A SEA CHANGE
SHE WENT TO HOLLYWOOD TO WORK IN MAKEUP, BUT CAME BACK TO SYDNEY AS A JEWELLER. WORKING WITHOUT DRAWINGS, STRAIGHT FROM THE MATERIALS, MELISSA HARRIS CRAFTS ORIGINAL AND NATURAL-LOOKING BEAUTIES.
Working as a make-up artist in Hollywood is not considered your typical path for anyone wanting to become a jeweller. But then again, where else do you have actors and actresses – all potential customers – sitting in front of you for hours at a time? “I had an instantly famous clientele,” jeweller Melissa Harris tells WISH of her unusual start in the industry. “I would have actors who would say, ‘I want that [the piece that I was wearing], where can I get it?’ and I would say ‘Buy it off me!’”
The now-Sydneysider left Australia for Los Angeles at just 20 years old determined to get into the film industry as a make-up artist. “I made jewellery as a hobby because you don’t traditionally work full-time,” she says of her 16 years in LA in the 1980s and 90s. “You are in and out of work as a freelancer in film and television so I would do it in my down time. I had always made things with my hands ever since I was little.” Harris started making pieces with any materials she could find, from bone to copper to leather to shell. She describes her jewellery as organic; she still creates from instinct.
“I had a feeling for things that are free-form, that are based on nature,” Harris says of her work. “I tilted towards flowers, art, trees.” She then undertook some more formal jewellery training and started selling her work beyond her make-up chair and into key boutiques in LA. Soon enough Tim Robbins was coming in repeatedly to buy bespoke pieces for his then partner, actress Susan Sarandon. Cue more celebrity clients. Then the Los Angeles Times included Harris in a piece about upcoming jewellers and “that was that”: her transition from makeup artist to jeweller was complete.
Harris decided to return home to Australia – LA had lost its key attraction given she no longer needed to work in the film industry. “So rather than move to New York, which was my initial thought, I moved back home for a while to spend some time with my family,” she says. “That turned into forever after I married my husband.” Harris set up her first boutique on Crown Street in Surry Hills (far less hip in 1996), then she moved to the Strand Arcade in the Sydney’s CBD and then on to Double Bay, where she has been for 18 years.
Harris now specialises in coloured gemstones and a lot of her work is bespoke pieces. “We don’t use bone or copper any more,” she says, laughing. “We are more diamonds and gold and platinum. We still have fairly organic roots, if you will – that is our go-to style. We are still a bit left of centre; we don’t do what everyone else is doing out there. We are influenced by nature a lot, do stuff that is a bit more detailed. It is not just a stone plonked in a white gold ring.”
Unlike many other jewellers, Harris doesn’t draw first or do renderings; she instead jumps straight into making things and experimenting with the raw materials. For her latest collection, called Shallows and the Deep, which is inspired by the sea, she started working with pearls for the first time. “I have not worked with a lot of pearls in the past as it has always struck me as a bit nanna,” she tells WISH. “But I have become aware lately that there is not a lot around that is interesting [in this area] so it is nice to explore something that has not been done a lot.”
And pearls of course fit perfectly with her ocean theme. “Tidal pools were an obsession of mine as a kid,” she says. “So Shallows and the Deep refers to what you might find right there, like bluebottles or what is in the rockpools to the animals that exist deep underwater in the Mariana Trench that never see the light of the day. They are the most magical, unbelievable creatures.”