The Silver Chef

Every week I conduct an interview with a curious creative from around Auckland, learning about their craft. This week, I chatted with the mind behind Bijoux jewellery on Ponsonby Road.

The tiny workshop is as chaotic as French chef’s kitchen, though with a few exceptions. 

Chips of metal litter the counter, in place of flour and sugar. Instead of whisks and spoons, chisels, hammers and files stick out of rusted tin cans. 

Small brown envelopes hold treasures of silver and quartz waiting to be collected, and American Indian feathers glitter beside circles of metal ready to become engagement rings and 21st presents. 

I’m in Bijoux, home to bespoke jewellery designer Matt Rawlinson, and I’m in love with the creative chaos of his workshop. He patiently entertains my barrage of questions, all while fixing, polishing and filing various jewellery pieces to perfection while I sketch him from a corner.

Matt has been making jewellery since he was 11, a skill he learned from his dad and his grandad. 

‘I started making copper bangles and then moved on to rings,’ he says, pulling open one of the many drawers in his desk and showing me a handful of beautiful bracelets, tarnished with age. 

He now creates stunning turquoise pieces, handcrafts settings for shards of moldavite, and once made a silver spiderweb belt for NZ Fashion Week. He’s also sold rings to Bono, and George Clinton’s daughter has one of his one-off bracelets in her collection. 

‘That spider web was probably one of the more interesting things I’ve ever made,’ he says while taking the scruffy edge off a band of silver. 

He bustles around mixing a two-part araldite glue that smells like rotten eggs but is stronger than superglue. It’s like watching an alchemist in his den, creating magic from apparently innocuous ingredients. I pick up bits and pieces that I probably shouldn’t be touching, unable to help myself.

‘This cuff,’ he says ‘I made for a woman in Australia. I took a flat sheet of silver, hammered it round, and then used a punch to make these domes around the edge.’ He makes it sound so easy but looking at the piece, I doubt that was the case. ‘I just sent her photos and she’s so excited.’ His face lights up and you can just tell this is his joy; creating things that really mean something to the customer. 

It’s not just jewellery he’s making, its heirlooms; things people will wear on their skin day in and day out, a tattoo with fewer commitments. 

‘Jewellery-making is like cooking,’ he says. ‘There are lots of ways to do it and each jeweller will have their own way of making something.’ And just like an experienced chef, he works almost by instinct. He starts with a stone and creates a setting that honours its aesthetic. From there it’s experience, time and an innateunderstanding of how to make a ring or a pendant that people want to wear. 

Much like a good meal, his jewellery brings people together, condensing generations down into a single ring that bursts with character and familial flavour.

‘A lot of my customers I’ve known for years. The great grand-daughters of old regulars come in and request for old pieces to be fixed or remade into something new that fits their style.’ With torch in hand, Matt fuses memory and metal, creating anything from elaborate settings to simple bands with a few basic materials and plenty of know-how.

His inspiration comes from magazines and the like but recently, he’s been letting customers send in children’s drawings which he then turns into totally unique jewellery pieces. He’s travelled all over the world collecting materials; he spent five months in Phuket picking up buddhas and other icons, and learned from the Native Indians in the U.S. while stockpiling the turquoise that now glows under his glass counter.  

Jewellery apprenticeships are hard to come by these days but not impossible to find, and with the right questions and eagerness to learn, people like Matt are open and generous with their knowledge and time, proven by the hour and a half I spent in his shop talking, drawing and spying on his interactions with customers, each one of whom seems to know him like a friend. 

It’s heartwarming to see that in the age of tiny $200 Karen Walker rings made in China, people like Matt are not just surviving, but thriving. There’s a difference between wearing a ring and wearing a ring made from your gran’s engagement band, set with the diamonds from great granny’s brooch. There’s history and craft in every piece; with filing, gluing and engraving, generations melt together into timeless pieces that are unique and deeply personal to the wearer.

A fixture of Ponsonby Road, Bijoux stands testament to the power of passion crafts that stand the test of time, and remain long after the latest pop up espresso bar has faded away. I can only hope my job, when I finally get one, will have as much meaning to as many people.