Gleaming future for cut above designs made in Sheffield

Thriving business: Jewellery and metalwork designer Jessica Flinn with examples of her work. PICTURES STUART HASTINGS
Thriving business: Jewellery and metalwork designer Jessica Flinn with examples of her work. PICTURES STUART HASTINGS
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Sheffield’s industrial heritage is helping a young jewellery designer forge her future.

Jessica Flinn was tipped as one to watch at Sheffield Hallam University’s graduate show a year ago.

She lived up to those golden expectations. The jewellery designer has her own thriving business – and she’s just landed a major order which will see an exclusive Jessica Flinn range in all 750 stores of the UK’s fourth largest retailer.

Less than 12 months on, her elegant, cutting-edge designs, all made and hand-finished in Sheffield, are being sold in 50 independent outlets across the country. The latest contract, with national store group Argos, is for 4,000 pieces and means that women the length of the UK could soon be wearing her Sheffield creations.

It’s a big success story for a young graduate. Though Jessica, aged 23, believes much of the glory belongs to the city she came to study in. The home of steel, she says, has proved not only her inspiration, but also a huge ally.

Many of the techniques she uses to create her striking metal cuffs, pendants and earrings are taken from industrial manufacturing processes and skills used around the city. Some are centuries-old, others are the very latest in innovation and virtually all have never before been used in the jewellery-making process.

Lace, her first collection and the one which will soon be on sale in Argos as the company upgrades and revitalises its jewellery range to embrace new niche British designers, is embellished with images taken from snippets of real lace.

It’s striking and unusual, reproducing the intricate stitch-work she discovered in snippets gleaned from Sheffield antique shops and even on a holiday in Crete. But it would not have been possible had it not been for a local firm of saw-makers.

Struggling to find a way of permanently marking the designs onto her metal pieces, she asked for advice from Thomas Flinn, saw-makers of Kelham Island, just a stone’s throw from where her studio and workshop is now based.

“They make saw blades for the UK’s top brands and introduced me to electrolic etching. The process chemically changes the surface of metal, yet leaves the surface smooth; it’s how they apply company logos and brand names to saw-blades. It had never been used in jewellery-making before and it works beautifully,” says Jess, who made another discovery while she was there – she shares an ancestor with the firm’s founder.

From her Lyon Works base on Ball Street, all manner of engineering expertise is on her doorstep.

“In Sheffield there are connections to all the trades and materials I need,” says Jess. “I often pop into a little cutlery engineering firm close-by to ask for help with something. They looked a bit strangely at me at first, this girl brandishing a bit of jewellery.

“But everyone has been so helpful.”

Her latest intricately etched Woodland Collection, which features wood grains Jessica transferred from slices of wood, uses the same saw-blade etching technique, while pin-sharp, designs on her Precious Lace pieces in silver and gold, rely on a technique suggested by a nearby commercial printer.

Now she is also working in precious metals - slender, gold-plated tubing is used for her Black and Gold range - she finds being able to have her pieces authenticated at the city’s Assay Office is another reason for staying put, rather than heading back to her native Darlington, where he family, her greatest supporters, still live.

Her dad Tony, who retired from his pharmaceutical company to become a Dragon’s Den-style business angel, backed Jess with a phased cash investment to boost the £6,000 she secured in start-up grants from Sheffield Hallam University’s Enterprise Centre and local government.

“Dad’s support has been a huge help, but I had to sweat for it,” says the girl who spent nine months working at a Sheffield engineering firm to support her fledgeling company.

“I had to do a formal presentation and pitch to him to persuade him I had a viable business proposal in just the same way I approached all my other backers.”

Her Argos order, which came about via a showcase of up and coming talent organised by the British Jewellers’ Association, of which Jess is a member, has fuelled her hopes of landing another high street deal.

“The Argos contract brought in two years’ worth of orders in one go and will enable me to take the company to the next level.

“Another order like that and I would be able to take on full-time workers,” she says optimistically.

Her rapid rise to success makes setting up a business look easy. “It’s not,” she says. It takes a huge amount of perseverance. On a bad day, you just have to keep going and have faith that tomorrow will be better.”

Find Jessica’s designs online at www.jessicaflinn.co.uk, at Sheffield jewellers Green+Benz on Division Street, Ora on Sharrow Vale Road and at the Cupola Art Gallery at Hillsborough.

Unlikely duo bridge the generation gap

She may be only 23, but Jessica has a great respect for age and experience.

Her right-hand man is a 48-year-old former engineer. Andy Dunham is 26 years older than his boss, but he’s more than happy to be taking orders from the young entrepreneur.

“Jess has so much drive. She’s great to work for,” says Andy.

The unlikely pair first met on Sheffield Hallam’s metalwork and jewellery degree course. Andy, a year ahead, had signed up to study after being made redundant and was pinning his hopes on finding a fresh career. But after graduating he remained unemployed.

“I was a house-husband and feeling a bit glum when Jess rang me one day to ask for help. I jumped at the chance. I work for her two days a week and I feel like a new man now.”

Says Jess: “When I won the Argos order there was too much handle on my own. I’d got on really well with Andy at university and I knew he was a really talented man with the skills I needed.

“His engineering background is invaluable to me. He is a problem-solver. If I need to make a new tool or work out a new technique, he can come up with exactly what I need.”

Jess hopes to give Andy full-time employment if more big orders come in - and he hopes to follow in her footsteps and set up a male jewellery brand with assistance from Sheffield Hallam’s Enterprise Centre.