Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

Of mud and museums

Having plumbed the sunken treasures of the Thames for her latest ring collection, UK-based art jeweler Ruth Tomlinson is looking overseas to an eager US market.

By Rachel Taylor

Image: Designer - Ruth Tomlinson

Ruth Tomlinson has been spending a lot of time getting filthy on the banks of London’s River Thames at low tide. Delving into the anaerobic mud, she uses her hands to seek out treasures that lie submerged and preserved thanks to the oxygen-less silt. This pastime is known as mudlarking, and it requires a special license.

“Anyone can do it, but there are quite a lot of laws,” explains Tomlinson. “If you find anything over 300 years old, or anything gold, it is counted as treasure” — and therefore the queen’s property.

As a professional jeweler with access to all the gold and gems she requires, Tomlinson didn’t go into this hoping to strike it rich. Instead, she wanted to find historical elements she could incorporate into a new set of rings. Items she’s liberated from the suck of the Thames include garnets, a brass dressmaking pin from the Tudor era, broken glass, colorful beads, and abalone shells. Clustering these elements together, she set them into four gold rings she has dubbed OffeRings.

‘A thank you to London’

Mudlarkers are not allowed to profit from their finds — it is a sport of passion, not commerce — and Tomlinson has kept to this spirit: She has already cast three of the rings back into the Thames.

“I felt really emotional,” she recalls. “It was a beautiful day – the sun was shining, a blue sky. I felt so grateful for having all these materials, and [throwing the rings back] was a thank you to nature for inspiration. A thank you to London.”

The fourth piece — the Time Capsule ring in 18-karat yellow gold, featuring beads, glass, shell and rusted metal — is now in the custodianship of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) along with two other Ruth Tomlinson rings. As part of an acquisition marking 20 years of the brand, the V&A also selected an early example of her signature Encrustations line: a ring that was accidentally left in an electroforming tank for a week. When it emerged, an organic texture had grown over the gems, inspiring the brand’s whole future aesthetic. A third acquisition was a raw diamond ring from the brand’s first fine collection, Lustre.

“I might just go ahead and retire now,” jests Tomlinson, since having her work on display in the V&A has been a lifelong dream.

Bigger bridal

Far from calling it quits, though, the jeweler — who has an atelier in London’s Hatton Garden district — is beginning “a new chapter” in her brand.

One inkling of what’s to come is the launch of five new diamond rings. The company’s alternative bridal jewels, which it began offering in 2010, tend to feature rings with small stones and with price points of GBP 1,800 to GBP 11,000 (approximately $2,440 to $14,920). The new collection of rings will come closer to GBP 25,000 ($33,905) and contain diamonds of 1 to 1.70 carats. Those will be a mix of modern emerald cuts, antique hand cuts, and salt-and-pepper diamonds with beautiful sprays of inclusions. The rings’ silhouettes take inspiration from Tomlinson’s best-selling Hoards collection, which employs granulation and clusters of gems set at jaunty angles.

The new ring line will make its debut in the UK, but Tomlinson believes the US market is where the larger designs will really shine. She has been cultivating her stateside presence for many years, and her brand is now available at 19 US jewelers, including Greenwich St. Jewelers in New York, Shibumi in San Francisco, California, and online store Audry Rose.

On the travel circuit

It was the hope of a “free holiday” that first lured Tomlinson to join a grant-funded cohort of British jewelers and textile artists exhibiting at New York’s NY Now show. But she left the 2006 event with more than just a new travel experience.

“At my first show, I had a really big order from the Museum of Arts and Design [in New York],” she remembers. At the time, she was working with porcelain, and more museums soon lined up to stock her artistic jewels.

Over the past two decades, the Ruth Tomlinson brand has become more luxurious, swapping non-precious materials for precious ones and upping the carat count. As such, her US clients have switched from museums to independent boutiques with a focus on design-led precious jewels — though her current work still attracts an artsy clientele, she says.

In the next few years, she’d like to expand her US network, with a particular focus on finding retail partners in Chicago and Los Angeles — two cities she feels would align well with her aesthetic. She also plans to get more hands-on with American shoppers. Before the pandemic, Tomlinson loved to embark on tours across the States to host trunk shows at stores, and she hopes to resume them, as well as her participation in trade fairs like New York’s Melee the Show.

In the nearer future, though, Tomlinson will be spending some time in a more tropical region of the US: the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Monkey Palm Mercantile, one of the companies that carries her jewelry, is opening a store there and has offered her a residency on the island. This will be more than just a trunk show; Tomlinson has agreed to work with local craftspeople, teaching them her techniques and the lessons she has learned in business. In exchange, she hopes to learn from them about the raw materials present in the island’s rainforests and beaches.

“I’ve always wanted to do a residency but never had the opportunity,” she says. “It feels so indulgent, but I feel like it’s a year of ‘yes’ after two years of ‘no’s. It will be refreshing and give me time to reflect and look at new things. I’m ready for some newness.”


Article from the Rapaport Magazine - March 2022. To subscribe click here.

Comment Comment Email Email Print Print Facebook Facebook Twitter Twitter Share Share