Tuesday 23 July 2019

How Obama jewellery designer made her name with crucial brand switch

Martina Hamilton went from single Sligo shop to national retail success

Martina Hamilton says the turning point for eponymous business came when she rebranded and operated in a more professional and cohesive manner. Photo: Shane O’Neill/SON Photographic
Martina Hamilton says the turning point for eponymous business came when she rebranded and operated in a more professional and cohesive manner. Photo: Shane O’Neill/SON Photographic

Gabrielle Monaghan

All the chips seemed stacked against Martina Hamilton when the jewellery designer opened her studio in Sligo's Market Yard in 1990. Not only was Ireland still in the economic doldrums, but the high streets were dominated by mass-market jewellery shops. There was little in those early days to suggest that Martina's work would one day be stocked in some of Ireland's biggest retailers and even be gifted to an American president.

But as the Sligo native watched some of her contemporaries leave not just Sligo but the country in search of work, Martina was determined to make a living as a self-employed creative entrepreneur in her home town, with a diploma in fine art and sculpture course from what was then RTC Sligo under her belt.

"I was in my early 20s and there weren't a lot of job opportunities for people who had studied fine art and sculpture," she says.

Her determination to make her jewellery workshop succeed in Sligo was copper-fastened after meeting her future husband, Malcolm Hamilton, a playwright and founder director of the town's Blue Raincoat Theatre Company.

"We were babies when we met," Martina says. "He gatecrashed my 21st birthday party and we were married by the age of 25.

"I was in a romantic phase, because he was a writer and I was artistic. But really we were both hard-working and passionate individuals: he set up the theatre company and I set up a shop because there wasn't an outlet in Sligo where I could sell my designs."

Four years after setting up her jewellery shop, Martina opened The Cat & The Moon craft shop - named after a WB Yeats play - on Sligo's Market Street. She moved to a more central location, on Castle Street, in 1998. By 2002, Martina's business had grown enough for her to take out a mortgage for the listed Victorian building that housed the shop. The space was large enough not just for the store but also for workshop studios and an art gallery.

But when the recession struck, the designer realised she needed a fresh strategy to survive.

"The town was shrinking all around me and the only thing that had stood to me were the good relationships I had built up over the years," the 54-year-old says. "People might not have been buying for themselves but they'd come in and buy something for friends or family, or people would come in with envelopes of money collected from a whip-around at the office every time someone was made redundant.

"When the opportunity arose to go back in and change things, I found I didn't know the principles of economics. I couldn't change the global economy or the Irish economy or even that of Sligo town, but I realised I could manage things like changing the way the gallery operated and looking at where my efforts would yield the best results. So I started to design products to match the price point people were willing to pay."

In 2011, during the depths of the downturn, Martina opened the Hamilton gallery as a separate entity and set out to attract international artists. The gallery now hosts a continuous programme of solo and group exhibitions by leading contemporary visual artists.

"We even had Brendan Gleeson open an exhibition one year, though my daughters lost interest in him when he didn't show up as Mad-Eye Moody (the Hogwarts professor in some of the Harry Potter films)," Martina says.

The real turning point in Martina's business, however, came about when she created a distinct brand for her jewellery. "When my daughters came along, they were given Hamilton as the family name but I had been operating as Martina Gillen and I had sold my jewellery under my shop name, which other retailers weren't too happy about when I would try to sell to them," she says.

"It was all too confusing. So I decided to begin again and call my brand Martina Hamilton. That brand changed everything in my business because it forced me to define a style. I no longer came at everything as an art student but as a businesswoman, and it made me operate in a much more professional and cohesive manner."

Malcolm took a break from the theatre and revamped Martina's ecommerce presence so customers could shop both from The Cat & The Moon website, which includes collections from other Irish craft makers and designers, and from her eponymous website Martinahamilton.ie. Most of her online sales come from international customers who fall in love with her designs while visiting Sligo. The two businesses, as well as the gallery, now employ 10 people, including master goldsmiths and members of Martina's extended family.

Martina's contemporary silver and gold designs are now sold in 25 retail outlets, including Kilkenny Design on Dublin's Nassau Street, Avoca, Arnotts, Kilkenny Shop, Blarney Woollen Mills, and the gift shop at the National Museum. Sales of her designs at the Irish-only jewellery counter in Arnotts doubled in October and November from a year earlier, while her Sligo sales rose about 10pc last year.

Martina also designs bespoke pieces, the most famous of which was presented by ex-Taoiseach Enda Kenny to former US President Barack Obama at the White House on St Patrick's Day in 2013. Sligo's Yeats Day Committee, which organises celebrations to honour Yeats on his birthday, commissioned the piece, which is based on Innisfree island, the inspiration for the poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree. The designer also produced silver cufflinks for Obama and Kenny.

Two years later, on the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, Joanna Lumley was given a Yeatsian rose necklace Martina had crafted for the British actress when the star formally opened Yeats's Secret Garden in Sligo.

Martina says: "I had heard Joanna Lumley was coming to Sligo and that she was a big Yeats fan, so I made her the piece. I came along to the opening of the garden to meet her and I was like a schoolgirl - I was even more excited than at the thought of Obama getting my work! She wrote the most amazing email to me afterwards, saying she loved the necklace so much she planned on wearing it when she took her last breath."

Martina's designs are largely inspired by the seascape in Co Sligo, because she grew up and lives near Lissadell Beach. These coastal influences are evident in her latest jewellery collection, called Shore.

When Martina expanded the Shore Collection in October by adding five pieces, she made celebrity garden designer and interior architect Leonie Cornelius her brand ambassador.

Leonie, who is also known for her role as a mentor and judge on RTE's Super Garden, first met Martina 20 years ago when she did work experience at The Cat & The Moon during her transition year at school.

The collaboration with Leonie began when Martina asked her last year to model some jewellery from the Shore Collection in a seashore-themed photo shoot for the Martina Hamilton website.

"There are loads of ways we could collaborate in the future - maybe I'll design a garden and she'll design jewellery," Martina says.


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