The 'uncommon' jeweller

18 June 2020
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Rescue dog Maia keeps Debra company in her Port Chalmers workshop. Photo Acorn photography

She is straight-talking, funny and her creative process is completely organic. Port Chalmers’ Debra Fallowfield is the jeweller for “uncommon people”.

It appears to be a problem with no solution.

Debra Fallowfield is trying to get an eternity ring to Australia by Friday. It’s Tuesday. The man who ordered it doesn’t care how much it costs to get it there. Debra has spent the morning trying to solve the problem, but despite the formidable force that she is, she cannot speed up transit between countries.

“It’s just not going to happen with Covid-19,” she reluctantly concedes.

But with whiplash-like quickness, she is cheerful once again. You get the sense there is not much that can keep the Port Chalmers jeweller down, not even the February 22, 2011 earthquake, which tried its best to decimate her business.

She was in her Lichfield Street gallery, by Poplar Lane, when she got a phone call from a neighbour that her two mastiff-cross dogs were barking up a storm in the neighbourhood. And now noise control was sitting outside her home.

“So I went home, put the dogs on the couch and put the TV on and told them [the dogs] I had to go back to work,” she says. “Then the bloody earthquake hit. I was really lucky, the dogs must’ve known.”

The back of her building had fallen off and, like many businesses, it was about six months before she was given 10 minutes in her studio to fill a wheelie bin and get out. Debra never returned to the building after that.

It was the middle of wedding ring season and Debra had to get back to work. Her husband and builder, Dean Brewster, divided their bedroom, creating a workroom for Debra to continue her craft while the city slowly put itself back together.

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Debra's designs are unique as are the methods she uses to create them.

A couple of years later, Debra and Dean moved to Port Chalmers, charmed by its eclectic artistic vibe. She now manufactures from her Dunedin home and Dean has joined her in the workroom after hanging up his tools. Their constant companion is rescue dog Maia.

“I’d say you are a wee bit needy, aren’t you,” Debra murmurs to Maia, as she pats her, reassuring the pooch that they will go for a walk soon.

“All she wants is cuddles, hugs and love. Even if I have a fire going on in the other room, she still has to be in the studio,” she says.

Debra became a jeweller quite by accident. She has always been a bit of magpie, she says, the child in the ballet class who had to have the dress with the most sparkles. At 12, she was at flea markets with her polymer clay jewellery, making enough to visit her aunt in Australia. At 19, as many people did in the 1980s, she packed her bags and left Dunedin for Australia, where she worked in publishing. When the industry started appreciating a more digital presence, she had to upskill, which is how, surprisingly, she stumbled upon crafting jewellery.

“I was supposed to do a computer course that had been cancelled in Sydney and they said, ‘Do you want to do this jewellery course or do you want your money back?’ ”

She opted for the course. Though if you say the word “training” to Debra, she’ll have a chuckle and a bit of a snort. For this self-taught jeweller, there was no “classical training”.

“I have no manufacturing experience and I have no art school background either. It was just a hobby and it wasn’t until I moved back to New Zealand pregnant, 31 years old and living with my parents that I took it up seriously,” she says.

The tagline on her website is: ‘Extraordinary jewellery for uncommon people.’

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Self-taught, Debra prides herself on pushing her craft beyond its limits. Photo Acorn photography

“I did wonder if that sounded a bit pretentious,” says Debra in that way she has of thinking out loud.

“But it means that it is OK not to be completely normal. I’ve learned over the years, that you can’t please everybody. The world would be a boring place if people liked the same things, so that is kind of what my jewellery is about.”

She has developed her own techniques, always challenging the “right way” of doing things.

“I would ask, ‘Why can’t we do it this way?’ Often the answer was because ‘that’s not the way it is done’. To me, that is not an answer, that’s just a brush-off. Well, why isn’t it done that way? What happens if it is done this way?” Debra is not afraid of failing with her experiments either, because they have led to her “quite different techniques” and bespoke pieces.

Rattling sounds ramp up in the background. It is time for Debra to head off to her gallery in George Street. It is already shaping up to be a busy day for the jeweller, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

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