Inside

John Donald

What drew you to jewellery?

Initially, pure chance – whilst I was studying illustration at Farnham School of Art, a friend of the family introduced me to Barnett Freedman, a well-known  lithographer and highly respected artist. He liked my graphic work but reminded me that there was a huge number of high quality graphic designers around. As a governor of the RCA, he knew that some schools were short of suitable numbers and the jewellery school was one of them. At his suggestion, I applied and was given a one year trial. I had some woodworking ability from my father’s workshop but acquiring metal work skills created a steep learning curve. 

In what ways did RCA. education help influence your career?

Fundamentally, Art Schools teach one to see form properly. The RCA had the brilliant idea of placing students of one discipline into that of another traditional craft e.g. a graphic designer into metalwork. This ingenious process achieved a completely different and innovative design attitude, also challenging an often hide-bound tradition within each individual craft. The concept of excellence in craft often stifled original design. The mind-changing experience of working with such brilliant designers as David Mellor, Gerald Benny and Robert Welch meant that my experience at the RCA were some of the best years of my life.

What was your first job?

As soon as I had left College I realised that I had made a huge mistake in not following the example of my friends, who had set up their own workshops during their last year. Not that I had the money to invest in such an enterprise anyway. In short, it seemed, there were no companies in 1956 which could support a full-time designer. I had designed spectacle frames during my fourth year at College and, consequently, gained a consultancy with a Birmingham company.

Then, via the Design Centre, I took on another consultancy with Antler Luggage and a further one with Halex Hairbrushes. These jobs gave me a basic yearly income on which I could at least make plans for a workshop.

What have been the biggest changes and developments experienced in the jewellery industry?

Over the years I haven’t noticed any major changes, often a re-working of older designs. Unfortunately, during times of recession, I’ve noticed design is dictated by the taste of the buying public of the time. One good reason why designers should avoid the ‘glamour’ and access to the public via retail shops. Technology, of which I understand very little, is producing amazing technical design, lazer welding, computer produced resin models etc. and I would now advise young craftsmen to take advantage of these innovations, as long as they remain subordinate to the originality of their personal designs.

 What has made your collection unique in the industry?

When I set out there had been a long period of war, high Purchase Tax (125%), rationing, austerity and uncertainty. When Purchase Tax was drastically reduced, ration books for food and clothing had disappeared, the public began to look for new ideas in every form of design. If one had the wherewithal and/or a well-equipped workshop, one could capitalise on a market looking for new ideas. So, I feel, by chance, I arrived at the best time to make a new statement. If only I had established a workshop two years earlier!

Who has worn your designs and who would you most like to see them worn by today?

Discerning clients who appreciate original design and who have enjoyed wearing my creations, also, sometimes, being part of the personal commissioning process. To answer the second part of your question – I should like to see my designs worn by their granddaughters!

What has been your jewellery philosophy?

To produce unusual, wearable and attractive designs which should be fit for purpose and endurable.

As a designer, where have you drawn your inspiration from?

No definite source. One can see the influence of early Italian religious forms and decoration, also of organic, crystalline structure, thereby creating a balanced irregularity.

What do you think have been the biggest trends in the jewellery design industry?

From the past: Victorian, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Unfortunately, sheer wealth has influenced design trends, especially during World recessions.

Have you collaborated or worked with any of your RCA. peers?

Whilst at the RCA. I worked with Robert Goodden to advise on spectacle frame manufacture and, later, occasionally with Gerald Benney.

What advice would you give to someone interested in getting into the jewellery design business?

Do not put yourself in an economic situation where you may need to compromise on your design instinct and direction, e.g. a retail shop!

What is your favourite piece you have ever created – and what made it so special?

There have been several but two of my favourites are, one, a necklace of nugget gold pear shapes set with pendulous briolette diamonds – simple in structure but very effective when worn. The second one was a brooch of radiating hammered gold spikes which I set with diamonds and rectangular emeralds, all of varying sizes which were larger and darker in the centre, smaller and lighter towards the outside. To my mind this was a three-dimensional abstract painting.

 

John Donald, graduated from Silversmithing & Jewellery in 1957. Portait  photography by Mary McCartney.
John Donald, graduated from Silversmithing & Jewellery in 1957. Portait photography by Mary McCartney.
'Precious Statements' is the lavishly illustrated autobiography of John Donald, goldsmith and Princess Margaret’s favourite jeweller. Introduced by Joanna Hardy and published by McNidder & Grace. Available from Orca/Marston’s.
'Precious Statements' is the lavishly illustrated autobiography of John Donald, goldsmith and Princess Margaret’s favourite jeweller. Introduced by Joanna Hardy and published by McNidder & Grace. Available from Orca/Marston’s.