The media has a new indie jewelry favorite – Ashley Hilton. Featured in press outlets around the world in just the past 6 months, Ashley’s creations embody a seamless mix of eco-appreciation and modern style.
“I try to reflect both the human and natural environment in my work by using symbols and materials that have meaning to me and represent where I come from. From street signs to native trees, my jewelery has always been a pretty literal representation of my surroundings,” he says.
Along with the natural theme of his creations, Ashley uses small scale mined metals from his home base in New Zealand. “I found that most of the gold from my suppliers in New Zealand is mined or recycled here and in Australia. Both these countries have a relatively good track record with regards to mining practices but the idea of using a local resource and streamlining the path of the metal from the ground to the customer really appealed to me,” he says.
It was my pleasure to chat with Ashley recently about his education of the art of make jewelry, sustainable metal mining, creative inspirations and more. Read on for our full conversation and all its “hand made” details.
What first got you interested in making jewelry? When did you decide to turn it into a career?
I was at a loose end really. I’d spent a few years traveling and working overseas as a chef and knew that that lifestyle wasn’t for me anymore. I did a weekend jewelery course and loved it, It just made perfect sense to me so I bought some tools and started experimenting. Originally I never thought it would be a career. It was never really a conscious decision, it just grew and grew until in about 3 years It was all I did.
Have you even gotten flack for being a straight guy in the jewelry biz?
No, but I’m always careful to answer the phone with an extra deep voice. Actually, due to my name and I guess occupation, I’ve been mistaken for a girl a few times. What appeared to be innocuous e-mails from a male customer seemed quite flirtatious when I re-read them as a woman.
Did you first start your collection with sustainability in mind or has that developed over time?
I didn’t. Although I considered myself quite environmentally aware It wasn’t something I translated into my work. I guess I really avoided finding out about the real cost and history of the materials I used because I didn’t think there would be anything I could do about it. Once I actually confronted the issues really good alternatives appeared.
You work with a number of beautiful materials including silver, gold, titanium and polyester resin. Is there one in particular that you enjoy more than the others?
I think silver will always be my first love. There’s something honest and no nonsense about it.
Why do you believe that sustainable creation and operation should be so important to small businesses and crafty folks?
I think everyone should try to be honest about the real cost of what they do. In particular to business though, I think people are taking greater and greater interest in the ethics of what they buy and consume and this is only going to get more important to them. Small business and crafty folk have the agility to be at the front of this trend and give people options that big business can’t.
Other than in your Etsy webstore, your goods are only available in your native New Zealand. What has the reception been like from customers and retailers?
It’s been good. In the beginning it was tough approaching retailers about selling my work, there are a lot of great jewelers in New Zealand so galleries can be pretty full up. If you have something original people usually give you a chance and then it’s just a matter of whether your designs sell. Luckily for me some of my designs struck a real chord with people and have done well.
Your process of mining black sand gold is quite unique – how did you come across this process? Are you involved in the mining of your materials personally?
There is a bit of a community here of people who prospect for gold using small scale, home built machinery. Some use metal detectors. Some use one and two person suction dredges in rivers as well as on beaches. My father happened to know someone who did this for a living and worked on the beach with him for a season. I’ve never worked there myself but I go there to buy gold. The tides and seasons really affect whether they can work on the beach so it’s always a bit hit and miss. I imagine there are people doing this in other parts of the world, it’s just a matter of finding them. As the price of gold has gone up ridiculously in the past few years it’s making this kind of mining more viable. It’s pretty cool to be able to cut out all the middle people and get gold from the person who mined it to the person who wears it with just me in between..
Most recently, you have been working on a line of fruit rings that is noticeably different from your other etched creations. What led you in this new direction?
With my jewelery I’m not really too worried about always coming up with new ideas. I find my designs do evolve over time but for me jewelery is as much about the lifestyle of working from home and keeping my own time as it is about expressing my creativity. That said, every few months I go through a bit of a manic ideas period where I try out lots of new designs. The fruity rings came about when I was looking at rings in “the Carrot Box” that had been cut out of flat sheet metal and thinking about what I could do using the same process… I also wanted to explore the idea of jewelery that is a little bit impractical and not necessarily for everyday wearing.
What one tip would you give to crafters who are trying to creative their own projects more sustainably?
I would say really look at what you do, where your materials come from, how you use them and what the impacts are. It can be a bit depressing but unless you recognize the negatives you can’t do anything about them. I found solutions right in front of me that I had never thought of.
I think it’s really important to be pragmatic too, I know there’s still lots of things about what I do that aren’t sustainable but I don’t think the answer is to stop making jewelery. You’ve just got to be honest about it and start finding alternatives.