Women Worldwide : From Middle Eastern Archaeology to Ethnic Jewellery with Seraglio Designs
Women Worldwide : From Middle Eastern Archaeology to Ethnic Jewellery with Seraglio Designs
Mandy Mottram is the founder of Seraglio Designs, she has a background in Middle Eastern Archaeology, as well as long-standing interests in traditional crafts and craftsmanship, ethnic jewellery
Mandy Mottram is the founder of Seraglio Designs, she has a background in Middle Eastern Archaeology, as well as long-standing interests in traditional crafts and craftsmanship, ethnic jewellery and furniture design. So its no surprise that her jewellery is inspired equally by ancient cultures, the souks and bazaars of the Middle East, and by mid-Twentieth century design.
Her designs will make you feel precious and her story will inspire you. We spent some time with her to find out more…
Tell us about the journey that led you to launching Seraglio Designs…
Well, it’s quite a long journey in that I’m really an archaeologist by training, with more than 30 years’ experience working on excavations in the Middle East, Australia and Pacific in between being a diplomat’s wife and various stints working as an archaeological illustrator and for organisations such as the Australian Heritage Commission and the National Museum of Australia.
I began creating beaded gemstone jewellery after completing my Ph.D. in Archaeology at The Australian National University. My research focus was northern Syria and at that stage (2011–2012) things in Syria were becoming increasingly unsettled so archaeological fieldwork there became impossible. I could have moved my research emphasis to another region but at that stage felt just too tired to make the effort. I needed something to do that combined a range of interests along with my capacity for research and which, hopefully, would make me some money. It also needed to satisfy the creative urges that I’d largely set aside whilst studying, which were limited to restoring furniture and knitting and needlework in front of the TV when I was too exhausted to do anything else.
I’ve always been an artistic and creative person. As a teenager, I was into painting, printing and dyeing fabrics, as well as making copper jewellery embellished with torch-fired enamels and tumbled gemstones. At the same time, I was also extremely interested in ‘rocks’ thanks to a family pastime of gemstone fossicking which led me to study geology in high school and gave me an interest in rare and unusual gemstones and how they were formed. My main interest, however, was in ancient societies, but geology intersects neatly with archaeology in that, for thousands of years, rocks, stones and minerals formed many of the human race’s principal tools, building materials and personal adornment. In the end, the decision to make jewellery came about in response to a rekindled interest in gemstones and in jewellery design inspired by a jeweller I met whilst studying who introduced me to many gemstones I’d never encountered before. As a result of this rather circuitous, multi-disciplinary journey, the jewellery I create is guided very much by my emotional responses to the colour, shape, texture and cut of the materials, and to their geology, as well as to the history and cultural origins of the components, with the result that virtually all my pieces are one-offs.
What sets you apart from other jewellery brands?
I would say it’s probably my intellectual approach to things. I know that’s not fashionable at all in a world saturated with tales of the healing powers of crystals, but such beliefs in the ‘energy’ of crystals are not based in sound science or in any deep-seated understanding of the planet we inhabit. They may satisfy the needs of the individual or ‘self’, but not of communities or society as a whole. What many people may not realise is that there is no fair-trade certification for the ‘crystal’ or semi-precious gemstone industry, unlike for gold and for diamonds, and that in some areas, especially in places like India, Madagascar and parts of Africa, the mining of gemstones can be highly exploitative of both adult and child labour as well sickeningly dangerous. Furthermore, increasing demand in the West for ‘crystals’ has led to some quite shocking environmental damage in many of these places as well as in parts of China and Brazil.
For my brand I like to know where the stones I use come from and that they are products of Fair Trade. Along with providing a beautiful product myself, I aim to enlighten people as to the origins of their piece and, hopefully, in this way increase interest in and respect for the planet and its peoples. I suppose it’s my way of giving something back. I like to give the customer the background to their purchase if I can – where the materials came from, how the stone was formed, or, if made from vintage, antique or ethnographic components, something about their history and the belief systems or purpose behind them. What I really hate is people selling jewellery with stones or components that they have no idea about. Often, they don’t even know whether or not what they are using is a real gemstone. They simply follow the name applied by the (usually) Chinese or Indian seller and then pass on that bit of misinformation to their buyers. To me the Earth is a wonderful and miraculous thing all by itself. It is constantly changing, creating and recreating itself beneath our feet and it is that which I try to draw attention to, together with creating a beautiful piece of jewellery that is a pleasure to both own and wear. I don’t feel a need to imbue the things I make with mystical or supernatural powers, just simple earth and humanity.
From the product range, what has been the best seller?
Almost all my products are one-offs. Business-wise that mightn’t be considered a good thing if you want to shift mass quantities, but I know from many of my return clients, especially from the USA, that it’s just this fact that they really appreciate – having something that is truly and uniquely theirs. I also tell myself that jewellery designers whom I admire, such as Lisa Black and Gerda and Nikolai Monies, are known for highly desirable one-off pieces defined by the age or rarity of the materials. Because my business consists of me alone it’s more difficult to produce extensive seasonal lines as well as unique pieces, so for now I’ve elected to stick primarily with the latter. Other designers I admire, like Elizabeth Gage or Alex Šepkus, trade not so much on the seasonal but on a few indescribably beautiful lines and on custom pieces. Tony Duquette, the wizard interior, costume, set and jewellery designer, created many unique pieces from an astounding array of materials. They are real art works. In the same way, I can’t always replicate the effect created by the conjunction of certain materials so I don’t even try unless I receive a specific commission. While I’m not working at the same price point as these designers, I prefer their approach in contrast to mass production.
Earrings are the only category where it is currently possible for me to make more-or-less consistent repeats, partly because they don’t require as many components. My ranges usually start off with a number of unique pieces consisting of the same style but made from different gemstones. For example, I may use a particular post, ear wire or component but combine it with different stones and/or metal finishes. The most popular range so far has been the ‘Hasna’ earring style, which consists of a small chunky hoop, a little bigger than a huggie, with pendant, acorn-shaped stones. The stones in this range are all smooth but the finish can be sterling silver or yellow or rose gold plated. For the Samira line, the same fittings are used but the stones are all facetted. Both of these ranges are extremely popular and I’m often asked if I can replicate them because they’re neat and easy to wear and thus ideal for the office environment.
How often do you release new products and what’s the process behind this?
Because I’m the sole maker and Jill-of-all-trades, the process at times is a sort-of ‘as it happens’ procedure depending on available time and demands. I usually do two big craft markets a year, one in autumn and the second in November in preparation for Christmas. My major bouts of making and release of products come at these times. Custom orders may arrive at any time and I have smaller making bouts as needed in order to top up both my Etsy store and a local retail outlet.
Usually, I’ll have a lot of designs in progress sitting around waiting to be completed. I just get a sudden urge to work on a specific design or experiment with particular materials and sometimes can’t concentrate until I’ve done so. Some things come to completion immediately; others need more thought. Honestly, I have little space to make things so they are all over my floor and desk. They are all over my sewing tables too! I contemplate them when I’m doing other work, then, when inspiration strikes or needs determine, I complete a whole lot of them in a rush.
Sometimes additional or special materials are required to complete a piece. I often work with craftspeople in Thailand, Bali, India and China to supply me with components such as matching clasps or unusual-sized and -shaped beads. I send them the design concept electronically and we work together from there.
Talk us through an average day at the business?
Again, because it’s mainly just me doing everything, the average day varies a bit depending on what I need to work on. Dealing with emails and early social media is the first thing then I move on to whatever requires my immediate attention. I tend to work in batches rather than in a regular schedule, week after week. Sometimes I need to focus on photographing new pieces. I’ll spend the afternoons doing that to the exclusion of all else and later post on social media. When I’m making I get into “the zone” so that is all I do apart from making some quick photos to share on social media. Buying is also a batch effort. I will spend several days searching for materials if necessary and placing orders. Costing the materials down to the bead or finding is also a lengthy task and it’s easier to do it all at one time. When I’m making I often call in the assistance of my partner to modify stone beads to my liking and to undertake some of the silver polishing. Keeping clean items that are on retail display is another regular task.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m working to the point where I can hand over more tasks to other people, especially the photography. My photographer brother handles the model shots but the flat-lay photography is more difficult as I don’t have a single jewellery style. Some of it is very minimalist, some verges on ethnographic or tribal, and some of it is very sumptuous, but they all reflect my style and interests. For necklaces, especially, it’s been difficult to find a single background that suits them all, to provide my on-line store with a consistent look. I think I’ve just about worked that out but I’m no photographer! I need to find someone who can take photos that really sell my jewellery. That’s something I hope to sort out later this year.
Since launching the brand, what has been your highlight?
There’ve been a number of highlights such as having my products accepted at Splatter, here in Canberra – a maker’s and producer’s gallery and studio. This occurred after the previous outlet where my collections were held went bankrupt. I was in Tunisia at the time and my mother had died a few days previously so I was feeling very low. It was a blessed relief to deal with real professionalism in the local retail market. Splatter’s owners have been extremely helpful. They understand how to display products to best effect and provide good feedback. An aim is to be able to extend that success to outlets interstate.
Another major coup was meeting and getting to know a well-known Australian comedienne and having her subsequently purchase several of my pieces, one of which she has worn a number of times on TV. Celebrity endorsement, as we know, is tremendously useful when pitching the appeal of one’s work.
Having my jewellery seen in magazines such as House of Coco, Avenue 15 and Condé Nast Traveller is also a highlight as it was a long-held dream. I’m pleased to see my pieces – and photos – stand up well against other offerings. Now I’d like to see some of it appear in a major fashion spread.
Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
Oh, there are masses of things I’d do differently. Like many creative people I wanted to create first and foremost and worry about the other stuff later. How I was going to afford everything was a concern but not a real issue until I realised I didn’t want to work with cheap materials. It can work for fast fashion but that has never been me. Sorting the accounts out earlier would have been of major benefit. It also took me ages to come up with something resembling a brand mark. These are all things that I should have handed to other people much earlier on. The fear of not earning sufficient to cover those costs immobilised me for a long time. Instead, the marketing aspect of the business should really have come first or run alongside the development of a ‘style’. I’m still working on those things and believe they should constantly be upgraded and improved.
Our readers love to travel, what destination is at the top of your bucket list?
Luckily for me I’m quite widely travelled. My parents took my brother and me to Europe and the UK for three months not long after I finished high school, which gave us both a real taste for travel. I was married to a diplomat for 12 years during which time we took full advantage of our overseas postings to travel farther afield. We often went to places very different from where we were living; for example, we went to Shetland and Orkney from Cairo and Iceland and the Faroes from Damascus. Being an archaeologist has helped me to get around a lot also, not just on excavations but doing research and to conferences also.
Thanks to these experiences, it’s not always easy to pinpoint what’s at the top of my list. In recent years we’ve been to many places that I’ve long wanted to visit, such as Iran (three times), Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia in the Caucasus – all places along the Silk Road. One day I’d like to visit eastern Turkey, beyond the Euphrates, and see what my archaeological research world looks like from the other side of the border. Trabzon, on the Black Sea, is somewhere I’d like to visit and have done ever since reading The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay at age 12 or 13. Now I’m thinking about it, I’d like to see the aurora borealis and am very interested in traditional Sámi culture, so Norway is probably high on the list and I’d like to visit where my father grew up in Sri Lanka. There are many places I’d like to revisit – Sicily and Malta are up there – but my partner has never been to Europe at all so there are lots of places I’d like to take him. He likes travel but it’s not in his blood the way it is in mine so he doesn’t mind if I simply must go somewhere. He’s the best Fairy Godfather a girl could have.
What quote do you like to read when you are lacking motivation?
I’m not really one for motivational quotes, as I know that, ultimately, the impetus to do anything has to come from me and nowhere else. I also find that many quotes that proliferate today are intended to create a warm and fuzzy view of the world that is misleading at best and downright dangerous at worst. Situations such as the current Covid-19 pandemic ought to make it apparent that we can’t always control everything as much as we might wish to and that all the uplifting quotes in the world won’t change things. That doesn’t make me a pessimist, more a realist. I’m actually very upbeat; it just means that I don’t often look outside myself for affirmation. Does that sound like a typical introvert to you? Probably.
I’m much more into old-style aphorisms because many of them have stood the test of time. The saying I probably apply to myself most of all is: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.” It’s attributed to all sorts of people but really comes from a legend about Robert the Bruce of Scotland and a feisty spider. I don’t give up on things easily and will work at them until I’m satisfied I’ve done a good job. Another saying I rather like because it’s sometimes possible to become confused by other people’s opinions comes from the Danish scientist, author and poet, Piet Hein: “Shun advice at any price, that’s what I call good advice.”
For anyone wanting to start their own business, what advice would you offer?
Well, given what I just said about advice, offering some is probably moot; however, I’d definitely say, if you’re making craft products, try to get a lot your branding and packaging sorted early on because presentation is important, and give serious thought to how you’re going to support your business. Working out a business plan is not a bad idea even if you’re like me and start out at the hobby level. If you have one you can always develop it to seek Small Business loans. It is possible and even necessary to keep developing things as you go along so don’t feel bad if you don’t have everything set up at the get-go. The import thing is to start. You’ll learn as you go along and probably want to develop in different directions to what you initially envisaged. Consider whether you want to diversify or, indeed, narrow down your output in order to specialise in just a few key products. There are many on-line courses to help you through these things. If you can, invest in them early on because it will help clarify your choices and you’ll feel a lot better for it. And take note of that saying above. Many people will offer advice and you may see other people apparently doing better than you. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice but don’t be intimidated either. Maintain a strong vision of what you want to achieve.
What are your plans for the business in 2020?
This year, despite the disruptions caused by Covid-19, I’m at last ready to get a new website off the ground. This has been in the pipeline for several years, but I’ve now got a clearer idea of what I want and am in a financial position to pay someone else to do it. I want a professional feel that embodies my design ethos, combining both clean lines and the highly decorative.
As mentioned earlier, the photography is something I’d like to get a better handle on, and maybe also call in a graphic designer to rework my brand ‘look’. I know I could probably do it myself, but time is just too short and I believe it would be better employed in focussing on core creative work.
Northern girl Laura is the epitome of a true entrepreneur. Laura’s spirit for adventure and passion for people blaze through House of Coco. She founded House of Coco in 2014 and has grown it in to an internationally recognised brand whilst having a lot of fun along the way. Travel is in her DNA and she is a true visionary and a global citizen.