Christopher Thompson Royds dances the fine line between jewellery and sculpture.
An accomplished artist, trained at the Royal College of Art, his work has been featured in some of the world’s most prominent galleries. He specialises as a master goldsmith – in fact, his intricate creations have been compared to the works of Fabergé. And it’s this meticulous skill set that landed him within Alexander McQueen’s Sarabande Foundation, set up by the late designer to support visionary talent.
“It’s really exciting as it’s actually my first London studio in five years,” Thompson Royds tells us of his recent selection by Sarabande. “It’s great to finally have a space to work and be surrounded by a really creative environment.” Where was he previously? Well, during lockdown at least, he was in his mum’s shed, making hand-painted, 18k gold Forget Me Not earrings as part of a project to raise funds for Refuge (donating £100 from each sale to the domestic abuse charity).
“At the time, the government was telling people to stay at home, save the NHS,” Thompson Royds continues. “But if your home isn’t safe, then you’re asking people to do something really horrible. I wanted to support those people in some way. It was amazing as it raised £12,000 from pieces I made in a shed in my mother’s garden.”
It’s apt that pre-Sarabande, Thompson Royds found himself a garden to execute work that really made a difference – the natural world is a theme that’s ever-present in his pieces. For his latest collection, Against Nature, the humble wildflower becomes his subject, capturing its beauty in precious gold.
“The beauty about lockdown is that people have been looking and seeing and valuing the world that we’re in more,” Thompson Royds notes. “I know I definitely have. I’ve noticed the seasons change much more. Cycling through Hyde Park earlier, I noticed that the light catching the trees was just beautiful. And that brings inspiration, too. Just imagine a piece of jewellery being covered in those sorts of shimmering, glittering bits of light…”
While we might all be able to imagine it, what sets Thompson Royds apart is his ability to take that inspiration and run with it. Here, he gives us a glimpse into the fascinating interior world that informs his pieces, discussing conscious design and the nuances of gold along the way.
How did you get into jewellery? Where did it start?
From an early age, I was always a bit of a magpie and I loved shiny things. My school had a jewellery department, so I was introduced to the basics of jewellery early on. That’s where this passion started and it continued from there.
Do you see your work as jewellery or art?
I firmly put myself slap bang in the middle, so my pieces are both art and jewellery. I describe myself as a jeweller first and foremost. But I’m really interested in how jewellery can be used to tell a story and evoke emotions, so I’m creating an art form, too. I display my jewellery on plinths for this very reason, as I want them to be read as sculptures.
What is your favourite material to work with?
It has to be gold – the material that’s pure and lasts forever. My pieces could be buried and, if not squashed, thousands of years later they could be dug up and still be in the same condition. That’s the beauty of gold. It’s a conscious decision to use gold because it’s a material that allows a piece to last and endure.
Do you have a person in mind when you create these pieces?
From experience, I find jewellery finds its owner. I’m just making it and putting it out there. My pieces are all quite distinctive, so it’s for the individual to see which ones speak to them. I view my work as heirlooms that you can pass down and tell stories of when you wore them. That’s how I grew up, with my grandmother telling me stories. She had an inheritance of jewellery that was stolen in the 1960s and the shock of it turned her hair white overnight. Supposedly, it was Christine Keeler who stole it from the family. My grandmother would always talk about the pieces that she’d lost as if they were members of the family. So for me, there’s always been this emotional connection with jewellery. In a way, that’s my starting point as a maker, as a jeweller, to create pieces that evoke emotion, that are conduits to memory and that allow people to have these journeys.
What was the inspiration for your Against Nature collection?
Most of my collections start from personal memories and my Against Nature collection is a trip down memory lane. I grew up in the countryside, so these pieces are all wildflowers from my childhood. Our first interaction with jewellery is probably as a child – from making daisy chains to shoving flowers in our hair or in buttonholes – and it’s these early forms of adornment that really interest me. I do find flowers fascinating. As a motif in jewellery, they’ve always been used – since way back with ancient Greek, Thracian and Egyptian motifs. It’s a classic theme.
How did you choose the flowers that would work as pieces of jewellery?
I suppose it sounds a bit ridiculous, but it’s literally just a walk in the countryside. I look for interesting forms, but I really like the flowers that grow in the margins between the cultivated and the wild. So amongst hedgerows or coming up through pavements – the flowers that are often most overlooked. That’s why none of my pieces are based on garden flowers, they are based on the ones you walk past and ignore. That for me is what’s important and interesting about them.
What attracted you to these overlooked flowers?
There’s a beautiful watercolour by Durer. It has always stuck in my mind because it’s just so everyday. It features grass and he has literally taken a clump of soil and drawn it. It’s the most beautiful piece of art and it’s that observation that I love – looking for beauty everywhere.
The initial piece for the collection was the Black Meddick. I fell in love with these flowers and their little pom-poms, and had this vision that they’d be beautiful with little diamonds in them to add some sparkle. It’s like Durer selecting that bit of grass. Let’s celebrate it, let’s make it in gold and add diamonds. Let’s appreciate the beauty and the wonder of nature. It is about looking and noticing the small things.
How do you create them to look so realistic?
My god, it’s a complete nightmare. I am incredibly detailed when it comes to jewellery. It’s a question of literally taking apart the flowers to work out the constitutional parts and then trying to recreate it. It’s really difficult. It is the small details that make it look real. A little tweak here, a little tweak there, suddenly gives it that magic. It is hugely time-consuming. Take something like the Bird’s Foot Trefoil, that’s got 55 separate elements in each earring, so the pair have over 100 pieces that are all hand-cut, shaped, cleaned and soldered together.
Why is preserving traditional craftsmanship important to you?
The way I can recreate these life-like floral pieces is by using traditional goldsmithing techniques – it’s a 2,000-year-old craft. None of my work is cast, it’s all hand-formed from sheet wire. It’s this ancient skill that allows you to get a likeness into the final piece. They’re not exact copies, but they have a sense that they are living. It would be easy to recreate something just by casting it, but it would then have this unnatural heaviness to it. And actually, what’s beautiful about these pieces when you wear them is that they’re incredibly light.
What inspires your designs?
People have drawn parallels with Fabergé, as my work involves that intricate detail. But I would say Ancient Greek and Thracian jewellery is my biggest influence. The goldsmith work in these pieces – such as the funeral burial crowns – is just extraordinary and it has a timeless quality that I find really interesting. It’s the ability to reference the past, but at the same time not be historical. It’s got to be jewellery for now, that you want to wear.
Annoyingly, my ideas usually come to me just as I’m drifting off to sleep. It’s really weird because as a maker, I don’t have a sketchbook. I’ll see a design fully formed in my mind. Everyone designs and makes in different ways, but for me I couldn’t develop my work without making it. And, that’s why my 3D sketches are actual models made out of metal. If you are going to make something in gold, you want to make sure it’s going to look good. With a metal model you can add, take away, resolder, chop down and assess the practicalities of whether it’s going to work. In truth, it’s just playing around. Well, sophisticated play in 18-karat gold.