Mercedes Palmer-Higgens is a history buff, a symbolism junkie, a treasure hunter. Each of her Pearly Hawker pieces is infused with storytelling and designed to hold the interest not just of its current owner but any future generations that might find it in their possession.
It is unsurprising that she has fallen in love with history, having a very rich family background as a starting point. The jewellery designer can trace her heritage back to the famous Pearly Kings and Queens of London, whose elaborate pearl button costumes shone as brightly as their charitable work. On the other side, she is descended from hawkers – those colourful, vociferous travelling salespeople that so often pop up in Dickens’ writing.
Palmer-Higgens has carried this rich spirit of storytelling into her jewels, which take inspiration from a diverse cornucopia of sources, such as Greek, Roman and Norse mythology, as well as local history from her hometown of Colchester and heavy metal lyrics. Working in solid 9ct gold or gold-plated brass, Pearly Hawker jewels are a hoard worth discovering, as she tells us here.
Tell us about your brand.
“My brand is Pearly Hawker. That may sound like a strange name, as most people know about the Pearly Kings and Queens or Hawkers in general, but never a Pearly Hawker. That is a name I created when trying to come up with a word for my work. I make wearable stories, that take influence from the things that I love or interest me. For example, my home town, my family, friends, comics, video games, history, music. It can be a long list, but it’s all there and I didn’t just want to use my name, for the designs can be so theatrical or symbolic. So, I thought about who I am from a descendant point of view, and that was how I realised I’m a Pearly Hawker; first of my kind, as far as I know, and that has allowed me to create a story around even myself. The Pearly Hawker is a character that can pick a piece of history or myth and turn it on its head to create something both respectful but new. Made by hand, everything has a life of its own. My aim with my brand is to not only to make interesting, beautiful and wearable pieces, but to also make those amazing pieces that when passed down will still be magical and new.”
What inspires you?
“Now there’s a question. In the words of my nan: if it’s useless, I’ll remember it. I come from a family of tangents, literally in one sentence you will not only get from A to B, but you will also talk about five or six other subjects that key in on the way. Thanks to this, I have a tangent way of thinking, which has been very helpful with my work.
Can you give us an example?
When I first started making designs, I tried to find a reason or an example to explain how I work. It wasn’t until a real eureka moment that I realised I was allowed to put my tangent way of thinking into my work. I was in my third year at uni and I had discovered jewellery and mythologies based on beetles. I live by a river and every summer we get these giant stag beetles flying about the place, so it felt like a good place to start, like it was part of me. I was really stuck though. I couldn’t work out how to use beetles and give the meaning and symbolism I like, so it kind of got put to the side. [Finnish heavy metal band] Amorphis, by sheer luck, were playing a gig in London at the time and I’d managed to get a ticket. It was at that gig that suddenly everything clicked. They played one of my favourite songs, The Silver Bride. The minute I started singing along to the lyrics, it was like the lyrics helped me map out the design. The story of the song mixing with the zoomorphic knot work imagery I’d seen on the Oseburg ship, it all melded together and I spent that evening drawing up my Silver Bride necklace. Since then I haven’t worked any other way.”
What made you want to become a jewellery designer?
“I had always had a fascination with jewellery, more for its historical and theatrical element when I was younger. I’m a classically trained violinist and singer, who is also friends with many talented people who work in the arts and theatre. So opera, ballet, plays, movies… it all added to a strange knowledge of jewellery, which when mixed with my interest in history I started noticing where certain shapes or designs originated and their meaning. I’d wander round town and my family would hear me explain a certain shape I’d seen in a high street store, and they’d say ‘you should be a jeweller’. It wasn’t until my brother got into uni that I seriously wondered if I could be a jeweller. I started looking on Google for places I could learn and there it was Sir John Cass, a place I’d been told about when I was younger. That was a real ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ moment. I honestly didn’t think they’d let me apply, but then I got an interview and on the day of induction I sat down with my teacher Heidi and it was like everything fell into place. It took me two years to really get my confidence about it, but after my third year there was no other option. I was going to be a jewellery designer, even if I just made pieces for my family.”
How are your jewels made?
“Working from drawings, I hand carve everything. I start with wax, cutting it down and using my carving tools and files. I work into the block until I find the shape I want and sometimes even add wax to build in detail. Once that’s done, I get the piece cast. Then it’s just a case of polishing and or setting stones. I like working with wax; it’s fiddly but it gives a lot more freedom to create once you find your way of working with it.”
Tell us about your latest collection.
“My latest collection is still on going, really. They’re all pieces inspired by my hometown. There’s a lot I still need to add and work on, but I’m really pleased with the path it’s taking, and the different options we have in the works.”
What else are you working on now?
“Currently, I’m working on pieces for my Charity section, called Sixes and Sevens. It’s inspired by my great grandfather and his brother and the work they did to help the elderly in the area. They’d take them on day trips, make special get togethers. It was all to make sure that no one was alone, no one was forgotten and no one was left living their older years helplessly. I wanted to do my own version, carry on the good work, as it were, and share my luck. My parents taught me that you should never take good things for granted, and I have been very lucky in my own way and I want to put that forward. So I’m working on individual pieces that will be dedicated to different causes that I choose, so that whenever someone buys one they’ll be donating towards the charity or cause that it’s for. I’ll be uploading pieces one at a time, but that’s because I don’t want to rush the designs. This is important and I want to do it right.”