It is a risky move to set up a store that exclusively sells contemporary jewellery. It is an even riskier one to do so in an underground space. But 15 years after its inception, jewellery store-come-gallery e.g.etal has defied naysayers and become an influential figure in Melbourne’s design world. While the store’s success in selling local artisan jewellery may not seem particularly noteworthy considering the amount of jewellers and galleries spread across Melbourne, the contemporary jewellery landscape in 1998 was a very different place. The city boasted leading design schools, such as RMIT and NMIT, but e.g.etal director Emma Goodsir, then a recent gold and silversmith graduate, felt a disconnect between studying and starting a successful practice. “We’d both graduated from RMIT, we were making jewellery and had nowhere to really sell it,” says Goodsir about herself and co-founder Ali Limb. “We used to go up and down Little Collins Street and we saw this shop that was available and I was thinking ‘You know, we should just start selling it ourselves.’”
And so, without even knowing how to operate an eftpos machine, the pair opened their first space on Little Collins Street (they moved to their Flinders Lane underground digs in 2003). “People used to come in and feel sorry for us and think ‘how are you going to survive selling this sort of jewellery – no one is going to want to buy this’,’” she recalls. But Goodsir says it was their naivety that saw them push on. “We had no idea what the hurdles ahead of us were going to be so we weren’t daunted,” she says. “We just took every day as it came.” Instead, they saw it as their role to educate the public, stressing the link between jewellery and art, and its role in self-expression.
Asked when she noticed the shift in how contemporary jewellery was perceived, Goodsir can pinpoint it to when customers started coming to e.g.etal for precious pieces. “I went and had my hair cut a while ago and the guy said to me ‘I was at this dinner party and everyone had their wedding rings from e.g.etal.’ I think that’s a really indicative way of how it had changed. They’re people that want their traditional materials – gold and diamonds – but they want something a bit different.”
One of Goodsir’s lesser-known roles, but perhaps her most significant, is the part she plays in supporting up-and-coming talent. As well as e.g.etal’s annual Graduate Award, Goodsir encourages young designers to come and discuss their work with her. “We work with the institutions at the design courses like RMIT and NMIT,” she explains. “We’ve done different projects where I will go to the faculty and say ‘hey, why don’t you run a competition and as part of your curriculum everyone designs a neckpiece and I will pay for three people to make up a prototype. Then I’ll pay for the winner of that to make 25 pieces that will be sold through e.g.etal.’” When a designer is added to the e.g.etal line-up, she will often buy precious stones for them so they can expand their market. “We’ve done things where I will say ‘ok, it’s time you had a diamond ring in the gallery,” she says. “’You come up with the design, I’ll buy the diamond, and you can put the diamond in your ring.’”
Looking back, Goodsir’s proudest moments are seeing how far some of the e.g.etal designers have come. She mentions Julia deVille, who started at the gallery as a shop girl and now exhibits internationally. “[e.g.etal] has been this amazing, supportive network for a whole lot of people,” she says. “I love now seeing all these artists who have been with us from the beginning, who we’ve helped develop their practice, who now have kids, and I think ‘wow, e.g.etal has contributed to all of that and to really supporting these people in their own lives.’” Moving forward Goodsir is happy to stay on the track that has led to the store’s success – “we’ll keep doing what we do because we’re doing it really well,” she says proudly.
As part of their 15th anniversary celebrations, e.g.etal commissioned six of their original jewellers to make a ruby ring to mark the milestone. ‘Rubies’ is now on display in store.