Brass Monkeys are warm with success despite the cold credit climate

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In this week’s Spotlight, I’ve been invited to the home of all things silver, precious and beautiful.  Brass Monkeys was launched 18 months ago as a shop/workshop in Hove, the brainchild of Sam Maund and Jenifer Wall, following the impressive (albeit freezing) success of their former workshops in St John’s Road.  They packed up with 6 of their fellow silversmiths and are experiencing the joys of owning their own shop, creating new window displays and above all.. .being warm.

How did you both meet?

Jen – We met 8 or 9 years ago; Sam had just graduated and I had space in my workshop and was looking for someone to share it. 

Sam – She just met me and thought ‘oh, she’ll do!’

How long has Brass Monkeys been going?

Sam – This one (the shop) has been going for 18 months.  Prior to this we ran the Brass Monkeys mixed media workshop for about 6 years  and took on 12 other artists. The place was freezing cold, hence the name! We’d wear hot water bottles under about 5 layers of clothing!  It was literally like working outdoors.

What are the benefits of working in a group environment?

Jen – Sharing information and body heat!

Sam – Financially it’s almost impossible to find a place just for 2 people.  I think when we were looking for a new workshop we were getting along really well and liked the thought of it being just the two of us working together but then we realised it would be better to sublet a much bigger place. Working with other artists means you help eachother out more and support each other.  When I first worked with Jen she made me do a trade fair! I hadn’t done one till then.  Sometimes you need others to push you as well as motivating yourself.

Jen – We give eachother emotional support as well as financial – we all struggle with what we do sometimes and all have our off days. Also when you see others working hard around you it motivates you to work harder yourself!

How successful do you feel you’ve been in your careers so far?

Jen – if the Brass Monkeys workshop hadn’t been successful we wouldn’t have been able to open this shop. Before we did so, we made sure we’d built up a good solid basis of clients and galleries and felt established in our own careers.

Sam – It’s a difficult field to work in – I don’t think many people in this line of work are what you’d call rich! Finding time to do just your craft to make a living is hard.  

Jen – Time restraints can be more than frustrating.  As an artist, you have to do everything, from building up your clients and  advertising your work to all the paperwork that’s involved as well as actually making your jewellery.  I think a lot of artists go into this field thinking they’ll just be able to spend their days making nice jewellery or doing some painting – you don’t realise when you to into it just how much is involved! It’s such an awful lot to do. We’re always planning the next shop window display and always have a wish list of what we’d like to get done and new work we’d like to have in the shop.

How has the current economic downturn affected you?

Sam – We don’t know! The shop’s still so new it’s difficult to tell although we’ve been up every month so far.

Jen – I actually think the economic climate has worked in our favour. People tend to be far more choosy now about what they buy and would rather go now to buy something handmade rather than from the high street. Craft is very good value for money; it’s special, unique and will last a great deal longer than the mass-produced jewellery in the high street stores.

Sam – We’ve worked hard to ensure that our work is accessible to everyone.  That’s partly due to our location now in the shop; because we’re further out of town than before, we need to make sure we don’t raise the prices too high.  We’re careful to get work into the shop that starts at around £12 – it may not be a precious metal but it will still be a lovely piece that’s totally unique. 

Jen – People still want to buy lovely jewellery and items for birthday presents and so on, but whereas before they may have spent £50 they might now only be able to afford £30 and we have to make sure our prices cater for them as well as still providing lovely things they’ll want to buy.

Do you personally wear the pieces you make?

Sam – Oh yes!

Jen – We wear our own and other people’s work too; it’s a good way to promote the shop.  People often ask where you got a necklace or bracelet so it’s good to wear a variety of what we have in the shop.

Sam – You also find that if you’re creating jewellery you need to wear it to see how it feels and lasts.  Does it catch on clothing and that sort of thing. Whenever we go out for the evening we have to think about which pieces to wear this time – we have to suffer!

Are you competitive with eachother?

Jen & Sam – NO!

Sam – Well, we can be but only in a jokey way. If you go to a retail show you want the other person to be as successful as you are.

Jen – It’s much harder if the other doesn’t sell. You can feel really bad! If you do badly but the other has a successful day, you just feel really pleased for them. Also if one of you is evidently doing badly during a trade fair, it could be a bad sign for the success of that fair and obviously you want it to do well if you’re taking part in it! It could be an indication that the industry itself is doing badly and that isn’t good. 

 How important is it to ‘get out there’ and do trade fairs?

Jen – It’s really important. With jewellery people like to see the pieces and see a jeweller’s whole body of work; it’s very personal. With certain other pieces or paintings you can buy online quite happily but obviously it’s best to actually try the jewellery on! 

Also a lot of our customers are in the older age bracket and don’t use the internet. If we didn’t get out there we’d be isolating ourselves and them.

Sam – We also love it! It’s great to go to new places and it gets you out of your routine.  We’ve done a few in places we’ve never been to and it’s as well as being about selling your work, there is an element of ‘oh, we haven’t been there!’.

How long does it take you to complete a piece from start to finish?

Sam – It really varies!  You can work on several items at a time.  I think some items like earrings can take about half an hour…

Jen – Yes, those sort of things are quick which is good because they also sell quickly and you need pieces like that to regularly top up your income..but then I make lockets which can take hours and hours.  Again the time management comes into it.  I used to do the usual artist thing of having a job to support my jewellery work.  I started to cut those hours down and think about how I could start to make the jewellery work on its own.

Sam – You’ll find that one piece will sell really well in two galleries but not in another.   It varies so much that it’s hard to predict.

What’s next in the pipeline for you both?

Sam – The shop is still so new that this is our ongoing project at the moment.  There are improvements to the workshop that need to be done.  We’re really pleased with the way it’s developed and what we’ve achieved but there’s still a lot to do!

Jen – We’re always planning new window displays.  When you have different customers coming in every day and are using different artists you need to rotate the work to keep it fresh.  It’s exciting when new customers come in because you never know what they’re going to like or want.  The shop has evolved and changed and we still have a list of the work we want to have in here so it’s all exciting.  It’s a lot of work but the workshop’s  great atmosphere to be in.

Sam – We’re very lucky to be able to be paid for doing what we love!

I’d like to thank Jenifer and Sam for their time and allowing me to have a good nosey around their beautiful shop. 

Go visit them in Portland Road, Hove and check out their website http://www.brassmonkeys.org.uk/ – and take your credit card when you pop in for a visit otherwise you’ll regret it.


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