Advice to my 22 year old self: Tony Williams
When Kobi Bosshard put on paper the words ‘a role model for aspiring craftspeople’, I was bowled over. What, me? What did I get right along the way? Well, I can think about the sheer hard work – a lot of it is just that: keeping going. But what would I say today, to my 22-year-old self?
Well, first of all – it’s been worth it! At times really tough, at times absolutely exhilarating. There are so many different angles to what I love about what I do. The people who have come to me over so many years, with precious stones, with a beautiful family heirloom to be reset, with an idea for a very special gift, with a small budget or a large one. Hearing their story, interpreting what they want – that has become an important part of my working journey over the years. And I guess I didn’t know that lay ahead, back when I started out.
Quite often the thread felt tenuous, and I wasn’t sure. I was often beset by doubt about ‘what I would do’ – even as I was setting about ‘doing it’.
Tony Williams at his bench, Dunedin, 2013. Photgraph by Bridget Waldron.
Then there is the opportunity to make what I want – that moment when something sparks an idea, a concept. And it could be a colour in a leaf, an insect’s wing, or an piece of ancient jewellery in a museum, an exhibition, a book. I grew up in New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s, and this country’s natural world has always felt close by; but my inspiration has also come from medieval and renaissance craft work, and from the creativity of the Arts and Crafts movement. So I guess I’m saying that all around me, throughout my life, the inspiration has been there, simply waiting to be seen.
I used to cut the metal with a pair of shears; I bent it with a pair of electrician’s pliers; I made the rings round with the back of a ball-pein hammer; it was all very crude. I used to reckon on making a ring every hour. I’ve never been so fast since.
Seeing what is there, following threads, knowing what to do with a moment of connection – having faith in what inspires you – that’s what I strongly recommend to my 22-year-old self!
And I did do that, but quite often the thread felt tenuous, and I wasn’t sure. I was often beset by doubt about ‘what I would do’ – even as I was setting about ‘doing it’. So that’s about having faith… believing it’s worth it even when you can’t quite see the way ahead.
I’ll share a story from the book. I was feeling particularly uncertain and trying to make my way - unsuccessfully - through art school. Almost serendipitously, a cousin put me in touch with his friend Mike Ward, who was making and selling copper jewellery – simply because he knew that I had seen Kobi Bosshard’s work in Watson’s jewellery shop in Christchurch, and was excited by that. And that was my preliminary instruction in jewellery: one afternoon with Mike Ward! I went away from that session and bought a gas bottle, some copper wire, a brazing rod and some copper, and started making copper jewellery and selling it to boutiques. I used to cut the metal with a pair of shears; I bent it with a pair of electrician’s pliers; I made the rings round with the back of a ball-pein hammer; it was all very crude. I used to reckon on making a ring every hour. I’ve never been so fast since!
And I think my 22-year-old-self might like to know that good luck, or a kind of serendipity, is apt to be there. I have found things often works like that, along the way – and I am deeply grateful for those connections that have - from time to time - opened up the path ahead.
But I got in, and I worked, I really worked. I saved up and bought tools, I took every opportunity to learn, I was there rain, shine or snow.
But I probably have to get back to the hard work. I took quite a while to find my path, to know that making jewellery was what I wanted to do. But once that began to take hold – through these quite small and apparently chancy beginnings – I took risks, and I went for it. After exploring all the opportunities for training in New Zealand, which was virtually none at that point, I made my way (with support from my family) to the Birmingham School of Jewellery.
Rose choker: oxidised silver, with 18ct gold & enamel hoverflies, 2012. Photograph by Neil Pardington
I have to tell another story here, about my tutor and mentor Hamish Bowie, who wrote a lovely message for the book’s launch, saying ‘when we did the interviews, there were all these students from art schools… and then there was this oddball, a rangy fellow who looked as if he’d walked all the way from New Zealand’. But I got in, and I worked, I really worked. I saved up and bought tools, I took every opportunity to learn, I was there rain, shine or snow. And so when I graduated I worked for Hamish, then going ono to Andrew Grima’s larger workshop in Jermyn Street in London, before coming back to set up my own workshop in Dunedin. And I’ve been here ever since, with another training spell in the UK in mid-life.
So, yes: it’s been tough, but worth it. That’s what I would say to my 22-year-old self. Looking through the book [Tony Williams Goldsmith], I am proud of the work I’ve done – it has been a great creative adventure! And I’ve paid the bills as an independent craftworker all my adult life. I’m proud of that too.
The images in this article are reproduced with permission from the magnificent tome Tony Williams Goldsmith, freshly published by Tony Williams Gallery in association with Potton and Burton.