The craft jeweller who fashioned a teenage love of art into a goldmine
A love of art as a teenager helped forge a lucrative career in gold for the creative Tuula Harrington, writes Gabrielle Monaghan
When Tuula Harrington, the founder of DesignWorks Studio in Cork city, was a teenager, her Finnish mother and Irish father introduced her to a family friend who would shape her career. Gabrielle Muller Heffter, a German master goldsmith who visited the Harrington family at their Co Waterford home, spotted potential in the art-loving teenager and invited her to her studio in the Italian town of Assisi for the summer. There, Gabrielle introduced Tuula to the ancient craft of goldsmithing, which Irish metalworkers have been practising since the Bronze Age.
Tuula's parents had no qualms about sending the then 16-year-old to Italy for the summer.
"My Irish grandfather was a trained painter, though he ended up working as a tailor, and art was my favourite subject at school," says Tuula, who is now 42. "It's often said that studying art is all well and good but you'll never make a living out of it. But the goldsmithing opportunity came up, my parents were fantastic and encouraged me to pursue it.
"When I got to Assisi, Gabrielle asked me to do a little sketch and to design something.
"I drew this Celtic firebird and she said: 'now we're going to make it'. Afterwards, she told me that the metal I had used was 18ct gold. It was an expensive experiment, but I still have the piece and goldsmithing has been my path ever since."
In 1993, Tuula finished the Leaving Cert and returned to Assisi to take up a three-year apprenticeship with Gabrielle. Once she had finished, Tuula spent a year studying art in Galway and then went to the UK.
In 2000, she graduated with a degree in metalwork and jewellery from Sheffield Hallam University, having completed the three-year course in just two years thanks to the skills she had picked up in Italy.
When Tuula had completed her education, she opted to settle down in Cork because she had friends there and believed it would be an easier city in which to establish herself as a goldsmith than Dublin, where she was born.
She enjoyed some success quite early on: in 2000, she was commissioned to create a one-off piece for then-president Mary McAleese that symbolised the world-renowned craftsmanship of early Ireland.
Keen to avoid a "nine-to-five job", the goldsmith and jewellery designer set up her own workshop on Cork's Grand Parade in 2004.
There, Tuula learned how to take orders for custom-made pieces of jewellery, and gradually began to make small ranges of silver jewellery for outlets such as the Kilkenny Shop and Designyard in Dublin.
Getting a taste for the retail industry this way gave her the confidence and knowledge to dip her toe into Cork's retail market in 2007, when she set up DesignWorks in the Winthrop Arcade, an l-shaped Tudor revival-style landmark building that first opened in 1926.
DesignWorks, however, was no run-of-the-mill retailer: the concept was for a jewellery shop-cum-gallery-cum-workshop where shoppers could see in-house goldsmiths making their bespoke jewellery or buy work from other independent designers in the store. The inspiration for the concept came about from Tuula realising it was better for goldsmiths and jewellery designers to work together rather than trying to carve out a living on their own.
"I wanted to turn goldsmithing into a sustainable way of earning a living," she says.
A year after moving to the Winthrop Arcade, Tuula made feather earrings for Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall to wear to the Brit Awards. When KT's Tiger Suit album was about to be released in 2010, the singer asked Tuula to craft a tiger-themed necklace.
When the lease on Tuula's outlet in the Winthrop Arcade expired in 2010, she relocated to a larger premises on Cornmarket Street, where DesignWorks has been based since.
While the recession took its toll on the business, it did have an unexpected benefit.
"During the recession, people stopped and thought about what they were spending money on," she says. "So, discerning clients were coming to us and saying: 'we've bought all the big brands and it's now time to invest in Irish design'. Other clients came to us with old jewellery and asked us to restyle it rather than justifying buying something new."
Turnover has shored up significantly since then, with DesignWorks recording growth of 9pc a year over the last six years. Business has especially picked up in the last 12 months, with high-end clients now spending between €13,000 and €15,000 on commissioned pieces, compared to between €8,000 and €10,000 a year ago.
"Fortunately, people have been a bit more confident in spending money over the last year. "We don't get commissions for 18ct bracelets with diamonds and emeralds every day of the week, but there has been a lovely increase in people buying good quality engagement rings.
"Building up our reputation has been crucial and we're very lucky to have good word-of-mouth from a loyal crowd."
The business only generates "a tiny proportion" of its sales online, with the website mostly used as a virtual shopfront for customers to browse before going into DesignWorks to make a considered a purchase.
Tuula says: "With more expensive pieces, people like to look at them online and then come into us and try them on, especially at the top end of the market with engagement rings and diamonds."
The entrepreneur now employs two goldsmiths and sells the work of 12 different designers in all. Cal Shaw, her partner in life, is now also her business partner after DesignWorks merged with his men's jewellery business, Rebel Heart Foundry, this summer.
Cal developed the jewellery line after running a motorbike shop that built and repaired custom bikes, using expertise and skills he gleaned from 20 years in the motorcycle industry to engineer rings, cufflinks, necklaces and lapel pins for men.
"The jewellery is influenced by the motorbike trade," says Tuula.
"The funny thing is that some men might say 'I'm not interested in jewellery' but then they'll see a ring Cal has designed to look like a car grille and that will change their minds."
The merger with Rebel Heart Foundry also led to the introduction of an in-house computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) department at DesignWorks. This department, run by Cal, uses software to carve intricate designs onto custom-made settings in a way that would be geometrically impossible to do by hand, such as a University College Cork crest produced as cufflinks and a 1916 centenary ring made last year for musician and singer Gavin Friday.
Computer design also enables clients to see exactly what the finished piece of jewellery will look like.
Tuula, meanwhile, used a stint in hospital last year to design a new collection of rings, earrings and pendants called Duille Nua.
She plans to launch it this year and once that is done, she has an even bigger goal in sight - bringing DesignWorks to Milan Fashion Week next year.
Sunday Indo Business