The woman behind Vanilla Ink, Dundee’s inspiring jewellery initiative.
Dundee jewellery collective Vanilla Ink found itself in the spotlight after winning £8,000 through crowdfunding to finance a trip to IJL. Rachael Taylor speaks to founder Kate Pickering about the one-year programme, franchise plans and introducing jewellers to the trade.
You’ve probably never heard of Kate Pickering, but you’ll most likely have read about the Dundee-based jewellery initiative she’s founded; it’s the one that’s been grabbing headlines with its plight to use crowdfunding to finance a trip to IJL in September.
Pickering started Vanilla Ink after an unsatisfactory step into the jewellery industry designing under her own name left her with a sinking feeling that university had not prepared her for the outside world quite as well as it could have.
"I was a jeweller working under my own name, and waitressing and doing any other odd job I could," says Pickering. "I felt like the industry was a lot more difficult that I was prepared for. I’d been taught how to make jewellery, but not how to become a jeweller."
Despite these negative feelings about her skill set, or lack thereof, Pickering returned to the university where she studied jewellery – Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee – to do a designer in residence course and some teaching, which she still does.
In 2009, with her confidence up and experience in the world of education under her belt, Pickering’s mind wandered back to the sharp drop from education to starting your own jewellery business. While she herself had moved on from that time in her life she wanted to help others and set out to create an environment that would enrich jewellers’ understanding of the industry – and themselves – to help them get better prepared for success.
And so Vanilla Ink was born, as an idea more than anything else, admits Pickering, but once she won funding from Starter for 6, a Scottish enterprise scheme run by the Cultural Enterprise Office, vanillainkstudios.co.uk went live.
"Starter for 6 is a six-month programme that you go to once a month with an innovative business idea and they help you to make it a sustainable business idea," explains Pickering. "When I got funding to start the website I spent day and night glued to my computer, following people on Twitter, starting forum conversations, then I went around degree shows and talked to people about whether Vanilla Ink needed a physical presence."
The feedback was that it did and so Pickering went after more funding, this time from the Prince’s Trust. She won enough investment to buy equipment and rent a unit in a redeveloped jute mill in the centre of the city, leased by artists’ charitable organisation Wasps, which has similar spaces all over Scotland, and that was when the project really "grew arms and legs", as she says.
Pickering was able to use the space to set up a full-time support programme with a rolling intake of jewellers that changes each year, and suddenly Vanilla Ink was no longer conceptual but functional.
"Last year was the first year, so I’m amazed we got the numbers we needed to fill the space," says Pickering. "Hopefully this year [applications open in April with a September intake] it will be a bit more in demand as people have seen what we can do."
What they do is offer a space at the bench in the Meadow Mill workshop, use of all the equipment, necessities such as phone and internet, business advice workshops, one-to-one mentoring, a placing in the soon-to-launch online Vanilla Ink store and, most importantly, a supportive and collaborative environment in which to work.
"We have eight jewellers on the Vanilla Ink programme," says Pickering. "It lasts a year [although jewellers can stay in the space for up to two years] and we will have eight new jewellers every year. The idea is that Vanilla Ink is a stepping stone, so people don’t get comfortable, they keep challenging themselves and make the most of that year."
Vanilla Inkers, as Pickering affectionately calls them, have to pay a fee to be part of the group but it is much lower than what it would cost them to set up on their own. Although the scheme is in its infancy it has a strong draw; jeweller Victoria Kelsey left London, where she had worked with Husam el Odeh, part of this year’s Rock Vault line up, to move to Dundee to join Vanilla Ink, and fellow Inker Ruth Morrison travels by bus from Glasgow every day to be there.
With application time just around the corner what does Pickering look for in her Vanilla Inkers? "Passion and a drive," she states, with no hesitation. "People willing to take this seriously, not as just a hobby to fill the time between part-time jobs. People that can see themselves going further into the industry."
The evolutionary step from designer-maker to jewellery brand is often facilitated by exhibiting at trade shows. For most new designers this is too pricey an option, but Pickering and her pioneering spirit were determined to make sure that the inaugural Vanilla Ink group had this experience available to them.
She started looking into exhibitions and just before Christmas found herself perusing the price list for London show IJL. "I looked at the prices and thought it was really cheap," she says. "I said ‘Don’t worry guys, we’ll cover this easy’ and then I realised that it was the price per square foot."
Once Pickering stopped laughing at her blunder, she started to think about serious ways to raise the cash and her mind turned to crowdfunding – online schemes to raise money to fund a project through high volumes of low monetary pledges – and she went to talk it through with her own mentor, who thought it was a good idea.
Pickering says that she was always fairly confident in raising the £6,000 through website Kickstarter to take the group to IJL because of the size of their collective network of supporters, but says she was overwhelmed by just how much support they got.
After encouraging people to make pledges by offering jewellery, courses, Vanilla Ink aprons and general undying gratitude, the fundraising project closed last month with the team winning not the £6,000 they had asked for but £8,115 from 242 backers.
The pressure is now on, says Pickering, with many eyes on Vanilla Ink’s debut at IJL after taking such a high-profile road to get there. All eight designers will be there to show their work, plus Pickering and Vanilla Ink designer in residence Jo McFadyen, and Pickering says she plans to make IJL an annual event on the group’s calendar although she "won’t do a Kickstarter every year, it’s probably too much to ask".
Regular appearances at IJL are not the only plan on the horizon for Vanilla Ink. Pickering is thinking much bigger.
Pickering is not originally from Dundee – she comes from nearby Fife – and she says that while the city is changing phenomenally at the moment becoming more of a cultural hotspot, particularly with the opening of the V&A museum there, and while she wants to "ride that wave" she doesn’t envisage herself living there forever. In fact, she is quite taken with Brighton.
This gives a little clue to the future of Vanilla Ink, and Pickering confirms that her long-term goal is to franchise the business and have Vanilla Ink studios popping up all over the UK. She describes herself as a control freak and as such says she would like to keep ultimate control over the network of studios, but ideally she would love to leave the running of them to other people while she focuses on one, the Brighton studio should that ever become a reality.
So how much is this just a pipe dream? "Let’s just say that there is already talk of Vanilla Ink 2," she says. "I can’t say anything right now but let’s say that it could happen in the next year or two years."
Who are the Vanilla Inkers?
A Scottish designer who creates jewellery that uses bold, simple metal frames, often featuring delicate detail in wire, attached to, or suspended in, resin. Her work uses traditional metalworking skills and textile techniques.
An award-winning Portuguese jeweller whose work explores the ancient technique of filigree and presents it in a modern way through delicate and detailed metalwork.
The designer in residence at Vanilla Ink who is there to support the budding young talent. Her own jewellery work focuses on precious metal clay, a technique that she has developed.
The boss of the operation whose function is to help her Inkers succeed while growing the business and making it a viable model for potential franchise.
This graduate from Duncan of Jordanstone has based her silver jewellery brand on organising squares in different shapes to create playful jewels that instil confidence in the wearer.
The only male of the Vanilla Ink outfit is a graduate of the Birmingham School of Jewellery. His work is concerned with the weaving of metals and takes inspiration from engineering.
This Glasgow resident travels to Dundee every day to develop her collections of jewellery that incorporate tweed from her home town of Harris.
After losing her grandmother this jeweller incorporated pieces of her clothing into silver as a way to preserve her memory, and now does the same for her clients. She also has a more commercial line using vintage fabrics sourced in charity shops.
Skin is the inspiration for this jeweller’s work, with her designs capturing the subtle textures of the skin to create both wearable and statement designs, some of which have intricate stone settings.
A Yorkshire lass who has worked for other jewellers before setting up her own brand inspired by discarded objects, grime and abandoned buildings.
This interview was taken from the April issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the edition online, click here.