Even for people such as myself who wouldn’t necessarily count themselves as knowledgeable about jewellery can see that the creations of Elizabeth Gage possess an unusual degree of intricacy and beauty. Gage strikes me as a little like those high achievers whose endeavours cross over easily to the layman: non-tennis fans used to tune into Federer; non-readers got through Harry Potter; and even I, who has only ever worn a wedding-ring, can still find myself pausing at an Elizabeth Gage creation, wondering about the dedication behind such outstanding creations.
So what kind of an upbringing did she have? “I did have a creative family,” she tells us. “My mother painted and my grandmother was a painter. I therefore did not want to be a painter but rather wanted to find my own creative calling. I had always been creative as a child, making clothes for my paper dolls. I started out writing but realised that writing wasn’t for me.”
But her life was about to change “One day I went to the British Museum and that is when everything changed for me,” she recalls. “The sun was shining, and I distinctly remember the sun flooding one big square case, I looked over and saw a set of Roman rings, and the rest is history. From that moment onwards, my heart was set on making jewellery which was imbued with history, to bring the past into the present and make it wearable.”
That’s part of what sets Elizabeth Gage apart – her commitment to meaning in her work. Perhaps it’s partly this which makes me pause always at her work; I’m being asked not just to look and take delight in her works, but to think as well.
Another aspect is attention to detail, and Gage is humorous about the demands of that: “I am a patient person when it comes to achieving the piece that I have designed as I never cut corners and want to make sure that each piece is a work of art in its own right. However, once the piece is being made I am impatient to see it finished!”
Gage describes her early education: “I went to Chelsea School of Art but my experience there swiftly transitioned to Sir John Cass College, which shaped me and my career. I had been advised time and time again to pursue a career as an artist but I had other ideas.” Like many successful people, Gage picked her battles, and she knew what she had to do: “One day, at 12 ‘clock whilst everyone was out at lunch, I went into a classroom at The Sir John Cass College to find Mr Oliver. I had been told that there was no more admission of students for the Goldsmiths course but I would not take no for an answer. I told Mr Oliver that I wanted to learn how to make jewellery and asked if he could fit me into his busy class, to which he responded by making a space for me. He then taught me for eight years, a wonderful experience culminating in me asking to make something in gold, to which Mr Oliver responded “absolutely, but you must buy your own gold.”
Despite Mr Oliver’s obvious influence, Gage adds: “I never had a mentor. What guided me was my love of making things and learning about how to master the art of jewellery.” There is wisdom here: quite often, we think the responsibility for our success might lie with some third party, but it always lies within.
Gage is seems to be expert at letting the world come to her, and teach her to decide what to do next. Her first commission came from Cartier was, she says, ‘very unexpected’ and she is refreshingly matter-of-fact about the genesis of her business which will this year see its 60th anniversary. “It just happened,” she tells us. “Freshly out of school I received a commission from a friend’s father who had asked me to make rings for his daughter and his girlfriends. He had been very shrewd as, being a designer fresh out of school, I was much cheaper than an established jeweller.” So what were the joys and challenges of starting out? The joys were knowing that what I was creating, people loved. There were always challenges that cropped up but I just knew that I needed to get on and continue doing what I loved and not letting any obstacles get in my way.”
Of course, over time things have changed – not least Gage’s business has straddled the Internet revolution, a development she views very positively. “It has been wonderful in that people from every corner of the world can now see my work online and even buy online if they so wish,” she explains. “We only have our one exclusive store in Belgravia, London so having that virtual vitrine into our world and jewels is terrific.”
Gage’s success can in part be measured by the famous clients she has amassed, most famously Lauren Bacall. About Bacall, Gage says: “We worked very well together. She loved what I do and I always involved her in whatever I was doing for her. It was very easy. She once brought me a beautiful bejewelled camel which I set into a brooch.”
So what would be Gage’s advice to a young designer starting out? “Find what you love doing and that will give you direction of what you must do. It is no good just liking it, you need to really love it.”
Gage has now been decorated with an MBE (“I never thought I would ever receive something as wonderful as that”) and her goal, even at the age of 85 is “to charge onwards and constantly to be inspired”. Of course, in taking that attitude, she’s also inspired us in return. We are all the beneficiaries of the work of Elizabeth Gage.