Meet Ruth Tomlinson

Exclusive interview with Ruth Tomlinson. The Hatton Garden jeweller explains why she uses local suppliers and 100% recycled gold. She also talks about her love of artisan techniques and working with antique diamonds

By Kim Parker, Portraits William Gilchrist

For the independent British jeweller, Ruth Tomlinson, materials really do matter. Her ethereal, almost otherworldly pieces, which she designs with ‘a sense of a bygone era’. All her pieces are handcrafted in a London atelier by a passionate team of skilled goldsmiths, with stones sourced from local suppliers and 100% recycled gold. Here, she discusses her love of nature, of ancient jewels and the future heirlooms she’s creating right now.

Ruth Tomlinson at work

How did you get started in the jewellery industry?

I’ve been designing and making things my whole life. I come from a very creative family. My mum used to do a lot of dressmaking, and she used to make a lot of my clothes when I was small. My aunt was also a jeweller and textile artist, and my uncle was an expert stone carver. They really encouraged my creativity and taught me to look at the world through a slightly different lens, and to appreciate the history of artistic objects.

Ruth Tomlinson is known for otherworldly pieces

I started making my own jewellery when I was in my teens. I was obsessed with FIMO modelling clay. If I weren’t a jeweller today, I would probably be a sculptor or ceramicist. I started selling my little beaded designs in the local shops near my home and by the age of 14, I think I must have had four or five outlets stocking my pieces. That’s when the seed was really planted. I studied ceramic jewellery and 3D design at college in Manchester and then went to work for a jeweller, who thought traditional metal jewellery might be a good fit for me, too. I went to the Royal College of Art in London to do an MA, and I’ve been in the city ever since. My business is actually 20 years old this year, and I’ve now got a team of ten people working with me. I still can’t quite believe it.

Ruth Tomlinson midas collection tourmaline and sapphire ring with beaded setting

Where did your organic-looking style develop from?

I initially started making porcelain jewellery. Lots of pieces with tiny bells and flowers, I must have made millions of them! But you have to keep moving on and developing your style, especially as a designer-maker, in order to keep things interesting. My style as it appears now was actually the result of a happy accident, which happened when I was still at the Royal College. I was learning about electroforming jewellery, that is, growing metal around a specific shape using chemical solutions with an electric current passed through them, which gradually builds up layers of metal around your shape. Generally, it took a day of submersing a piece in the tank to create the effect you wanted, but my technician accidentally left a ring I was working on in the tank for four days. When it came out, it looked like the most incredible encrusted sea creature. That definitely inspired the direction I later went in with my ‘Encrustations’ and ‘Hoard’ collections. I don’t think I actually thanked that technician, but it was definitely the very happiest of mistakes.

Ruth Tomlinson pearl and diamond cluster drops with citrine

What inspires you when you’re designing a collection?

I grew up in Morecambe, by the sea, and also spent a lot of time in the Lake District, so the natural world has provided me with endless inspiration. I find the life cycles of plants and creatures endlessly fascinating. My friends always laugh about the fact that I tend to zoom in on the minutest of details, instead of looking at a whole coral reef or grassy landscape. And it’s true, I remember once looking at a plant and all I could see was a clutch of tiny butterfly eggs on one of its leaves. They were just so beautiful. Those little hidden treasures are what captures my imagination the most.

I also love historical looking pieces of jewellery.Things that have obviously had a long life before you ever see them. When I was at the Royal College of Art, I would also spend hours in the Natural History Museum, and in jewellery room at the V&A. I particularly loved looking at the Roman and Etruscan jewellery.Which were quite primitive and not hugely ornate, but seemed full of granulations and marks which told stories of the people who used to wear them. I also liked visiting the Waddesdon Collection in the British Museum, which is a huge collection of objects, full of Renaissance and medieval pieces. All of those baroque pearls really spoke to me.

Ruth Tomlinson in the workshop

What do you love most about being a jeweller? And what are your main challenges?

What I like most is when one of the pieces of jewellery I’ve created finds its home. When it finds the right person, it can begin its own story. The fact that my pieces bring joy to people is what makes this business such a lovely one to work in. When someone comes to me to buy something, or to create a bespoke piece, like an engagement ring, I always feel really privileged that they’ve chosen my piece to be a part of their life story, over any other jeweller out that. That’s very special.

When I first started my business, I got used to doing absolutely everything myself, which didn’t seem like a challenge at the time, because it’s just what every new business owner has to do. But in order to grow, you’ve got to find people who can do tasks better than you can. It takes a lot to let go, and not be in control of absolutely everything at the same time. But now, I’m happy that I’ve found a team who are far better at doing certain things, like accounts, that I’m not good at. It means I’m free to do the creative bit, which is what I love.

Oval citrine cluster ring with beaded setting

How does your design process work? And which stones do you find yourself drawn to?

Being surrounded by all of my stones and materials is really important, as I start to put things together and build a picture of what I can create in my mind. When we could travel, I would go stone shopping once or twice a year, and look for stones in India or Sri Lanka, or a gem fair in Germany. Luckily, I’ve got local suppliers in London that I’ve worked with for years and they source the most beautiful gemstones. For me, it’s all about the materials. I really want to do them justice. Then, it’s a gathering of information. I do a lot of sketching and researching. I might go to a museum, or I might spend a day on Pinterest building up a mood board.

I love working with antique diamonds, because they’ve had a history and they’ve been passed down many times, or been reshaped over the years, so they’ve got a real character to them. They don’t have as many facets as modern, brilliant-cut stones and they were all cut by hand. So they can be imperfect, but that’s what makes them so appealing. The cutters were simply following the shape of the crystal, the shape that nature had originally offered, and never wasted anything. We also do a lot of work with coloured sapphires, especially for engagement rings. They are a lovely alternative to the traditional solitaire, and they always do really well. People come to us looking for something to express who they are as an individual, rather than necessarily following any conventions.

Ruth Tomlinson how it begins

Do you wear your own designs?

I don’t wear a lot of pieces. I’m very practical and work a lot with my hands, so I can’t wear big jewels. But I do have a couple of my own rings, which I’ve had for years. I find rings the easiest thing to design, and I love the fact that they can be really sculptural. I have one with a champagne diamond, which was hand-cut, with antique diamonds around it, and I have a raw diamond ring from the ‘Lustre’ collection with little grey diamonds on it. I tend to like muted tones, and these feel modern but still look as if they’ve got some history to them. Plus, they seem to go with everything.

So, what’s coming up next for you?

I’ve made some rings with garnets I found whilst mudlarking in the Thames during lockdown. It was such a wonderful experience, finding treasures from the city’s past. You’re not allowed to sell things found this way, so I’m planning to throw the collection, which I’ve called my ‘OffeRings’, back into the river. Perhaps someone will find them in a few hundred years.

Aside from that, I’ve always wanted to create a collection of very precious, almost Hollywood-style bridal pieces using larger gemstones. So I’m going to create some real Bobby Dazzlers. That’s their working title at the moment, I haven’t thought up a name for them yet. I’ve found some big, unique diamonds, so that will be very exciting to work on. I’ve also got a collection of rings coming up that I’m going to call my ‘Wonderings’, using really special gemstones. Some with amazing and unusual inclusions that I’ve never seen before. I haven’t started working on that collection yet, though. I tend to leave everything until up to the wire. I always like a bit of pressure. That’s when the magic seems to happen.

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