If you peer into a rather unlikely wild garden in the middle of Clapton in London’s East End you might find Hannah Upritchard burrowing around in her little cave-like studio. Dan Poynton went down the garden path.
Looking at the surrounding artifacts and found objects you might ask what in the world Hannah Upritchard is up to.
Actually Hannah wasn’t quite sure herself until about 11 years ago.
‘I’m an accidental jeweller,’ she laughs. ‘I started making jewellery because I wanted to make myself some wedding rings and I couldn’t afford any I liked.’
The rather bizarre result was a ring bearing an enormous monkey face for her husband Christian – in honour of Hannah’s nickname – and a camel for herself ‘because I think he looks like a camel.’ People started asking her to make them rings, then other things, and gradually Hannah Rings was born.
This ‘accidental jeweller’, who grew up in New Plymouth and Christchurch, says she wanted to become a writer and in those days she never even looked at jewellery let alone wore it.
‘I was quite a dark young person,’ muses Hannah. ’I had a few years when I was cross with the universe and then I got it out of my system with a bit of Russian literature and gender studies.’
Just as she was finishing her final exams at Victoria University she had a mysterious brain haemorrhage. Although this took three months from her life, and still affects her memory, she says it effected a positive shift in her.
‘It made me feel I’m going to live a little bit first and then decide where I’m going and not worry, because there’s no rush to be an adult in this universe,’ she says.
So she took off overseas, and since making her own wedding rings she’s gradually picked up the craft from other jewellers, from Rio de Janeiro to Süd Tirol.
‘I’m a little bit of an opportunistic parasite type,’ says Hannah. 'Basically I’m like MacGyver – invent it and usually it works.'
The young woman who ‘never learnt how to make jewellery’ ended up creating an eclectic range with a personal and extremely flexible character, earthy, quirky and somehow mythical. Often rough round the edges, like Japanese ceramics, and totally instinctive.
‘I get all my inspiration from my gut,’ says Hannah.
The ‘bumps, faults and tarnishes’ are as much an essential part of her work as the quality of her materials ‘because life is a bit bumpy and tarnished and I like that when you wear jewellery it actually polishes on you and grows with you.’
Mass-produced ‘Michael Hill eternity bands with huge diamonds’ are not her thing.
‘It just horrifies me, and that’s why I couldn’t find anything to buy for my wedding,’ she says.
Bespoke (custom-made) jewellery is Hannah’s favourite way of working. Looking at her website, it seems almost all of her work is “bespokenly” unique as she rarely makes the same thing twice.
‘That’s how I started out, and bespoke really pushes you to learn new skills,’ she says. ‘It was an efficient way of getting my own visual language because the work was so diverse it meant I had to really fix on something quite fast that was me.’
She says she loves having people in her home and generally looking after them, and bespoke jewellery is an extension of this.
‘I’m being paid to make an extremely special present for someone. It’s a delightful moment when you hand the piece over at the end and you see their face just light up. So I’m pretty lucky with my job.’
A big part of the ethos of Hannah Rings is to use recycled, found or fair-trade materials as much as possible.
‘There’s enough stuff in the world already, we don’t need to dig more up,’ she says, once again voicing her disgust at today’s mass-produced jewellery. ‘Especially when you could buy a beautiful Roman ring for 200 quid from an antique dealer and they’ve been dug out of the ground, sitting there forever.’
A favourite way for Hannah to find materials is to stroll down to the Thames and indulge in an English eccentricity called ‘mudlarking’.
‘You scavenge in the mud by the side of the river,’ she says gleefully, relating how in the 15th-century Indian sailors dumped their goods at the side of the Thames for their wives and children to pick up and sell.
‘But if something ever went into the mud the people back then believed in evil spirits, and I guess it was because the mud was so disgusting you could actually get really sick from touching it,’ Hannah tells. ‘So not even for gold would they reach into this mud, and now you can find handfuls of things like garnet.’
Her Thames garnet rings are the striking result.
But there are also sculpted barnacles, bronze hairpins, sloth earrings, lion’s faces, donkey cuffs, flying owl rings, dog rings, pig rings, possum bone bracelets... So hard to choose.
But what about her homeland?
‘I’m the world’s most ridiculously buoyant human,’ says Hannah, but she still comes back home for three months every year to replenish the batteries. ‘I really need New Zealand for my soul.’
First published Art Zone #72