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Let's Talk Metal Clay With Lisa Cain

We're back with another Meet The Jeweller interview, and today we feel so lucky to interview the incredible Lisa Cain!

Lisa is the Founding Director of the Mid Cornwall School of Jewellery, based near St Austell, where she is an artist, educator and innovator.

She has been teaching and working with metal clay longer than anyone else in the UK.

Lisa works primarily with silver metal claysterling silvergemstones and 18ct gold to create her unusual collections and chooses not to sell her work.

Aside from her role as the powerhouse behind MCSJ, she also describes herself as a mother, grandmother, punster, prankster and a maker of things.

You may also recognise Lisa from BBC Four's MAKE! Craft Britain, where she helped 6 beginners use metal clay for the first time. It was great to see complete amateurs fall in love with metal clay and create designs they were proud of.

In this interview, we find out more about her jewellery making journey, where it all started and her top tips to inspire you...

'Calestial Twins'

Hi Lisa, tell us more about your jewellery making background!

My background is traditional jewellery making and silversmithing. I was extremely lucky to be an apprentice alongside Master Goldsmith Ralph Rowe for several years in the 90s. As part of my training, Ralph sent me on a stone setting class at Birmingham University in 1998. It was here that I first discovered silver clay when I stepped into the 'wrong' classroom, by accident.

People were working with this strange grey putty stuff and a very nice American chap explained to me that this squishy stuff would turn into pure silver after it went into the kiln (torch fireable silver clay had not been invented yet!) This seemed like alchemy to me and I was amazed by this revolutionary idea.

The nice American chap turned out to be Tim McCreight and I had stumbled upon the first ever silver metal clay class in the UK. This was a pivotal moment for me and I can safely say that discovering silver clay in its infancy changed the course of my life and the direction of my career. It's not often you get to be involved in something as historic and pioneering as nurturing a totally new way of working with metals!

If you're not sure who Tim McCreight is; check your bookshelves. Almost all jewellers will have a copy of The Complete Metalsmith.

Tim's publishing company, Brynmorgen Press, has produced the finest stable of thoroughbred, specialist, metalwork books available.

Tim and I became firm friends from that first unexpected meeting to this day and, over the years, we've worked on many projects together, including the PMC Guild, the Masters Registry, Masterclasses, organising the UK's first silver clay conferences, competitions, compiling a world-wide register of silver clay teachers, and lots more.

I did most of my metal clay studying in America with artists I admire including Barbara Becker Simon, Celie Fago, Linda Darty, Patrik Kusek, Wanaree Tanner, Fred Woell, and Holly Gage.

Many of these people have become my mentors/good friends and come over to teach Masterclasses for me here in Cornwall.

lisa cain jewellery

Do you think all jewellery should tell a story?

I don't really have any absolutes regarding what jewellery should (or COULD) do.

It's different for everybody and, as creators, we each bring our own story or 'voice' to what we produce.

The world needs more of that.

lisa cain jewellery

'Anne & Henry'

We love that your jewellery is inspired by folklore! Where does this interest come from and what do you like most about using this theme in your jewellery designs?

I must point out that I don't earn my living selling my jewellery because I'd probably starve! Each piece takes a long time to make and is often quite difficult or challenging to wear. This type of unbridled creativity is essential to my sanity, though.

I'm very grateful that I get to create whatever I want without a commercial bias. My income is generated by my career in teaching jewellery making, not by selling my creations. Luckily, I really enjoy the teaching too, so I get the best of both worlds!

Folklore, history, other worlds, legends, myths and magic all weave their way into my work. But not by my conscious design. In fact, I have very little aware control over what gets made, unless I am working to commission. If I'm working on my own stuff, my process is quite all-consuming and I love to work through the night until dawn. So I have to carve out the time to create separately from my teaching schedule.

Usually an idea starts to flitter around in my periphery vision and will just keep bugging me until I start work on it. Often I don't really know what I'm making or what it looks like, so it can feel a bit like chasing something tantalising into foggy alleyways. 90% of the time there is nothing to show for an entire nights work!

I'll be absorbed for hours on end and am 'gone' into the making. This chase phase can go on for weeks while I'm trying to clear the fog to see what it wants to be. It'll be the first thing I think about upon waking and my last thought at night until it is finished.

I do a lot of experimenting en-route to my creations and have an embarrassingly large collection of UFOs (un finished objects). Of course one of the great things about silver clay is I can experiment to my hearts content because, as long as the work isn't fired, I can always turn my unsuccessful experiments back into smooth, useable clay again.

lisa cain jewellery

'Nesting Rings'

There is a great freedom in being able to instantly and easily recycle the clay. Being able to experiment wildly with no waste whatsoever is an excellent combination.

Eventually these experiments pay off so that occasionally I'll find myself back in the room (usually hungry) and there It is, right in front of me. A finished piece which I apparently made. When I finally finish a piece, it's a relief!

That feeling of awe, satisfaction and completion is worth the 90% of my time spent being tantalised in foggy alleyways.

I don't really know where these things I make come from but my work often seems to 'speak' or have a story around it.

Stories are important. Each person's story is different while we are alive. And when we are gone, we become the story our loved ones will remember.

'Drape Pin'

I grew up around some phenomenal storytellers. The sort who take the time to create a vivid world with well-chosen words. My dad spins a great yarn and I love that feeling of being captivated and transported when I'm under the spell of a plot unfolding. For me this is visceral. The characters and their quests become palpable in my mind's eye.

The other main storyteller from my childhood was a very colourful Scottish lady, Patience Mackay, who lived with us as as housekeeper for a while. She was a wildly animated teller of tales. She had a wicked sense of humour and her perspective was usually pretty unconventional. Quirky and vivacious, Patience would leap to her feet, enthusiastically acting out the parts of the latest bizarre (and usually true!) tale.

I think perhaps all these stories had an impact on my inner landscape, which somehow filters into my work. Now that I look back over the paragraph I just typed, I realise there are quite a few adjectives in there that could describe my work....

Quirky, unconventional, humorous, colourful, bizarre, captivating and transporting.

lisa cain

You recently featured on BBC Four’s CRAFT! Great Britain. How did you find the experience?

Tiring and interesting. I had just moved house and was literally unpacking boxes so I could load the car with all the silver clay equipment and drive to Newcastle for filming. My 6 beginners made some incredible work under very difficult circumstances. It's not easy to get into 'the zone' with 2 cameras and a sound microphone bearing down on you!

We filmed over 2 days which were each 10 hours long. Add that to the 900 mile round trip and you can imagine how tired I was. It was worth it though! Each person went home delighted with their creations and that's what it's all about for me. True job satisfaction.

'Celestial Cerulia'

You must work with a lot of beginners, what is your top tip for getting started in using metal clay?

Attend a class! This can save you from making some expensive mistakes.

When you're starting out, it can be tricky to find the right class because there are a lot of bewildering options, so here are my tips for finding the right class:

  • Take a good look at the work that the prospective teacher produces - does their work resonate with you? Is it high quality/something you'd aspire to?
  • Call several places with a list of questions to chat about the classes on offer and pay attention to how you feel as they respond to you.
  • Go with your gut feeling about which teacher you 'click' with after these conversations.
  • Don't necessarily choose the closest venue - remember you are investing in yourself so it may take a bit of research and effort to get the best training to suit you.

There are a lot of highly skilled traditional jewellers out there who shy away from silver clay for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes it's seen as a hobby material, not 'proper' metal work, or too expensive.

If you're thinking in any of these terms, I'd urge you to think again and investigate further.

Silver clay has some unique working properties which can make it a useful, cost effective, time-saving addition to your 'tool box'.

However, you'll need to spend some time learning how to approach the material and this will mean experiencing the discomfort of feeling like a beginner again.

I understand that discomfort very well but stretching yourself and adding new skills to your repertoire usually pays off in ways you can't always foresee.

(All the work you see photographed here is predominantly made from silver metal clay with sterling silver additions, gemstones and 18ct gold.)

'Keyhole' Gold

'Keyhole' Front

'Keyhole' Back

You founded Mid Cornwall School of Jewellery in 2001, what was the inspiration behind this?

As part of my apprenticeship, I took over teaching Adult Education evening classes from Ralph Rowe in the mid 90s and this is where I discovered my passion for teaching.

However, it was not ideal to carry all the tools with me for a 2 hour class and since the class was always full, it seemed like I never quite had the time to give all 14 students my best attention. Out of that frustration, I decided to try a small-scale experiment, so in 1996 I turned one of my bedrooms into a 3 bench workshop. Students from the evening class could filter into a longer, more focussed class here. This proved to be a steady success over the next 4 years but wasn't really a fully formed business yet.

At that time there were really only a few jewellery training options:

  • Study for a degree
  • Attend an ongoing evening class
  • Find a week long summer school course at a university

There was a gap in training which I realised short courses could fill and I hoped that Cornwall was a place people would be willing to travel to in order to get the classes they wanted.

So, I founded the Mid Cornwall school of Jewellery in 2001 to fill an educational gap. My thinking was that jewellers would be able to attend a weekend course here, return to their studios and put their new skills into action immediately.

This was at a time when there were almost no other independent schools in England and the bank were not willing to lend me the money to start my business. So I sold my house and started the business anyway. Luckily my gamble paid off!

MCSJ quickly grew to have the widest range of classes available at any school in the UK and has become known for leading the way in high-quality independent jewellery education. We've been responsible for so many ground breaking world-firsts and metal clay innovations that there isn't room to list them all here.

One thing remains constant though. I love, love, love teaching! It's been an exciting and rewarding career and there is plenty more to come.

The learning terrain today has changed a lot since I started MCSJ so now there's a whole host of independent jewellery schools up and down the country (most of which have trained with MCSJ at some point). We also have Google, YouTube, online classes and Facebook groups. However, nothing can replace the exhilaration of a hands-on, face-to-face, high-quality class.

'Study with the Best' is the MCSJ tag line for a reason and I try to practice what I preach. I've made a point of studying with the best artists in the field whenever I can. I integrate what I've learned from my Jewellery Heroes into my skill set which, in turn, filters into my teaching and thus benefits all the students who come through my door.

Whether you're a total beginner or are looking to upgrade your present skills, MCSJ has the longevity and provenance to deliver a top-notch learning experience.

'Adream & Marda'

Do you ever use gemstones in your metal clay designs? If so, what advice would you give to someone wanting to use them?

Setting stones is one of my very favourite things. Often a piece will evolve outwards from the stone.

Some gemstones can withstand the heat of being fired in the silver clay but others will be destroyed.

So, my advice would be to learn traditional stone setting skills, like bezel-setting so you can include delicate gemstones in your silver clay work after firing.

Read these charts, showing you which gemstones can survive the heat of a kiln or torch.

'Ear Wings'

What is the most rewarding part of being a teacher?

The rewards are many. Creativity is therapeutic and enabling another person to become more creative is a privilege for me.

I teach using projects specifically chosen to give students a thorough understanding of the skills as well as some impressive finished jewellery. Knowing that they go home pleased with what they've made and are equipped with the knowledge to continue their making is very satisfying.

I love to demystify the process and share the joy. Best of all and selfishly for me, when I'm teaching, there is a magic in the air and I'm fully aware that I'm doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do.

That's a rare and beautiful feeling.

'Pod Dock'


'Swamp Eye'

What's the best advice you've ever received?

If you're working on an idea and you accidentally make something you're really pleased with STOP! Keep what you've stumbled upon rather than trying to force it become what you had in mind.

You won't ever get to that particular point in the process again. You can always start the original idea afresh and pursue it to completion another time.

A huge proportion of creative learning comes in at a right angle to the path you think you are on. Some of my best work has come in sideways when I was working on something else or trying to solve a design problem.

So, always try a little 'what if' and be open to what comes. That's where the magic hides.

'Bird Claw Bell'

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

It's hard to choose one highlight as I've been involved in so many ground-breaking developments all along the way. So, maybe I should mention one of the most recent.

I was hired as technical consultant by artist Rachael Osborne for an epic project and we ended up creating the largest vessel ever made in silver clay using a technique developed by Rachael. Here's a link to the full story.

The thing I am most proud of is the MCSJ Silver Metal Clay Diploma, which remains the most thorough education in silver clay available. I launched it in 2004 as the first ever brand-neutral training and it's focussed on students producing professional-standard jewellery rather than a certification to achieve a discount on a particular clay.

Uniquely I also include traditional silver-work skills alongside the silver clay, so students will learn to:

  • Make different types of designer earring hooks
  • Fabricate and solder jump-rings for chain making, pendants and charms
  • Understand the fundamentals of soldering in conjunction with silver clay
  • Bezel set delicate stones
  • Make Sterling silver clasps and unique brooch fittings

This is also the only 4-part Diploma with a written test, a module to learn how to teach classes effectively and a module addressing the principles of good design.

The Diploma has been wildly successful so I've also released several Grades as a Home Study Diploma Course on DVD. It turns out this was the first ever distance learning jewellery qualification course and it too has been a great success.

Students all over the world are now studying silver clay from the comfort of their own homes, working around their other commitments. With step-by-step guidance for each project, students create jewellery to their own designs and post their projects to me for in-depth feedback.

Anything which doesn't reach the standard can be resubmitted until a pass is achieved. Home Study students also have the support of a private Facebook group where they can ask questions, post photos and share their experiences.

That chance encounter when I first discovered silver clay really did alter the direction of my career and I'm very proud to be a part of some historic developments in the metal clay world. 

'Carnival Queen'

'Boleyn Bead'

'Red Queen'

Favourite gemstone and why?

Opals are my weakness. I love the magical play of light and the ever-changing colours a good opal can deliver.

There's something ethereal about them.

You're a busy lady! What do you do to relax?

Archery is my main hobby. I enjoy it even though I'm not very good at it! Mostly it pans out to be a few hours of exercise walking about looking for the arrows which missed the target and are hiding in the grass!

One of my greatest joys is spending time with my grandchildren and seeing the world through their eyes. I have an amazing circle of friends and we enjoy good food, drinking wine, laughing and exploring the ups and downs of life.

Favourite place in Cornwall?

Oh that's a hard one! There are so many to choose from and the seasons will affect my favourites.

May is just around the corner so the bluebells will be out soon. Then you'd find me somewhere like Respryn or Cardinham woods.

If I had to choose a beach it'd be one of the small ones like Hemmick or Polridmouth Cove.

My favourite area is West Penwith. With more than 4,000 years of human occupation and the highest concentration of sacred sites in Western Europe, this place is steeped in powerful magic for me.

'Mongolian Dragon' Centre

'Mongolian Dragons'

'Mongolian Dragons' With Centre

'The Great Escape'

What’s your favourite piece of jewellery you have designed and why?

Usually the most recent one I've worked on is the one uppermost in my mind so that would be the Mongolian Dragons, a collaboration with chain-maker extraordinaire, Dave Castle. It has an interchangeable centrepiece and can be worn in a variety of ways.

If I have to choose one overall fave though, it's this two-finger ring called The Great Escape.

This one certainly tells a story...

It is a whopper, spanning all four fingers of the wearer's hand and appearing to take off at an angle. This was one of three finalist pieces in the prestigious Saul Bell Design Awards, 2010 It's made entirely from Silver Metal clay, apart from the two-finger rings underneath, which are sterling silver

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Who knows?! The possibilities are endless.

Hopefully, in 5 years I'll be above ground and still exploring!

Follow Mid Cornwall School Of Jewellery

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Photography credit: Paul Mounsey

lisa cain jewellery

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