Designer Interviews

Interview: Ruth Tomlinson

Interview: Ruth Tomlinson

Here at ætla, we and our customers are enchanted by your beautiful and timeless treasures. It’s almost as though you discover something new whenever you look closely at one of your pieces. You have a very unique and recognisable design ‘language’, how would you describe it to someone who hasn’t seen your jewels? 

My designs are characterized by a sense of ethereality and the unexpected, with lots of tiny details to draw the eye in and be discovered… like a miniature world unfolding. I’m heavily inspired by my natural surroundings (both here at home in London, and on visits to remote, far-flung destinations), and am fascinated by historical jewellery, and I draw on both of these influences in my jewellery designs. 

The collections take on a personal approach and demonstrate sensitivity to the value and history of materials that often contain a secret treasure or history, resulting in jewellery that has an ethereal beauty – eclectic, intricate, rare and precious. The finished pieces are characterized by a soft glow rather than a traditional bright shine and sparkle. I leave the precious metals unpolished and free of any superficial plating, which results in the jewellery resembling fascinating buried treasures encrusted in gemstones. Many of the materials I employ, or the finishes I favour, are considered ‘imperfect’ by jewellery traditionalists. I choose to design pieces that change and flourish with wear, adapting to the wearer and their lifestyle. 

[Examples of Ruth Tomlinson's jewellery stocked here at ætla - prices range from £1380 - £4600]

Can you tell us a little about your background and heritage?

I was raised by the sea, in Morecombe Bay, and my inquisitive nature and desire to make jewellery developed at an early age. Thanks to the support and creativity from my family I was encouraged to explore my surroundings and I became fascinated not only by the nature around me, but also by the treasures that filled the family home. Surrounded by an eclectic mix of contemporary and antique artefacts, I developed my curiosity for the stories of objects and always look to find alternative beauty in the world. I went on to study 3-D Design in Manchester followed by an MA at the RCA, then the ‘Ruth Tomlinson’ official brand was established in 2001. 

What is your first jewellery memory?

I’ve been making and selling jewellery creations since childhood; I’d create little adornments from natural found treasures and sell them in my family’s pharmacy! Then, as a young teenager, my mum would take me to sell at various craft fairs around the country. This started my passion for designing for a purpose, to wear.

Who would you love to see wearing your jewellery - past and/or present? 

It would be an historic figure – maybe Queen Elizabeth I sitting for a portrait. 

Are there any fellow jewellers or creatives that you admire?

I always go back to this quote from Grayson Perry from the ‘Unknown craftsman at the British museum, “Time is the greatest craftsman of all”.  I completely agree that man and nature and history are the best collaboration, creating something of great authenticity, and preciousness. I think this is why I am drawn to jewellery as the wearer can make their own history with one of our creations, they are designed to get better with age and survive the test of time.

But I also love the wonderful work of Karl Fritsch

Are there any pieces you wear every day (doesn’t have to be your own designs)? 

I don’t wear much jewellery day to day because I’m always at the bench creating something new. I have one of our asymmetric champagne diamond ring designs which I love and consists of a cluster of old cut diamonds surrounding a beautiful 1ct rose cut diamond. We had it specially cut in Antwerp, keeping the outline of the original raw diamond crystal that it was cut from – it’s a beautiful mix of organic with a historical influence. Also, one of my favourite pieces is an eternity band given to me by my partner. It was antique and gradually the stones have fallen out, some of which I leave, and some I replace with random antique stones. I don’t mind, it’s quite freeing to just enjoy being a part of and following its story.

What is your greatest inspiration when designing jewellery, and do you prefer to ‘sketch’ in 2D or 3D? 

I have an inspiration box with materials and objects of interest I have collected over the years. This is where I go when I need to create a new collection.  I love to understand the essence of old, found and random materials and objects.  Once I have a new idea, I use my sketch book to document and explore the concept further. Then I begin experimenting with materials – but my work bench is where the biggest discoveries are made, and the designs come to life. Each gemstone is then carefully hand-selected for the design. It is quite an organic process which is reflected in the jewellery we create. 

[Images provided by Ruth Tomlinson: Inspiration]

You have created a great many bespoke pieces, are there any remodeling or bespoke projects that have really stuck with you and why? 

Oh – so it’s hard to choose! We love the joy we can pass on to our clients by transforming their unworn jewels into something beautiful that can be worn every day. Every piece of jewellery that comes to us has a history. It might be a family heirloom that is outdated or doesn’t suit the current wearer, or it might be a traditional engagement ring that a client has worn for many years, but they are ready to update it for a new chapter in their life. Being trusted with such precious heirlooms and given the creative freedom to produce a truly unique jewel is always such an honour and privilege. 

  [Images provided by Ruth Tomlinson: Examples of Remodelled Jewellery]

I’ve reworked many heirloom engagement rings into contemporary, modern treasures for today's brides looking for something that suits them better but still carries the sentimental value they cherish. I’ve had clients send me little hoards of stones from overseas, completely trusting me to come up with something unique and beautiful for them. Last year, a client sent me a selection of unique gemstones to create a collection of charms for a cartier chain. I loved creating those, they were all so charming in their individuality. Every commission is different and individual to the client and the result is completely one-of-a-kind, made only for you, with its own special story and meaning. 

[Images provided by Ruth Tomlinson: Examples of Remodelled & Bespoke Jewellery]

Antique cut diamonds feature heavily in your work. What is it about these that you are drawn to? 

I love the history that these stones carry and unique character. Before the mass production of stones cut to precise specifications, diamonds were all cut individually by hand, making each one completely unique. Cut to show-off their beauty under candlelight, they emit a delicate and understated sparkle, and they allow me to develop designs that better communicate a sense of history and heritage. 

[Images provided by Ruth Tomlinson: Examples of antique cut diamonds in her work]

What are some of the most memorable moments of your brand’s journey? 

Growing the business from just myself to now, a team of 12 based in our very own atelier space encompassing a workshop, office and showroom in a historical building in the heart of Hatton Garden. 

I’m also thrilled to share – and can’t quite believe it but the V&A Museum in London acquired three of my jewels last year! To think, my jewels now sit in the same incredible jewellery room that has been a constant source of inspiration to me, it feels like everything has come full circle. 

During lockdown, I created a capsule collection of rings inspired by my mudlarking adventures on the Thames foreshore titled OffeRings. The 'Time Capsule' ring was chosen by Jewellery Historian and Curator at the V&A, Claire Philips, to be part of the permanent display in the museum's jewellery room. 

The ring brings together unlikely fragments and treasures gleaned from the Thames foreshore that speak of the constant human presence along the river. The other rings were cast back into the Thames as an offering for posterity - to be found again by passers-by in the future. 

Alongside this, they also acquired an early Encrustations ring from my final year at the RCA. This was my first experiment, which influenced my inaugural collection and the brand as it is today. It was forgotten in an electroforming tank and came out looking like a treasure from the bottom of the sea, more beautiful than I had imagined, a very happy mistake.

My very first fine jewellery creation was also selected. The idea was born from a need to create unique pieces that will last a lifetime - jewellery that we attach to our body and our life to symbolise significant moments,  using the most precious and traditional materials but designed in an alternative way. An updated version of this design is still part of the collections today. 

[Images provided by Ruth Tomlinson: The "Raw Diamond Ring", today's version of the early "Lustre Ring" from 2010, exhibited at the V&A]

A career highlight and lifelong dream!  The Time Capsule and Encrustations Ring are both now on display in the V&A jewellery room in South Kensington.

Your designs are known and respected around the world - where do you think you acquired your determination and work ethic, and what motivates you day to day? 

I always knew I’d follow a creative career - be creating something. If not jewellery then probably ceramics. I’ve been making and crafting since childhood so creating in some way was always going to be my calling. I am incredibly lucky to not only have a job I adore but one that spreads joy to others through the jewels I dream up. 

I’m always looking for the unconventional beauty in the world and I’ve remained true to this approach in my life and I think that has helped me to develop a unique aesthetic, one that I’ve managed to keep pushing forward and constantly letting the creativity flow to develop into something new. I don’t try to fit into any existing preconceptions of what jewellery should look like, what it should be made of, how it should be valued, and I think this has helped me maintain a captive audience for my work. The positive feedback we get from our customers and fans alike encourages us to continue designing and creating with the ethos that has allowed us to achieve what we have to date. 

And finally, what is the last…

- book you read?
I don’t read much as I’m dyslexic! 

- gallery/museum you visited?
The V&A to see my ring pride of place in the jewellery gallery! Aside from that though, The Horniman Museum and Gardens. It’s a bit of a hidden gem in London with a fantastic collection of anthropology, found objects, natural history and taxidermy. 

- album you listened to? 
When at work we usually just have the radio on but I often listen to podcasts on being a mum - my other full time job!

Ruth Tomlinson will be exhibiting with us on the 17th & 18th of March 2023, click the
below links to attend:

Friday 17th March Private Viewing: LINK
Saturady 18th March In Store: LINK


If you enjoyed our interview with Ruth Tomlinson, click here for more from our Interview Series 

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