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 second part of a two-part episode. If you haven’t heard part one, please head to TheJewelryJourney.com.
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. Welcome back.
So, you’re proud of everything you do, you said. Have you ever told a client, “That book isn’t the right book for you”?
Jeremy: Yeah. I’ve had clients come and say, “I’d like you to use this book,” and I’m like, “No, not really. Can you think of something else?”
Sharon: You don’t think the book reflects the person they want to give it to? It’s too blah?
Jeremy: I haven’t really thought it through. If they say, “I want you to reuse this book because of this and this,” then I’ll say, “O.K., that’s fine. It’s not my personal choice. I don’t particularly like that style of writing. I don’t like that author,” but sometimes you get a feeling they want me to make a piece of jewelry and they haven’t really thought through what the title is or what it means or what the story represents. Sometimes after we’ve had a chat and I’ve explained my feelings about the book, they go, “O.K., yeah, you’re absolutely right.” They come back with another title and I go, “O.K., that’s great.”
Sharon: So they listen to you, basically. Besides the jewelry, they listen to you. You describe your jewels as sculptural, and you haven’t put them together. Is that something you intend to do?
Jeremy: That’s right, to put them together.
Sharon: Put them together to make a larger sculpture. Do you intend to do that?
Jeremy: Yeah, potentially. Sometimes I think about things and they don’t come to fruition for years. I’m a very messy designer. I don’t have notebooks. I’m not that way. I just have loose pieces of paper, much to my wife’s annoyance. I’ll take a piece of paper and just sketch. I have an idea, and then I’ll put that in a drawer. I’ll be looking for something six months later and I’ll go, “Oh, yeah, I forgot about it.” Sometimes it takes a while. I would love to make something bigger, actually combining books together to make one piece. Yes, absolutely. It’s definitely possible.
Sharon: The people who find you are mostly men. What happens when a book is in a different language, like you described how you were in Japan and you had an exhibit? What do you do when it’s in a different language?
Jeremy: I find a translation online, or I can go and buy another book in English. The majority of books—this sounds very pompous—are in English, and then they’ve been translated into another language. When someone comes to me, I can go, “Yeah,” and I can find that quite easily. Basically, I find a translation in English.
Sharon: That’s interesting. What kind of creative outlets did you think about when you were leaving architecture?
Jeremy: How do you mean?
Sharon: You had mentioned that you left architecture because you felt you could do other things and you’d done it for 12 years.
Sharon: Did you think about other creative outlets you could do instead?
Jeremy: No, the jewelry came at the time when I thought I was happy doing landscape architecture with design. I realized by working with jewelry and creating jewelry that I was happier in a way. I had more creativity, more ideas, more output. I was like, “Oh, there’s a bright light. I’m just going to go over here.” I was quite happy where I was until I was given something else to take my attention. I didn’t think about anything else.
Sharon: You’re following the shiny penny.
Sharon: Did you immediately transition from architecture to jewelry? The way you described it, it didn’t sound like you did both for 10 years and then segued to jewelry.
Jeremy: No, I created a few pieces of jewelry over about two years. I was still working in an office as a landscape architect, and slowly I was spending more time making jewelry and experimenting. Then it came to 2008 when the recession happened here in the U.K., and a lot of my projects I was working on with Watkins Dally Architects were put on hold. Then I was given the opportunity to spend more time working on my new passion. I worked on that for about six months. I was so enthusiastic about it, but I wasn’t getting enough work. I wasn’t paying the bills, let’s say. So, I went back and worked with Watkins Dally Architects for another year and was still working on jewelry at night. After that, I went into creating my jewelry full time. So, there was a transition of a few years.
Sharon: What made you decide on jewelry? A lot of people have it as a hobby. You came home from your landscape architecture job during the day and then did jewelry in the evening.
Sharon: Describe your feelings there.
Jeremy: I felt so passionate about it. This is what I wanted to do. This was my calling, if you like. It’s what really got me excited and got me out of bed in the morning. I was really happy about it. It was a big leap of faith, and my wife was super understanding. I just went for it and so far, it’s paid off.
Sharon: You have an understanding wife. I probably would be saying to my husband to go get a job. You mentioned that you ask your clients for their favorite quotes within the book. Is that correct?
Jeremy: I ask them for their quotes. I also take my own quotes.
Sharon: It’s encased in the jewelry then, if I’m understanding it correctly. Right?
Jeremy: I take the book as the foundation for the design. I then take the quote as the detailing of the jewel.
Sharon: Does the quote come directly from the book?
Jeremy: Yes. There will be a particular quote I get inspired by to complete the piece of jewelry. It’s also within the jewel. Sometimes it appears on the surface and sometimes it’s inside. There have been times when clients have asked me for a particular quote to appear on the actual jewel so it’s visible, which is very passionate to them. It’s a combination of the two, I would say.
Sharon: If it’s in the jewel, if it’s not on the outside, what’s their feeling? Do they get upset or do they trust you that it’s there?
Jeremy: They trust me, which is amazing.
Sharon: How do you get more color? Do you get more color into the jewel if your client wants more color?
Jeremy: Yes, I have two ways of doing that. One is I stain or dye the paper if I want a particular shade or color I can’t find using colored paper. That’s the other way I add color to my jewels, from colored paper, which I find everywhere with wrapping paper. I find it and store it. I have drawers of different colored paper.
Sharon; Do you use that paper?
Sharon: Has anybody ever come to you with a comic book and said, “Do something with this?”
Jeremy: No, they haven’t, but I have used Japanese manga books. They were absolutely amazing to use.
Jeremy: Because they have so much depth and color and texture. When you’re laminating from a book using just text, you have the color of the paper and then you have the black text. When you’re using a coloring book or a manga book, then the actual color from the ink is there. You end up with this very multicolored surface and technique. It’s much more vibrant.
Sharon: It sounds very nice.
Jeremy: Yeah, it’s super nice. I was fortunate enough to go to Japan, and I came back with a second suitcase.
Sharon: Do you have favorite books you like to do, favorite jewels you like to do? What are your thoughts about that?
Jeremy: No. I go to secondhand bookshops and charity bookshops. I go there every week and look for whatever takes my fancy. I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to that. Then books will sit on my bookshelf. This is for when I’m making jewels for my own collection to exhibit in museums and galleries. They may sit there for a few years or a few months, and then I’ll be inspired to take that book and read it.
I look to choose books that I would never normally find. That’s why I like to go to secondhand bookshops, because you never know what you’re going to find. It’s there, and you can sit there and actually look. When you to go to a new bookshop, they’re all pristine and perfect and in alphabetical order and everything. I like to go rummaging. I like to go through big piles and boxes of books and discover something I would never find normally by going online or into a new bookshop.
Sharon: When a client brings you a book you haven’t read, do you read the book first?
Jeremy: Absolutely. I read all of the books. Even if I’ve read it before, I read it again because it gives different emotions, which I then translate into the design. I always read the book, no matter if I’ve read it two or three times before.
Sharon: When you say you are passionate about jewelry, how does that compare to passion for landscape architecture? It sounds like that really caught your fancy in the beginning.
Jeremy: Yes, the similarities between the two are that they both change people’s lives. I think with landscape architecture, you’re working with the greater public and you’re designing an environment which is going to change their lives for the better, hopefully. With jewelry, you’re creating something beautiful which is going to change someone’s life. That’s just one person’s life, but they’re quite similar.
Sharon: In the beginning, did your passion to change people’s lives with landscape architecture influence the way you do jewelry?
Jeremy: In the beginning, yes. I was designing urban parks and working directly with the public. You have lots of conversations with them and you work up their exact needs. Sometimes a lot of people don’t know what they need, so you need to ask them other questions to find out about their lives and how they’re going to use the landscape. Then you come up with a design that way.
Sharon: If somebody needs a jewel and comes to you and says, “I need a jewel for an anniversary,” what do you ask? Tell us what you ask.
Jeremy: It’s quite funny because there are a lot of transferrable things from working with landscape architecture and designing a park with making a piece of jewelry. I ask people to send a small bio about who it’s going to be made for so I can actually understand who they are. Otherwise, I’m designing blind. I get inspired. I take a lot of inspiration and discovery from the text, but I also need to understand who I’m creating for because all my jewelry is completely unique. I’m not producing the same ring or necklace over and over again, so I want to know who I’m designing for. I don’t ask specific questions. I want the person to explain to me and give me little nuggets of information that fill me with joy. When a gentleman comes to me and says, “I want a ring for my wife,” you go up into the clouds and he’s like, “Yes, she’s lovely.” I love that. I really love that.
Sharon: Do people find it hard to write about another person?
Jeremy: No, I have never noticed that because it’s about your loved one. It’s someone you deeply care about that you want to have this piece of jewelry designed for them. I’ve never had anyone say, “I don’t know.” It’s very spontaneous, I think. I’ve had pages sometimes, and sometimes it’s just been a couple of paragraphs.
Sharon: I can see writing about somebody else. If I had to write about myself, that would be harder.
Jeremy: Yeah, but sometimes people give a little biography. Sometimes people want me to use a book that was given to them by their father and the father has passed away. They’ll explain more about their father or their mother or someone who’s passed away and explain why this book is so personal to them. They may say a little bit about themselves, but there’s more about why they want this book used. You end up designing a ring for that person, but you’re also understanding where that desire to have that jewelry comes from. It’s for the passing of a dear friend or a relative. It all adds into the soup.
Sharon: The mixture.
Jeremy: Yeah, the mixture of the design. All those things are swimming around in my head. That’s what I really love about it.
Sharon: Can you describe how it is when you jump out of bed, or do you jump out of bed? What do you start or how?
Jeremy: In the morning, it depends on the day, but most of the days I’m ready to go. There are some times when I take a weekend off and I’m super, super eager to get back into the studio on Monday morning. I have itchy fingers.
Sharon: Do you ever have kids—let’s say their parent comes and they say this is for their mom, but the kids give the book and want you to create the jewel?
Jeremy: Yes, yeah.
Sharon: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. It’s great. Your work is in a collection, you said.
Jeremy: Yes, I am. I’m about to go off now to the private view. That’s happening now. I’m super excited about that. That’s going to happen over the next few days. I’m super, super excited.
Sharon: I wish I could be there to see all your jewels. Another year. Jeremy, thank you very much.
Jeremy: Thank you very much. It’s been an honor.
Sharon: We will have photos posted on the website. Please head to TheJewelryJourney.com to check them out.
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