Color First and Foremost: The Rock Hound
Susi Smither lives the mantra of color daily. Founder of The Rock Hound, her collections are internationally renowned for their innovative design, ethical sourcing, and cutting-edge aesthetic. A lover of rocks, Susi creates concepts around the stones. Here, she shares fun anecdotes behind her brand.
The Rock Hound is a brand that stands for responsible sourcing and sustainability. Was there any event that happened, or a turning point, that made you decide to make responsible sourcing and sustainability part of your mission? If yes, what was it? How did that inspire you to create your own brand?
There was a definitive lightbulb moment for sure. When I graduated from Gem-A in London with my FGA, I had an insatiable thirst for knowledge of all things gem related. The Scottish Gemmological Association was organizing a field trip to Sri Lanka in 2013, and I jumped at the chance to spend two weeks with fellow gem geeks.
The itinerary not only gave us the opportunity to buy gems in one of the world’s leading gem-producing countries but had us traveling around the island visiting mines & gem markets. As I was scrabbling around on my first pile of tailings, I was struck at the disparity between mine and the market (I was working in Hatton Garden at the time). It seemed as though the relationship between the two worlds had been severed, and that didn’t seem fair to the miners who’d toiled to extract the rough material.
It was at that mine that I bought my first parcel of rough and there was no going back from that moment, once I’d seen firsthand the conditions that artisanal and small-scale miners work in, I knew the direction I wanted to take. I left my job, embarked on my final bit of training, jewelry design at the GIA in London, then set up The Rock Hound in 2015.
We know your mission for The Rock Hound is to produce cutting-edge pieces that keep the principles of responsible sourcing close to the heart. What techniques or practices do you use to unite these two goals of yours [cutting edge pieces that are also sustainably made]?
As I was starting my business from scratch, I took the time to engage with different suppliers and build relationships with people who held the same principles as me. A lot of designers work out the piece they want to make and then source the stones, but I work in reverse. I often buy my gemstones from artisan lapidaries who travel the world sourcing their own rough materials, and then design and cut them to their own specifications. This not only gives great transparency but unique cut gemstones too. I then create pieces around these stones.
The collections and pieces currently displayed on your website are full of color and life. How would you describe your style as an artist?
First and foremost it is all about the gemstones – as I like to say, we let the rocks be the star of the show! When I design each piece, the settings, style, and any colored finish I use is all about bringing out the best in each gemstone.
I’m also obsessed with the natural form of gems and minerals, replicating their crystalline structure and repeating it in metals. Creating pieces that pay homage to Mother Nature’s ingenuity.
The Rock Hound specializes in Bespoke design, correct? How do you find the middle ground between what a client envisions and what you envision for a piece?
Creating bespoke jewelry is always an honor. I love hearing our client’s ideas and getting to know about who is going to wear that piece, whether it is the person who has approached me or it is a top-secret engagement ring. Asking their style, what they like to wear, what jewelry they wear every day – generally getting a feel for their likes and dislikes. As a jewelry designer and gemologist, as well as a goldsmith I’m able to help them fulfill their ideas by running through different options and methods for creating their piece all whilst keeping their budget in mind. I have quite a library, so often we get books out and flick through them to get a sense of pieces they like or Pinterest is good too. I’ve had brides come to me with boards of inspiration.
Then, I sketch away until I’ve come up with 3 or 4 different ideas that I present to the client. If the piece requires gems (sometimes clients bring me their stones to work with) now is a great time to show an array of gems I’ve sourced and talk through how it would be best to work with each. Once they’ve decided on the direction they want the design to take and they’ve chosen their stone(s) I then take that one style further. It’s a journey we go on together until I get it spot on. This all culminates in a hand-painted gouache render which is drawn to scale. I gift this painting to the client at the end with their piece of jewelry.
A great example of this is an engagement ring I created last year. The client came to me with the idea of an evil eye as a nod to his Greek heritage, not your typical engagement ring. Since this was one of those top-secret missions I felt the need to refine this idea so the ring would be elegant and not turn out too gaudy. The first step was responsibly sourcing an exquisite Sri Lankan sapphire and the one we settled on was indicative of the Aegean Sea – we were off to a good start as this would be the center of the eye. A trip to the British Museum for inspiration was key at this stage and I took lots of pictures to discuss with the client. We then added the white of the eye in a delicate frame of pave set diamonds. All of this was encased in textured 22K recycled yellow gold as if it was a treasured artifact. The finished piece was engraved in Greek with both their names facing into the eye – bestowing the ring with talismanic charm for generations.
Can you tell us more about the GoldRush collection, specifically about the style?
This was the first collection I created as The Rock Hound. I am proud to be a Fairtrade Gold licensee and work with traceable Peruvian gold which not only ensures the miners a fair price for their gold but through the Fairtrade Premium gives money back to their community. I wanted to create jewelry to champion this Fairtrade Gold and the sustainable relationship this supply chain fosters. By taking the gold back to its “nugget” form there is a deeper understanding and connection between mine and market and hopefully sparking awareness of artisanal and small-scale miners’ stories.
Is there a piece or a collection you are most proud of?
Our Chromanteq Collection. I really pushed the boundaries of design and utilized cutting edge techniques mixed with centuries-old methods to create one-off pieces with sumptuous gemstones and eye-popping color combinations. We’d put so much work in at that point and this collection put us on the map leading to a couple of awards: New Designer of the Year at the UK Jewelry Awards 2017 and Editors’ Choice, Technical Trailblazer at International Jewelry London 2017. Sometimes when you create pieces that are out of the norm you wonder if you’ve taken it too far so to get recognition from the industry at that point in my career was a moment I’ll never forget.
How do you want your jewelry to resonate with people? How do you want them to feel when they wear it?
When my clients buy jewelry from us they aren’t just owning a gorgeous piece of jewelry but are buying into our ethos and supporting our supply chains. One of the joys of having an ethical jewelry brand is that each piece has a story and a connection. So when someone compliments them on their earrings or asks where they got their ring from they’ll be empowered to say exactly where those gems are from and proud that they’re part of that story.
In your blog, you talk about “Personal Creative Sustainability.” Can you briefly explain this concept to our readers?
The concept of sustainability is crucial in a world where we are all growing conscious of the natural resources we use and being wary of not overusing them to the point we run out. Well, during a particularly hard time a couple of years ago I became conscious of my dwindling creative energy and how I should be treating it as a personal resource to be nurtured and protected in order to sustain my innate desire to create. To me, this is particularly true of social media and I now take regular breaks when I feel I need a bit of a buffer to regroup my creative energy.
Has motherhood changed anything in the way you view or make jewelry?
Apart from not wearing earrings for 4 months (so my son doesn’t pull them out) I’ve definitely got a craving to create more personalized pieces. I’ve been learning engraving, so my next mission is to perfect engraving fonts so I can bring this into my work. It’s also been a great time for personal reflection but this could also be partly as I turned 40 last year which is a pivotal life marker.
Besides being a recognized ethical brand, what else do you want people to think when they think of The Rock Hound?
Color first and foremost – whether that’s my jewelry, the gemstones we use, or even my hair!
Besides the one-to-one consultations with you at the East London HQ, is there any other way international clients can connect with you for a bespoke design?
Since we’ve entered this brave new world in 2020 one of the benefits is everyone has perfected the art of Zooming so I can now have more face to face meetings no matter how far away a client is. Always happy to have an initial talk through any ideas, just get in touch.
Do you have a technique of choice or something in the process of jewelry making that fascinates you?
I love creating the old school renders, but first and foremost I create the pieces in my head. I’ve always got a few pieces floating around and daydream the designs. I’m always on the lookout for inspiration, whether that’s stone carvings of a ruined church or iron railings on a walk, and I file them away waiting for the right moment. If I’m having trouble with a certain part of how design fits together, I’ve even been known to dream about it and then the final design comes together the next day. The way the mind works will always fascinate me and I feel blessed to be able to harness my inner CAD.
What plans do you have that you’d like our readers to be knowledgeable of? Any new collections launching or events taking place?
I’ve been busy behind the scenes creating a new collection in collaboration with Turquoise Mountain in Myanmar. Turquoise Mountain’s aim is to preserve and regenerate historic areas through reviving traditional crafts, and I’ve been working with their goldsmiths in Yangon to create pieces with natural spinel crystals.
To find out more about The Rock Hound and Susi Smither’s ethical mission and singular designs, please visit https://www.therockhound.com/