Bespoke jeweller Richard Talman works from an unassuming little workshop in the Sussex town of Haywards Heath.
His business, RTFJ, was founded in 2010 and as well as making custom pieces does repairs and restoration jobs.
Despite the lowkey nature of the outfit, it hides an exciting secret: both Talman and his assistant and pupil, Hugo Johnson, are television stars in their own right. Sarah Carpin finds out more.
Tucked away down a quiet, leafy Sussex lane in an old farmyard on the outskirts of Haywards Heath is the workshop of jeweller Richard Talman.
This small building, containing a couple of benches and a snug customer meeting room, was invaded by reporters and television crews in the days after Richard’s apprentice, Hugo Johnson, won the BBC’s All That Glitters jewellery talent show.
But Richard himself is no stranger to the small screen. He regularly appears on The Repair Shop, a BBC show which brings beloved pieces of family history back to life with the help of expert craftspeople in a thatched barn near Chichester.
The show has become something of a lockdown viewing sensation, moving from a daytime TV spot to primetime viewing as its audience figures have grown.
Richard has appeared on the show as a jewellery restorer since 2017, and his profile as a restorer and bespoke jeweller has meant that his business, RTFJ, has never been busier, with customer appointments now fully booked for the next three months.
“It all started when one of the researchers on The Repair Shop called me after seeing my YouTube videos,” Richard explains. “I went along to the barn where it’s filmed and there was no audition, I just came in and started to work on a restoration then and there.
“I was comfortable in front of the cameras because I’d done a lot of my own videos for customers and after a while you just forget you’re being filmed – apart from when they need to do a retake.
“I’ve been a guest member of the team ever since, called into the barn whenever they need a jeweller. I’m very fortunate to be involved and I find it extremely rewarding.”
It is his TV profile that Richard credits with keeping his own business going over the past year.
“Before the pandemic, the majority of our work here was with clients we met face to face, and of course for six months last year we couldn’t see anyone at all.
“But because of The Repair Shop, I had a steady stream of work arriving as people began to pop pieces of jewellery in the post for me to restore.
“Covid has completely changed my business. Before Covid, around 80% of our business came from bespoke wedding commissions, which came to an abrupt end at the first lockdown.
“I had to quickly adapt to concentrate on remodelling and restorations, which I’d always enjoyed but it’s now become the focus of the business.”
Richard, it is clear to see, is no TV luvvie upstart, having served his Goldsmiths’ Company indentured apprenticeship in Hatton Garden as a mounter over 20 years ago, working his way up from apprentice to workshop manager within five years to then be awarded the Freedom of the City in 2003.
“My own apprenticeship was tough!” he says. “If a piece wasn’t perfect it was struck with a hammer and you were ordered to make it again. And again. And again.
“The first year was pretty soul-destroying, but it taught me so much about making something perfect and with efficiency.
“I’d studied for a year at John Cass on a pre-apprenticeship course and came out thinking I knew the basics. But I soon realised that all I really knew was what the names of the tools were and what they were used for.
“At the end of my apprenticeship I stayed on at the workshop and began to help teach the new apprentices who were coming up.
“I wasn’t such a hard taskmaster myself though – I could recognise that I responded well to hardness, because I had a very strict father, but I also understood that not everyone can. I didn’t have the heart to bring down the hammer.”
Clearly Richard is an excellent teacher, as his own apprentice, Hugo Johnson, not only won All That Glitters but is a prestigious Goldsmiths’ Company Craftsman and Design Award winner too.
“My approach to teaching,” he says, “is to always encourage Hugo to think of a better, quicker or more economical way of making a piece.
“I also don’t limit him to just working in the way that I do to make a particular piece, or of only learning the skills that I have, like mounting, setting and engraving. For instance, I’ve never been able to wax carve, but one day I handed him some wax and we discovered he can do it really well.”
So with business booming and one star apprentice already in the business, will Richard expand and take on more?
“It’s unlikely. We have such a good set up here and Hugo has promised me that he will continue to stay on with me – please put that in print so I can remind him!
“To be honest, a talent and focus like Hugo’s doesn’t come around very often. I’d be worried that taking on a new apprentice would become a big disappointment. He’d be a hard act to follow. If he does leave, I’d probably just go solo.”
TV shows like All That Glitters and The Repair Shop indicate that there’s a something of a new appreciation in learning traditional craftmanship skills, which Richard is keen to promote.
“When someone with an interest in becoming a jeweller asks me if they should go to university,” he says, “I will always ask, ‘Why?’
“After three years, you’d come out with a degree but you’d have very little practical experience and huge student debt.
“A good apprenticeship will train you in bench and design skills, but more importantly, it will teach you things like conservation of metal, not wasting anything, the importance of time, and learning how to be profitable as a jeweller.
“When you’re at university you might be making things out of silver and be happily filing away without thinking of the waste. As an apprentice, you’re given a tin and everything is weighed in and out. That gives you a different perspective.
“One of the biggest lessons I learnt as an apprentice, and one that I have tried to pass on, is that there is no such thing as an apprentice with nothing to do.
“If you’ve finished something and you’re waiting for feedback or materials, that is no excuse for sitting at your bench and doing nothing. You go over to the senior mounter in the room and you watch and learn from them.
“At the time I was training, there were four senior mounters in the workshop, with one man in his seventies, and they all taught me so much just by standing over their shoulder, looking at their work.
“You can always keep learning. Even now, when I’m considered to be a master craftsman, I’m still learning all the time.
“When I left London and set up on my own here in Sussex I had to teach myself things like setting and other skills that you don’t always get to learn when you’re an apprentice mounter in a big workshop where you have the specialist setters and polishers.
“When you’re on your own you have do everything. That is something I’ve passed on to Hugo and we even learn new things together too.
“Occasionally a customer will come in and ask me to do something that I haven’t done before, and I still enjoy that challenge.”
Traditional skills and craftmanship are clearly Richard’s passion. “Look, I don’t want to sound like the dinosaur that didn’t see the comet coming, but I won’t engage with CAD.
“For me, it takes away from bench skills and a good mounter will always be able to make a piece better and quicker than one designed in CAD. It suits some people who are more at home in front of a computer screen, but it’s not for me and I think it’s no replacement for craftmanship.”
With the rise of CAD and the decline in British manufacturing, Richard does have concerns that traditional goldsmithing skills are becoming scarce in the UK: “There need to be many more apprenticeships being offered to young people and the government are pretty useless when it comes to the jewellery industry.
“The only organisation that is making a real difference, in my opinion, is The Goldsmiths’ Company. The trade has a lot to thank Peter Taylor [director of The Goldsmiths Centre] for.
“He was instrumental in setting up The Goldsmiths Centre, which supported Hugo. I received a full bursary for Hugo’s apprenticeship after his course there, which allowed him to train using precious metals rather than copper.”
With another season of All That Glitters confirmed by the BBC and with Richard filming more episodes of The Repair Shop this summer, the interest in jewellery making and restorations bodes well for the continued success of RTFJ.
“It helps, yes, but my customers are the kind of people who want something a bit special, and there will always be customers out there who want to be involved in the process of designing and making a unique piece of jewellery.
“I’m thankful that from the start of my career I was just as interested in restoration as in making.
“There’s a massive difference between a jobbing jeweller and a restorer. So many of the other apprentices that I trained with back in Hatton Garden only wanted to create something new and passed on all the repairs to me.
“But for me, restoration is more precious and rewarding. When you make a mistake on a new piece you can always start again, but when you’re restoring a family heirloom, you only have one chance to get it right.”
HUGO ON RICHARD
“Richard has allowed me to develop my own skills and he’s pushed me to find my own ways of working,” says the student of his longtime mentor. “But he’s not a hard taskmaster at all – in fact he’s very caring and a real mentor.
“He has kept every single piece that I’ve made since I was 15 and every now and again we take them out and look over them to review what I’ve learned along the way. Most of all, Richard’s given me a confidence in myself and my abilities.”
RICHARD ON HUGO
The jeweller says of his student: “You only occasionally meet people who have a natural flair as a jeweller. Hugo joined me straight from school and I could immediately see that he had it.”
Words by Sarah Carpin. Carpin is a communications consultant and writer who has worked in a variety of roles throughout the jewellery and watch industry for the last two decades.