Bringing together her ancestry of Spanish Hawkers and Pearly Kings and Queens, Colchester-based jeweller Mercedes Palmer-Higgins has a self-confessed tangential approach to designing. She uses her interests in history, mythical tales and even Dungeons and Dragons to shape and inspire her designs, creating wearable works of art under her brand Pearly Hawker.
Mercedes’ fascination with symbolism and storytelling culminates in dramatic and beautiful pieces, which she will be showcasing at The Jewellery Cut Live in association with Fuli Gemstones 2021. Every piece she creates is hand-carved and she only uses high-quality materials to shape and influence her jewellery.
Ahead of the weekend, we heard from the designer about how she found her way into the jewellery industry in an apple field, the rich history of Colchester and how her family has influenced her work with Pearly Hawker.
Jewellery designer Mercedes Palmer-Higgins of Pearly Hawker
How did you find your way into the jewellery industry?
“As odd as it sounds, I was picking apples for £18 a crate. I had always been fascinated with jewellery thanks to my family and what they taught me. Did you know that jewellery used to be a way of communicating before you’d even said one word to someone? Back when many people couldn’t read or write, symbols were used to express ideas and information. Snake jewellery represented authority and adaptability. Scorpion imagery worn by Roman Legions would determine which group they belonged to. I love that concept and it made me think about what jewellery said to me about others as I grew up.
“It was from this curiosity and talking the ear off of my grandfather, that he first suggested I give being a jeweller a try. I went to a fantastic school that really pushed for you to go into what you loved, but there was no example for the jewellery industry. In fact, I didn’t even realise it was something you could study.
“It wasn’t until later down the line when I’d gone down the art route, I found myself a little stuck when my uncle suggested Sir John Cass. I’d done a foundation course in Jewellery, half out of curiosity and half out of needing to see if I could get into the industry. Well, I was sat in an apple field picking apples with my friends and I googled ‘Sir John Cass’. It was a very “what’s the worst that can happen?” moment, as my mother would put it.
“I called up, asked if I could apply, and the woman on the phone invited me for an interview in a weeks time. The rest, as they say, is history. I got accepted and never looked back. It was both the most amazing and terrifying moment of my life, but only because it was the first time I thought “Yeah, this is what I’m meant to be doing.”
Tell us about the Pearly Hawker brand.
“Pearly Hawker is a name I created when trying to come up with a word for my work and myself as a maker. I make wearable stories that take influence from the things that I love or interest me. The best examples are my home town, my family, comics, video games, history, music, even Dungeons and Dragons. It can be a long list at times, but it’s all there and I didn’t want to just use my name as the designs can be so theatrical or symbolic.
“They needed a marker, something that could represent all of those things I love. So, I thought about who I am from a descendant point of view. That was how I realised I’m a Pearly Hawker; the 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 creating something both respectful and new. Made by hand, everything has a life of its own. My aim with my brand is not only to make interesting, beautiful and wearable pieces but to also make those amazing pieces that when passed down will still feel magical and new.”
Pearly Hawker King Skull ring in brass, starting at £130, shop at Pearly Hawker
Where do you find inspiration?
“I come from a family of tangentials. Thanks to this, I have a tangential way of thinking, which has been very helpful with my work.
“Growing up in Colchester, we learnt about the Civil War as it had a big impact on the town. We still have the Siege House, which bears the markings where the Iron heads shot at the Royalists hiding inside. We also have a monument in Castle Park dedicated to the two Royalists shot for supporting the King. It was a bizarre moment in Colchester’s history.
“We weren’t a Royalist town at the time, but we fell out of love with the Parliamentarians over both the treatment of the remaining two Royalists that hid in our town and because of how the people of our town were treated at the time. We were shut in, no food, no trade, no help at all in case the Royalists tried to escape.
“It’s our history, but a strange thing to learn about at school because you don’t really have the agency to realise what happened or what those people went through. It was walking past the obelisk, thinking about those illustrations from my old textbook that made me think more about those toy soldiers I’d written about. Suddenly, they were so much more, the illustrations were almost too cartoonish compared to reality.
“That’s what inspired my ‘When you missed me’ ring and the matching ‘Strike the Iron’ ring. My toy soldiers, representing something very real but almost invisible. I think that’s how my brain works. I don’t want these stories to be forgotten, because once upon a time they weren’t stories, they were real and relevant.“
Pearly Hawker When you missed me and Strike the iron rings, both £170, shop at Pearly Hawker
How do you craft your jewels?
“Working from drawings, I hand carve everything. I start with wax, then cut it down 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.”
How do you keep your jewellery sustainable?
“Ethically, I concentrate on making sure I know where any stones I use come from. Sustainability wise, I have a few things in place. I only make my designs once they have been ordered, unless I’m taking part in a show.
“I try to re-use anything that I can and offer recycling work to customers who are interested in bespoke orders. I have some old gold rings with rubies set that were given to me and I’m planning on using both the metal and stones to give the rings a new life as something else, based on storybooks and fantasy designs.
“We have reused, reshaped and recycled jewellery all the way back to the 4th century BC and probably even before that. So recycling, re-working and re-using before looking into buying new is something I really want to try and help push.“
What new pieces are you working on?
“With the UK Games Expo going ahead this year, I started working on a Barrel Mimic design from Dungeons and Dragons. It’s had a good response and honestly, I’m really proud of it, as Mimics are one of my favourite monsters. I wanted to bring across not only my love for the creature and its fluidity in being, in my design but also for how much fun a game can be with the right people.
“I’ve also finally got my Sixes and Sevens collection started. This is inspired by my great grandfather and his brother and the work they did to help the elderly in the area. I wanted to carry on the good work 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.
“The first item available in Sixes and Sevens is a design that donates towards the Royal British Legion. It’s a skull ring with a soldier’s helmet on, called Certa Cito after the motto of the Royal Signals. There are more charities and conservations I’m making designs for, so it’s not quite finished but it’s going to be interesting.”
Pearly Hawker Barrel Mimic design
What are you bringing to The Jewellery Cut Live?
“I’m bringing some very theatrical pieces, and unfortunately, there are some pieces where there are only two available. I would definitely say come and have a look, have a chat. I love to meet new people and see what they take from my work. Everything I design comes from my experiences, my world and my thoughts. I think that’s been the beauty of jewellery throughout history. Where one symbol can mean something to someone, it can be on a completely different plain from someone else. So, come visit the Pearly Hawker and tell me what stories you find.”
Finally, what is your favourite piece of jewellery you own?
“That’s a tricky one, as I have more than one. I will try and simplify it, however, and probably say my rings. I was brought up that you need a ring for every finger and thumb. It’s kind of my armour now when I wear them. If I need to get ready for something important, or something I’m nervous about, I’ll be decked out in rings. They all have a meaning and frankly I panic if I can’t find them. I can deal with most things in life, but it’s nice to just have a moment where I can feel them and it’s like having someone there. A moment where you go “Ok, wasn’t expecting that, but I can do this”, I hope that doesn’t sound too mad.”
Pearly Hawker will be exhibiting at The Jewellery Cut Live in association with Fuli Gemstones. The show will take place on the 15th & 16th of October, 2021, at The Royal Institution in London’s Mayfair. Book your ticket here