Designing Responsibility with Holly Ryan Jewellery
Holly Ryan is the Founder and Creative Director behind her namesake jewellery brand from New South Wales, Australia. Since conception, a decade ago, the brand is now stocked in stores around the world including Browns and Lane Crawford but it first caught our attention in Arnsdorf boutique, Melbourne.
The jewellery is hand crafted from natural materials native to Australia, often recycled or reused. When held in hand each design reveals Holly’s talent for working with precious, tactile materials, the results exuberate sophistication and youthful wit. The jewellery’s boldly modern aesthetic is supported by Holly’s equally modern approach to sustainability. By openly tackling wasteful industry practices Holly has deservingly accumulated a loyal client base that admire her determination, honesty and vision.
Encouraged by the optimism and lightness of the words in Holly Ryan’s Manifesto, I was eager to find out more about the reality of translating environmental ideals into a solid fashion business. Our conversation took place over Skype between Germany and Australia.
Advance Copy: Hi Holly, thanks for taking the time for today’s Skype call. Let’s start at the very beginning and the history of jewellery making in your family. How did your parents get into this craft?
Holly Ryan: Hi Natalia, yes of course. My parents lived in Mexico in the eighties, they were there to surf but ended up meeting someone who was drumming up people to put together a silversmithing course in Taxco, a little silver mining city south west of Mexico City. They did the silversmithing course and mum took it up quite seriously so I ended up growing up around her making jewellery.
AC: You speak openly about the profound affect of your parents’ values on your own approach to business. Could you tell us about these values and their connection to your childhood in Australia?
HR: I was brought up on the Sunshine Coast in a small beach town called Coolum. We were living on a side of a mountain right next to the beach, bush walking and surfing, always among nature. My dad was part of a lot of local environmental programs and so the environment has been at the forefront of everything to do with my life. At the same time I knew that I was going to be a maker or some sort of artist. My mum made all of my clothes, hand painted them and taught me to sew. She’d always put me in workshops, doing potato printing or candle making. I guess it was a very bohemian and creative childhood.
“The environment has been at the forefront of everything to do with my life.”
AC: Did you start your own brand, Holly Ryan Jewellery, straight after university?
HR: The brand came about even before graduating, I didn’t really have an option and I wasn’t even ready to have a brand. I was studying fashion design at QUT in Brisbane and in my graduating year, in 2010, we were given the option to either design a range of accessories to complement our runway clothing or to do a 5,000 word essay. So I decided to give my mum a call to see if she could help me, which she did. My graduating show was immediately picked up by 3 stores but for my jewellery, not for my clothing. Even the name ‘Holly Ryan Jewellery’ comes from not having time to think about anything.
AC: How did you and the brand develop in those early days, when you had to hit the ground running?
HR: I moved home after graduating and mum taught me everything she knew about making jewellery. Apart from that and a couple of short courses for some exact skills, like diamond setting and the lost wax carving technique, I’m fairly self taught. It was quite an organic process of falling into jewellery but I was heavily considering that this was going to be my path forward. I hired my mum straight away, and we basically started the business together it’s like a family business, now there are 9 of us in the team.
AC: What was the jewellery market like in Australia at the time?
HR: It didn’t really exist, it was either made in China using cheap metals, or it was high-end wedding ring kind of jewellery. I saw an opportunity, for high quality, made in Australia jewellery that had a fashion spin on it.
AC: How did you go about incorporating the earlier mentioned personal values into a young but growing business?
HR: The sustainability and ethical standpoints that the brand has have been there from the very beginning. As much as it’s hyped now, it’s the way that we have practiced making jewellery from the start. This includes ethical processes of things like paying people fair wages and creating jobs in Australia. It also takes years to find the right suppliers and build relationships. Next year will be 10 years of Holly Ryan Jewellery, so luckily now there are no facades or walls it’s just real relationships.
“Fight for your passion, don’t do something just because that’s what everyone else is doing.”
AC: Who would you cite along these 10 years as being inspirational to your work?
HR: The inspirations are always changing and developing. In terms of artists I’ve always been obsessed with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the architect Eileen Gray. If I’m to think about people who I idolise, I would say Patti Smith. She’s such a powerful, driven woman who speaks her truth. She has forged her own path in terms of sticking up for what she believes in. If it’s something you believe in then fight for your passion, don’t do something just because that’s what everyone else is doing. I guess it’s about going back to these raw, honest intentions and that’s what I’m so inspired by. I try to be as honest and real with my jewellery but also with my life.
AC: Could you give an instance when you felt you had to stand up for your work, to voice your own opinion?
HR: I feel like I have to do that now more than ever because people finally want to listen, but in the early years of this business it felt like the message fell on deaf ears. The terms ‘sustainability’, ‘ethical production’ and so on, weren’t popular terms in the fashion industry, let alone outside of the fashion industry. No one really knew or asked what they meant. Now I do talks on sustainability and host my own panels all the time.
AC: You also openly communicate these points using your company Manifesto, this transparency was the decisive factor for wanting to share your work on Advance Copy. I found your use of language when tackling sustainability personal and relaxed while also matter of fact.
HR: Thank you, it’s really important for me to remind the consumer about who is actually making their jewellery and why the cost of it is this, rather than this. So the brand manifesto, which you see on my website, fully outlines; what we do, how we do it, why we do it and who we are – you can meet my entire team. And finally now people are taking note, wanting to get involved and actually paying attention to climate change being an issue.
AC: Delving further into the Manifesto, one of the points you make is about ingraining circularity and hence tackling waste. Would you mind sharing your approach on this issue?
HR: We have a recycling initiative, which is an opportunity for the consumer to send back jewellery that is no longer serving them. They can get the item repaired, re-plated, re-designed or get credit to use on my website. Which is really what I want, because I don’t want anything to end up in landfill, I feel responsible for the pieces that I’m making. As well as this, all of the metals that we use are recycled, I also go to Op Shops and antique shops to buy jewellery and melt it down for re-use.
AC: What would be your advise to other entrepreneurs looking to minimise waste?
HR: There’s a few things that I harp on about quite a bit, heavily, especially more recently; I truly believe that waste is a design flaw and you should be designing to create things that have no waste. To be a smart designer is to design something that can be reused or recycled. When I approach design, I’m thinking about recyclability, reparability and durability and if a design doesn’t fit those 3 categories then it should be redesigned, don’t even put it out there. Even the smallest decisions really, truly have an impact and set a trend for other people.
AC: How has this thinking developed over time as you’ve grown the business?
HR: I’m far more developed in my processes now they have all been refined, changed and reworked. They are far better than they were at the start, but we can always improve upon them, we can always be better and be doing more. I don’t think that sustainability is a destination, it’s journey and we constantly have to evolve throughout that journey.
AC: It’s refreshing to hear this kind of positive energy instead of a defeatist attitude around the topic of sustainability.
HR: Realistically my ‘brand’ is me, it’s my opinion and my designs that truly come from the heart. I design for my friends but also for people with a similar vision and a similar moral concept. What I really want to do is create timeless designs that you want to keep and cherish and pass on as heirlooms. These raw materials actually never loose their value, but something that’s brass with copper gold plating looses its value almost immediately. When you invest in a solid gold piece it’s about cost per wear.
“Even the smallest decisions really, truly have an impact and set a trend for other people.”
AC: Talking about quality, could you shed some light on the origins of the stones you use for Holly Ryan jewellery? How are these sourced?
HR: Yes of course. We work with local suppliers and use Australian pearls and sapphires, all faceted here in the country. I work with opal from Coober Pedy and Lightning Ridge, which would have been created during the times of Gondwana, when Australia had an ocean at the centre, so I think the stones reflect that history. Some of the pearls that I buy are keshi pearls, which are naturally occurring pearls discarded by the big companies. I guess for me it’s all about finding ways of incorporating materials that are out there already, that nobody else wants or sees them as rubbish. Designing the most recent collection, I used materials that we already have in our studio.
AC: Earlier on you mentioned Barbara Hepworth’s work being a continuous source of inspiration, if I understand correctly you are also making sculptures? How did you acquire this skill?
HR: For many years I’ve been inspired by sculpture and I’ve also created quite sculptural jewellery. But it really started in 2017 when Australian Fashion Week decided to expand and include a kind of trade show called The Suites, where each brand could to set up a space. It was an opportunity for me to debut at Australian Fashion Week and I wanted to make an impact, so a marble or a resin display just wasn’t going to cut it. A friend proposed to try some simple sculpture making techniques that her mother, a high school art teacher, could introduce me to. I wasn’t sure if it was something I could do but we did some research, bought tools and materials and literally gave it a crack. Within a week I created 3 different sculptures for my display and by the time fashion week rolled around I had 9-10 pieces. The display ended up standing out because it was different, not really fashion but fashion meeting art.
AC: In essence you created a sort of gallery space?
HR: Yes exactly, like an art installation. Straight after the owner of the gallery Jerico Contemporary got in touch and proposed that I take this seriously with her representing my sculptures. I fell in love with the process, some jewellery takes days to make but with sculpture it can be weeks. So this is about slowing down that process of creativity and spending a little bit more time with a piece. It’s been an absolutely joy and freedom.
AC: Could you talk us through any other examples of things you’ve personally learned through partnerships and collaborations? You work with local suppliers and with other brands, which of these have been the most educational and why?
HR: I’m very selective about collaborations now and I don’t want to work with people who don’t have similar morals, aesthetics or don’t use similar sustainable ethical practices within their brand. I’m very strict on doing a background checks, because in the past I have been fooled or people have been vague with me. But to give some good examples; I’m about to bring out a new collaboration with a company called Neuw Denim, it will be a ZERO water waste denim range adorned with my hand made, recycled brass Picasso buttons. I also support a lot of the girls that used to work with me and now run things on their own, like the Zodiac collection which was a collaboration with Line Sagmo Arnesen.
AC: To wrap up our conversation I’d like to go back to Noosa Heads, Queensland, where your main workshop is based. Could you describe this beautiful corner of Australia and the atmosphere in your studio?
HR: The studio is surrounded by pristine beaches and dense bush land – it really is one of the most beautiful places on earth! A local company built the workbenches for the space using different recycled timbers, the main bench has ½ circle cut outs all way around so we’re all facing each other and talking amongst ourselves throughout the day. There are also a lot of plants, some of my sculptures hanging around, art works by my friends or local artists, aboriginal artists, we’ve always got music playing, there is a good energy in the studio.
AC: Thank you Holly, it’s been such a pleasure finding out about your approach to growing a positive and modern business that’s not afraid to go against mass-market standards. Your personal confidence and drive is a catalyst for creating a change-making, sustainable brand.
HR: Thank you, and I’m so keen to get all of this out there for people who understand, especially internationally. So thank you so much for asking me to participate.