Interview with ethical jeweller Shakti Ellenwood

The ethical designer on how years of wanderlust has inspired her talismanic jewels and why she sings mantras over every piece that she makes

15 November 2021

By Kim Parker

Inspired by her extensive travels around the world, goldsmith and ethical jeweller Shakti Ellenwood handcrafts organic and earthy-looking jewels from her studio in Devon. Using only Fairtrade gold and ethically sourced gemstones (to which she has been committed since 2015), she creates pieces that are designed ‘to touch the soul’ of their wearer. Here, she describes her passions, her processes and how one serious case of fever changed her life’s path forever.

Have you always been a creative person, Shakti?

No. When I was a child, I went to an all-girls’ boarding school, where the options for careers that were deemed ‘suitable’ were very limited. I left without really knowing what to do with myself, so took a job selling classified advertising space for Draper’s Record. I had no idea that I could earn a living being creative. When I was 21, I left home to get away from a bad breakup and started travelling, then found I just couldn’t stop. I spent a year in Australia, then followed a friend to Tokyo, and spent the next few years journeying around Asia, including Thailand and India. It was in India that I fell in love with jewellery, which is everywhere, and with the art of jewellery making. I got very ill whilst staying in a guest house in Pune and a fellow guest, who was an Israeli goldsmith, took it upon himself to look after me. When he wasn’t nursing me back to health, he would sit at a tiny bench on the floor of the room to make me a piece of jewellery, and I was able to watch him sawing, hammering, and filing from my sick bed. Even though I was delirious with fever, I remember being struck by the feeling that this is what I wanted to do as well. It was a real lightbulb moment. After I recovered, he presented me with a turquoise and gold ring, which was a lovely gift, but I was even more grateful that I’d finally discovered my real passion in life. I was almost 30 years old.

Shakti Ellenwood Merla crow amulet in black diamonds and 18ct Fairtrade gold

Where did you do your training?

After India, I travelled to Mexico and ended up hanging out with lots of wonderful silversmiths and getting inspired by their work. From there, I followed my partner at the time to San Francisco, where I enrolled at the Revere Academy of Jewellery Art to do a short course in jewellery making. It was quite an expensive school, so I could only afford to do a three-day class – which cost about $1,000, including tools – but I learned all of the basic techniques and was able to make a ring, a pendant and a pair of earrings by the end. I then wrote a letter to the academy’s founder, Alan Revere, asking for a job and was lucky enough to be hired as the school registrar, handling all the bookings and courses for attendees. It felt like serendipity. I earned a good salary and got the rest of my goldsmithing education for free, as I was able to attend classes at the weekends.

The next stroke of luck was that the academy happened to be in the same building as hundreds of boutique jewellery studios – loads of engravers, setters, stone dealers, and goldsmiths worked there alongside us. It was a real industry hub at the time and it was

there that I met Hratch Nargaizian – a fifth-generation master goldsmith, with work in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art – who took me on as his apprentice. He’s still one of my dearest friends today. When I came back to the UK, I sold my work in a little shop called Ruby Red in Portobello but, although a few celebrities like Kate Moss and Chrissie Hynde would come in and buy my work, it was very slow going. It took several more years, and a move to Ibiza and back, before my business really took hold. Things finally got moving for me in 2011, after a psychic in Devon advised me to start selling my designs online.

Shakti Ellenwood Esma ring

So, where does your inspiration come from?

My work is very much inspired by the visions that I’ve had throughout my life – lots of animals and shapes that come to me during meditation or whilst using plant medicines in the past. My Rainbow Serpent amulet was inspired by my time spent with Aboriginal elders in Australia, for whom the serpent is a sacred animal, responsible for giving life and prosperity. My Fae pendant was inspired by a visit to Mexico, and the legend of the blue deer, which is sacred to the Huichol community there. And the embossed designs that are stamped into my Esma rings are inspired by the work of the Zuni tribe of New Mexico. I’m always drawn to the traditions, rituals and stories of peoples who seem to have a deeper connection to the natural and spiritual world, which I feel we have sadly lost in the West.

As I work, I chant Sanskrit mantras or sing songs from the people of the Amazon, because it puts me in the right headspace. I like to clear everything from my mind apart from the work that I’m doing, and I believe that it gives my pieces a good, positive energy. I want people to be able to feel the soul of my jewellery when they wear it.

Shakti Ellenwood rainbow serpent amulet

Is that why you are also committed to working with Fairtrade gold and responsibly sourced gemstones?

Absolutely. My gold comes from Betts Metals here in England, who source it from artisanal miners in Peru. They work with the Fairtrade Foundation to ensure the miners are paid fairly for their work and receive a 10% premium on top, which goes back into their community projects. As a Fairtrade licensee, I’m also audited every four years to ensure I stick to the highest standards of practice. My diamonds and coloured gemstones are responsibly sourced, too. I use CanadaMark diamonds, which are fully traceable and have strict environmental laws to protect the local wildlife around the mines, and my rubies come from Greenland Ruby, which are also fully traceable from mine to market. I also donate two percent of my annual sales to environmental and social causes. I really believe that jewellery should be used as a force for good.

Which of your designs do you treasure the most?

Crows have a lot of meaning in Aboriginal mythology and I absolutely adore them, so I wear my Merla Crow pendant all of the time. I also love my Esma ring design. I originally made it just for myself – I never thought it would be a popular piece, but it’s turned out to be one of my bestsellers. It’s very special to me.

Shakti Ellenwood Callie ring

So, what’s coming up next for you?

I’ve just agreed to go into my first store, Aetla in Edinburgh, which is very exciting, so hopefully I’ll be up visiting in Scotland more next year. And I’ve just found a lovely lady who specialises in antique cuts of diamond, so I’m excited to start working with her. I’ve always adored old rose-cut and old mine-cut stones. They were cut to shine best under candlelight, which is such a romantic notion. They’ve got a Victorian sentimentality to them that I really love.

The next big piece I’m going to design is an amulet, inspired by the Virgin Mary. I’m not religious, but I once called out to her to protect me from a dark presence I experienced whilst staying alone in a mud hut, up in the remote Mexican hills. The image of the Mother Mary is everywhere in Mexico, so it just felt like the natural thing to do and after a while, it seemed to work – I’ve wanted to make a golden amulet dedicated to her ever since.

Something About Rocks Summer 2024