Anybody who has seen the work of master goldsmith, James Miller, cannot fail to appreciate the hours of skill and years of experience that go into each piece he makes. His prowess with the piercing saw is legendary. Here he tells the Guild of Jewellery Designers just how he got to be so good at what he does.
How did you get started in jewellery designing/making?
I left school at 15, I left before taking my GCE exams, but I had taken a CSE exam and when I had an interview with the school careers officer he saw that on my CSE exam I had achieved distinctions in Art and Metalwork, he put the two together and suggested an apprenticeship as a silversmith. When I attended Padgett & Braham Ltd. for my interview I was shown around the company silversmiths and goldsmith workshops and I chose to be apprenticed as a goldsmith as the workshop was smaller and I preferred the work that they were making as against the silverware.
Was there a piece that made you think “yes, I can do this”?
When I worked for McCabe McCarty, I was asked if I could make a replica of the Tutankhamun death mask as a desk paperweight. This was to be presented to Dr. Henry Kissinger as a gift to thank him for organising the world tour of the original Tutankhamun treasures. The commission customer stressed that the piece should be entirely hand made without the use of modelling and casting. This was my first real attempt at chasing and I was surprised at how well the face turned out. I also won a first prize and a special award when I entered the piece into the annual Goldsmiths Company Craft Council competition. Working at McCabe McCarty made me expand my skills further than I would have ever expected.
Have you had any training? Where do you get your knowledge from?
I spent the first 15 years of my career working for Padgett & Braham ltd. The first 6 years as an apprentice, then two years as a journeyman before being made workshop manager and training my own apprentices, which made me a Master Goldsmith.
The workshop that I worked in at Padgett & Braham was called the Insignia Department. This department manufactured regalia and many other pieces for the Crown Jeweller. The department was manned by five ex Garrard goldsmiths. Charles Padgett had taken over the complete workshop from Garrard when Garrard had closed their Albermarle Street workshops in 1952. This was when Garrard was bought out by The Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company who moved the whole of Garrard to new Regent Street premises and retained the name of Garrard. My master had little regard for college trained workers, so I was never allowed to attend the day release scheme of college training available in those days. So My training is totally from a workshop.
My Grandfather was a hand engraver who had a workshop in Soho, just around the corner from Padgett’s workshops so I was taught engraving by my Grandfather in my spare time after work.
Where do you work?
From 1961 to 1974 I worked at Padgett & Braham Ltd. in Soho, London.
Padgett & Braham moved their company to Hackney, in 1974, where I worked until 1976.
In mid 1976 I joined a newly formed goldsmiths company called McCabe McCarty Ltd, who were based near Hatton Garden, London. This company had been formed by David McCarty, an ex Cartier trained goldsmith, and Peter McCabe. Peter was the owner of a company called Kempson Mauger, who were the finest enamellers in the trade at that time. After a couple of years I became workshop manager of McCabe McCarty .
In 1985, I left McCabe McCarty to start up my own company called James Miller Design and built up a workshop in Surrey, working with friends who had also started their own workshops in the area. I closed my workshop two years ago and now have a small workshop at home.
Are there any artists or jewellery designers you admire?
My finest work has been making the designs of Susan K. McMeekin, Susan was McCabe McCarty’s prime designer and designed commissions destined mostly for Asprey.
My master Mr. Herbert James Jones got me started in this trade and encouraged me to perfect my piercing.
When at McCabe McCarty I worked at a bench alongside David McCarty, who is a superb goldsmith. David taught me a lot and also encouraged me to expand my skills, such as when making Easter Eggs in the style of Faberge.
What is it about their work/designs that you admire?
Back in the late 1980s, at McCabe McCarty, as a workshop we were making gold items that equalled those of the Faberge workshops of old and the best designs were always those of Susan K. McMeekin. The items she designed were all original and unique and to this day never copied.
Apart from the jewellers/designers mentioned above, do you have any other sources of inspiration?
I have always been inspired by the jewellery designs of Lalique and the work quality of Michael Perchin, one of Faberge’s workmasters.
Have you got a 'signature' style? How would you describe it?
Most of my work is unique, one off pieces. I am known for my saw piercing skills, so many of my designs incorporate this skill. I am also rated as a good freehand goldsmith, who can make flowers from metals that can look quite life like. In the past ten years I have also been well employed doing antique restoration work, mostly of Faberge type pieces. The dealers have accepted that if I can make it, then I can easily restore old pieces to the quality of the original.
You are obviously a master at your trade but are there any techniques that have evaded you or that you think ‘yes’ I’d love to learn that?
I did consider doing my own enamelling about twenty years ago, I bought all of the equipment and enamels and made a few small nice enamelled pieces. But on commissions I have found it important to benefit from the skills of the best in the trade, so my enamelling is done by master enamellers. I can set stones but I use the skills of master setters on special commissioned pieces.
Tell us the story behind your favourite piece.
The Flax Flower egg. In mid 1987, I damaged my ankle playing squash. As I couldn’t work I set up my drawing board and did some Easter Egg designs. At that time I wasmaking work for a company called Sannitt & Stein who showed my designs to Kutchinsky of Knightsbridge. They liked my designs and asked me to design an Easter Egg for them, using parts taken from each of my designs. I designed the Flax Flower egg and they commissioned it. This was my first commission from a design that was totally my own, and the start of a new dimension to my career. From That date, Kutchinsky would give me ideas of what they wanted and Sannit & Stein would finance the work so together we created some fine pieces.
What do you do in your ‘downtime’ to relax? In other words, do you have any hobbies?
I play a little golf when I can, but not so much these days. I am a keen photographer, all of the photos of my work are my own and I also photograph the work of others in the trade on commission. My wife and I love visiting Cornwall and have had holidays there every year since we got married 40 years ago. We like to drive around the whole of the British Isles and I have a photo collection to prove it
Do you have any pets? Tell us about them!
I am a dog person, our last dog died a few years ago and we have not replaced him as it was such a pain losing our pet after only eight years. Our previous pet lived for fourteen years. I am a Lurcher man, our first dog “Spike” was a true Lurcher, he loved chasing and eating rabbits. Our second and last dog “ Willow” was a Longdog, which is a first cross Lurcher, he was a Scottish Deerhound crossed with a coursing greyhound. Willow was a large dog, he weighed nearly eight stone, his back was three feet from the ground and he could stand in front of me with his front paws on my shoulders, and give me a kiss. I am six feet tall. Willow used to spend his days with me in my workshop and I loved him immensly, which is why I have not replaced him with another. Also my wife has gotten used to hotel holidays intead of self catering ones, with the dogs of course.
Which of your personality traits comes through in your work, do you think?
I am not sure how to answer this one. I am a bit of a perfectionist and try and keep everything in my work up to scratch and top quality, but an ageing body sometimes hurts a bit after a long days work.
What are you currently working on?
I am helping a goldsmith friend with a commission a couple of his designs. We worked together for eight years back in the 1990s, he is a jeweller and a fine designer. Together we made some fine pieces using my skills as a goldsmith and his as a designer and jeweller. He is 68 and retired, but last year one of his old customers asked if he could replicate two pairs of his gold and enamelled table lamps, designs that we last made together over twelve years ago. He has come out of retirement and I have been helping him make the table lamps.
I also occasionally take on the odd antique restoration job for old customers, when asked.
You have said elsewhere that you are working towards your retirement. Will you leave your bench completely?
I have a daughter who is always after new jewellery, so I doubt whether I will ever be allowed to leave my bench completely. Also I love making things and a workbench can be a relaxing area when there are no delivery time pressures involved.
Since publishing my book, I have also had a few enquiries about me teaching my skills. I did approach one of my local colleges, but I found their workshops inadequate and they were not prepared to alter them to suit my needs. So I decided not to go down that route.