trees. White-eyes are green with white eyes and very cheeky. One then lived in and around the house for nearly six months, until he was brave enough to join a flock. Birds represent a freedom, and the marvel of flight. I now feel a particular affinity with the swallow because it spends half the year here and half the year in Africa: I’m always happy to see the first ones arrive here in the spring and know that it has flown all the way here from my homeland which triggers memories for me. It’s such a long way, so although the birds are light and delicate, they’re tough, and that seems to reflect the best qualities of jewellery too. I create pieces that are small, beautiful, hard and long-lasting.
“Most of the flora and fauna in Africa is on a bigger scale, larger and harsher than their equivalents in the UK. Here we have the hedgehogs, for example, and there it was porcupines and hippos. The plants and flowers were harsher and tougher in Africa too, because of the more extreme climate, whereas the flowers in the British countryside are softer and more delicate. The scale of the species here seems, to me, much better for jewellery. I enjoy making butterflies and dragonflies too, in a variety of styles. There’s also romance about the English countryside, a freshness and innocence, which takes me back to the Famous Five stories I loved as a child.”
Liz also creates necklaces, cufflinks and other pieces that encapsulate moments of childhood innocence in precious metals, turning memories into sentimental jewellery to treasure as she adds accents of brass, copper or gold to the stylised silver figures. Each is based on a child’s stick drawing of a person – whether themselves, their mum or another family member – which Liz then uses as the starting point for personalised jewellery. Whilst each is totally personal, and thus particularly heartwarming, the charm of a child’s drawing is universal.
“When someone gives me a picture drawn by a child it always brings a smile to my face,” she says. “Children have such innocence and they draw freely, with simplicity, joy and honest warm-heartedness which is wonderful. I love converting that into precious metal for eternity, pinning down that childish charm into a permanent piece. For me, it’s like stepping back into childhood myself as I make the characters, and the end result is these little people that look as if they are from a happy place, like characters from The Magic Faraway Tree.
“I have also just created a series of pieces for a wedding using a child’s drawing of a bride and groom,” she smiles, “and I’d love to do a whole family. For the dogs and cats I make, I tend to use silhouettes as the starting point – as commissions mainly, with a pearl or gemstone in the collar.I often incorporate gems in my pieces, and rather than using the faceted shape you often see in jewellery, I choose cabochons which are rounded smooth like a liquid drop or rough cut semi-precious stones with a natural sugar crystals texture.
“My favourite gemstone is probably the Australian blue opal, which is a deep turquoise and as the light catches it, inside there are intense pinks, greens and blues. Or I add flashes of peridot’s organic green, the mystical deep purple of amethyst, or aquamarine that evokes tropical seas – whatever suits an individual’s personality or style.”
This year the annual Artweeks festival (2-25 May) is taking place online: visit artweeks.org and follow #oxfordshireartweeks on Instagram to enjoy the creative talent of hundreds of artists and designers this summer.