“I do believe that there is an energy in handmade objects,” says jewellery artist Hélène Bourget. “The cookie-cutter, mass-produced items don’t have the soul that hand-produced items do.”
Bourget puts great thought and soul into the jewels she creates for clients. “You are creating a piece that is significant to people. It’s charged emotionally.”
Recently, Bourget completed a piece that was particularly meaningful to her. Hélène’s cousin, Guylaine, came to her with a ring that she had inherited and wanted to modernize. It was a ring Bourget recognized immediately: her Grandmother’s ring. “My Grandmother was widowed and would spend six months with my uncle and the other six months with us. I remember that ring well.”
The two of them reminisced, talked about designs and reviewed Bourget’s preliminary sketches. To redesign their Grandmother’s ring, Guylaine picked out a garnet from Bourget’s collection of gems. “I have this obsession with stones. They are like candy to me. I call it stone-itis and there is no cure.”
Guylaine lives up North, so they had to work through the design process online. “We did a lot of back and forth. It can be difficult to design at a distance. She asked me to post my progress on Facebook.”
Finally, it was time for Hélène to send Guylaine the ring and wait for her reaction. “There is always a little bit of trepidation: being naked, putting yourself out there. You always hope that the person will be happy. She was thrilled; it was better than she expected. That was music to my ears.” Both feel that their Grandmother would be delighted.
The bulk of Bourget’s work is custom designed in her appointment-only studio. “The only way to survive in this business is by having a niche. I make artisan, one-of-a-kind pieces. You appreciate that or you don’t.”
Bourget enjoys taking an old school approach, doing everything by hand. She learned her craft in the two year program at VCC and in an apprenticeship at Bustopher Goldsmiths under the renowned Andrew Costen, now of Costen Catbalue. “He’s an amazing goldsmith, a master at what he does. He stressed precision. He said: ‘I don’t care if nine out of ten people don’t see the mistakes.’ He was very careful.”
In 1995, Bourget went into business for herself. “I decided to take the leap. I wouldn’t have the guts to do that now. I had no capital, just a wing and a prayer. I was kind of naïve.” Thankfully, she was able to build word of mouth and to meet ring-seeking brides and grooms. “I am grateful because weddings have kept me in business. A lot of times, it has been the bread and butter of my existence.” Some couples are looking for classic designs; others are looking to create unique engagement rings and wedding bands.
In sketching out potential designs, Bourget will consider the hands, wrists, necks, ears of her clients. She has found that people will often fall more strongly into one of two camps: art nouveau or art deco. “What do you like more: clean, geometric lines or the flowy, curvy, amorphous?”
Some clients come with stones; others like poking about Bourget’s collection. “I don’t have any snobbery about stones. I like the cheap and cheerful cabuchons, garnets. Diamonds are beautiful because they are diamonds – hard, faceted, glittery. The ‘semi-precious’ and ‘precious’ stone thing, people have kind of let that drop. You can have an amazing tourmaline that is worth more than a crappy emerald. It’s all based on rarity, beauty and accessibility.”
Bourget enjoys showing clients the range of colours that a single type of stone can be. “Lots of stones, like spinel, come in a rainbow of colours: yellow, orange, olive green, blue, purple, pale pale yellow, pale pale pink. Sapphires come in a lot of colours too, but you’ll never find emerald green in a sapphire. Emerald green is very specific.”
Once the design and stones are selected, Bourget puts her hands to work. If it’s gold, she alloys it herself. “For 18 karat, you buy pure gold. 18k is 75% pure. The alloy, which is fine silver and copper, stretches it out and hardens the metal. I melt it with a torch that uses oxygen and propane. You have a crucible, which is a ceramic container that you melt the molten gold in. I mold the gold into an ingot and then I’ll roll it down with a rolling mill – that’s two cylinders that go up and down and squish it into plates, depending on the thickness of what you want.”
And here is where the math comes in. “It’s very unforgiving, jewellery. There is a lot of math and precision. A millimeter will make a difference.” Bourget uses pi a lot. You know: 3.14159265359. Pi. Finally. “I use pi to determine the length that I need for a ring size. If you are a size 6.5, half the inner diameter of that is 16.8 mm, which you multiply by pi and then factor in the gauge of the metal.”
Like Cousin Guylaine, clients like to see pictures of their jewellery in progress.
And, like Cousin Guylaine, many people come to Bourget with inherited or old jewellery that they would like to incorporate into a new design. “I always try not to destroy things that are beautiful. I had one client who said she was never going to wear this bracelet. It was this gorgeous, 18k piece. I said: ‘are you sure?’ I gave it back to her two times, but she said she would never wear it. I had to turn my torch onto that and watch it melt.”
Sometimes – by request or suggestion – she will keep part of the original piece intact, but incorporate it into a more modern setting. There was the rave-going, funky boot-wearing client who inherited an intricate, delicate ring that sat on a tiny shank. “What would you say,’ I asked, ‘if we kept the top part, then made a frame around it and put it on a juicy shank?’ It was a cool, modern look, so she would wear it.”
To help clients with costs, Bourget will encourage them to bring in old gold – mismatched earrings, broken chains – that she will melt down and give them back scrap value. “In the last ten years, gold has tripled in price from what it was.”
What does Bourget enjoy most about her work as a jewellery artist?
“I sure do appreciate being able to express art. I think it’s important in a society. It can be pleasing to the eye. It can be controversial. It can make people think. Jewellery has always had a talismanic effect on people. There are superstitions around it. We have been adorning ourselves since the caveman era.”
Bourget also enjoys knowing that some of her pieces will be passed on through generations. “When I’m dead and gone, some of my pieces might be melted down, but a lot of pieces will outlive me.”
What are the biggest challenges in her line of work?
“Financial. That is the thing that distresses me the most. It sounds romantic and glamorous to be a self-employed person, but it’s stressful not to have a steady paycheque. Not everyone is going to buy jewellery from you. Sometimes, I’ve been scrambling. I wish I had an answer, but artists aren’t usually the best business people. It’s hard to value your own work. The very thing that makes me a good designer – I feel people. I pick up on their moods and dislikes – makes me weak when I quote. I don’t have that aggressive quality.”
Getting the word out to new clients has also changed a great deal over the last few years. “Instagram likes don’t pay the rent. I did a mailout five years ago. It was a picture of me, my work, on thick stock and you could rip off a card and bring it in for 10% off.” It was a technique that had worked well for Bourget in the past. She targeted certain neighbourhoods – West and North Van, Kitsilano, Shaughnessy… – and waited for the results. “I think I mailed out 12,000 postcards. I got one phone call. Five to ten percent would have been good. Nothing. It doesn’t work anymore. I could have just thrown them out the window.”
As she adjusts to the new realities, Bourget is grateful for both new and repeat clients. “I’m pleased when I look at my referrals and repeat clients. I see the same clients at their wedding, the birth of their child, a celebration of their twenty five years together. It’s a huge honour when they come back to me.”
What advice would Bourget offer to artisans who are taking that leap, as she did, to business on their own?
i. “Do it for the love of it
You won’t get super rich doing it.
ii. Be passionate about being original
You owe it to yourself and the world. Sure, everything has been done under the sun. If you’re going to repeat something, do it in a way that is fresh or interesting.
iii. Marry desire and discipline
Jewellery work, for instance, is exacting and unforgiving. You have to be a masochist.
And to all of us:
iv. Buy local!
Support local artists. Everything is so globalized and impersonal. Stimulate the local economy.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
* Photos by Hélène Bourget