Barbara Macleod: West Coast Sparkle

1 Sep 2010 in Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

MANDY HAGGITH profiles the work of Assynt-based jewellery designer and maker Barbara Macleod

Barbara Macleod

Barbara Macleod

THERE ARE probably few people in the Highlands who know that the price of gold has trebled since 2006, from $400 to around $1200 per ounce. Rising gold values would probably not strike most of us as something to worry about, but to a young jewellery designer and maker, like Barbara Macleod, it’s seriously bad news.

Barbara, who lives in Strathan near Lochinver, says, “The price of gold is a big thing. Over the past year it’s almost doubled, and over the past few years it’s trebled, and when you’re a struggling start-up this is a bit of a problem.” It is just one of the challenges that a young jewellery maker must face.

“In the first year or two, galleries were taking my work on a sale-or-return basis, and it gets quite intense, having to make jewellery and put it out there then, for months, not having any income coming in at all.” It’s the classic cash-flow nightmare.

Fortunately for Barbara, after three years as a professional maker, her name and unique style is becoming known. “Some galleries are starting to actually buy my stuff now, which is really nice,” she laughs.

Exhibitions are an important part of Barbara’s growing reputation. In October, her jewellery will be on show at the Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair in Manchester. Getting space at such exhibitions is highly competitive, so there is kudos about being selected.

They are also important opportunities for Barbara to meet her customers, a rare treat for an artist in a remote part of the country. Galleries usually, on principle, do not pass on information about their customers. “Fairs are good because you get to see people in the flesh,” she says. “Otherwise I never really find out who’s bought my stuff.”

Silver Bloom Brooch by Barbara Macleod

Barbara also sells online, both directly from her website (see links) and from the North American craft e-commerce site Etsy, and occasionally she gets feedback from internet sales.

Most of the time, however, Barbara is alone in her workshop, a shed on a quiet back road in the remote Highland parish of Assynt where she was born and brought up. One of the reasons she took up jewellery making was, she says, “the idea that you can work from anywhere and you don’t need a massive amount of space to do it. That appealed. I could be flexible and come home. Deep down, I always wanted to come home, my heart is here.”

If everyone’s doing one thing, I’ll do the complete opposite. I think it’s important to have your own voice.

Making a career as a designer-maker, particularly off the beaten track, requires tenacity and constant effort to publicise her work. Her ambition? “I want to make enough money from my jewellery so I can live this life and keep learning new things, progressing forwards, keep on challenging myself to struggle up the ladder.” Asked what would most help her achieve this, she has no hesitation in identifying “Help to get professional images of my work, and good press releases.”

Is the remote location another challenge? “Not having other makers to interact with is maybe a pitfall of being isolated,” she says, “but I do my own thing anyway, so I’ll always think of something. I’ve always been a bit awkward like that. If everyone’s doing one thing, I’ll do the complete opposite. I think it’s important to have your own voice.” It is precisely this individuality that makes her work so full of character.

Swirl Brooch by Barbara Macleod

Barbara learned her craft at the Silversmithing and Jewellery department of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. She graduated in 2007 and already has several prizes and awards under her belt, including a Scottish Arts Council grant, a Goldsmiths precious metal bursary, the Licentiate of Merit of Distinction by the Society of Designer Craftsmen and the Richard Farrow Gold Medal award.

These awards are recognition of the sophisticated process Barbara undertakes in designing and producing a piece of jewellery. The work begins with the concept, which is often inspired by textiles. “I’m really drawn to sensuous things, and my work has a vintage and decorative style,” she says, “but I also want it to have a contemporary feel, so to design a piece, I start on the computer, to get a clean graphic outline.”

Those clean edges and forms are then transferred to silver sheets by photo-etching with acid. “It works a bit like photographic exposure,” she explains, clearly at home with the high-tech end of the process.

Once the silver has been cut, she uses cold enamel to create colourful layers, which is then sanded and polished. The pieces are made up with touches of gold and precious stones like sapphires, amethysts and aquamarine. “I’m constantly sourcing gemstones online. I go on eBay a lot!”, she says.

Barbara Macleod in her workshop

Barbara Macleod in her workshop

The gems form the basis of her thinking about colour in the pieces. “I just enjoy the colour choices,” she says. “It’s slightly haphazard, quite organic. I’ll think, what gemstones do I have just now and what would go with that, do I want to make this rich, or subtle, or feminine?” The results are an exquisite combination of traditional and modern, bold in form and diverse in colour.

Barbara often works to commission, and the whole process from conception to completion can take many weeks. Asked what aspect she enjoys most, she responds, “I love the whole thing, coming up with a new idea and nurturing the piece through the whole process.”

But in the end it is all about creating something to be bought, and worn. “It is really satisfying when people buy my work,” says Barbara. “I don’t think any job satisfaction could equate with the feeling when someone responds to a piece and wants to buy it.”

Asked who she thinks would look good wearing her jewellery, she suggests Helen Bonham-Carter, as much for her personality as her looks. “I think she’s a bit quirky and she seems to like unique things. My work’s got a theatrical edge to it, because it’s slightly historical, with that vintage feel.”



There is certainly something retro about the lacy patterns and style of Barbara’s work. “I’m not trying to recreate the past,” she says, “but to draw on it and bring it into a modern context. I’m interested in, the question ‘What is contemporary?’ Throughout history things have gone in and out of fashion: in Victorian times, they used mediaeval influences. Ultimately, you aim to make something timeless.”

With the price of gold and Barbara’s reputation both continuing to soar, a piece of her jewellery is probably a very good investment.

Barbara’s jewellery is available from the following galleries and exhibitions: An Lanntair, Stornoway; Castle Gallery, Inverness; Designs Gallery, Castle Douglas; New Jewellery, London; Chapel Gallery, Lancashire; Leeds Craft and Design Gallery; Yorkshire Sculpture Park; Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair, Manchester (21-24 October 2010)

© Mandy Haggith, 2010