Dominated by clean, demure lines and Junoesque curves, Holly Ryan’s jewellery acts like a collection of miniature sculptures for the body.
The 28-year-old accessories designer works on the side of a mountain in her Sunshine Coast hometown, in a studio lined with milk-white walls, sprightly indoor plants and workbenches stained in silver and gold, edges blackened from soldering.
With her eponymous label marking its fifth year with a brand new collection, Resort’17 (which she has described as “dipping into a classic and timeless 1970s jewellery box”), we asked Ryan to reflect on the inspirations behind her designs, and why it’s important for buyers to support handmade and artisanal labels.
Broadsheet: What drives the ideas behind your designs?
Holly Ryan: I take inspiration from art, travel and nature and I translate them into wearable forms. My series Minamo (Japanese for ‘ocean’) and Wavee pieces were based on the water reflections I saw surrounding this Japanese fishing island of Naoshima. When I visited the galleries on that island I took inspiration from [American artist] James Turrell’s clean, minimalist installations. I also travelled to Mexico a few years ago, where I came across an architectural building designed by Luis Barragán. I noticed shadows falling from the building, so I designed bangles from those shadow shapes in honour of Barragán. I also go through huge stacks of art books at the State Library of Queensland; the idea for my egg-shaped jewellery came from this book I found on the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
BS: When did you first start making jewellery?
HR: Actually, I came into it accidentally while studying fashion design at QUT. During my final year assessment in 2011, students were given an option to create an accessories line to complement our clothing design or to write another essay. By that stage I was so over essay writing. [Laughs] My parents were trained jewellery makers, so I asked if we could collaborate. It then turned out that my jewellery – not my clothing – was what stockists wanted. From there, [Brisbane boutique] Blonde Venus picked up my first range, and I did internships in London and Sydney to become a proper jewellery-maker. Looking back, maybe it wasn’t accidental. I suppose silver was already running through my veins because of my parents.
BS: What are the core methods, materials and tools you use?
HR: Usually I fabricate pieces out of flat-sheet metal and wire, and hand-cast pieces out of wax. It’s a beautiful process and feels quite sculptural. I also use massive grinders and tools similar to what dentists use, and a gas torch to fire things up. There’s lots of sanding, filing, soldering, melting and polishing involved. I mostly wear a face-mask and apron – it’s not a glamorous trade. [Laughs]
BS: What’s a typical day like?
HR: I arrive at the studio at 8am to plan out the designing, marketing and sales. My staff shows up at 10am and we go into production mode until 4pm hits, where we get into a mad rush of packing orders and racing to the post office. It gets stressful sometimes at the studio, so I crank up my Soundcloud playlist to maintain our energetic vibe. I also make lunch for everyone, and we eat on a verandah that overlooks the national park and the ocean. My mum has also come on board as my studio manager, so it’s been invaluable having her here as a moral compass.
BS: Do you have an ideal persona in mind when creating your accessories?
HR: Yes, I envision the wearer as an intelligent, educated woman who invests in timeless, quality accessories as her signature – pieces that she could pass down as heirlooms someday. I hand-make everything and use recycled and ethically sourced gold, stones, silver and metal. So when someone buys my work, they make an ethical statement. Fast fashion isn’t something I believe in.
BS: On that, there seems to be more multinational retailers who mass-produce jewellery replicated from smaller, independent labels. As an artisan affected by this, what are your thoughts?
HR: It’s heartbreaking. To think, that I’m here at my workbench slaving over a creation that I’ve invested in conceptually, emotionally and physically, and then to see this copied and churned out by factories where workers aren’t even treated right — it’s gutting. What I try to hold on to is the hope that customers are educated enough to choose handmade over cheap versions that don’t hold much sentiment or value, or won’t last as long. Right now, my business is expanding, so even though I have five assistants, I’m still struggling to hand-make everything. So I’m currently in talks with a company called Setu Fair Trade to ensure my brand maintains its ethos while I try to keep up with demand.
BS: How does it feel to see your creations worn by the likes of Bella Hadid, Caroline Issa and Margaret Zhang?
HR: It’s a massive compliment to see these women wear something I’ve made. It means they believe in me and respect my brand, and that they’re passing on an ethical mindset to millions of followers on social media. It’s a bit overwhelming sometimes, to see my Instagram following spike up whenever an actress or a digital influencer points to my work.
BS: What’s next for you?
HR: My range is now being stocked in Paris and New York, and I’m currently experimenting with high-grade gemstones and, for the first time, diamonds. It’s been amazing looking back at the past five years and seeing how complex my jewellery-making process has become. Whenever I get a day off, I like to climb a mountain or walk the beach to hunt for organic shapes to fabricate. Today I’m going bush-walking with my parents, so who knows what cool shapes I will discover and turn into my next piece.