For someone who has made their name designing minimal, futuristic jewellery, Jessie Harris comes across as a bit of a girl of the past. Not that this is a bad thing of course - her collections may look modern, but they’re created using the kind of methods and traditions that have been around for about as long as you can imagine.
Her studio is home to a weird and wonderful assembly of ancient metalwork equipment, none of which would be out of place in a 19th century workshop. Petite and softly-spoken, Jessie manoeuvres her way around linishers, emery boards, saws and raw hide like it’s total second nature. Which after launching her eponymous label three years ago, it pretty much is.
“It’s just so lovely because when you hold something like this (pointing to a saw) you can tell it’s been used and held for years and years and years” Jessie coos. In contrast, her directional designs are slap bang in the modern world, featuring clean lines and graphic shapes which are anything but delicate or traditionally pretty.
“The basis of my work is taking a really simple shape and then adding something to it, taking something away, pushing something back or pulling something forward” says Jessie. The jewellery she creates (mainly focused around earrings and rings but also featuring bangles, chokers and necklaces) originally came about after not being able to find the kind of affordable jewellery she would wear herself.
A short jewellery course entailed and Jessie began making a few pieces for her own personal wear. Friends of friends became interested and the rest is history - Jessie is now a bona fide craftswoman, producing handmade and bespoke pieces from her Hackney Wick studio.
With a sharp visual eye, Jessie’s path was not always set in silver cast stone. Studying a degree in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art, jewellery-making has been a relatively recent, self-taught skill. Her art background inspired her to want to “physically create something, or try to at least” and you can tell that it informs her work, even in the subtlest of ways.
One glance at the pieces and bold sphere shapes and subtle cut-outs look as though they’re referencing modernist sculpture, whilst the playful ‘Disc Earrings’ have all the fun you might find in a Pop Art painting. It might not be traditional fine art, but it’s all the more interesting for it.
Graduating with an unclear idea of how to apply this desire to ‘create’, Jessie found herself producing conceptual audio installations. For one project, she collected a mass of NASA data which described the location and rotation of the cycles of pulsar stars. Translating these into human whistles, Jessie filled a vast room with the installation, commenting that “When you walked through it almost took you back to the imagined sound of stars twinkling”.
Arbitrary and unconventional, Jessie’s sound work unexpectedly paved the way for something more. “It’s quite far removed from what I do now.” Jessie says “What I took from it was the idea of one concept or theme leading to another theme - that you do one piece of work, extract an element of that which goes into the next thing”.
Jessie’s use of themes to unite different designs means that one scroll through her online shop will allow you to get an idea of the complete cohesiveness of her jewellery. Nothing is out of place, the aesthetic is slick and strong and the pieces don’t take themselves too seriously.
A prime example of this playfulness are her bestselling ‘Trackball’ pieces - bridging the gap between maturity and tongue-in-cheek with their tiny metal ball features crowning the top of a ring or clinging onto the simply shaped earrings. Jessie says of the collection: “I was thinking of California in the 1970’s and people playing tennis - that kind of thing”.
She describes her first collection as “Studio 54 meets early Star Trek. Disco sci-fi basically” - a prime example of Jessie’s ability to create serious-looking stuff based on her own slightly whimsical visualisations. She’s the first to admit the lighthearted nature of her work - and in an industry that arguably takes itself far too serious, Jessie’s attitude is essential.
Often designers are divided into two camps - those who took a traditional, calculated path to get where they want to be and those who, to put it frankly, winged it a bit. Jessie is the latter. With no real formal training, the brand was born from a passion and an idea of what women want from their jewellery. She’s honed her skill herself, by surrounding herself with the right people (her studio roomie, Clarice, is also a jewellery designer and they frequently bounce ideas off each other and lend a helping hand) and making, remaking, reshaping and trying again.
“I’m fairly self-taught” says Jessie “So it’s very much a trial and error thing. The way I work is quite ‘Oh no I’ve made a mistake, let’s start again’. The kind of not so practical or sensible in terms of money way. I think that’s how I get the best results”.
For the common bystander, the process that goes into producing an item of jewellery is a fascinating one. Jessie was equally as interested (and also a little flummoxed): “I had no idea how people made rings. I was like HOW do you make it?! That sort of shows my naivety going into it”.
Naive no more, you’d be more likely to spot Jessie down at Hatton Garden, bartering with the male-heavy world of goldsmiths, castors and polishers. She uses recycled metal as much as possible, crafting her pieces either straight from metal or wax initially. The process is slow - there’s no immediacy to the brand or next day delivery option, and often when an order is placed it can take some time until it’s ready.
This pace is indicative of life in Jessie land. That’s not to say she isn’t busy - running a brand independently and managing every aspect of it is relentless - but Jessie understands the importance of time out. A brief glance around her studio and you notice the lack of computers, and when we questioned Jessie on it she revealed that the whole building actually has no internet. Void of distractions, she can be truly present in her work, and the online stuff, well, it can always wait right?
After a day of devoted cutting, soldering and shaping, we can imagine anyone would need a bit of light relief. “I tend to have an audiobook on the go” she says “It will distract me just enough that I’m not unfocused. I also do a lot of walking - I’ve started walking to and from the studio. It’s nice, just right through the park. You feel good about yourself as well, you feel energised”.
So what’s next for Jessie Harris? With a new season beckoning, her upcoming collection is inspired by folding and certain shapes slotting together - she’s been thinking lots about the way things entwine, or how a judo jacket is fastened. “It carries what I refer to as ‘retro futurism’. So this 60’s and 70’s aesthetic based on what the future was perceived as looking like back then”.
Whatever the future looked like back then, it’s only glimmering bright for Jessie and her gems now. The minimal, statement-making designs epitomise the kind of style modern women want to wear and Jessie’s considered approach to life and work is equally as modern. Perched at her wooden bench, we leave Jessie in her unique, wifi-free world of disco sci-fi, metals, saws and audiobooks. It’s a world entirely of her own.
Browse Jessie’s collections and find out more info here.
All photographs by Jessica MacCormick.