Zoe Arnold

Zoe Arnold a Medal for Sancho Panza by Zoe Arnold Spectacles by Zoe Arnold
Bee by Zoe Arnold
conscience earrings with box by Zoe Arnold

‘I just want to make treasures’, says jeweller Zoe Arnold, and this is probably the best word to describe her complex, multi-layered creations. A cross between jewellery and miniature sculpture, they are beautifully made, slightly bizarre precious objects, often with a strong narrative element and a hint of the surreal. Many are based on Arnold’s own poems, as in addition to being a talented jeweller, she is also a poet and story writer.


You make jewellery and automata, but you also write poetry and short stories. What do you describe yourself as – poet, jeweller, maker, crafts person?

I like to think of myself as an artist. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a poet, as although I do lots of different things, the jewellery is what I mainly do and I only write a few poems a year.

Did you always want to be an artist?

I always thought I was going to be a sculptor. When I used to visit art galleries as a child I was never interested in the flat art, but was always drawn to the three-dimensional objects. It wasn’t until I did my foundation course [at Central Saint Martins] that I discovered jewellery making. I thought that the sculpture course was OK, but found the jewellery course fantastic as we were actually being taught making techniques. I had always liked working on a small scale so I decided to do my degree in jewellery design.

Did you find it difficult to reconcile your interest in sculpture with the need to make practical, wearable objects?

I used to find it quite constraining, but now I’ve changed the way I work and I’m OK with it. I used to make jewellery as miniature sculpture, but now I make wearable jewellery as part of a bigger sculpture. I make frames for the jewellery and the poems that inspired them so when the owner’s not wearing them they form a type of installation. This satisfies my need to work artistically at the same time as allowing me to make a living as a jeweller.

How does your poetry feed into your practice?

The poetry is very useful as all my pieces are different, one-off designs and it helps me find new ideas. I have to have some way of inspiring myself to create something new each time I start on a piece and the poetry gives me a different way of looking at things. And it allows me to treat my jewellery as an artwork rather than just a functional object, letting me work in a more creative way which I find more nourishing.

The poetry is also a useful marketing device as I am the only person who works with it and it’s nice to be a bit individual. There are so many amazing people out there so you’ve got to have a particular niche to be successful and the poetry really helps sell my work. A lot of people like work with a strong story attached to it and, if they don’t, they can always just take it at face value as a simple piece of jewellery.

How do you actually use the poems in individual pieces?

I will write a poem and then see what I can make from it. For example at Collect this Spring, I made an installation for Contemporary Applied Arts based on a poem I had written called Emotional. It was about different types of emotional mind sets, comparing quiet types with fiery, excitable types and I took images from the poem to create a series of brooches each with different coloured stones – a red stone symbolising the strong emotions and green and white stones calmer moods.

Your jewellery is visually and technically very varied, are there any underlying themes connecting the different pieces?

I don’t think so! There’s no unifying technique as I work in all sorts of different ways and I use a range of materials – silver, gold, wood, old prints and engravings, old lenses, found treasures. I suppose there is quite a lot of animal imagery - although that’s not intentional - and symbolism and imagery is very important. Perhaps the common thread is the fact that I like working in a lot of detail – I can’t make simple pieces, they have to be complicated. I want to make something that is really covetable, something that looks as though it’s got lots of provenance, that may have been a treasure discovered at the back of a drawer in a box and that gives you a real sense of excitement.

How does each piece evolve?

It doesn’t really! I have quite a visual mind and I can picture more or less what I want to make before I start. I may do some sketches for sizing etc, but I normally know what the finished piece will look like before I begin. I know some people work in a much more materials-led way, playing with the materials until they are happy with the outcome, but I work in a much more methodical way and unless I can visualise the end result, I can’t get excited about the making.

How do your automata and larger sculptural pieces link in with your jewellery practice?

All my work is amalgamated into one creative process and I make the domed pieces alongside the jewellery as I find it more interesting to work that way. They take much longer to do than the jewellery as you have to work out how to make them work, and as they are speculative pieces it is difficult to justify the time involved in making them.

The materials are the same as those in my jewellery as, unlike most automata makers, I use precious materials to make them, and, like my jewellery, they are often based on something I’ve written. For example, the Children and the Golden Tree is based on quite a dark fairy-tale I wrote about children finding a tree which they destroy in order to reach its single fruit which is so delicious that it ruins the taste of normal food for ever. The tree is gold-leafed silver, the birds are enamel and the fruit is ebony. When the handle is turned the birds fly round the tree – it’s a type of shrine to the tree.

You make all your work yourself, by hand. How important is the actual process of making to you?

I really enjoy sitting there and being able to produce something and do it all myself. I love the sense of achievement and being able to look down at something and think that I’ve made this myself. I feel excited while I’m making the piece and then get a huge buzz of satisfaction when it’s finished and come out right. I would never want to become a designer and get someone else to do my jewellery because my work is so personal and the making is what I really enjoy.

Interview by Diana Woolf