– Words by Angela Cowan Photography by Don Denton
Stop by The Avenue Gallery on Oak Bay Avenue, and you’ll find a collection of jewellery that you won’t see anywhere else. There’s finely crocheted or knitted gold and silver wire, woven with iridescent pearls, Swarovski crystals and semi-precious stones that make up necklaces, cuffs and collars. And the collection of drop earrings invokes a sculptural and abstract sense of the natural world.
Veronica Stewart has been a mainstay at the gallery for a decade, and her pieces are unquestionably beautiful, but they also have a striking uniqueness to them that leave no doubt her jewellery belongs within gallery walls.
So often while browsing traditional jewellery stores, trends emerge from season to season—very like the fashion world—and it can be difficult to find something out of the box. But Veronica’s jewellery is in a category all its own, in large part because she approaches her designs with an artist’s eye for form, texture and colour.
Born and raised in Scotland, Veronica graduated from the Edinburgh College of Art in 1979, and quickly emigrated to Canada, settling in Victoria in 1981.
“I grew up in Scotland in a pretty hard time. It was really tough to make a living,” she says. “In those days, Canada was the place to be. [It] was the great free country where there was lots of support for the arts.”
Opportunity did indeed knock, and by 1989 she was working as a full-time artist while raising her two sons. It was another decade or so before she started seriously exploring jewellery, and then she made a discovery that would shift her career path dramatically.
“I was a potter for the first 20 years,” she says. “And then I discovered this amazing product, which was precious metal clay.”
Also known as PMC and something that is growing in popularity in the art world, precious metal clay is essentially gold or fine silver that’s been ground into a powder and then mixed with a binding agent.
“You work with it just like a clay,” explains Veronica. “Once it’s fired, everything is burned out except for the silver or gold.”
The malleability of the product meant she could approach jewellery making with a similar process as she’d used in her ceramics, but on a smaller, much finer scale.
“A lot of it is trial and error, and I do get a lot of inspiration from nature,” she says. “A lot of my designs are abstracted, or line drawings of flowers.”
Veronica makes her own stamps to press into the clay, often creating designs that highlight a microscopic point of focus from something in nature: the innermost workings of a flower, for example. Using PMC, she can even take a piece of the silver or gold clay and press it directly onto a leaf or other object.
“Once you’ve fired it, you’ve captured that impression,” she says.
Some of her most impacting pieces are made using another technique she’s honed over the years: crocheting and knitting fine gold and silver wire.
“I love doing the really extravagant bigger pieces—the collars and the cuffs—because it becomes so much more creative,” she says. “I don’t like wearing heavy jewellery, so I try to make things that are delicate but still a statement. That’s one of the advantages of using the crocheted wire.”
The intricate loops and twists are often woven with Swarovski crystals or freshwater pearls, creating a complex yet delicate piece, particularly since Veronica uses 22-karat gold or fine silver for her creations.
As the process is as labour-intensive as it is intricate, Veronica tends to work on a few pieces at a time, with rest periods between to recharge her creativity and get new ideas, often from her garden.
“I’m a manic gardener,” she says with a laugh. “It kept me sane through lockdown! I can always find things to do in the garden, and it makes me happy, looking at the flowers and trees and trying to figure out how to use them in whatever it is I’m working on.”
From her early career in ceramics to her current work creating elegant jewellery collections, Veronica has been an artist for over 40 years, adapting and improving both her process and the business of her craft.
“I think of the whole journey that I’ve been on since I first started making jewellery…I was doing markets and craft fairs,” she says, remembering the early days. It wasn’t long before her work found its way into art galleries—both in BC and further afield—but it was a chance meeting with Heather Wheeler at an exhibition at Langham Court Theatre that introduced her work to the Oak Bay community. Heather, the founder and owner of The Avenue Gallery, invited Veronica to put her jewellery in the gallery.
“I love how The Avenue Gallery really does focus on local artists. It’s so important,” says Veronica.
“I have huge respect for gallery owners. Once I became a gallery artist, it definitely increased the visibility of my pieces. And it’s really nice for me, especially at this stage, to just do the making. I get to do the fun part.”