The history of Nicholas…
Firstly, thank you to all the participants of our first 2016 Design Workshops, which we held in May and June in our studio at Highgate. The format for the evenings consisted of an introduction, a questionnaire, a survey and then general discussion. And no-one was asked to draw which was a fear of some of our guests!
Part of the focus was aimed at our Christmas Collection 2016 – we will be collating all the facts over the next month and I will keep you posted.
I would now like to answer a question I have been asked many times – how did I decide that jewellery was my passion?
Choosing a career and a path for my future working years started when I was fifteen and it was made clearer at a careers night held during Year 10 at Pulteney Grammar School (drawing below by Simon Fieldhouse). My sister Meredith and I were both enrolled in city colleges having attended Oakbank Area School, which opened up our world to many opportunities. My mother chose to go back to full time work to help fund the school fees and I don’t think Meredith or I fully appreciated until later life what a commitment both our parents had made.
Attending Pulteney was scary for a country boy like me as most of the boys were from the city. It was a successful move and after a couple of years I began to receive private art coaching from the French teacher Frank Greet – there was not a specific art subject taught in those days. Frank was a great teacher and very knowledgeable in art history and the use of paint mediums.
I had always loved working in both water colours and oils, and he allowed me to grasp more fully the techniques and intricacies of both mediums. I also dabbled with acrylics which I loved because they gave a quicker result than oils. During Year 10, I entered a water colour painting into the school’s art prize and won which meant my name was recorded in gold on the prize board in Wyatt Hall. I was invited to visit the headmaster Canon Wray’s (below) rooms to receive the prize certificate and was overwhelmed to receive a gift from him, signed and confirming his admiration for my work.
During this meeting, I discussed the future of painting as a career and he was very guarded. He commented that he was possibly not the best person to recommend art as a career as it was not a mainstream subject at Pulteney and in a way was looked upon as way down the list of professions in comparison to Mathematics, Science and English. None of these interested me very much, so I really didn’t quite know what to do and which subjects to pursue.
I really enjoyed working with my hands and I remembered I had enjoyed woodwork and metalwork at Oakbank Area School. The options for me wanting a creative ‘hands-on’ profession were limited – chef, hairdresser, art teacher, commercial artist, architect and furniture maker. I couldn’t see a clear path to choose any of these however a family dinner at my uncle and aunt’s a month later was to change everything.
At the dinner was my uncle’s brother-in -law, Gerald Cox from G W Cox, a jeweller in Rundle Street. I was discussing with him my dilemma, and he asked me whether I had considered becoming a jeweller. He knew of a five year apprenticeship being offered by Ross Cornelius who owned a manufacturing jewellery workshop in Adelaide’s CBD. He offered to find out more about it and he did. He suggested I apply. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and remember this was still only the middle of second term of year 10. I applied for the position.
I will never forget receiving the letter: I had been chosen and the job was offered for immediate commencement. All I could think of was that my parents wouldn’t let me because I hadn’t finished school, and I knew that they would say it probably would be better to finish my schooling up to year 12 because my education had been expensive and it would be good to show something for the money they had spent. To leave school and take the job would mean I would have nothing to fall back on if I didn’t like jewellery making. Talk about sleepless nights. I decided to visit my headmaster Canon Wray again.
I explained to him the jewellery position I had been offered and reminded him how rare the apprenticeships were, I asked him what I should do. He asked me what my heart was saying and I responded ‘I want to take the job, and I will make it work!’ He said something I will never forget – ‘if the career you choose is your passion, then every day at work will be a pleasure and how fortunate you will be.’ And he gave me his blessing and said he would talk to my parents. He also kindly offered me the opportunity to come back to the school and sit for the end of year exams. He was an amazing support.
So I began my first job! I was so nervous and so excited. Six months later I turned up for the exams in civilian clothes, not in school uniform. I had grown my hair, bought myself some flares, a body shirt and was wearing a large opal ring which I had made in gold. All of this the ultimate in modern male styling! Considering I had been a student that nobody took notice of or if they did, teased me about not playing sport and not being ‘cool’, I revelled in my new found pride. And so many questions: ‘What’s it like working, what was I paid, where did I get my clothes from, did I really make the ring I had on, did I have a girlfriend yet? I felt ten foot tall! Needless to say I flunked two subjects in the exams, but I didn’t really care – I was coping with my job and felt I had made the right choice.
I have to say during the five years of apprenticeship, I doubted my decision quite a few times, and it wasn’t the skills or the making that bothered me – it was the environment. I think because I was the youngest and the most gullible I experienced bullying, was tricked into dangerous initiation pranks, got all the ‘shit’ work, and wasn’t brave enough to speak out. If ever I complained, I was ostracised by the other jewellers. You also did not question a boss in those days and so there was really nowhere to turn if you were unhappy. Whenever I got a bit down, I looked to the future and knew that to learn as much about the trade as I could would be an important thing so I would have all the knowledge and skills to allow me to get a job with another jeweller if the job I had didn’t work out.
As I reached the end of my five year apprenticeship I was very frustrated and unhappy that I was not able to show what I really could do. I hardly ever received design pieces but sat on a production line where the emphasis was on speed rather than skill and it was incredibly unfulfilling. So on the eve of completing my apprenticeship, I resigned my position. The wage for a fully qualified jeweller in those days was appalling and the conditions were pretty bad. It reminds me of the ‘sweat shop’ mentality, with timed toilet breaks and lunch hours, head down, tail up, don’t talk and don’t be late and come to work even if you’re sick. No air-conditioning, no fume extraction and you had to buy your own tools. Not the most enjoyable working environment, but I had stuck it out. I certainly wasn’t at the point of feeling ‘pleasure every day or feeling fortunate’. However, things were about to change for the better and I was going to find out what true passion was.
During the final years of my apprenticeship I had met Helen Tregilgas and we became inseparable. We became engaged and married and it was through her encouragement that I resigned my apprenticeship position, and we opened our first business at 115 Unley Road Unley. This was the beginning of an amazing career in design and making of jewellery spanning over more than 40 years.
What I’ve learned is that passion is not enough to be a successful business person, although it does give you the energy and drive to always be looking forward to the next project and challenge. For those that say ‘isn’t it wonderful what you have achieved’ – of course I agree, but a little humility is necessary considering that I don’t believe anybody does it alone. There is always someone behind the scenes – a mentor, financial advisor, a bank manager, a business coach, partner or in my case a wife and partner. I could not have achieved what I have without the support of Helen. I have always been concerned that she has put her career on hold to help me and I can only thank her sincerely for always being there for me over forty years. Through good and bad times she has been my rock, and a huge amount of my success is thanks to her. She keeps my passion alive!
I look forward to sharing more stories in my next blog, in the meantime keep well!
Cheers for now,
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