Derbyshire jewellery expert Helen Smith on diamonds, fast cars and motorbikes
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 August 2018
as supplied Mark Laban/Hansons
The local jewellery expert helped to make a brooch for The Queen
See her in her motorbike leathers and the chance is that you’d think Helen Smith was a bit of a tomboy. You’d be right, but she’s also gentle, kind and feminine – and an artist when it comes to making and designing the most exquisite jewellery.
She’s Derbyshire’s hidden gem, a woman whose talent has already shone brightly among the London jewellery elite. However, her modesty means the word hasn’t quite got out of the bag.
Helen is a jewellery designer, maker and valuer who even played a part in creating a brooch which the Queen wore on Christmas Day. But she is swift to tell you she only played a small part: ‘My colleague designed the brooch and I made the model for it. It was made of platinum and Welsh and Irish gold plus an array of gem stones. It was beautiful.’
Helen, whose family originates from the Derbyshire village of Etwall, is a bit of an enigma. Artistic and beautiful, though she would deny it (that modesty again), she also loves roaring around in fast cars and riding motorbikes.
Helen, 40, is the new head of jewellery at Hansons Auctioneers, near Derby, but away from the glitter of her working life she’s ‘a true petrol head’ – her words.
She owns a Kawasaki Motocross motorbike and her dream motor is a Mercedes GTR AMG. Right now, she makes do with an Audi TT. That’s what life should be all about for the fairer sex in 2018 as far as she is concerned: ‘Women can do anything they want these days – I love clay pigeon shooting, too.’
But, once inside the saleroom, she changes pace to delicately handle a multitude of diamonds, gems, gold, silver, antique brooches, amber beads and more. All have to be carefully assessed, valued and catalogued for a range of jewellery auctions.
Luckily, Helen has an expert eye, gleaned from 20 years of working in the dazzling world of jewellery. She has learned from some of the best designers in the world at The Goldsmiths Centre in London, a leading UK charity for the professional training of goldsmiths that brings together people with emerging jewellery and silversmithing talent. Helen has even exhibited at the prestigious Goldsmiths Fair in London.
After studying textiles at Newcastle Under Lyme art college she went on to study jewellery and silversmithing at the University of Central England in Birmingham. She also did an apprenticeship at Allen Brown Jewellery in Lichfield, honing her goldsmithing skills, before gaining a coveted place at the New Goldsmiths Centre, the place to go to master the magic of the jewellery world – making, designing and marketing. She was one of only six people chosen to study there.
‘Thanks to Goldsmiths, I attended lectures led by some of the world’s greatest jewellery designers like Stephen Webster, David Marshall, Stuart Devlin, the silversmith to the Queen, and Theo Fennell,’ said Helen.
Helen lived, worked and studied in London for three years, taking a job as a jewellery technologist along the way.
Meanwhile, her creativity blossomed. ‘I love making unusual, striking, unique pieces. I have my own brand, Tantrum Jewellery.’ In 2011 one of her necklace designs featured in the glossy magazine Vanity Fair.
She is particularly passionate about working with, and valuing, coloured gemstones. Her eyes lit up when a large black opal necklace – a deep blue stone – came into the saleroom: ‘The black opal is a fascinating gem full of mystery. It was discovered in Australia in the mid-1800s and it changed the gem world. This new black opal became the queen of gems. There is even an Aboriginal legend about how they were created. The most valuable ones are nearly always black opals as they are very dangerous to mine. The blue ones are particularly attractive but, if you’re thinking of investing, go for red, orange, green or blue in that order. The most expensive opal in the world, The Virgin Rainbow, is a unique 72 carat Australian opal found by opal miner John Dunstan in 2003. It comes in a multitude of colours and literally glows in the dark. It’s worth more than $1m.’
Helen knows her stuff and, thanks to her job at Hansons, she discovers something new every day. ‘We see some incredible pieces of antique jewellery and superb, high quality diamonds. For example, an exquisite Victorian diamond brooch in the shape of a bumblebee came in recently. The Victorians loved the natural world. We also see mourning jewellery, sometimes made out of the deceased’s hair.
‘Cameo brooches are lovely, too. They are miniature works of art in themselves, often carved in carnelian shell and depicting classical scenes. They were made popular by Queen Victoria.
‘We value and sell all manner of vintage and antique bracelets, brooches and rings in silver, platinum and gold and we’re always pleased to see amber beads brought for valuation as they can be worth hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds at auction – very good news for our clients. It’s wonderful to be able to tell someone that they own something truly special.’
So, what would Helen choose for her own engagement ring? ‘A diamond – it would have to be a diamond. It’s one of the hardest substances known to man. I’m so clumsy if I chose a different gem stone it would get scratched!’
Particularly if you ride motorbikes in your spare time…
Helen Smith is head of jewellery at Hansons Auctioneers, Etwall. Visit her there any Friday, 10am-4pm, for a free valuation or email email@example.com. The next Fine Art, Jewellery & Watches Showcase is on 27th September, 6.30pm.