Carrie Elspeth has been creating handmade jewellery for 14 years. Her family-run business based in Wales and her highly-prized jewellery is available from selected independent retailers. Her characteristic handmade glass beads, which are internationally sourced, have become a fixture in Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Shop. Come and meet Carrie in person on 15 May from 1pm for an afternoon of jewellery-making and conversation in the Gallery Shop. Dulwich OnView asked Carrie to tell more about this exciting event.
I can distinctly remember having family holidays in London as a child, when I would be given a special treat of visiting my favourite bead shop. This would always be the most treasured part of the holiday for me and I would spend hours looking at all the beads and admiring the colours, the sparkle and shine. I particularly loved being able to put my hands in the piles of beads and the feeling of all the tiny glass spheres between my fingers… I’ve never forgotten it! I used to take little bags of beads home and would spend days making up designs in my bedroom, so I suppose it wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone that this childhood passion followed me into adulthood. My Father was an inspiration too: he was the Head of Art at a Comprehensive School, but also a renowned artist in his own right. Seeing this career combination made me determined to carve a path for myself which utilised both my creative talents and my love of art.
After completing a BA(Hons) in Art History I was unsure of the direction I wanted to go in. I’d always wanted to run my own business, ever since I was really young, but didn’t know what kind of business to establish so I set off on an adventure and travelled the world! I was invigorated and inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit I encountered overseas, which made me even more determined to make my creative dreams come true. I suppose I’m excited by a challenge and my goal became very clear to me: to develop a high-quality, accessible product entirely made in the UK.
While I was away overseas I would send handmade cards back to my friends and family and got such positive feedback. When I returned to Wales my parents said “why don’t you try to sell the lovely things you make?” This is where my love of beads rose up again and it just seemed a natural progression to combine my design skills and passion for making jewellery into a more structured and commercial business plan.
And you know what? Fourteen years later I still adore what I do! It’s been a crazy and exciting time, with many challenges faced and overcome, and I’ve worked incredibly long hours for most of those years but I wouldn’t change it for anything!
What makes CE different to other jewellery designers and manufacturers?
I think what separates us most is the fact that I have stuck to my original principles of making our product entirely in the UK. This is very unusual as many companies disregard ethics or personal morals in favour of “the bottom line” and this has given us a definite advantage. As all of our jewellery is made locally we have complete control of its manufacture and we are able to offer excellent quality with exceptional lead times. We are also able to adapt quickly to suit our customer’s needs by producing specific quantities in a very short time.
I think more and more buyers are becoming aware of global, environmental and ethical concerns and this is certainly having an impact on where people choose to buy their goods. It is also seen imperative to support UK economy these days and I think buyers are starting to favour home-grown quality products.
The focus on customer service also remains one of the most important aspects of my business development plan, as I always wanted to retain the friendly personal service that I could offer at the outset -to my very first customers- no matter how large the company grew. I think people really appreciate this and they feel like they are getting the treatment and service they deserve when they deal with us.
Another strong point in our favour is that we bring out new collections far more often than any of our competitors, so there are always fresh, new designs for our customers to choose from. I’ve also noticed that some companies stick rigidly to High Street fashion trends, which gives their designs a shelf-life because fashion is so fickle! I’ve always enjoyed watching catwalk trends and picking out certain themes to follow through in my collections, but essentially I design and make jewellery styles that I would want to wear and give to friends and family as presents! I understand that most of my customers are looking for classic designs that will last and last: this is what I love to design and these are the ranges that we have been selling for years. I suppose it’s really about being able to listen to the customer.
You have been involved with the local community and this is an important part of your philosophy. Where is the business now?
Yes, I have always been really passionate about working with the local community and have worked incredibly hard to maintain this principle. All of my designs are still beautifully handmade by a team of local, self-employed home-workers, who undergo extensive training at the outset to ensure that they meet the high standards of quality that I expect and our customers deserve. Once they have completed their training then I know I can rely on an incredibly fast turnaround of exceptionally well-made jewellery. I am particularly proud of this aspect of my business and that we continue to provide training and steady work for 20 local people. It’s also really encouraging to see other companies finally catching on to the importance of using our local resources in the UK!
Today, my role as Creative Director allows me to remain involved in the day-to-day running of the business while still being able to fulfil my artistic dreams. I create all of my new designs in an open-plan studio in South Wales, which is part of the 9000 sq ft office-warehouse complex that our team of 12 staff now occupies. My husband Steve is the Managing Director of the company and our three young children are regular fixtures at the studio premises, so it is truly a family affair!
I also feel it is important to be involved with the local schools: I provide beads for craft projects the students do in their art class and I happily donate pieces of jewellery for raffle prizes to help with school fundraising. In addition this we have pupils with us for work experience, which is a rewarding exercise for us as well as the students. In the past we have also had graduates doing work placements, and I know how much I would have valued that kind of hands-on business experience during my university years!
I did receive a great deal of excellent assistance from my business mentor when I started the company, and as a result of this I have mentored a few local businesses myself over the years. I feel it is essential to be able to “give something back” and it provides an excellent opportunity for me to assess the challenges I’ve faced and review the development of the business.
There is also a local charity we support called Ty Hafan, which is an amazing Children’s Hospice in the Vale of Glamorgan. I feel it is a very special place so am delighted to be able to do a lot of work for them.
How and when did you first get involved with DPG?
I first got involved with DPG over 5 years ago, and the relationship between our two companies has blossomed ever since! DPG approached my stand at the NEC Spring Fair back in 2008 and we have been supplying them with our jewellery from that point on.
We are very much looking forward to your event at the Gallery on the 15th of May. What can people attending the event expect?
I am looking forward to it as well! I really enjoy being able to meet my customers personally, that’s one reason why I continue to do all the trade shows myself: it makes a huge difference to me being able to have direct contact with the people who will be buying and wearing my designs. Of course it also encapsulates my philosophy of maintaining excellent personal service and my determination never to forget that wonderful feeling of selling my very first piece all those years ago! During my visit to your Gallery I will be talking about my extensive collection of designs and I’ll be showing you all how I hand-make the jewellery with an exclusive demonstration.
Carrie Elspeth and Dulwich Picture Gallery have worked together for a number of years. Are there any future collaborative projects on the go?
Yes! I’ve got a great idea for a project that I’ve wanted to develop with Dulwich Picture Gallery for a while and this will be the perfect opportunity to set things in motion. I will look at the artworks in the permanent collection and then I plan to create a jewellery range which is inspired by what I’ve seen. The range will complement the artworks and will be a really nice “full circle” project for me -both professionally and personally- as it will draw together many threads of my creative life.