KITCHEN TABLE TALENT
THIS MONTH: THE SEA-GLASS JEWELLER We celebrate the home-grown entrepreneurs who have turned their hobby into a thriving business
We celebrate entrepreneurs who have turned their hobby into a business. This month: the sea-glass jeweller
very coat I own has pockets filled with things I’ve found on the beach,” says Fiona Petheram, returning from a walk on the Suffolk coast and emptying the contents of her jacket onto the dining-room table. “I’m a compulsive beachcomber and have been ever since I was a child.” But while pebbles and shells have always held a fascination, sea-glass is where Fiona’s passion lies: “You spot that little blink of colour among the pebbles and it’s like finding jewels or treasure. Sea-glass forms such tactile shapes – all gently rounded by the waves – you just have to touch them.”
Fiona transforms these pocketfuls of gems into jewellery that’s as beautiful as the seascape from which they come. Held up to the window, the pieces glow in all the colours of the coast – from the brilliant azure of still, sunny waters and the luminous white of sea spray to the emerald depths of the deep and inky blues of stormy waves. “The different colours tell the history of the glass. Whites, greens and blues were probably once part of a wine, ale or ink bottle, while the rarer purples and pinks might have come from old medicine bottles,” Fiona says. “It’s one of the things that makes sea-glass so fascinating: it could have begun its journey hundreds of years ago or only last summer.”
Fiona started Drift Jewellery 11 years ago, slowly transforming what was initially a hobby into the thriving business it is today. “I’m not someone who has ever had a business plan, so growth has been very organic,” she explains. It all started in 2006 when Fiona and her husband Doug took the big decision to move the family to Tarifa, a small fishing town on the Costa de la Luz in Spain. Her former business partner was living there with her
husband, developing properties, and Fiona and Doug were invited to join them. “It all happened quite quickly but we ended up living in this idyllic spot – a cabin on the beach, near the dunes, with the mountains behind us and the sea in front,” Fiona says.
It was this beach that inspired her first jewellery designs: “While walking along the water’s edge, I’d pick up pretty pieces of sea-glass – one day I laid them out on the porch and thought they’d make a beautiful necklace.” Inspired by this, she started investigating jewellery-making techniques on the internet: “I ordered a craft drill and a few burrs [drill tips], which cost £70. At that time I was using silks and leathers, rather than gold, to string the glass, so it wasn’t a huge investment.”
Initially, her designs were just gifts for friends but as she got more and more requests, Fiona decided to approach some local businesses. “Tarifa is not dissimilar to the Suffolk coast, in that it’s a real creative hub and people were very supportive. A textile designer nearby helped me rebrand my logo and another friend, a graphic designer, created my first website – both in return for jewellery.” Sadly, the crash in the Spanish housing market caused the family to move back to the UK in 2009. “We had become used to living by the sea, so didn’t want to return to London,” Fiona explains. “Instead, we moved into my mother-in-law’s cottage in Pin Mill, Suffolk, before finding our current house in 2011.”
Today, Drift Jewellery is based in the eaves of Fiona’s 16thcentury Suffolk longhouse in Clopton, near Woodbridge, where a huge window floods the workshop with light. With an oceancoloured rainbow of glass before her, she decides between two emerald teardrops for a pendant. “There’s a lot of sorting
involved – from sifting out pieces of seaweed when I go through my pockets to arranging the glass into shapes and colours. I work on several pieces at a time, and I’m always switching the glass around when I see a bit that works better,” she explains. “Each item of jewellery is inspired by the shape of the sea-glass – there are a surprising number of oblongs, squares and diamonds. Triangles are very common and occasionally they are worn by the sea into almost perfect little hearts.” Initially, Fiona used sea-glass straight from the beach, using only those that had been worn by the waves, but she now tumbles each fragment first – “this makes it smoother and more luminous” – in a pebble tumbler for around five days.
Fiona then carefully drills tiny holes in the pieces to attach the fastenings, before they are threaded on to delicate silks, gold and silver chains or simple but elegant ring settings. “You have to be careful not to apply too much pressure or the glass will crack, but if you’re not firm enough the burr skids across and scratches the surface. I broke an awful lot of pieces before I got it right – and sometimes the natural imperfections still catch me out.” She sells her pieces at fairs, through retail outlets and also online. Two-thirds of her business is from direct sales and she finds fairs particularly useful: “Increasingly, people want to know the story behind what they buy – who has made it and how. These events allow me to tell that story. I’ve gained a lot of loyal customers through them.”
With the business growing steadily, Fiona has less time to enjoy daily walks on the coast, but she still makes time for trips to her favourite local beaches. “We often sail around Orford Ness, enjoy family picnics at Dunwich, and I’ll even take a dip in the sea on a hot day at Aldeburgh or Thorpeness,” she says. “I love the Suffolk coast in summer, and don’t even mind the occasional storm, as long as the huge swells bring up a new haul of sea-glass!”
Drift Jewellery pieces start from £32. For more information, visit driftjewellery.com.
After discovering pieces of sea-glass on strands of shoreline, Fiona brings them back to her studio, where she sorts and groups them according to colour and shape before deciding which setting will work best to highlight their natural beauty
Fiona walks along local beaches as much as possible to source materials. Although she started her business in Spain, moving to Suffolk has enabled her to sell at more fairs and events, so she can meet customers and create a loyal following