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Melissa Montague on sustainability in her practice

Sustainability, ethical practices and the circular economy are increasingly important issues in 2021 and beyond. In our latest interview on this subject we talked to metalsmith Melissa Montague about this area of her practice.

Design-Nation: Please tell us about your practice and how your business began.

Melissa Montague: I am a metalsmith creating objects and jewellery using traditional silversmithing techniques. I also teach both silversmithing and jewellery techniques in weekly classes and one day workshops in Sheffield where I live. I started on this path after art college when I went to study a BA in designed metalwork and jewellery, graduating in 2006. For quite some time I didn’t really make anything but instead had a job. In 2012 I returned to education and continued my metalwork journey with an MA in Design at Sheffield Hallam University. I have been living and working in Sheffield ever since and set up my business in 2015.

DN: What inspires you?

MM: It may sound slightly clichéd but everything inspires me. Architecture – I have spent a lot of my time in town centres due to working in retail jobs, and looking up! I am drawn to the uniformity of windows or bricks or railings. I travel around Sheffield a lot in my car and see inspiration all over the city.

Historical artefacts – I love pots, especially ancient amphora. It’s the forms, the curves and the fact that some don’t stand up on their own. This makes me think about the settings they are used or displayed in, their functionality.

The metals I work with and the techniques I practice also influence me, particularly hammer raising and forging. Seeing how much the metal can transform with some very low-tech tools. I like the control I have over what I am making with my hands and some simple tools; I am not very good with unpredictability.

DN: Do you address the issues of sustainability and ethical practice in your practice at the moment? What have you done and what impact has this had on your practice?

MM: The one thing I am very focused on and have a certain control over is my packaging. I reuse a lot of packaging that I receive and only use cardboard recyclable boxes when needed for safe delivery of items.

Within my practice many of the processes I use are fairly sustainable, and I also use most of my waste materials from bigger projects to create other collections, for example melting offcuts to create small pieces of jewellery. However something like chemical oxidisation is probably not as sustainable as I would like. I fully intend to explore alternative ways to achieve these results but having the time is often a barrier.

On a completely different note, travelling across the country (or even further) to do fairs and exhibitions could be seen as unsustainable. Maybe I should look at doing things closer to home.

DN: What are your concerns around making your practice sustainable /ethical?

MM: My concerns are that I spend most of my resources currently trying to carve out a practice with longevity, that I have little time to be able to explore the processes I would like to fully investigate. On the other hand I probably need to make this time now, to achieve what I want to with my practice.

DN: The cycle of making is a creative act but also produces waste. Have you thought of how to reduce waste?

MM: I don’t really have any waste materials as most metals can be reprocessed either by a scrap metal company or myself. For example I use almost all of the silver that I have by making smaller collections, or melting and repurposing the scrap.

DN: Do you know the background of the materials you use? Where do your materials come from?

MM: I get many of my materials from Cooksongold, who are one of the largest suppliers in the jewellery and watch industry, and have trade counters in both London and Birmingham. Cooksongold is a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council, which aims to promote ethically, socially and environmentally responsible processes throughout the supply chain. I get my copper from a couple of smaller UK based, family run companies. I can’t find much information on their websites but believe they both manufacture what they sell.

DN: How easy (or difficult) was it to find out this information? What were the challenges?

MM: It was easy to find information on the Cooksongold website as they are a huge company.

DN: What would make it easier for you to change your practice – what kind of support would help you embrace sustainability and ethical making practices? And what topics interest you for future research and development?

MM: Time and space would help me to change small aspects of my practice. Often I am under a time pressure to get things made so it is easier to do things the way I know how.

I am really interested in patination of metals using alternative sources although I am not sure whether they are more sustainable or not? For example I know that I could oxidise metal using boiled eggs instead of the chemical liver of sulphur, but is that more or less ethical? I think it would depend who you ask!

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Clare Edwards


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