Thursday 29 September 2016

Jeweller from Wicklow mountains who is on the crest of a wave

Chupi Sweetman fell out of love with high-street fashion design and in love with jewellery. She uses nature and the wild as the inspiration for her pieces , writes Louise McBride

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

‘I love that I’m creating pieces that someone’s great great granddaughter will be wearing some day,’ says Chupi Sweetman. Photo: Ronan Lang
‘I love that I’m creating pieces that someone’s great great granddaughter will be wearing some day,’ says Chupi Sweetman. Photo: Ronan Lang

Having a mountain for her garden when growing up as a child proved to be the ideal training ground for jewellery designer Chupi Sweetman.

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Ms Sweetman, who makes jewellery that is inspired by wild and natural things, was brought up in Hollywood in west Wicklow. This quaint village, which is surrounded by stunning mountains and woodland, is well-known as the starting point for Braveheart Drive - a route named after the blockbuster, Braveheart, which was shot there more than 10 years ago.

"I had a whole mountain as my garden," said Ms Sweetman. "There was never any question of me loving the outdoors."

She now lives and works in Dublin and said she "takes any excuse to escape to the wild".

It is this love of the outdoors - and the nature which was on her doorstep as a child every day - which Ms Sweetman brings into her work. She cites twigs as one of the aspects of nature which she most enjoys designing her jewellery from because of the symbolism they hold.

"I love twigs," said Ms Sweetman. "I love the variety. The difference you get in the twigs from all the different trees and plants is incredible. I love the idea of promise that you get from twigs - where something so delicate has such strength. I love the whole notion that from tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow. The symbolism behind twigs is greater than what's on the surface."

One of her most popular pieces is 'Just the Two of Us', a necklace cast from two small twigs taken from a hawthorn tree.

"I took two really beautiful twigs from a tree that had fallen in the spring and used it to mould this piece of jewellery. The idea of this piece is that you are intertwined with someone else - but still two separate beings. This idea is captured by the twigs in this piece, which are together, yet they move separately."

The tree which Ms Sweetman took the twigs from also adds a bit of magic to the 'Just the Two of Us' piece.

Hawthorn trees are known as fairy trees - and it is thought to be bad luck to cut one down if it is standing alone.

"You often see hawthorn trees standing on their own in a field - because many farmers won't cut them down," said Ms Sweetman.

Ms Sweetman, who turns 32 this Valentines Day, set up her company, Chupi Jewellery, almost four years ago.

She was a fashion designer in Cow's Lane, Temple Bar, Dublin initially and in Topshop, where she worked as a clothes fashion designer for six years.

"I've been making dresses since I was a child," said Ms Sweetman. "I had a Singer sewing machine when I was only six. When I think of it now, my mother was very brave to let me at the sewing machine so young. Yet I had my own clothes label when I was 17 and I sold my clothes in Temple Bar - and that's how I paid for my college fees."

Ms Sweetman studied fashion design in Sallynoggin for a year.

It was around then that Top Shop started to look for some young Irish designers to design its clothes. Ms Sweetman got an offer and she took it. "That was an opportunity I had to grab," she said.

"Then I fell out of love with how disposable high street fashion is. You make something beautiful - but it has such a short shelf life. So I started making jewellery."

Ms Sweetman trained under the master silversmith Cormac Cuffe.

Coming from a background in fashion design, she took a different approach to jewellery than traditional masters of the trade. Rather than carve something from scratch, she creates moulds from natural things - such as feathers and twigs.

"While I was learning my trade, I asked myself that if I want to design a feather, why would I carve the perfect feather when nature has already got the perfect feather," she said. "So I mould the feather rather than carve it. By doing this, I get all the tiny little details of the feather that make the piece perfect."

One of her pieces, for example, is a swan feather necklace. The feather for this necklace was found along the banks of Dublin's Grand Canal, hand-painted with copper paint and the copper-encased feather was then used to make a mould which itself is used to cast the swan feather pieces.

She also used wood from the same hawthorn tree which gave her the 'Just the Two of Us' piece to design her own wedding ring and that of her husband, Brian.

"My ring is cast from a hawthorn tree twig and Brian's from hawthorn tree bark - both from wood from the same tree," she said.

She clearly enjoys making rings for people that are special to her. When she got married, she made her mother a ring called 'We Are Twice As Strong Together'.

"This ring is cast from a piece of old-fashioned twine and when it's worn it looks like two separate rings stacked together - but when you turn your hand over, you can see the two rings join together," said Ms Sweetman.

"I love the idea that my mum and I are two different people but we are joined together and stronger for it. I have one too and it's a lovely piece that always makes me smile."

Ms Sweetman set up her jeweller's in April 2012 - towards the end of the economic recession. She feels the recession has won her many customers.

"People became much more discerning about what they bought when the recession hit," she said.

"People wanted to buy beautiful things, made well - so the recession changed their whole attitude to shopping and products. I hope this attitude of valuing things properly stays with us."

Chupi Jewellery has a store based in Powerscourt Town Centre and it makes its jewellery in its studio in Dublin 8.

The company employs nine people and is hoping to hire more in the spring.

"One of the nicest things about what we do is that we make precious jewellery that becomes part of people's magical moments," she said.

Ms Sweetman has had some famous customers.

Celebrities such as Ruby Wax, and Marina and the Diamonds have worn her jewellery.

Kit Harrington - who plays Jon Snow in the hit TV fantasy series Game of Thrones - also bought some jewellery from the store recently.

The company's turnover has grown by about 250pc year-on-year over the last two years, according to Ms Sweetman.

As well as selling in Ireland, it ships to 65 countries, including Japan, Argentina, Russia, Korea and the Philippines. Its biggest foreign markets are the United States, Britain and Germany.

"We have a globe in our studio - it's lovely to look at and see all the places around the world where people are wearing our jewellery," said Ms Sweetman.

So why is there such a demand for Ms Sweetman's pieces around the world?

"People appreciate the idea that the pieces are beautiful things - made with love," she said.

"Everything we make is made of precious metal. People know that if they buy something from us, they'll still have it in 30 years' time - and longer."

The company makes 18-carat gold-plated sterling silver as well as sterling silver pieces.

It will be launching a line of 14-carat solid gold pieces this spring and an engagement ring collection on February 29.

So Ms Sweetman is very busy - but she is one of those people who clearly loves her work.

"I love that I'm making pieces that someone's great great granddaughter will be wearing some day," she said. "I'm making something which won't age."

She feels there has been "an incredible response" to the jewellery that her company is designing.

"It's a great time for Irish designers at the moment," she said. "It does feel like we're on the crest of a wave."

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