For nearly five decades, Rhiannon Jewellery has been a focal point for tourists and locals alike in the town of Tregaron and, more recently, in Aberystwyth. But who is Rhiannon? We sent Huw to meet Rhiannon Evans herself to find out!
So Rhiannon, tell me a bit about yourself. I grew up in Aberystwyth, where my father was Professor of Education and later Vice Principal of the University (Prof. Jac L. Williams). After leaving Ardwyn Grammar School, I took a degree in Zoology and ended up with a PhD in Applied Biology, but by then I was somewhat disillusioned with scientific research as a career.
And presumably as a result, the rest is history?! Yes! In 1970, I moved back to Ceredigion and turned back to my other great interest, art and craft, which I had always pursued as a hobby. Having got married and settled in Tregaron, a Welsh-language town where I wanted my children to grow up, I was faced with the necessity of creating my own employment (jobs were and are still rather sparse in Tregaron!). Having acquired the old Emporium building on the square, we set about renovating it and I decided to open a craft design centre specialising in fine handmade products from Wales. From the start, our customers were mainly from outside the area and indeed outside Wales. Within a few years the shop had established an international reputation as the best craft shop in Wales and other shops worldwide were being modelled upon it, particularly in USA but also one or two in Wales. In summer, our customers were travelling to Tregaron from far and wide, but during the winter there were so few that we closed the shop for 5 months during those early years. We needed to make things in winter, keeping our staff busy and selling the products in summer. I decided to work in silver myself while others were making woollen garments and knitwear. Where did you learn your trade? I had no experience of working with metal, so I had to learn by trial and error, getting basic knowledge by reading and advice from other jewellers and trade suppliers. It started slowly, as a kind of winter hobby, so I had plenty of time to practice. As with all crafts, practice makes perfect, and my skills have improved over the years. It did mean that I devised my own techniques, which were (and are), not necessarily the same as others within the trade. I have always had to train my apprentices in my own methods rather than standard practice. This makes the work unique in many ways.
Tell me a bit more about the jewellery you sell? I first decided to make jewellery after visiting an exhibition of ancient Celtic art in London in the early 1970’s. I was very impressed with the standard of design and craftsmanship in this metalwork from 3000 years ago. People from many countries were at the exhibition, and to most of them the artwork was mysterious, even a bit scary, but to me it was familiar and conveyed distinct meaning. This was my own ethnic art and the imagery portrayed much of what we still have in Britain, not only in the Welsh language but the literature and folklore of our pre-Saxon island. I wanted to carry on creating new work in the Celtic tradition rather than copy artefacts which happened to have survived. This is what inspires my work even today.
Your site in Tregaron is now more of a complex than a shop! What exactly have you got there altogether? The first jewellery shop and workshop was just a section within the craft centre, developed in the 1980’s. It was almost immediately too small and after I started working with Welsh Gold in 1986 the jewellery gradually took over from the crafts as our main attraction and the shop became Canolfan Aur Cumru / The Welsh Gold Centre. By the end of the 90’s we had American, Australian and European customers driving to Tregaron from London and back in the day but there was little else for them to do in Tregaron. We ventured on a major development doubling the size of our premises so that we could offer a purpose-built jewellery shop and viewing workshops alongside the craftshop, art galleries and offices upstairs and a café for our customers. Since then the café has developed its own reputation and attracts many other customers, including bikers, walkers and local regulars. In recent years, we have also opened a small museum of ancient Celtic jewellery that I have collected over the years, presented from an artistic rather than archaeological point of view.
Any further expansion plans? Two years ago we opened a jewellery shop in Aberystwyth, hoping to attract more passing trade in a more populated area. It has brought in quite a lot of new customers to Tregaron who would not otherwise have visited our main shop. We do have plans to invest further in Tregaron, where we continually improve our services to customers and try to make the visitor experience even better. There are also broader plans to develop the business as the next generation takes the reins. Watch this space!
And I understand it is very much a family affair? When the business was growing and I was developing the jewellery production I had young children and had to work around being a mother, jeweller and businesswoman. My four children had no choice but to be part of it all! They all learnt the basic skills of jewellery making and selling and worked for the company during their school and college years, and each in turn took over management duties in recent years. I have now retired from executive duties and have returned to designing and making only, where I am very happy to carry out orders. My son Gwern is currently very much involved with the business as Managing Director and my daughter Geinor is also involved. None of my own children wanted a career in jewellery making but I already have 15 grandchildren and I think some of them must have creative talents! They are still very young so I shall have to wait and see, but in a few years’ time I’m sure we will have several holiday workers once again and I hope to carry on until one or more want to take over.
How has the jewellery industry changed since you first started? The jewellery trade in Britain has changed a lot during my lifetime. Most high street jewellery was handmade in Britain when I started, mainly in the Birmingham and London jewellery quarters. Today most of it is made overseas and imported and there are few young apprentices entering the jewellery trade in those areas. People with the traditional knowledge, skills and experience are getting few and far between and most of the remaining ones are nearing retirement age. We very consciously chose not to follow the volume route and now Rhiannon Jewellery is very much a luxury handmade premium brand. I also find my skills are much in demand for repairs, remodelling and creating special commission pieces. I used to laugh years ago when people collected my work and told me they would be antiques of the future but now I think they were probably right all along. I hope I live long enough to see some on Antiques Roadshow! Some of the early limited-edition pieces already have values in excess of ten times their original sale price.
If you don’t mind me asking, I notice that you don’t actually wear any jewellery yourself? I rarely wear any jewellery myself except when making presentations of my work. I think this is probably because to me jewellery is something talismanic. If I do wear jewellery I wear the same piece all the time and it means something to me personally. Strangely enough many people who have bought some of my large silver pieces do the same and that is nice to know because that is what the ancient Celtic jewellery was made for.