A young jewellery designer based in rural North Yorkshire has upped her game after making her mark on New York. She tells Ruth Campbell how she did it

When I first encountered jewellery designer Alice Clarke, she was working from a tiny wooden shed looking out on the magnificent rolling green fields of Nidderdale, which inspired her art. Wearing a thick down jacket and woollen hat as she worked in her chilly surroundings, she had to lift all her equipment off the floor at night as her makeshift design studio and workshop was prone to flooding.

That was three years ago. Today, Alice works from a stunning glass, brick and wood-clad contemporary building, which she helped design, and exhibits and sells her jewellery all over the world, including Amsterdam, Munich, Vienna and New York. Clients include everyone from European royalty to artists and gallery owners

Fittingly, this farmers’ granddaughter looks out on the little blue wooden shed on her parents’ remote smallholding where she started out, a constant reminder of the grit and determination it has taken to get where she is today.

One of the first jewellery ranges she launched after graduating from the prestigious School of Jewellery in Birmingham, which she called her ‘From the Shed’ collection, was largely inspired by the patterns and textures of the lichen and stone at nearby Brimham Rocks. Alice, who used to catch moles for local farmers to earn extra spending money when she was younger, also created a range of award-winning, quirky statement pieces which incorporated items from her surroundings, including wool, twine, lambing teats and even sheep’s blood. Her ‘Sunday Best’ collection included rings moulded from vintage china cup handles, tea stained plaster and tea bag imprinted silver shells, reflecting her Yorkshire family’s afternoon tea traditions.

She acknowledges that it was her rather crazy, arty and eye-catching earlier work which first attracted attention and resulted in her being invited to exhibit in prestigious exhibitions all over the world. It gave her the edge over other designers.

“My necklace made with lambing teats, which incorporated lambs’ blood from our local butcher, was crazy, very unusual,” she says. “But the more ‘out there’ it is, the more chance there is of getting noticed. The jewellery world is huge and it really helped make my name.”

She also made necklaces using feathers from the family’s Christmas geese. “I had no-one telling me I couldn’t do it. I was my own boss, really free. I thought, if I want to make this crazy feather necklace, I will. It turned out to be a real show-stopper.”

Having won a number of industry awards, Alice exhibited at the renowned SIERAAD international art fair in Amsterdam in 2015 and was subsequently asked to produce a collection, incorporating horse hair and jet, for the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate. What made her more outlandish jewellery pieces resonate with so many collectors was that they were clearly not a cheap publicity stunt – they genuinely came from the heart.

“I have always harnessed my passion for where I live and put that into my work. I still do,” says Alice who got a first class degree in Jewellery and Silversmithing. After graduation she returned home to live with her parents, who, as well as running a highways maintenance and landscape business, keep pigs, chickens, ducks and geese on their land.

Although her more commercial silver work sold well and Alice enjoyed regular commissions for bespoke wedding rings, getting her jewellery business off the ground wasn’t easy, so she took a part-time job in a local National Trust gift shop. But, eventually, she hit a hiatus.

The turning point came just over a year ago, when she was invited to exhibit at New York’s highly acclaimed Loot: Mad About Jewelry show. She couldn’t afford to go, and had little time to create the 50 items they wanted, so turned it down. But the organisers were so keen to feature 25-year-old Alice’s work, they offered her free accommodation in Manhattan and pleaded with her to make a series of goose feather necklaces, along with a selection of statement rings and earrings, for the show.

With no goose feathers of her own left, Alice managed to get hold of a sack of feathers from a local goose farmer. Selecting, washing and drying each breast feather by hand was a laborious, time-consuming process, but Alice managed to complete 47 stunning pieces, which also included chokers made from Bluefaced Leicester sheep’s wool, in three months. “My fingers were cut and sore. I was so stressed, but relieved to get it all posted off in time. When I finally arrived in New York, it was everything I expected and more,” she says.

The exhibition was held in the Museum of Arts and Design close to Central Park. “I have never had a preview night like it. The press and TV were there. Everyone made such a big fuss of me. One of my pink ruffled feather chokers even sold before it went on display. On the opening night, people bought lots of pieces and I sold out of some. I have never had so many sales in one go. I could barely sleep that night.”

It was her experience in New York that convinced Alice she should give up her part-time job and focus full-time on a career in jewellery. “I had a brainstorm,” she says. “I decided I was going to change direction and up my game. I realised I couldn’t just sell to collectors, so I decided to leave my teacups and wool and feathers behind and make the things that people want to wear.”

As a result, Alice, although still very much rooted in her rural surroundings, has evolved as a designer, producing ever more sophisticated and elegant luxurious, high-end jewellery. She has fine-tuned her earlier pieces, retaining the same striking designs, but adapting the materials in order to make them more easily wearable. “My rural roots will always be there,” she says. “It’s in my blood and everything has evolved from that. But I’ve been refining and developing everything. I feel like I have had this in me for a long time and I am finally here.”

Yorkshire farming themes still run through her jewellery, although more subtly now. Her chunky chokers are made from soft cotton instead of itchy sheep’s wool, she uses lighter wooden beads instead of heavy plaster and finishes her pieces off with sleek, magnetic, enamel-coated clasps. Her large, fashion statement shard-shaped rings still have their original Yorkshire tea cup handle bases, but are now coated in smooth enamel, in pared back greys, pale pinks and off-whites, while her geometric shaped necklaces have a more contemporary high-shine finish.

It was this new work which attracted the attention of Princess Margarete of the Netherlands, who is also a jewellery designer, at an exhibition in Amsterdam in November. She bought one of Alice’s silver and bronze rings with grey enamel inlay for £185. “She loved my colour palette and said my stand was her favourite,” says Alice.

Looking back, she says the New York exhibition resulted in a real change in her work. On her return from the States, Alice set to work on her new studio building, which is flooded with light and has sweeping views across Dallowgill Moor. It’s the perfect environment from which to showcase her latest collection.

She sourced stylish charcoal grey light fittings from Copenhagen and a magnificent woodburner from the Scottish Borders. Art work from Australia and Texas hangs on the walls. “I wanted a space which reflects my style, to design, make and sell under one roof,” she says. “I want to fill it with well-crafted pieces of art from all over the world.”

Alice has come a long way since she first fell in love with her craft during school work experience with bespoke titanium jewellery makers Moxon and Simm, in the nearby picturesque village of Pateley Bridge. And she is ambitious for the future. “I want to sell in Liberty in London, then other luxury retail outlets worldwide. I am not embarrassed to say how big my dream is.”

  • Alice is available for bespoke wedding ring commissions, from £300 to £2,500 per pair.

W: aliceclarke.co.uk T: 07841-212423 E: alice@aliceclarke.co.uk

  • Alice’s studio gallery was created by Yorkshire-based architects W: chrisrobinsonandson.carbonmade.com