Celebrating 25 years with Contemporary British Silversmiths

Join renowned silversmith, Rajesh Gogna, as he talks to Jessica Jue and Sheng Zhang about how Contemporary British Silversmiths and the Goldsmiths’ Company have helped them develop and shape their practices and careers.

To the unknown eye, makers Jessica Jue and Sheng Zhang’s use of precious metals bear little stylistic similarities. However, both silversmiths have followed a similar journey. Jessica and Sheng joined the Contemporary British Silversmiths in 2016 and 2017 respectively, gaining vital support and mentoring, which helped them to develop their practices.  This unrivalled opportunity shows the importance of support and exposure for nurturing emerging talent, allowing both craftspeople to thrive whilst also providing the room for their creativity to flourish, which in turn has taken them on to differing, yet exciting, sculptural paths.

To explore this further, on 12 May 2021, esteemed British silversmith Rajesh Gogna, Chair of the Contemporary British Silversmiths, spoke with Jessica and Sheng as part of Goldsmiths’ Fair’s Spring Programme, to unpack how both the Contemporary British Silversmiths and the Goldsmiths’ Company have helped them to advance their careers. The two silversmiths spoke about their experiences as mentees, the vital lessons they learnt and reflected on the multiple efforts that can be done to champion young silversmiths today. Read more below.

Sheng Zhang, ‘Inside Out’. © Sheng Zhang

How long have you both been a member of Contemporary British Silversmiths?

Jessica: I [became] a graduate member in 2017, when I first left Bishopsland and came to London. I rented a bench from Angela Cork. She was chair of CBS at that time, so I got to know the entire association through her. I think at that stage of my career, I wanted to be a bit more involved and understand the wider silversmithing community.

Sheng: In 2016 when I was in New Designers, CBS came to me and asked me to join them. It [felt] like an award from CBS, so I was ‘awarded’, free of charge a one-year student membership. I’d say it’s been five years now.

What does it mean for you to be part of Contemporary British Silversmiths, the association?

Jessica: I think being part of CBS feels quite aspirational, especially when it is the leading association for contemporary silver in the UK. [It] feels like being part of a wider community, especially when everyone, all the members, are so dedicated to maintaining and advancing the craft of silversmithing. […] It is actually very meaningful for me to be part of this but I think what’s been really interesting is that a lot of the, sort of, core objectives of CBS have become quite important to me over the last few years of my career.

Sheng: Yes, like Jessica said, Contemporary British Silversmiths is a leading association for contemporary silver in the UK. And I just feel like being a member of CBS, since I just graduated from my BA course, is such an honour. Another feature of CBS is that diversity is an inherent value. CBS don’t only inherit entrenched traditions, but also embrace and support new, exciting, innovative ideas, and bring a fresh dynamic spirit to the exquisite, crafted, contemporary silversmithing world. For me, [being] a member of CBS means being inspired, being supported, being recognised, being bound to other generations of mature silversmiths, and working as a community with many people who are interested in contemporary silversmithing.

Jessica Jue, ‘Balance Sculpture’ © Jessica Jue

Can you describe any examples of where Contemporary British Silversmiths has helped you with your career?

Jessica: CBS has been a really big part of my career development over the last few years, and I think the most significant part was probably the mentoring I received in the beginning. When I first graduated from university and Bishopsland I had limited experience, and pairing with my mentor at the time, Angela Cork, you could see how she operated her business and how she worked in the workshop, and you could basically [receive] first-hand experience [of] what it is like to be a silversmith. I also rented a bench from Howard Fenn, and later on when I went into the [Goldsmiths’] Centre I also met Clive Burr and Ray Walton who have, over the years, given me a lot of help and support.

I think this whole mentoring scheme was really helpful, and it was just a really natural and nurturing transition from university to becoming a silversmith.

CBS also really helped me with my growth and exposure as well as just pushing me into the spotlight as an emerging silversmith. I remember participating in London Craft Week, for instance, where we made a virtual preview, because that was during the first lockdown. During that video I spoke about the commission I had from the National Museum of Scotland, how I coped with lockdown [and] how I work from home. It was quite an interesting video to make during that time, and what we didn’t expect is that that video just suddenly took off! It became the fourth most viewed video, I think, on London Craft Week’s website, where I gained loads of publicity and made new contacts and loads of sales as well.

Sheng: I would say working closely with CBS has been really great. For me, CBS has helped me a lot as well all the way through. [As an example a milestone in my earlier career was] in 2016, as part of the New Designers, Goldsmiths’ Company Silversmithing award, I’d been invited to take part in a one-week workshop with CBS member and master silversmith, Clive Burr, in his studio in London at The Goldsmiths’ Centre.

Working with Clive was impressive and invaluable experience, based on what I was making at that moment, it was named Inside Out. He taught me different methods, and I think it started to push me to think about how I can produce finer work in multiple ways, either traditionally or in a more contemporary way. More importantly, as a new graduate, or a new generation of silversmith, working with Clive, was actually my first time visiting and working in a professional silversmithing studio, so it allowed me to see what a well-established silversmith’s studio looked like. It also gave me a lot of ideas and it gave me hope, actually. I would call it hope. You know, I was really looking forward to establishing my own studio like that in the future. It was really exciting! It felt equipped and very, very organised. And I think it’s just like his work, you know, it’s very clean and beautiful and well organised.

Sheng Zhang in his workshop. © Sheng Zhang

It sounds like you were married with a really perfect partner as a mentor, because you were gaining a similar sort of way of working but learning new approaches at the same time.

Sheng: Yes, exactly. Not only the practical, making method, but also more about the silversmith itself. How does he work and what does it look like in his studio. You know, as an international student it’s quite hard.

Jessica: Sheng and I were actually talking the other day, and we were saying that for a lot of us international students we don’t have these contacts and stuff but being part of CBS was not only sort of a leap into this kind of career path, but for us it was also a bit of a cultural bridging. That was actually extremely helpful because being amongst so many British silversmiths and amongst this community really helped us into this culture and environment, as well as doing a lot for our career development.

Sheng: Yes. It’s really important, I think. Because we always feel like we’re being supported. It’s really important, especially for a student who just graduated or who wants to stay in this area for maybe ten, twenty-, even their entire life, being a part of CBS means we can get support. It’s really important for me.

Jessica Jue, ‘Tulip Beaker’. © Jessica Jue

That’s really encouraging for other graduate members who might want to join us and be part of our association.

What are your links with the Goldsmiths’ Company?

Jessica: I think The Goldsmiths’ Company has [played] a really major part in my career development, out of all the things, I think to begin with there’s Goldsmiths’ Fair, which just happened to be the first fair I had ever done since finishing Bishopsland. So I was just suddenly catapulted into this platform, and I just remember it being an absolutely incredible experience to have this instant launch to my career. First of all, it’s a very unique and prestigious platform for showing your work and exposing you to all sorts of people who are interested in our craft and us as makers, and our work and most importantly, in buying our work. Before the fair I had a very vague sort of direction of what I wanted to do, but after doing this show it gave me an immense boost in confidence in pursuing silversmithing and this career path. Being graduates at that time, we were offered all kinds of mentoring and support to prepare us for the Fair, so it wasn’t just a career launch but it was actually a very great learning experience as well.

I think another major influence on my career has probably been The Goldsmiths’ Centre, which is the leading charity for the professional training of goldsmiths and silversmiths. I’ve been with the Centre for the last three years now and, I was initially exposed to them, I think during Bishopsland where it was just a bit of contact here and there, but then in 2017 I started their business incubation programme called Setting Out, and I ended up on that course for two years I think. During that time I received a lot of mentoring around building my business, such as marketing, pricing, branding, customer profiling and such.

It’s an excellent facility which, I think, does really support makers like yourself, and the support generally from The Goldsmiths’ Company has definitely impacted your development, hasn’t it, in your career?

Sheng: Yes. I think the first link between me and The Goldsmiths’ Company was in 2016 when I was in New Designers, I was quite lucky to be selected and awarded the New Designers Goldsmiths’ Company Silversmithing award. I was really, really excited and overwhelmed. That award from The Goldsmiths’ Company [put] my work in front of the public and let more people see my work [and myself]. It really boosted my practice in my early career stage, although I went to Edinburgh College of Art to do my MFA, but, I would say my career stage from that point. It was a truly amazing experience to be recognised by The Goldsmiths’ Company – a very well-established, world famous company.

Also, as Jessica mentioned, there is some mentoring and tutoring within the Goldsmiths’ Centre. I took part in their Getting Started [programme] in 2017 and I’ve been taught a lot of very useful and handy skills, like pricing, marketing, and how to run a business. Stuff like that I think, especially for a student who just graduated from uni, can teach us a lot of practical skills. And also, financial support, definitely, from The Goldsmiths’ Company is very, very important. For example, I got the Goldsmiths’ Precious Metal grant in 2018 when I was about to graduate from Edinburgh. Every year they select twelve silversmiths and eight jewellery students from universities and colleges across the UK, and we were given £750 to buy materials. I think this kind of financial support is a very effective way, or the most powerful way, to support a young generation of silversmiths and I really feel grateful for that.

As Jessica mentioned, the Goldsmiths’ Fair, is truly amazing. We design something, we make something, and then we can sell it during the Fair. It’s a really amazing experience [even] though I’ve only been in the Goldsmiths’ Fair once, I mean, physically in 2019. As part of the graduate bursary scheme I was awarded £1,500 for buying materials and a £3,000 free-interest loan, and also free of charge stamp fee. All this support from them [has been] a really powerful thing in my career life.

Sheng Zhang, ‘Off-vertical’. © Sheng Zhang

So, for both of you, what does silversmithing hold for both of you in the near future or the long-term future?

Jessica: Well I think, for the next few years, I’m hoping to expand on what I’ve already started. I tend to show and sell my work at exhibitions and shows, such as Goldsmiths’ Fair, Collect and Desire which I would hope to do more of, especially in other parts of the country as well as internationally. Especially in countries like Germany, or in China, where I’ve already got existing ties, but I would hope to have more of.

Sheng: Yes I think my goal is quite similar to Jessica’s: to take part in a lot of exhibitions and expose our work in front of the public as much as possible, both nationally and internationally.

This interview is edited from the talk ‘Celebrating 25 years of Contemporary British Silversmiths’ between Rajesh Gogna, Jessica Jue and Sheng Zhang on 12 May 2021, hosted by Goldsmiths’ Fair.

A full transcription of the talk can be read here.

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