Drift sea glass jewellery: perfect for beach-lovers
There’s a vintage jar in the bathroom at That’s Not My Age Mansions that is full of small shells, fragments of sea glass and teeny-tiny polished pebbles. This beach treasure is a memento of summer holidays and coastal walks, of having the wind in my hair and seaside scraps in my pockets. Former journalist Fiona Petherham, 52, has a similar penchant for coastal foraging; collecting and recycling sea glass and combining it with semi precious stones and precious metals, she has turned beachcombing into a successful jewellery business. ‘I’ve always collected sea glass and that’s how it started,’ she says about founding Drift jewellery in 2007.
On graduating, Fiona took a job in the homes department at Country Living magazine, going on to run her own PR company (specialising in interiors) with a partner Beth Harrison. After having children and finding she was unable to get work, Fiona and her husband Doug and their two young children emigrated to a small fishing village Tarifa, on the Costa de la Luz in Spain. ‘My husband was at work and the kids were at school, ‘ Fiona explains the early days of Drift, ‘ and I was left fiddling around like Norma No Mates. So I bought a drill and taught myself how to make jewellery. It was quite organic; friends started asking for pieces and I started selling to a little boutique. People loved it because it felt like they were taking a piece of Tarifa home with them.’
Back in the UK three-years later, after the financial crash hit, Fiona set up a website for Drift jewellery and took a week’s course at Central Saint Martins, ‘It would be heaven to do a year’s jewellery-making course,’ she admits, ‘but I have to grab a week here and there when I can.’
I grew up by the seaside, am enamoured by Drift jewellery and enjoyed a long, beach-related chat with Fiona on the phone:
TNMA: How does it work when you’re designing – does the sea glass dictate the end product and the process?
FP: The pieces are the heroes – I tend to be completely dictated to. I might find a bizarre lozenge-shape that could make a nice bracelet; squares, triangles and geometric shapes are good for asymmetric earrings. It’s a lovely way to work. I start and stop with the sea glass and I like it to be the focus, to sing out. I’m quite fussy about the chains, they have to be fine and elegant so that they don’t take away from the actual pieces of sea glass.’
TNMA: And where does all the sea glass come from??
FP: ‘I buy nothing online and do collect most of it myself – I live on the Suffolk coast – though friends and family often give me bags full. A friend in Seaham often brings me a bag of Beach Booty and I make her jewellery in return. Or I go up to Durham to visit her – and I still visit friends in Tarifa. Any excuse to get back to the beach!’
TNMA: Has your style changed over the years?
FP: ‘I definitely make what I’d like to wear. Tarifa has quite a hippy vibe and so when we lived there I was making quite chunky pieces – or what my husband refers to as my “Flintstones Period.” When we got back to the UK I started making more delicate jewellery. Though it has come full circle and recently I’ve been making punchy, sculptural bits again.’
TNMA: What is it that people love about sea glass?
FP: ‘ It’s poetry. There’s something restorative about being by the sea. People respond to sea glass on a deeper, more personal level. As well as being pretty, it evokes childhood memories. And sea glass has a story behind it; knocked around in the sea for who knows how long – it could be part of an old apothecary jar from 100s of years ago.’
TNMA: So, are you able to tell the age and history of a sea glass specimen?
FP: ‘It’s not an exact science but I am gradually learning. For example, if there’s a bubble in the glass it can show that it was made before the 1930s, that it’s pre-mechanisation of the glass-making process. Certain colours can also date a piece; cobalt blue is quite rare and could be from an old Milk of Magnesium jar or Vicks bottle.’
TNMA: What are the most popular colours? I’m guessing ‘real ale’ brown is not a big seller…
FP: ‘People go for all the sea tones: ice blue, eau de nil and all the lovely ethereal, watery colours. The more prosaic side is that you’re making something beautiful out of rubbish some sod’s left on the beach…’
TNMA: And do you do anything to the sea glass, treat it at all?
FP: ‘ I do slightly tumble my glass, in an old-fashioned craft tumbler. It’s still very much the piece you or a family member or friend picked up on the beach. All I’m doing is taking off the rough, sandpapery surface. The pieces still have that matt look and are the same shape but they’re more luminous and tactile. The colour really comes through when you tumble, the pieces light up like little light bulbs.’
TNMA: What do you enjoy about running your own jewellery business?
FP: ‘One thing I love is the connection with people – I meet incredible people at events or fairs, both the other sellers and the people who buy from me. I didn’t set out to do this but I enjoy the creative process and I enjoy running a small business. A couple of years ago Drift was taken on by Designers’ Guild (available through the stores on King’s Road, London and Marylebone High Street) – they display things so beautifully in their stores, really bring things to life. As you can imagine, I was pretty thrilled. To be stocked in such an iconic shop, alongside other artisan jewellers such as Pippa Small certainly felt like an achievement. A sort of ‘coming of age’ as a jeweller!’
TNMA: Any downsides?
FP: ‘ The biggest challenge is to make my work-life balance, work. I just find the business creeps into every moment of my day, every day of the week. I do absolutely everything: find the sea glass, design, make, order the bubble wrap, go to the post office – and I want to keep it like that, I want to keep it very personal. I enjoy the process and the conversations I have with my customers and don’t want to be removed from it. But one thing I am going to do when I’m on holiday in August is to figure out my work-life balance. Now that the business has grown to a degree, I want to enjoy it without feeling completely over-run.’
TNMA: And what about environmental issues? I am horrified by the amount of plastic on the beach and in the oceans…
FP: ‘ Pre-plastic, everything was glass and so arguably sea glass is becoming rarer. David Attenborough’s Blue Planet has heightened awareness of environmental issues – and apparently, there has been a surge in people having their milk delivered in bottles, again. Thank god, it’s terrifying what the hell are we doing? What are we putting into our seas and also into landfill? Bring back glass!’
Fiona has gone beach-combing for a couple of weeks and is out of the studio but if you find a piece of sea glass on holiday, something that can be turned into a beautiful piece of Drift jewellery or a gift, contact her HERE.
Drift Jewellery will be showing at Marine Artists Open House in Lyme Regis, Dorset on the 8th and 9th September (contact [email protected] for details) and the Country Brocante Fair at Daylesford, Gloucestershire on 22 September 2018.
And there’s a further selection of chic accessories in my new look SHOP.