I have to confess my inner magpie never allows me to pass a jewellers without stopping to look in the window, if only for a brief moment. I love and appreciate beautiful pieces, whether they are rings, bracelets, pendants or necklaces. When I arrived in Bath in the mid-1980’s, Christopher Milton Stevens’ jewellers had one of those windows where I often lingered. And sometimes I’d make a purchase. Now he runs a bespoke jewellery design service from his home. Some time ago I visited his studio with a commission for him: to transform three existing unloved and unworn rings into two completely new designs. I was absolutely delighted with the result but more than that, fascinated by the whole process. I asked Chris if he would allow me to interview him and was delighted when he agreed. As I felt I’d be a little out of my depth setting the right questions, his daughter Emilie agreed to help. My thanks to her for all her hard work in organising the questions and photos for this blog interview…
CHRISTOPHER MILTON STEVENS – BESPOKE JEWELLERY DESIGN
Tell us about yourself, judging by that photograph you haven’t always been in the jewellery trade.
I grew up in Wiltshire. The photo shows me ready for my role as a Naval Marine Engineering Mechanic which I began at the age of 15. I trained in Plymouth and was then drafted to HMS Intrepid in Singapore. A year or so into my training, my CPO suggested I left the Navy to finish my education and re-join as an officer. I took his advice and did so, except along the way discovered an alternative use for metal – Jewellery.
My mother volunteered me as an apprentice with Graham Watling a Silversmith in Lacock.
Hand raising coffee pots and making silver jewellery seemed surprisingly straightforward and I was hooked from then on. My early commissions were varied and challenging, but the most unusual was a chastity belt in silver! Lacock was a time for design experimentation and I spent years perfecting techniques to develop a unique style.
As the 70’s came to a close I knew it was time to branch out of Lacock’s rural idylls and in 1979, aged 23, I prepared to open my first shop in Bath. It took 8 months: I took the roof off the building, replaced the plumbing & electrics, made the cabinets and then I made the jewellery to sell. Silver jewellery featured, as did belt buckles, walking stick handles and trophies. My luxury belt buckles were sold in Harrods – far from their humble origination in Lacock. During the mid 1980’s I opened my second shop on New Bond Street and so began the 80’s high life.
Since 2007 I have been conducting business from my ‘Studio’ or (Chalet when it snows). My commissions continue to vary, from engagement rings to dress rings. My customers from the shop days are now accustomed to the comfort of the Studio (and its coffee).
From Shop to Studio that seems quite a dramatic change, what were the reasons behind the move?
Historically the jewellery industry has been a stock heavy business model, with customers choosing a ring off the shelf. Commissioning a piece of jewellery was seen as unattainable to most. However, the jewellery industry has entered a new era and as with many other consumer sectors, technology and personalisation have been significant driving factors.
The rise in demand for bespoke jewellery, designed to client specifications, requires a flexible and innovative set up. Technology advances in the design process, such as CAD (Computer Aided Design), enables me to create designs based on each client’s ideas. I am able to show my customers rendered designs that are photographic. The shop shelf is now digital – you can see exactly what you are getting at an early stage in the process and we can make amendments with ease. My studio gives me this flexibility, as soon as a client walks through the door we can begin designing whether it be for surprise engagement rings or heirloom remodelling.
I have been lucky enough to take part in the CMS Jewellers experience but for our readers please could you share some of the details?
The first step is the design brief where I discuss with the customer their ideas, occasion, timeframe and budget. Sometimes we start from scratch or adapt existing designs customers have seen in magazines or online. I then create a range of designs using CAD to start to bring to life our discussion and design options.
Once the design has been agreed I create a wax model – allowing the customer to try on the design and make any final alterations. In some cases the wax model has actually been the ring used in a proposal, giving the bride-to-be involvement with the final design.
A new wax model is created and then sent to my casting company who use 3D printing technology to create the real piece. It is then hallmarked and returned to me ready for finishing. This involves taking off the casting sprues, fettling, polishing and finally setting. Setting is an incredibly specialist skill, I send each piece to my setter, who is one of the very few that can deliver the high standard required. I conduct a final polish and valuation before, my favourite part, presenting to the customer.
Wow, that’s quite a process and do you think unique in the fact the customer is so involved in the design process?
Customer design involvement has always been central to my bespoke design process. Not only does it make the whole experience more memorable and fun, my customers enjoy learning about Diamonds and gemstones and how to choose the right metals to compliment. I explain diamonds and gemstones in a way that enables you to make your own decision. We will look at real gems under magnification so you can see for yourself how grading works. Being part of the design process adds thought and sentiment. Designed together, sounds good doesn’t it.
What have been some of your landmark pieces to date?
We have been discussing this and in my opinion all pieces are landmarks. A landmark, in my eyes, is about the journey and the provenance of the materials. Whether an engagement ring or anniversary gift, the joint design process we undertake is unique, customer’s ideas are central and the result is a piece of jewellery exclusive and personal to them. I love the fact that I deliver joy and lasting mementoes of a special moment in people’s lives. Here is a necklet I made last summer, for the Mother of the Groom on the big day. The magnificent 11ct pink tourmaline is surrounded with 28 brilliant cut diamonds, with a cabochon pink tourmaline finial and in my Liberty style setting. Quite a show stopper!
Finally, must ask, what is your favourite gemstone?
Gemstones are the stones of 2017 in my eyes. Unique in terms of colour, shape and grandeur I believe they are the unsung heroes of Jewellery. In 2016 I launched my Liberty collection which is centred on coloured gemstones. Why Liberty? For me, Liberty means wearing jewellery which is bold, unafraid to make a statement and independent of the status quo. Each design in the collection is unique and based upon the gemstone in question. Upon discovered a dazzling gemstone, I then start to think what design could best show it off. This short video shows some of my recent work using coloured gemstones. (Hyperlink)