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Dunedin-based Debra Fallowfield is a straight-to-the-matter type of jeweller – she’s unpretentious, good for a laugh, and she gets shit done. She hammers out the details of ‘slow jewellery’ with What's Hot New Zealand.
Like the slow food movement, slow jewellery is about taking a step back and producing smaller quantities of higher quality items, and embracing the process of making them. Debra says slow jewellery is a way of honouring the craft and its history. “By working this way you get a true feel for your work. Well, that’s what I think anyway.”
She’s passionate about making all her jewellery by hand. “I still refuse to use CAD, computer aided design,” Debra says. “When I make pieces by hand there’s nothing clinical or boring about them. They’re not perfectly symmetrical; they’re organic, they have a soul.”
There’s a lot of reusing, recycling and revamping happening in Debra’s studio, where she works alongside her husband who was formerly a builder. A lot of her work is remodelling old jewellery, as well as creating new pieces from ethically sourced materials.
She likes to work with moissanite, a high-quality diamond alternative produced in a laboratory.
“I tend to attract couples who want something away from the ‘cookie cutter’ style of traditional engagement and/or wedding rings. They often want to inject a little bit of their personality into their rings, and they tend to also prefer to know that the stones and materials come from an ethical source,” Debra says.
“Whenever possible I source gold from small boutique mines in New Zealand, which is fully traceable and sustainably sourced. The diamonds and gemstones I use are handpicked and guaranteed conflict-free, and some can even be traced back to the mines and miners from which they came.”
Much of Debra’s jewellery has a hammer-beaten aesthetic to it, and this is because she beats it with a ball pen hammer. “I also use chunky files, burrs, stuff like that, and I hand-carve out of wax and sometimes cast works, purposely choosing to keep the file marks on a ring to give it an old-world look. I find beauty in imperfection.”
That’s not to say she neglects the final touches. Debra is fanatical about the finishings on her jewellery – the outside of a ring may take on a rugged look but the inside is smooth as silk, the gems are well set, and it all looks incredible.
Now based in Dunedin, Debra has a lot of history with Christchurch, and the city holds a big place in her heart. She met her husband in Christchurch and spent 14 years there. Debra started selling jewellery at the Arts Centre market as a single mum with a toddler in tow, and built up her craft and successful brand there.
“One day Tilda Swinton came knocking on the door in Phillipstown after seeing my work at the Arts Centre market,” she says. “She purchased quite a few pieces – can you imagine Tilda at my kitchen table in P-town?”
Debra opened a jewellery studio in Lichfield Street in 2009, which was hit by the 2011 earthquake in the middle of wedding ring season. “We stayed on for three years after, but I really grieved for the city and the vibe around High Street and the lanes, I missed it so much. Christchurch will always be in my heart. I try to visit often.”
Debra’s new studio and gallery is in Port Chalmers, and she works with clients throughout New Zealand and around the world to make bespoke pieces. She sells her handmade jewellery through her online store for those who can’t make the trip to the Otago gallery.
She may make precious things, but she’s not precious about it. Debra is funny, warm, inviting and vocal – she’s a big personality in an industry that can be quiet and introverted. She has never been a follower, and has her own distinct voice – literally and in jewellery design. She’s not afraid to speak her mind and ask those she works with to do the same. “Me, I am all about communication. Gemini through and through,” Debra says.
She specialises in pieces that tell a story, that are individual to the person they’re made for. “The procedure of making a ring with someone is honest and transparent. The finished piece is as much about the process that went into it as it is about the final look.”
Debra asks clients to tell her what they like and, importantly, what they don’t like in a piece of jewellery – colours, shapes, styles. It’s a communicative process throughout.
“Dealing directly with a designer instead of a shop assistant gives you the opportunity to have some fun with the process. It’s exciting, and it should be easy,” she says.
What kinds of things inspire you? Sunshine, music, urban culture, and fashion – I am a complete designer queen! Travel, once upon a time – I’m a huge solo traveller and have been to many crazy places, like Colombia in the ‘90s during the Escobar days.
Favourite piece of jewellery you’ve made? The commission that struck me the most was for a lovely customer a few years back. She had been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and given only a few weeks to live. She wanted her wedding and engagement ring remodelled into a ring for her 16-year-old daughter to wear as a memento. I still choke up thinking about it.
Does jewellery have a soul? Maybe not a soul as such, but it can carry emotions through generations – I see that when people bring in the heirloom pieces to remodel. Jewellery can tell a story, be it love, loss, joy, hope, tragedy, unrequited love. It’s an object, but it holds emotions, thoughts, memories. I see a lot of tears in my little showroom.
Where can we find your jewellery in Christchurch? You can support a local store and find it at Abode at Riverside Market, or go online to my website.