“I love to show people where I work”, says Michele White as she leads me down the stairs to her workshop in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. It’s hidden beneath Artisan Alchemy, the contemporary gallery from which she sells unique jewellery – brooches, earrings, rings, necklaces – all crafted from precious metals and decorated with opulent gemstones. But I’ve come to view a special piece which has been kept locked away in a box, until now.
White’s studio, where the magic happens, is a cave of wonders, filled with her materials and inspirations. There’s a ‘Faded Trees of Britain’ poster on the wall, metal tools, tiny bags of coloured jewels, a tower of papers, sketchbooks on a small wooden desk, and on its edge a postcard of Hadrian’s Wall from 2021.
It was during a lull in lockdowns that White and her family visited Northumberland. They walked along Hadrian’s Wall, where the hugely popular Sycamore Gap tree stood for decades, before it was cruelly chopped down one night in September. Over the years, it’s inspired many creatives, from novelists to artists, and White among them.
White found the scene – with its moody sky, dipped stone wall and ancient tree – “so impressive” that she felt compelled “to make a new brooch from it”, upon her return home.
From a small box, where it has been stored safely for years, she brings out the brooch. The elegant silver piece, with 18 carat gold detail, features the instantly recognisable scene, with the wall and bank framing the tree, its intricate web of branches and leaves rendered with tiny wires and small silver shapes, soldered and fused together, with layered and contrasting textures.
Opening a large sketchbook, she also shares preparatory drawings of the tree, marked with numbers along the branches. “It’s the only thing that is organised in the studio”, she laughs, explaining the painstaking process of making this exquisite brooch took her many days.
Trees have always been a recurring theme in her practice, and White often makes brooches with agate, which has naturally-occurring markings that appear like windswept trees or mythic environments, allowing her to build jewellery around the imagery to form innovative, wearable landscapes.
Her intriguing pieces are nothing like anything I have seen before, which is what prompted White to open the gallery in 2016. “Nobody makes what I do”, she explains, and so it “made sense” to open her own space, in which she has been fully supported by her family. In fact, it was only after having children that White arrived at jewellery-making.
From London originally, she arrived in Birmingham in the 1970s, having married a Brummie. She began her career in the city by teaching art in several schools, since she was trained as a potter. But, after starting a family of her own, she looked for an evening art class and, by chance, found a jewellery-making one at Bourneville College.
After 2 years, members of the class were told that it could no longer continue, due to a funding shortfall, and so she applied to join Birmingham’s historic School of Jewellery, even though term had already started for the year. As another student had dropped out, White was accepted. “Everything is serendipity”, she tells me. It sounds like it, as White spent 5 years learning the tools of the trade in the heart of the historic Jewellery Quarter.
From there, she moved into a workshop on Warstone Lane, before taking the significant step of opening Artisan Alchemy Gallery. Back then, as the building was only being redeveloped, she remembers that “there were pigeons living in it and no electricity”.
Since then, it’s undergone quite the transformation: today, the welcoming gallery showcases work by several local makers and designers, featuring furniture alongside cabinets filled with jewellery.
In one cabinet stands the Artistar Jewels Network Award, which White recently brought from back from Milano Jewelry Week, where she was selected as a worthy winner from 150 artists. The framed certificate stands beside beautiful necklaces for sale.
With Christmas around the corner, and the German Markets in full swing, I hope that shoppers do find their way to this wonderful gallery and the Jewellery Quarter, where they can buy directly from the city’s artists.
I ask Michele if she will be selling her Sycamore Tree brooch this year. “If I’m very fond of it of a piece, then it takes me while to put it up for sale”, she says. But she reveals that it is currently on show in the RBSA Gallery’s Annual Exhibition, albeit with an eye-watering price of £20,000. “What if someone offers that?”, I ask, thinking that it would make quite the festive gift. “Don’t be ridiculous”, she answers with a laugh.
Artisan Alchemy Gallery is located at 84 Caroline St, Birmingham B3 1UP and open Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 5pm. Just around the corner, the RBSA Gallery’s Annual Exhibition runs until January 6th, 2024.