It’s the big day. We drop the boys off at school and drive to Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter through pelting rain. We’re a few minutes early arriving at James Newman‘s shop in Vyse St so we sit in the car. Then, out of nowhere, we have an argument.
I say sorry five minutes after I should have done. Now we’re late. Great start.
We decide to cheer up and have a hug as we walk through the door of the shop. Helpfully a large cup of tea and a black coffee are almost instantly placed in our hands by the smiley member of staff who buzzed us in. A few reviving gulps later, I start skittering excitedly around the display cases pinpointing various rings I want to try on.
James emerges grinning widely and engulfs us with his bear-like handshake. It’s lovely to see him again, paint spatters and all. (He’s been decorating and unsurprisingly, his insistence on a perfect finish means he’s spent weeks – or rather weeks of late nights – on the prep.) My selection of rings are brought out for me try. It’s like dressing up for grown-ups.
Commissioning a piece of jewellery is both an education and a thrill. I wasn’t confident enough to embark on it first time round – I felt more secure with what I knew looked great – but this time it’s a creative collaboration. Still, I take a deep breath. I have loved James’ work for years, but when you’re starting from scratch, you place a lot of trust in someone to understand what you’re after. And sometimes you don’t quite know yourself till you see it.
He brings out ‘my’ sapphire.
The colour is spectacular: a brilliant, deep green with tones of blue and a hint of yellow. It’s subtle and constantly changing as light hits the facets from different angles. James shows us other enticing stones too: a clear parti-sapphire with a blue flash deep in its interior;
… more sapphires in pinks and yellows, dark purple spinels, fiery opals, rubies and sophisticated ‘salt and pepper’ diamonds, which have black carbon inclusions deep inside.
On the far side of the case, a perfect, pale blue pear-cut diamond draws my eye.
It’s so vastly expensive that we gasp. But I’m still entranced by the sapphire that James first showed me via email two weeks ago. So this is where we start.
Watching James draw the design is an intensely personal process. He listens closely, taking on board precisely what I like about the rings I try on, as well as what it was about those designs which, once on my finger, don’t work visually, or, sometimes, practically – stone settings that protrude from the ring shank just feel to me like they might get knocked quite easily. It takes half an hour or so of trying different rings on to establish that settings that sit more flush feel better and somehow look ‘right’ on my hand.
James’ pencil swirls and circles across the paper. Suddenly the shapes come together as a design that feels right. We’re all smiling with the sheer pleasure of watching my ring emerge. This is fun.
Next, a vast selection of smaller sapphires and diamonds are brought out from the workshop in individual containers. Some are so tiny you hardly dare breathe for fear of wafting them away – this is tricky as we’re perusing them closely from above. A sneeze could be expensive.
With long tweezers, James carefully pushes graduated sizes of deep blue/green and paler aquamarine coloured sapphires and white diamonds into what I suddenly understand is the layout of the jewels that will become my ring.
Next, a strip of sticky tape anchors the stones to the paper.
The computer aided design process is the next stage, and – I’m amazed when I hear this – my ring will then emerge in wax form from a 3D printer before work begins on the actual construction.
‘Ahem. James… can we afford this?’ I ask, suddenly concerned I may have become giddily carried away by all the sparkly stuff. We were clear about our budget from the off, but god only knows what it’s going to cost at this point – I have literally no idea. James chuckles. ‘I don’t know!’
I widen my eyes and he relents, grinning. ‘I’ll work it out and get back to you – pretty sure it’s going to be all right.’
It’s still pouring down as the editor and I kick it out of the city centre to get back in time for pick up. Somehow the rain doesn’t matter any more. We gloss over the row, which is mostly sorted. And we do just make it to the school gate on time.
Jewellery photography © James Newman