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Behind the scenes at Allen Brown Jewellery, Swinfen

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Jewellery designer Allen Brown at work.

For the past 30 years, jewellery designer Allen Brown has been crafting stunning contemporary pieces from his workshop at the Heart of the Country. Amy Norbury caught up with him to discover the inspiration behind his latest collection

From rich purple amethyst to moody smoky quartz, vibrant pink tourmaline to gleaming blue sapphires, and not forgetting the unmistakable sparkle of a rainbow of diamonds shimmering and shining as they catch the light, Allen Brown’s jewellery gallery is a feast for the eyes.

From his workshop at the Heart of the Country, Allen – alongside his small team of talented designer-makers – has been crafting the most exquisite jewellery pieces for three decades, having celebrated his 30th anniversary in business last year. With a real contemporary style and a love of bold, geometric shapes and strong, clean lines, Allen’s work is as distinctive as it is coveted.

So, with a new collection just released, what’s proved to be Allen’s inspiration?

“It’s all about colours,” he says, with a gleam in his eyes.

While coloured stones, and diamonds in particular, have recently gained popularity across the industry, they have always fascinated Allen – and it shows, especially in the new collection.

“I’ve used coloured diamonds for all of my career, right from the beginning; obviously they’ve become more fashionable in recent years but I’ve always loved them,” he enthuses. “We have some very good sources for them because we’ve been using them for so long.”

Renowned for their dazzling beauty, rare coloured diamonds are found in pinks, greens, browns, champagnes, cognacs, yellows and a full spectrum of blues. Their unique brilliance, combined with warmth and depth of colour gives them a sparkle unlike any other coloured gem.

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A stunning pair of pink tourmaline earrings.

Allen’s summer collection is a real stunner, combining these beautifully bright and bold coloured stones with his signature contemporary style. And, for Allen, the stones really are at the heart of each piece. Pink tourmaline mixes perfectly with black diamonds to create drama, while unusual bi-coloured quartz sets off equally striking cinnamon diamonds and, for a real wow factor, deep purple amethyst is complemented by the unmistakable sparkle of pure white diamonds.

“The pieces are all quite large and bold,” explains Allen.

“With my anniversary, I’ve been re-inspired by where I started from. My work was all geometric and bold in the beginning, and that’s where I’ve gone back to, although I hope my designs are a bit more sophisticated than they were 30 years ago!

“It’s important to keep focused on your own style, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with the new collection, to get back to the original essence of what I do, with large shapes and bold colours.”

Diamonds are sourced from all over the world, but it is Brazil where Allen frequently goes for the larger, more unusual diamonds.

“Often people wonder what’s the attraction of a coloured diamond because it doesn’t look like a diamond, but the thing is, nothing else sparkles like a diamond, nothing else has the dispersion of a diamond,” says Allen.

“So with coloured diamonds you get the best of both worlds; you can have that lovely colour, and you can have the sparkle and dispersion. You can look at a coloured stone and tell it’s not a diamond, because only a diamond has that life and excitement in the stone.”

While diamonds are perhaps the most coveted of stones, Allen’s work incorporates many different kinds of gems.

“Stones are my big thing, and generally I like the bigger, bolder stones, and unusual cuts; for example the amethyst in the new collection is a parallelogram, which is an unusual cut,” he says.

“A lot of jewellers look for more regular shapes because they might want to repeat that item, but we don’t. All of our collection pieces are one-offs.

“Quite often, as soon as I see a stone I know pretty much straight away what I want to do with it. I suppose that’s something that comes with time; you sort of pre-filter your ideas before they hit the paper. I still do sketches for my one-off pieces, but they tend to be fairly fully formed by the time I get them down.

“When I go on a stone-buying trip I’m like a child in a sweet shop! I’ll often have a list of things I’m looking for, for particular clients; it might be trying to match up a particular cut, or stone or colour. But at the same time I don’t go with any preconceived ideas as to what I’m going for, for myself. I just see something, and go with what excites me and inspires me.

“Last year, for instance, I bought some Ethiopian opals – they were really lovely and I think we only had them in the shop for a couple of months before they went. We do tend to have a rapid turnaround on the bigger pieces, which is why I wanted to do some more big pieces in the new collection. I don’t think you see things like that very often, and when people are in the market for something like that, they see it and buy it.

“And we have a very loyal customer base as well; some customers may come once a year, or bi-annually, to buy a big, unusual piece. We get to know what our customers like, and they know the kind of designs we do, and designs are led by what people will like.”

As well as designing his own collections, which are sold at his shop at the Heart of the Country Shopping Village at Swinfen, Allen works on bespoke commission pieces, creating the perfect jewellery piece for each customer.

“With commissions it’s what the customer wants,” Allen says. “We discuss what they want to wear it for; is it an everyday piece, or is it a piece to wear on special occasions, and all of that feeds into the design.”

From the initial consultation, Allen then sketches out his ideas and comes up with a series of designs.

“More often than not, they’ll say they like all of them and we have to hone it down, or they like different parts from different designs, so then it’s a case of taking those elements and putting them together,” he says.

“And again, with commissions we never repeat the same thing. There may be a commonality, because I’m the chief designer so everything I do has aspects of my style.

“We have a broad customer base, and everyone has their budget. People know the value of things; if someone comes in and they’re wanting a four carat yellow diamond, they’re not expecting you to say it’s going to be £5,000, they’re expecting another zero on the end of that. It’s the same as couture fashion; they know what they’re paying for and they appreciate what they’re paying for.”

And Allen’s unique style has customers travelling far and wide to seek out the shop.

“You don’t realise how different your designs are to other people’s,” he says.  “When I’ve done shows in London, I walk around and there may be 60 of the country’s top designers there and everyone has their own style. And my pieces are like that; my work is quite bold and quite big, the stones are big, and that’s quite unusual; nobody else really does anything like that.

“But that’s my style, and people will travel a long way to come to us, which is quite gratifying.”

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The workshop at Allen Brown Jewellery.

While you will often find Allen behind the counter, chatting to customers in the shop, it is at the bench where he is most at home. Last year, the shop underwent a refurbishment, creating a stunning new workshop space where customers can watch Allen and his team at work, as well as a watch gallery which stocks smaller, more design-led brands such as Panzera and Danish Design.

Allen studied jewellery design at university in Sheffield, and some three decades later he still abides by the golden rules he was taught as a student.

“At university, form and function were all-important, that’s how I was taught,” he explains. “We were given design projects with a tight brief to work to and that’s served me very well in the way that I run my business; I always work to a tight brief. If a customer comes along wanting a commission piece and are really specific they’ll sometimes say ‘I must be your most difficult customer’ but no, they’re my perfect kind of customer.

“When you’re doing a bespoke piece for someone, it’s tailor-made for that person so listening to the customer is the most important thing; it would be awful if you made a piece for someone and they said ‘I thought it would be a bit more like this, or like that’.”

One growing area of Allen’s bespoke work involves breathing new life into old, sometimes broken,  jewellery.

“Over the past few years we’ve started doing a lot of remodelling,” says Allen. “People get emotionally invested in jewellery, and with remodelling we take pieces that people already have, more often than not pieces that they’ve inherited from their mums or grandmas or so on, that are in a form they’d never wear but are emotionally attached to.

“We use the stones, we use the materials, and quite often we’ll make something really contemporary from a number of things that are very, very traditional. More often than not pieces are in yellow gold, but white metal is much more popular now so often we use the original metal but cover it in white gold or platinum, so at it’s heart it’s the original but it carries that sentiment forward into a new piece.

“We’ve just done a number of pieces for a customer from her mother’s jewellery, which had been split between her and her sister, and we’ve taken earrings and made them into necklaces and all sorts of things.

“Sometimes people want to preserve as much of the original form as possible, but other times they’re happy just to use the materials and make something completely new; again, it’s just listening to what the customer wants. Often, people don’t appreciate that you can take a pile of old bits of jewellery and turn it into something really nice and contemporary; it doesn’t have to look anything like the original.

“Remodelling is a great way to preserve sentimental pieces which you won’t wear for whatever reason because jewellery is for wearing; there’s no point just having it in a box.”

As well as quality in design, ethical practice is another key element of the job for Allen.

“We use fairtrade gold, same with diamonds, and we guarantee that all of our diamond sources are conflict-free,” he says. “A lot of the stones we used are sourced by me personally from source, or as close to source as you can get, so we can guarantee that the people lower down the food chain get a reasonable remuneration.

“I’ve used the same suppliers for 30 years so I can guarantee my sources, which is really important to me. We get approached by people selling diamonds all the time, but the diamoneers I deal with, I know where they get their materials from, which means you can be confident in the product.

“With coloured stones you can get much closer to source, and with coloured stones it’s much easier to say where they come from because certain colours of stone only come from certain places. Say, for example, sapphires, you can say fairly accurately where in the world they’ve come from by the colour.

“Pink diamonds, for instance, which are the most expensive, only come from north Australia, they don’t come from anywhere else which is why they’re so expensive.”

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Allen Brown at the Heart of the Country Shopping Village, Swinfen.

Over 30 years in business, Allen has stayed true to his belief in his designs, and his loyal and growing customer base is testament to that faith.

“Branding has become quite big in jewellery, and we’re sort of the anti-branding,” Allen says. “There’s a segment of the market which doesn’t want to be like everyone else, and that’s where our appeal lies. We stick to our core values of having faith in our own designs; you have to have self-belief in this business, because if you don’t believe in yourself, how are your customers going to believe in you?

“I still love what I do; I’ve been doing it for 30 years and I’m still excited by it.”

For more details visit Allen Brown Jewellery’s website here.

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