Emily Frances Barrett is an artist making off-beat jewellery from cigarette butts and clay pipes, bottle tops and buttons, shark teeth and shells
On the desk in Emily Frances Barrett’s studio, housed within the Sarabande Foundation in Haggerston, London, lies an array of feathers. Brown and iridescent blue, they are from a Malaysian peacock, recently bought by the jewellery designer from eBay – a purchase she is inordinately happy with.
The desk, and the shelves above and beside it, are laden with more curiosities: cigarette butts and clay pipes (a recent obsession, sourced primarily via a centuries-old process called mudlarking), bottle tops and buttons, shark teeth and shells, and more feathers, including those from a macaw, which, in the time since our interview, she has fashioned into a brooch. These items, which she finds everywhere from junk shops to London’s streets and the shores of the Thames, form the bedrock of her work. Like a magpie, she’s always on the lookout for treasure; things to pick up, add to her collection and incorporate into her jewellery, such as that brooch.
It’s this jewellery which Barrett is starting to gain attention for: beautiful, off-beat designs cast from silver, collaged with the various items I’ve just mentioned. In the past year, she has designed pieces for David Koma’s Spring/Summer 2020 show (earrings made from butterfly wings), and additionally worked with emerging designers such as ROBERTS | WOOD, Danshan, Vy Cutting, and Jordan Luca.
“I love the idea of a patchwork,” she says of her approach to jewellery-making. “I’ve always been obsessed with sketchbooks, layering and archeological materials, which I want to turn into something refined. This is where I’m at with jewellery... I want things to be really beautifully made; craftsmanship is really important to me, but at the same time I don’t want to lose that raw energy.”
While her designs are – unsurprisingly – gaining her attention, Barrett hasn’t always been making jewellery. Following a degree in illustration, she moved to London and started working as a prop maker; later, upon hearing that the Chapman brothers were looking for a model maker, she applied, was successful and spent four years working for the notorious art duo – an experience she describes as amazing. “[I’d be] painting little baby Nazis, putting bird shit on tiny houses and things like that,” she remembers. “They used to joke it was hell to create hell, because that’s what we were working on – ‘hellscapes’.”
Following her time with Jake and Dinos, Barrett continued making props, before veering into costume design; after repeated requests for jewellery, she decided to focus on that, before ultimately applying to Sarabande, where she has been for just over a year.
Nature – as you will probably have gathered from the aforementioned feathers strewn across her desk – is a constant source of inspiration for Barrett; one that stems back to her childhood growing up in Brighton. There, Barrett cared for a veritable menagerie of animals: “I had a pet polecat, tortoises, chickens, giant African land snails and stick insects. Lots of different things,” she says. “[Nature] was always inspiring to me; it blows my mind really. How can you run out of inspiration? Like shells – you can get like millions of different types of them, it’s mind-boggling.”
Barrett also draws inspiration from the various objects she finds on the street. “I’m constantly picking up things. This year, I’ve found two sets of air pods, I’ve found a gold ring – two rings actually: a silver ring, a gold ring – I’ve found numerous bags, I’ve found drugs, I’ve found money. I just find stuff, I have scanny-eye syndrome. Mudlarking is perfect for me, I can’t stop, I do it for hours and hours.”
Her designs reflect these inspirations: head to her online shop and you’ll find earrings and pendants made from flowers and cigarette butts dipped in resin or else set with clay pipes; silver pieces cast from pull-rings, bottle caps and dice.
The astute among you may see something of Judy Blame – and of the Buffalo collective more generally – in Barrett’s work and process; like Barrett, Blame would scour the streets for objects to incorporate into his designs; like Barrett, he was a fervent mudlarker; like Barrett, he had the ability to turn trash into treasure, people’s waste into precious jewels; and, like Barrett, he was able to take disparate elements, and ‘collage’ them together into a coherent and compelling visual vocabulary. For whether Barrett is working with bird feathers or bottle caps, her finished products all belong to the same family.
“It’s a really massive compliment [to be compared to him],” she says. “He’s such an inspiration... When I think of true styling, making your own pieces is really authentic and that’s what I really respect. I don’t really care if you’re a massive stylist and you can pull all the jewellery from Louis Vuitton and Chanel – Judy made things look chic and amazing out of anything he could get his hands on. If you can transform it into something it’s going to literally strut out in and has that refined quality to it then that’s kind of magic. I really respect him.”
Barrett and I actually met at an event in aid of Trust Judy Blame, and several people who were close to him commented on how much he would have loved Barrett’s work. In fact Blame’s best friend, Dave Baby, was there wearing a silver and cowry brooch made for him by Barrett.
As our conversation draws to a close, Barrett shows me some of her recent designs – a ring set with a cultured pearl, an amazing brooch set with shells and a very satisfying cast silver pull-ring. I love them and very much doubt that I’m alone.