Celebrating 50 Years of Ola Gorie

29 Nov 2010 in Orkney, Visual Arts & Crafts

Orkney Museum, Kirkwall, until 24 December 2010, and from 5 January until 29 January 2011

ORKNEY has the largest concentration of craft jewellers in Scotland, inspired by the islands’ rich heritage of ancient carvings and the imagery of ancestors, landscape and wildlife. Designs from many Orkney jewellery companies, drawing on Celtic and Norse artwork, are now shipped from Orkney around the world, symbolising the culture of these isles, once at the heart of a powerful Norse earldom.

This is why it is hard to believe that half a century ago in an age when mass produced was the norm for anyone but the rich and landowning, the idea of handmade jewellery drawing on these ancient designs was pioneering and rather daring. There had been no tradition of jewellery making in the isles since Norse times. One woman pioneered combining history and fashion, spawned a jewellery industry and is a key figure of the modern arts and craft movement in Scotland.

Ola Gorie

Ola Gorie at her graduation in 1960

Fifty years ago a young and idealistic woman, Ola Gorie, was the first graduate in jewellery design of Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen. During her holidays she worked in Kirkwall Library and found time to study books featuring ancient monuments. Ola came home to Orkney and started her business in her parents’ garden shed. Later three jewellery shops in Kirkwall agreed to sell her designs, as long as they were exclusive. When Ola took over a shop next door to her parents’ grocery store, Kirkness & Gorie, she and husband Arnie designed and made pieces to fill the shelves, and commissions for one-off pieces came. Among those wanting her pieces were the late Queen Mother, Liberty’s of London, the British Museum and the House of Commons.

The stigma of making ‘crafts’ was still sticking in the early 1970s. “There were very few crafts shops in those days and traditional jewellers tended to be quite dismissive: anything that was made by a craftsperson, anything with a traditional theme, they didn’t want to know. Luckily Arnie was very determined as well as very organised and so we persevered and gradually built up a reputation across Scotland,” Ola says.

She has the MBE for services to the jewellery industry yet says her main motivation was to design pieces that “speak of Orkney”.

This exhibition in the Orkney Museum brings together many of her early and iconic designs and presents them alongside design sketches, the tools of her craft and artefacts from Orkney Museum’s collection which inspired her, such as a 2nd century AD brooch. Classic pieces manufactured for decades now include the Maeshowe Dragon Brooch inspired by Viking graffiti in a Neolithic tomb and Westness Brooch from a Viking boat burial in Rousay. Masonry carvings from St Magnus Cathedral and the rose window, a Viking dragon ship, St Peter’s Cross and the runic alphabet add to the folklore and myths surrounding Orkney’s heritage industry and literature. Orcadians wear these symbols as a badge of honour while their appeal has travelled to jewellery boxes around the world. Exhibits extend beyond the Orkney influence:. Ola was an early admirer of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and helped revive his style; seaweed, thistles and pearls play a part too.

Among the cabinets of moulds, account books and relics of a career is a letter written by Margaret Thatcher when she was Tory leader, who much admired an Ola Gorie ring. Photographs explain the manufacturing process and through images of key events help put the industry in its social context.

This retrospective offers an insight into how an island craft industry emerged at a time when the Orcadian dialect was being quashed in schools but writers and scholars like Ernest W Marwick were publishing books about folklore. There is much here to admire in both the spirit behind the enterprise and the finely made pieces of jewellery which created a craft tradition.

© Catherine Turnbull, 2010