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Sand Casting Silver Cockle Shells & Nature Inspired Jewellery With Anna Davenport

Meet Anna! A talented jeweller, inspired by the beauty that nature brings. Find out more about Anna's creative background, where she left the media industry to follow her dreams of starting a handmade business. Focusing mainly on sand casting, we find out more about this fascinating technique where Anna creates unique designs using natural objects such as shells. Anna also shares her experience of selling on Etsy, experience working with metal clay, the importance of that personal touch and her love for sharing behind the scene action over on her Instagram account.

"What I hadn’t done was build something for myself. That’s been the exciting but slightly scary bit because my brand has ‘me’ at the heart of everything I do..."

Hi Anna, firstly tell us about your creative background - has jewellery making always been a passion for you?

It’s a long story but in essence, I started machine knitting by buying a machine and teaching myself to knit when my daughter was born. When I felt that I was good enough, I submitted my designs to a magazine.

I learnt all I could about writing patterns and submissions and after I had been published on the newsstand, I suggested I could handle an annual collection. During that time, I learnt a lot about photography shoots, styling and whilst I was making every single piece in the collection, I was also learning how to write a magazine.

Jump forward to 2015 and I saw a course advertised to make a silver ring or bracelet in a day. I’ve done every kind of craft over the years but this was a first for me. I love process and technique and of course, there’s oodles of it in jewellery making so when I drove home from Dorset that day, I knew that I’d found something really special.

How has your previous experience in the media industry and teaching helped you in your new business venture?

It’s helped me enormously. I come from a family of teachers so learning has always been important to me. I started in media as a knitwear designer and worked hard over the years to build up my skill set, learn all I could and I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some incredible people within the creative industries.

I’ve launched magazine brands, websites and campaigns for Origin, BBC Worldwide and Immediate Media. And, what I’ve told my children (who aren’t children any more) is that no matter what qualifications you have or what you trained for, set your goals and you can achieve anything with a lot of hard work and a bit of luck. Of course, having launched successful campaigns and been a brand ambassador within the corporate world, I have learnt a thing or two about building something new.

What I hadn’t done was build something for myself. That’s been the exciting but slightly scary bit because my brand has ‘me’ at the heart of everything I do, so it’s a 24/7 commitment. But that’s okay. I’ve always put my heart and soul into my work so I’m really excited about what the future holds.

sand casting jewellery

When did you launch Silver Nutshell Jewellery and what gave you the push to start selling?

I launched Silver Nutshell on Etsy in November 2019. I think as makers, we all experience doubt. Are we good enough? Will anyone buy what I make? Working within the creative industries for over 35 years I knew I couldn’t launch until I felt completely confident in my skills as a jewellery maker.

I have a brain like a sponge when it comes to soaking up crafting knowledge and I knew I’d get there. I just didn’t know when. Having achieved the goals I set for myself within my career, I saw silver jewellery making as an opportunity on the horizon, so when in 2018, I left the media business, I knew I was ready for to start a new chapter.

"Sand casting is an ancient technique whereby I create a mould using a special, sticky, slighty damp sand and then pour molten silver into the mould..."

You mainly work with sand casting in sterling silver and your designs are so beautiful! What is your favourite thing about sand casting?

Thank you, I fell in love with sand casting the first time I tried it and the process still fascinates me. I don’t mind admitting that it used to scare me. It’s very noisy and incredibly dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. However, I could see that the finished results could be incredible. That’s why I kept trying and it’s now a huge passion of mine. What I love most is the mystery. It’s a process whereby I can do everything possible, make a really accurate mould and still it doesn’t work. Either the molten silver has cooled too quickly on its journey into the mould or the sand has collapsed.

I once cast a gorgeous shell only to discover that it weighted over 24g in solid silver. That’s far too heavy for a pendant. If you wore it, you’d be in danger of knocking yourself out! So, I spent over 10 hours of my weekend course drilling and filing the silver out of the centre of the shell until it weighed less than half of what it was when I started.

I learnt all I could about drilling and filing and the next day, I melted it down! Unless I’m 100% happy with something, I melt it down and I don’t mind that. When sand casting works, it’s a brilliant way to capture all the detail of a shell, a seedpod or an organic shape. I’ll be launching some new pieces later this year, which are much more organic so look out for those.

sand casting jewellery

Can you explain what sand casting involves for those who don't know?

Sand casting is an ancient technique whereby I create a mould using a special, sticky, slighty damp sand and then pour molten silver into the mould. I use two aluminum rings, which are marked so they fit closely together, packing the one half with sand. Dusting the natural shell with talcum powder so it doesn’t stick. Before I press it into the mould, I line up the second ring and pack it with more sand. It’s important to pack carefully because the result you’re trying to achieve needs every grain of sand to follow the contours of the shell. A little hammering at this point also helps!

If you imagine pouring any liquid into a mould, the air has to go somewhere so my next task is to build chimneys into the mould to enable to air to escape quickly as soon as the molten silver fills the space. The silver solidifies instantly so sometimes it works and often it doesn’t. When it works, you’re left with what is called a spru, which is the funnel of silver attached to your piece. It may take me 30-40 minutes to prepare a mould and 10-15 minutes to melt the silver and pour it into the mould. It could then take me anything between one and 10 hours of trimming, filing, adding back details that weren’t picked up in the casting process and finally soldering on a jump ring and that’s when the polishing will start. It may not be fast and it may not always turn out as I expect but that’s why I love it!

"I’ve been taking close-up photographs of leaves, flowers, seedheads for many years and nature has the most wonderful library of textures and shapes, which look amazing in sterling silver..."

Tell us more about the inspiration behind your designs

I am lucky enough to live in a beautiful part of the English countryside so it felt natural that I would design and create silver jewellery, using the wonders of the world around me as my source book. 

This year, more than any other, I’ve needed to spend time feeling connected with the outside world. I spent lockdown with my Mom, who moved in for almost 10 weeks and there were days when we we’re able to go outdoors. Being able to reconnect with nature in my daily life by wearing a silver shell or a silver leaf pendant, really helped me feel part of the natural world.

I’ve been taking close-up photographs of leaves, flowers, seedheads for many years and nature has the most wonderful library of textures and shapes, which look amazing in sterling silver. And being handmade, every single one of my pieces is slightly different, which is the same in nature. No two shells are every identical.

We often see you experimenting with new techniques (such as silver metal clay) - is it important to you that you continue learning new techniques?

My ‘thing’ at work whenever we had management courses was being asked, what motivates you to do what you do. I always said “I’m motivated by change” and that’s exactly why I need to keep learning. I’m like my Dad, who came to the UK not knowing a word of English. He was Hungarian. I still have his diaries and notebooks where he would practise by writing down key phrases from Hungarian to English. Sadly, I can’t really speak any Hungarian. I can only count to ten and say ‘yes’ and ‘no'.

I have a fascination with anything that I’ve not tried before and have a wealth of experience in a lot of different crafts. Silver metal clay is one technique which lends itself really well to creating nature-inspired jewellery. Rolling out a piece of silver clay, pressing it on a piece of bark and making a beautifully textured ring is like the best result I could wish for. Unlike sand casting, which takes time, a lot of thought and is seriously noisy because of the heat of the burner, I find silver metal clay calming and quiet. I’ve been on one really excellent silver metal clay weekend with Joy Funnell Metal Clay Ltd in Dorset and I’d definitely do another.

sand casting jewellery

"I believe workshops, whether in person or online are the best way to learn anything..."

sand casting jewellery

You often attend workshops - tell us about your experience with these!

Oh so you’ve noticed! I do write about my workshop experiences a lot on Instagram because they’ve shaped the type of jeweller that I’ve become.

It’s so important for me to keep learning so I attend weekend workshops @flux_n_flame at least five times a year. I’ve always said to the tutors that I don’t need to take anything home from the workshop, apart from new experiences. I’m motivated by new experiences and have met some amazing silversmiths and learnt so much by attending these workshops.

I believe workshops, whether in person or online are the best way to learn anything. We’ve all become adept at online learning this year and I’ll admit that I enjoy that too. I can take things at my own pace, skip the bits I already know and focus on the techniques that I really want to learn.

"Be generous with your knowledge, share your experiences and if you’re just starting out, take baby steps at first and your confidence will grow..."

You're great at creating engaging Instagram posts - how do you think this platform helps your business and what top tips would you give to other jewellers struggling to get going?

As you can tell, I’m a huge fan of Instagram. It has such a brilliant community of makers and I find it to be the friendliest of all the social media platforms.

I have to work hard at my posts and stories but with that comes the reward of more engagement and a growing number of followers. It’s a great marketing tool for my business.

The best advice I can give to any new jewellers is to find your story. We all love storytellers and I believe that everyone has a story to tell. Be authentic, follow your heart and tell the story behind you and your brand. Be generous with your knowledge, share your experiences and if you’re just starting out, take baby steps at first and your confidence will grow.

And, have a go at Kernowcraft's Jewellers Instagram Challenge which they run throughout the year! Taking part in any creative Instagram challenge is a great way to see what others are doing and learn what works.

What has your experience of selling on Etsy been like and would you recommend it to other creatives?

I’d definitely recommend Etsy as a starting point for anyone looking for an e-commerce platform. I’ve found it really easy to use. It’s a wonderful place to learn about how much detail buyers need to know about your product before they buy.

I struggled with the pricing structure because I’m a start-up business here in the UK so I don’t pay VAT, as yet. However, listing fees and renewals are vatable, because they’re a digital service. As is the Etsy payment structure. I can guarantee it won’t make much sense to start with but as soon as you’ve made a few sales, it’s easy to see what percentage of your selling price goes into your bank account and what Etsy keeps.

Great photographs are a must. Also, make sure you have a list of your keywords to include in your descriptions. And don’t see it as a get rich quick option. It’s definitely not that. But it is a great shop window for your products so if you market them on social media, it’s the place to send buyers to browse and pay.

We absolutely love your packaging and how you add those special touches, tell us more about the process behind this

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a perfectionist and working within the creative industries meant I had lots of experience of good and bad practice. That’s why my eco-credentials were one of the first values I wouldn’t compromise on.

I spent a long-time sourcing exactly the right kind of packaging for my business. It’s something I’m very happy to share on my Instagram grid because if I can help someone and in turn, help the planet, then I’m happy.

As for my special “In a nutshell….” special touches, I’ve spent over 35 years working with some great people and one of my mantras (I have a few!) was “Find that extra 10%.” My best piece of advice would be that if you want a brand that stands out from the crowd, find that special something extra that people will love you for. For Silver Nutshell, it’s my hand-tied, typed personalised messages. I’ll often make something up if there’s no request for a message so they have a secret message to open when they receive their gift. Only nice words, of course.

Tell us about your experience with creating a brand for your handmade business and any advice for others wishing to get started

I think for me, building my own brand was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. I’ve spent years building brands for others but the pressure I felt building something for myself was immense.

I also kept moving the deadline, which is why it took me so long. Believe it, or not, it is possible to build a brand in a weekend. Making and selling jewellery means you’re offering a gifting experience so that’s where I started.

My advice would be to think about three brands that you love and that are aligned with your product values. I wrote a list of what values I wanted my business to have. These include zero plastic and eco-friendly packaging, postal boxes which fit through your letterbox and a personalised message with every gift.

Start by writing a one page branding document to include three to five key values, three colours you would like (I chose my favourite, orange) and a timeline. Once you have this, you’ll have some goals to aim for.

"I’m very impulsive when it comes to shopping and there’s always something lovely to tempt me on Kernowcraft website..."

What technique would you like to try next?

I’d love to try wax carving to create my own designs for casting. And, like most jewellers, I love gemstones. I’ve made rings for myself using cabochons and gemstones so whilst I don’t get time to do it very often, it’s definitely on my radar for the future.

What do you love doing in your spare time?

I’m a massive foodie so I’m often in my kitchen cooking and creating new recipes. I’m also the family historian so I’m a whizz on Ancestry. I have two adopted grandchildren so supporting family is really important and I also love walking and visiting National Trust properties. Of course, I love a bit of foraging, mainly for beautiful leaves, seedpods and bits of fallen bark. And, I have a book to write so I’m never short of things to do!

You recently won our Instagram Challenge competition! What did you spend your voucher on?

I was delighted to win the Kernowcraft Jewellers Instagram Challenge and even more so because I hadn’t realised that there was anything to win! I had recently worked on a commission to make some earrings so when I saw the Bead Buddy 1-step ear wire maker, I knew I had to have one. I’m now considering adding some earrings to my range.

I’m very impulsive when it comes to shopping and there’s always something lovely to tempt me on Kernowcraft website so I also bought fine silver wire to make jump rings, sterling silver backset pendant settings and faceted stones because although all my pieces at present are sterling silver, winning has given me a reason to add a touch of colour, perhaps in the Autumn – watch this space!

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Learn More About Casting

In Kim's 12 Months of Metal series, she shares video tutorials and experiments of casting techniques! Including an introduction to granulation, creating organic shapes and sand casting. Click the button below to watch all of the tutorials and find out more.