On creating jewellery using less-than-typical materials.
James Thompson is a Canadian designer now residing in Sweden, producing rings, bangles and other objects from carbon and Corian under the name Black Badger. He has won a growing fan base amongst members of the watch industry, collaborating with watch brands and retailers, as well as Warrs Harley-Davidson. He tells Professional Jeweller about his working processes.
Professional Jeweller: Tell us about your route into jewellery design – it was less than typical…
James Thompson: Well, it started with flunking out of design school in Vancouver. To be honest I was never happy with the program there, it was entirely a styling-based education. I’d be designing some kind of piece of rescue gear for firefighters, and the professor would walk by and say "Oh but this will never be in a fancy coffee-table book, can’t it be pretty?" I was really not happy with that. I didn’t want to just be decorating someone else’s world. This is partly why I came to study in Sweden, their way of teaching design is worlds different from the north American method. No grades, just pass or fail. This really gives you the courage to try something new. I started making rings and such during this time, as they weren’t for school projects, I didn’t have to answer to anyone. I could do as I pleased, as this really allowed to me to be very creative and experimental.
PJ: You have developed rings and bangles using Corian and carbon – why have you chosen to work with the materials?
JT: Carbon fibre is something I have always been fascinated by. It’s not even really that modern anymore but like titanium, it has a great amount of "oooh" factor. I was very much into bicycle racing in my younger days and the carbon fibre bikes always had this very alien design language to them – very organic forms that were not possible with other materials. This really piqued my interested, so I started buying the material and trying to make things at home. Cutting the carbon cloth and mixing up the epoxy. My father always reminds me that there is a small piece of the Vancouver Sun newspaper from around 1998 that is permanently sealed into the garage floor.
My real love with carbon fibre is the structure, the layer matrix within the material. Most times we see carbon fibre being used (Koenigsegg cars, Hublot watches) we are seeing this very rectilinear pattern, this familiar checkerboard pattern caused by the weave of the material. I started experimenting with the cross-section of thicker carbon plates which gives an entirely different aesthetic. My early Sidecut carbon rings give a woodgrain appearance, a subtle silver-on-black shimmering that completely changes are you rotate the ring.
PJ: Where do you source your inspiration?
JT: I pride myself on being a bit of a mutant in the industry. Like it or not, I excel best in the fish-out-of-water type of situations. I’m a jewellery designer, but when I did my industrial design masters thesis in 2010 I accepted an invitation to spend two months in South Australia helping their navy develop concepts for next-generation submarines. This was so far outside of my comfort zone that it just had to work. Those kinds of environments are where the real breakthroughs will happen. I call them ‘genesis spark’ moments, when you can tell you are really off the edges of the map. In these situations the design will often just jump out at me. I have never worked in a linear, developmental fashion.
PJ: What kind of challenges or limitations do you have when it comes to using Corian and carbon?
JT: The limitations are the challenges, and that’s what I love about it. Both materials have become rather well-known lately, but well-known in fairly specific areas. Corian is very widely-used in interior architecture and has fantastic properties for this, as a solid-surface material. So it’s safe to say that a material that is robust enough to be used for work surfaces in hotel kitchens or as exterior cladding panels should be tough enough as a ring. Carbon allows me to create extremely elegant, minimalistic structures. I use this expression a lot, but there is a real sense of ‘honesty of materials’ in my work. Just like using fresh, local ingredients in a menu, I try and let the material speak for itself.
However, especially with carbon fibre, the material is exceedingly strong and rugged. So everything that I need to do by hand takes many, many times longer than with most mainstream jewellery materials. As much as carbon fiber has this reputation of being so NASA high-tech, it’s really just plywood’s sexy sister. Because of the way I am working, there really isn’t any kind of guidebook or roadmap to help me along. So I end up making many mistakes. But as they say on Mythbusters, failure is always an option.
PJ: You have been quite successful using free marketing. How has this worked?
JT: That’s a really good question. Because almost all of my business is online orders, I am only ever getting positive feedback. I mean if someone likes something, they email me and order it. If they don’t like it, they don’t email me. I might be having 10,000 people a day saying ‘Yuck!’ that I don’t know about. Social media has become absolutely vital to my way of working. At this point I’d say at least 90% of my orders are coming from my website, Facebook page, and Instagram and Twitter.
My very good friend, Simon Cudd, who works at Bell & Ross, has been very crucial in getting me onboard with these social media channels. In fact Twitter and Instagram have been a very effective back door into the watch industry for me. Simply by putting my work out there, and interacting with people in the industry, I’ve picked up several rather large collaborations. Schofield Watch Company, Warrs Harley-Davidson, Oakley, even a Formula 1 team, these are all collaborations that have been sparked off by friendly, social banter on these platforms.
Instagram is a very powerful tool. While meeting friends for a drink I took a picture of my hand holding the beer glass and wrote "Cheers all", and that’s it. Of course I made sure my ring was just slightly visible in the image, but didn’t make a big deal of it. Within about 20 minutes, several people responded with "Cheers back at you, have a great night, and hey tell me about that ring, where can I find it?"
You see, it’s hunting vs fishing. Hunting is going out and chasing people down and carpet-bombing them with logos and information. Fishing is just putting your bait out there, and let the people come to you. I work exclusively this way. I have never spent a single dollar on advertising, but if you Google "solid carbon fibre ring", my Sidecut ring is currently the number 1 hit. That is mostly by clients of mine photographing their ring they have bought, and posting it to their own respective forums, alongside their new carbon bike, exclusive watch, or whatever their interest. This is free, it’s legit, and it’s very direct.
PJ: Where do you hope to take your company in the next year – do you have plans to create collections or sell into retail stores?
JT: Well in recent months I have launched a new brand of watch straps, called Black Badger Straps. This is a collaboration with my good friend Gary Pemberthy who runs a site called Watch Obsession, a web shop for timepieces. Gary is definitely a solid business mind, and I’m very grateful for that. Hewas showing our first release at BaselWorld last week and reports it was received very well. Our forthcoming release is going to be something really amazing, we have managed to create something that the major brands have not been able to do, and I did it by hand, in my little workshop in the Göteborg suburbs. We are extremely proud of that aspect, taking the fight to the big dogs.
PJ: You have a lot of collaborations under your belt and no doubt in the pipeline – which have been the most exciting to date?
JT: Collabs are really quickly becoming a bit of a trademark for me. But you also need to be protective of what you do so you don’t water down your brand. I think probably the work with Charlie Stockwell at Warrs Harley-Davidson is my favourite so far. We are collaborating on some of his custom motorcycles and some very exclusive designs. His bikes usually run north of €100,000 (£84,500), so it’s a major treat for me to be contributing on them. I get teased by my friends for having like 15 Harley T-shirts, yet I’ve never ridden one.
I’m also in the middle of a large design project with Giles Ellis of Schofield Watch Company. I’ve recently been appointed to their Blacklamp Advisory Circle, which is a small collection of people who have had creative input from their respective industries onto the development of a phenomenal new solid carbon wristwatch called The Blacklamp. The work with Schofield came via Twitter at first, and then the breakthrough was when Giles was at SalonQP last year and kept seeing all these industry people wearing my rings. I had no idea, and it was a very pleasant surprise when he called me from London to invite me onboard.
PJ: Finally, do you have a design signature or a method of working that sets Black Badger apart from other jewellery designers?
JT: Very bold colours, very rugged materials, and more than a little sarcasm. I really poke fun at myself a lot in these designs. I hardly ever sketch up a design to begin with; I just start combining materials and colours and discover it from there. It’s like design jazz! My rings are extremely strong as well, even the minimalistic ones. I live and work in Göteborg, Sweden, which is the hometown of Volvo, so come to your own conclusion there.