Inspiration Category Occasion Designer

Meet the Designer: an interview with Hannah Martin

by Ilana Lever on

We catch up with one of the first designers to join the Motley fold, cult British designer Hannah Martin, to talk about her time at Central Saint Martins, what sparked her love of jewellery design, and starting the conversation around gender fluidity in the industry.

You’ve been in the jewellery game a while. Is it similar to when you first started? 

I’ve had my business for twelve years and since then the landscape has changed completely. There’s a broader awareness of jewellery at every level. Retail has definitely clocked on in the last eight to ten years that you can make a lot of money from a very small amount of space, so places like the jewellery department at Dover Street Market department have grown and it works.  

When I started at Saint Martins, where I now lecture, there were only 16 of us. Now there’s usually 50-60. During my time it was a lot more focused on craftsmanship, now it’s mainly design so there are lots of designers coming out of art schools. But there’s a lot of mediocre stuff and a lot that looks quite similar. 

How do you think that has impacted talent coming out of universities?  

I think it’s a really hard time for education because of financial pressures. Universities get less funding now so need to bring in more money, and this has utterly changed the dynamic of the student-tutor relationship. From my experience, doing three days of lecturing and tutorials a week, your students act like your client and they’re expecting you to deliver a service. I’m like, “you need to actually go and do some work. I’m telling you stuff, but I can’t implant it in your brain.” There are still some amazing students that work really hard but it’s definitely a psychological switch. Education has changed enormously because of finance.  

How important was it for you to have gone to Central Saint Martins and what does that mean for students that can’t afford it now? 

I don’t think I’d be where I am now. It opens doors and it’s the one art school everyone’s heard of thanks to Lee McQueen, etc. I was surrounded by a group of incredibly talented people in other disciplines. I put so much into it and I got so much out of it. The tutors that I had – Sian Evans being one of them (also a Motley designer) – were amazing. There was one tutor, in particular, I had who put me in the right direction and opened my eyes up to the whole experience. Before Saint Martins, I didn’t even know jewellery existed as a thing you could do. 

So Young Hannah wasn’t thinking about jewellery? 

No, although I was always super creative from a very young age. My mum likes to tell the story of how I used to get obsessed - I still do - aged four, I learnt how to make paper fans out of folding paper so spent five days making five hundred fans out of anything I could find in the house. Then I’d start making masks - I always wanted to make stuff.

From an early age at school, I always wanted to do art. Jewellery wasn’t part of my life, as I never wore it. I really wanted to go to art school, that’s all I knew, and I knew about Saint Martins. My Dad’s a graphic designer so he had fed me from a young age that it was the Holy Grail. I was quite academic so my teachers thought I was wasting my life. They said, “Why don’t you go to Oxford? You’re just going to end up as a painter and decorator.” But art school was what I wanted to do, working in three-dimensions and with sculpture – I guess jewellery is just changing the scales a bit. 

I came to London when I was 18, which was an eye-opening experience. I suddenly found like-minded people. I’d grown up in a small village in the country where I stuck out like a sore thumb. I loved Nirvana, being a Goth, and dying my hair every colour under the sun. That said, I had a pretty easy time; everyone thought I was a bit weird but I was never bullied. My parents were super cool and had amazing music taste; we moved around a lot, which meant I had more of an open mind than that some of the people I grew up with. In London, I felt like I was home. The whole experience made me who I am and that’s why I go back and lecture at Saint Martins - I feel like I owe it so much and love being a part of the family and helping others.

And then what? 

After finishing my degree I went back to work for Cartier in Paris, where I’d done an internship in my second year. I always say this was what led to what I’m doing today. I was working with the high jewellery team; I learnt so much, and the people and the materials I was working with were incredible. But I was a kid in Paris trying to find dirty bars to watch rock n’ roll at night, and designing grown-up jewellery in the day. I wanted to find a way to bring those things together.  

When I left Saint Martin’s I knew nothing about how to run a business; other than my time at Cartier, I had no idea what I was doing but knew jewellery was what I wanted to do. I soon got accepted on a course run by NESTA called the ‘Creative Pioneer Programme’. There was a rigorous application process, and all sorts of creatives were on it - I always felt like a bit of a fraud because I was just doing pretty jewellery when others had come up with amazing ideas for different types of technology. At the end, you could apply for investment, and I received investment from them for the business - and that’s how I began.

What won your love for jewellery?  

For me, jewellery is that perfect mix between art and design. It has to have a function to fit on a human body, and it has to be able to be worn, but other than that it can be anything. That’s what got me. It’s three-dimensional, it has logic, and you need to be clever in the way you do it so it has a purpose. Once I understood that I started understanding more about the effects of wearing something next to your skin, so having something that lasts.  

It’s really interesting you use the phrase ‘just pretty jewellery’ because something I think that is probably undersold is how jewellery makes you… 

Feel. Yep. I mean jewellery lasts a lifetime and gets passed down through the generations. For me that’s magical. Every piece of jewellery has a story, however much money you spend on it. There’s usually a story attached to it, it’s been lost and found, it’s been given to you by this person, you bought it in this particular place at this particular time. It has such a talismanic effect, way more than clothing.

Jewellery isn’t seasonal and you see its power through the history of jewellery. There was an amazing exhibition years ago at the British Museum exhibiting a horde of Afghanistan gold, which had been buried in a tomb for thousands of years and the gold looked like it had been forged. Even the way that we make jewellery hasn’t really changed, digital technology aside. The physical act of melting metal, soldering and filling it, hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. I love the mix of modern technology and ancient methods, modern design and ancient design, and I work on pieces you can’t really place in a particular time.

Something I’ve found very interesting is how little people know about how complex the jewellery making process is.  What’s the most common misunderstanding? 

Many people don’t know about stone setting. You don’t glue in stones, they’re held by tiny small bits of metal, and that’s why they don’t fall out. I learnt how to set but I don’t do it because there are specialists who have trained as an apprentice from the age of fourteen, setting stones all their life. There’s a specialist to do every single thing; every piece probably has about ten to fifteen separate parts of a process, with each part done by a separate person.

[Hannah apologises and pops out to take a call about a new Chinese project she’s working on, so when she gets back we get onto the Asian market] 

How has the Asian market changed over time? 

I’ve always had the problem in the Asian market of my pieces being too big…too heavy. There’s a general taste for smaller, more delicate things. But amongst my designer peers – not necessarily just jewellery - there are a lot of brands in China that are bringing in European designers as creative directors, or consultants. I’m currently working as a creative director for a Chinese jewellery company. There are loads of Chinese brands that are really good structurally but don’t have the edge of the design element. The middle classes are growing in China enormously; there’s huge spending power and all the big brands are tapping into it. But at the minute there hasn’t been a way in for small design-led labels coming over from Europe. Unless you have quite a bit of budget, it’s unknown. It’s going to be interesting to see how China, and the Asian market more broadly, develops over the next 5-10 years. It is a massive opportunity; it’s just how people adapt to be able to make it.

You’re known for your androgynous jewellery. Where did that fascination with gender come from? 

I’ve always been fascinated by gender and mixing things up. There was a moment for me at college when I didn’t know what direction I was going in, and a tutor - Simon Fraser - said to me, “Why are you forcing yourself into a box? Just tell me what you love, tell me what you enjoy, and do your jewellery about that.” And it’s like, “Well, I really love rock and roll, and I’m really interested in masculinity.” This was before gender fluidity became a real conversation, and that’s basically what it was, but there wasn’t a term for it. I did my whole thesis on masculinity; how there’s a whole sliding scale of where we’re all at in our gender positioning, and what happens in the grey areas. I talked to everyone from drag queens, drag kings, transvestites and everybody in between. Pre-op, post-op, people that just dressed differently, more masculine, more feminine, how does it affect you, what was it like growing up. At the time, I wondered why no one was talking about this. Why can’t I be a woman with a very masculine style and not be put in a particular box with my sexuality, with anything? I always hated the word unisex. When I first started the brand I actually called it ‘men’s jewellery that girlfriends can steal’, because I didn’t know how to describe it. I just want to make jewellery not specific to any one gender.

You said there wasn’t a term for it when you were at college, and now there’s been quite a shift. How has that impacted your work? 

When I started in my naivety, I didn’t think about the structure of selling jewellery. I was working with a lot of wholesale accounts and it got really complicated. Do you speak to the menswear buyer or the womenswear buyer? I was like, well it can be either, they were like, well which fashion week do you show at, and I was like, oh god, this is really institutionalised. I was getting journalists saying “Can I have some of your men’s pieces”, and I was like, “Well they’re all men’s pieces”, and they were like, “I thought you did women’s pieces”, “Well, they can be women’s pieces as well”. There were so many conversations like that, I became bored of saying what it was; it’s just jewellery. I didn’t make life easy for myself by doing it. I’ve always tried to play it down because now it has become a political statement when it never was about the politics of gender, it was because I felt it was right to do and it was interesting.  

And lastly - why did you get involved with Motley? 

Sian put me in touch with Cecily, and when Cecily came here she completely sold it to me. I don’t get involved that much with other companies. I either work with other brands white label, or as a consultancy job, which I love, and it challenges me creatively, but I absolutely agree with the whole concept of Motley. There is a huge gap in the market, there’s a whole load of crap jewellery out there. I’ve got a specific price point, I only do 18k gold, it’s a luxury jewellery company, but there’s loads of stuff I could do in a different material. With Motley, I can be branded ‘Hannah Martin’, without it being confusing. It’s a really amazing platform to play with ideas and it looks great.  

Motley x Hannah Martin, Amazon Cuff, £350

Motley x Hannah Martin, Amazon Cuff, £350

Discover the full Motley x Hannah Martin collection here.

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