What you’ll learn in this episode:
- How Jeremy found that landscape architecture translated to jewelry making
- Why he was drawn to working with paper, and how he came up with his distinctive technique
- Why jewelry is a powerful object to preserve memories
- Jeremy’s design process and how he creates a unique piece of jewelry for each client
About Jeremy May
Jeremy May is a Landscape Architect born in Suffolk, UK. After having worked in his field of design for over 10 years, Jeremy created the first paper ring in September 2007. Jeremy’s literary jewels were first introduced to the public in January 2009, transforming the paper that aspires to last beautifully and bring joy, colour, and love to all those sustainably minded individuals. The jewels have been presented in London, Paris, Osaka, Athens, Hamburg and Saint Petersburg. Currently Jeremy is working on private commissions and on creating collections of jewels under a thematology to be presented in exhibitions around the world. He lives and works in London.
It takes an adventurous jewelry designer to eschew traditional materials like metal and diamonds in favor of paper. But as a former landscape architect who left his career for more thrilling creative pursuits, Jeremy May was up for the challenge. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about why he was drawn to paper when he first discovered jewelry making; how he came up with his one-of-a-kind technique; and how he works with clients to create the perfect, meaningful piece. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is the first part of a two-part episode. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it’s released later this week.
Today, speaking to us from London is Jeremy May, who creates unique literary jewels from pages of vintage books. He transforms these books into unique pieces of paper jewelry with quotes carefully cut from the book. Each piece is unique to the wearer. We will hear more about the books and how he creates his unique jewels today. Jeremy, welcome to the program.
Jeremy: Hello. It’s an honor and a delight to speak to you.
Sharon: Tell us about your jewelry journey. How did you start?
Jeremy: I started in 2007. I made my first ring for my wife for our first wedding anniversary. I made it from a newspaper, and that’s basically how it all started for me in the jewelry world. I studied as a landscape architect, and I did that for about 12 years. When I made the first ring, that was like the catalyst. I saw my new profession, and I decided that landscape architecture was not for me. I started making jewelry.
Sharon: With landscape architecture, had it been in the back of your mind, “I have to find something else”?
Jeremy: I started landscape architecture from a very young age. My parents were both in the horticulture world, so it was in the forefront of my mind. My grandfather was a head gardener, so plants and horticulture were always at the forefront of my mind. It was second nature. For me, a progression into landscape architecture was great because I loved art and design, and that was my output, if you like, for creativity. From a very young age, about the age of 12 or 13, I decided I was going to be a landscape architect.
I researched and worked out how I was going to do this, what courses and classes I needed to take. I ended up going to Greenwich University, and it was very much an art-based course. It was less about horticulture and plants and more about design. I loved it; I adored it, actually. It was less writing and exam-based and more about design and making artwork, really. I was in my element there, and then you get to the end of the course and go, “O.K., now I have to go and get a job. That’s fine.” For 10 years, I loved it; I really did. I was working with the public. I was creating urban parks in London and having so much fun, but my biggest problem was that the projects were taking too long. They were taking years and years to come to fruition. I started to get itchy feet, so I decided I was going to change, but I didn’t know what and I didn’t know how. This went on for two years.
In the meantime, I made my first ring for Eva, and then it was like, “Oh wow! I can do this.” I had never thought about jewelry before. I had never thought there was this whole world out there. I had no understanding of it, but I knew I was getting excited about it. I was like a dog with a bone. I went to see friends who were jewelers and watchmakers and product designers, and I asked them questions. I had lots of chats with them and they helped me a lot. They gave me books and introduced me to other people, but everything they were saying wasn’t interesting to me. They were showing me things that had already been done by people who had already worked with metal, with pearls, with diamonds, and it didn’t really interest me.
I really wanted to understand paper, so people were showing me origami and folded paper. I was like, “O.K., that’s great, but it’s not really what I’m interested in.” I wanted to discover something new. I wanted to invent something or do something that no one else was really doing. I was just playing around, and I started stacking paper up. It was like a eureka moment. I compressed them under high pressure, and then it was like, “Oh wow! That works!” It was almost like turning paper back into wood. I created a material—it was a bit like plywood—but I wasn’t using any glues or resins. It was also purely natural. It was just paper. I was like, “Oh wow! If I do it like this and I do that, maybe I can make a ring out of this.” That’s basically how I started.
Sharon: With all the art they taught you, did they touch on jewelry at all?
Jeremy: No, never. It was fine art. It was painting. It was a little bit of collage, and we were working with clay. We were working with a lot of materials. We were given the opportunity to experiment and do anything to get the mind working, to be inspired and then to help you come up with a design. They were trying to get you to have a catalyst to get you inspired.
Sharon: Inspired for landscape architecture work or everything?
Jeremy: Well, it was good training for anything, but in this situation it was for landscape architecture. If ever you got stuck with a design and you didn’t know where to go, they were saying, “Why don’t you do a collage? Why don’t you do a painting? Why don’t you make something with your hands?” It would help you become un-stuck and inspire you.
At university, my teachers were constantly saying, “Think about something new. Think about something different. Don’t go down the same route. Don’t copy.” That formed me. What molded me into me now is that I don’t want to copy people. I don’t want to copy a design. I don’t want to copy my same design. I want each piece I make to be unique and one-off. It bores me, in a way, to repeat myself. I can’t do it. If someone says to me, “Oh, I like that ring. Can you make one the same?” No, I can’t.
Sharon: That’s interesting. When you went to these jewelers to ask them their opinion or get ideas, you already had it in mind that you wanted to do something different.
Jeremy: Yeah, because I didn’t know what it was to work with paper. I thought about working with wood or some other material. They gave me books, “This is what other people have done,” and I was like, “That’s great, but it’s not what I want.” I wasn’t inspired. It wasn’t like, “Oh, wow! Maybe I can work on that and come up with another solution, another idea.” When I went away, I was a bit disappointed and frustrated, but after sitting there daydreaming—which is one of the things I love, just to daydream, to have the opportunity to sit back and look out the window and let your mind wander. I find a lot of solutions and problems are solved that way. Yes, my friends helped me a lot in showing me what I didn’t want to do.
Sharon: These people, these jewelers, probably thought you were nuts when you mentioned paper.
Jeremy: Yes, in a way. They were classically trained jewelers working with precious metals and I said, “O.K., I want to do something different. I don’t know what I want to do. Can you help me? I really want to work with paper because paper is the first material for a wedding anniversary.” That was my starting point. From there, it was like, “O.K., maybe you could do this. Maybe you could that,” and I was like, “O.K.”
Sharon: How do you choose the paper and the book? If I come to you with a book, do you say, “O.K., I’ll take this book and use it,” or do you have input?
Jeremy: Clients come to me and say, “I want you to make me a piece of jewelry.” Some of them will say, “This is the book I want you to use,” and I go, “O.K., that’s great.” Other clients say, “I don’t know what book I want to use. Can you help me?” and I give them parameters. I say, “If you have a thick book, then the piece of jewelry can be bigger. If it’s thin, then you can do a smaller piece.” It comes down to the quality of the book, whether it’s hardcover or softcover, the age of the book, the country the book was published in, because that can lead to different qualities of paper. You have a chat with the client about that, but then it comes down to the clients, what book is personal to them. Books are very, very personal, and it means a lot to them to have a particular novel or author.
Sharon: Do you have a library yourself that you pull from and say, “How about this book?”
Jeremy: Yeah, absolutely I do. My shelves here are absolutely full. I can say, “What about this one? What about that one?” but the majority of the time they say to me, “I’ll send you a book,” and they’ll go to their own library and clip it out. Or, if they say, “I want this book,” I can start researching to find a suitable copy. I prefer to work with vintage books, ones that have been read or are being used. They feel like they have a history to them. I don’t particularly like using new books that have just been printed.
Sharon: Do you say to them, “Pick the book,” and give them parameters, and then do you say, “Pick the quote in the book you want”?
Jeremy: No, after I receive the book, I read the book completely. While I’m reading, I’m sketching. Within the words, I get inspired for the design of the jewel. From there, I pick a particular quote, and that then inspires me to finalize the design.
Sharon: So, you might start out with a ring and then read the book and say, “This should really be a pin,” or “It should be a necklace.”
Jeremy: Yeah, absolutely.
Sharon: Does the client say anything to you? Do they argue?
Jeremy: I am so lucky that clients go with what I say. There have only been a few times when they said, “I really would like some reds. I would like it a little bit bigger.” I’m so lucky that clients just go, “Yup, that’s great,” which is completely different from when I was working as a landscape architect. You would take your design to the client and they would go, “I don’t know. Maybe you could change this. Maybe you could change that.” You go through so many revisions. Now I’m producing sketches, and I send them to clients and they go, “Yeah, great, fantastic!” I’m like, “Really? Are you sure? Would you like little changes?” “No, I love it. Let’s do it.”
Sharon: That’s very nice that they don’t have that many changes, only once in a while. Tell us about the process. How do you make pages stick together? How do you make your jewelry stick together, because it’s made of different pieces, right?
Jeremy: Yeah. That is a little bit of magic and a little bit of a secret, but I don’t use any strong chemicals. I don’t use glues or anything like that. I’m basically using high pressure and squashing them together. I use a form of Japanese lacquer to coat them, but the strength of it comes from the actual paper, the lamination. I’m folding the paper. I’m overlapping it and then compressing it into the actual form.
Sharon: Does paper jewelry last like a jewel?
Jeremy: Absolutely. I made the first one for my wife in 2007 and it’s as the day I made it. You do have to respect it. It is paper. It’s not metal, so if you do bang it hard, you can chip the corner or it can split. I’ve had that a couple of times from clients. They didn’t realize it, mainly because it’s so light. I’ve had this in galleries. People have come up and gone, “Wow,” and they pick the ring up and then immediately drop it because they expect it to be heavy. It’s paper, so I understand that it can damage if they drop it onto a concrete floor or something like that, but I can easily repair it.
Sharon: The high pressure and the techniques you use, are they things you learned being a landscape architect?
Jeremy: No, this was completely separate. It was through experimentation. Over the years, I’ve just experimented and changed my techniques over the last 15 years or so. It’s a beautiful material to work with because it allows you to do pretty much anything in any form, and I’m constantly experimenting with the form. I’m constantly looking for new techniques or a way of fine-tuning it to be able to make bigger or smaller pieces. I’ve started to experiment with larger sculptures because I think my work is sculptural. It’s sculpture you can wear, and I’ve thought, “Oh, maybe I can make this slightly bigger.” I use books, so I’m confined by the size of the book. If I can find a big book, then I’m super excited. I have made three or four sculptures now.
Sharon: Can you put books together for larger pieces?
Jeremy: I suppose I could, but I’ve never actually done that.
Sharon: Would you say what you do is art jewelry?
Jeremy: Yeah, I think so. I always think of jewelry as precious materials and gold and stuff like that, so I see my work more as sculpture, jewelry sculpture. I always find it weird to call myself an artist or a jeweler. I don’t know exactly what I am, but it’s a point to say, “You’re this. You’re that.” But I create sculpture people can wear, I think.
Sharon: How do you describe it to people who walk into a gallery and see all this metal, whether it’s an art gallery or a jewelry gallery, and then they see paper jewelry? How do you describe what you do?
Jeremy: All my jewelry is set within the book. So, after I’ve read the book, I’m cutting exactly the amount of paper I need from the book in the shape of the jewel. When I’m finished, the jewel goes back into the book. In the gallery, I present the piece of jewelry with the book, so immediately when they see it, they make the connection, “Ah, it’s paper.” Sometimes they say, “Why are you putting clay jewelry in books?” They can’t understand. Then I say, “No, it’s from the book. It’s paper.” “Oh, wow!” I do try and put text or some sort of reference to the book visible on the ring so in an exhibition, people can actually make the connection.
Sharon: That’s interesting. That’s why I asked you how long it lasts. I think of paper jewelry as being really delicate and not long-lasting, but you say you laminate it. Do you make one-offs only?
Jeremy: Yeah, absolutely. I do one-offs because I get inspired by the book, that individual, unique book. When I read another book, I get inspired in a completely different direction, which makes it super exciting. When I start reading, I don’t know what I’m going to make. By the end of the book, I know exactly what piece I’m going to make. It makes my job super exciting. I never get bored.
Sharon: So, you’ll pick a book that a client hasn’t brought you, but just a book you wanted to read, and you design something while you’re reading it.
Jeremy: Yeah, exactly. For an exhibition or a gallery exhibition, I’ll produce a series of works where I’ve chosen the book. Normally I choose a theme. I’ve done exhibitions revolving around Harlem novels or fantasy novels or romances. I do it within a library or a genre.
Sharon: How do people find you? What’s your biggest way of getting the word out?
Jeremy: I honestly don’t know. A lot of it has been luck. When I started, a friend of mine had a shop in London and she said, “Why don’t you come and do a few pieces in my shop? I can sell them there.” I said, “O.K., great.” From that, someone was walking past. They saw the work and said, “Oh, come and exhibit in Paris.” I said, “O.K., I’ll come and exhibit in Paris.” From there I got an exhibition in Japan. It’s all been like that. I never really went out looking for galleries or anything. I never pushed my work. People just found me, which has been really nice. Blogs have found me over the years. They come across my website and they’ve written about me. Then other people write about me through the internet. People are finding me that way. Then Instagram came along, which is fantastic as well.
Sharon: Your website is very nice. Tell us the name of the link on your website. We’ll have it at the end.
Jeremy: It’s Littlefly.co.uk. That’s Little Fly because in the beginning I didn’t know what to call myself or what to call my work. My first ring was inspired by my wife. When she was young, she wasn’t given a name, and her eldest brother called her Little Fly. So, I decided that was great. I called it Little Fly and it stuck.
Sharon: How old was your wife before she had a name?
Jeremy: I think she was three or four.
Sharon: When you present something to them and it’s finished, do you say to them, “Here’s the book. This is where it came from, and this is why it’s meaningful to you”? What do you tell them?
Jeremy: Yes, I come up with a design. I’ve spoken a lot with the client and they tell me about themselves. The majority of my clients are men and it’s a gift for their partners.
Sharon: Oh, that’s interesting.
Jeremy: Yeah, 90% of my jewels are for men for their partners. In the process, I speak with them and get an understanding of who they are. I understand what they need. After I produce a sketch and I’m showing it to them, then I don’t know. Something just kind of clicks. I’ve had people crying when I’ve made jewels.
A gentleman came to me. He said, “I want you to use the book ‘The Whale Rider,’ and I want you to make a ring for my wife.” I said, “O.K., great.” “When you come to London, could you come and meet her and give it to her?” I said, “Yes, of course.” So, we met in a restaurant. I came up, and they were already eating. I handed her the book, and she opened it and burst into tears. I was like, “Oh, no, she doesn’t like that. Is it because I’ve destroyed her favorite book?” But no, she was so excited that she loved it. She immediately connected with it. I don’t know how to fully describe it, what I do in relation to the client’s desire for a particular piece or colors or form. I’ve done it for so long, I just seem to get that feeling, that emotion from them. I seem to understand what they need, if that makes sense.
Sharon: It does make a lot of sense. Do you think men buy from you for their wives if they feel like their wives already have diamonds and pearls?
Jeremy: This is a completely different emotional level. Gentlemen come to me and say, “I’ve been looking for something different for my wife for years. I found you, and you need to make a piece for her. This is her favorite book.” I had a gentleman who wanted to propose to his wife. This couple had traveled around Australia for two years, and they had used a Lonely Planet travel book for it. Inside there were notes and rips. The book was falling apart, and he wanted to use this exact book for me to make a ring for him to propose to his wife.
I’ve been nervous other times about starting to cut a book, but this is the first time I had this intense emotion that I was cutting the book itself. You could go and buy a new copy for a few pounds, but this book was so emotional and so charged that it was very difficult for me to—I put it off for a long time. It sat on my desk. “Oh, I’ll do it later. I’ll do it later.” I did it, but sitting there with a scalpel—because I use a scalpel for most of my work—I sat there ready to cut the first page, and that was very difficult.
Sharon: Have you ever had a book that’s so dog-eared and worn that you haven’t been able to use it?
Jeremy: Yes, absolutely. I’ve explained that to the client. No one’s actually sent me one, but I have wanted to use a book because it’s so beautiful, but it’s falling apart. It would just fall apart while I’m creating the jewel.
Sharon: Can you put it back together if it’s worn?
Jeremy: No. I’ve actually kept them. If books fall apart, I put them on the shelf because I think they’re so beautiful as they are. I don’t want to repair them because they’ve had a life. I’d rather go and find another copy that is usable. My shelves are littered with these old books, hundreds of years old.
Sharon: Tell us about something you’re very proud of, the thing or one or two things you did with—let’s call it vintage book jewelry. I don’t know what else to call it.
Jeremy: That’s a very difficult question because I’m always happy about the pieces I’m working on at the moment. I’m proud of all my jewels. I’m super happy with all of them, but what gets me out of bed in the morning is the piece I’m making right now. As soon that one’s finished, I don’t think about it; I’m thinking about the next one.
Sharon: We will have photos posted on the website. Please head to TheJewelryJourney.com to check them out.