Jewellery maker Frances May-Murphy joined the association recently, as part of a recruiting drive to afford exposure to more artisans with locals and tourists alike. Her trademarked Silver Quirk shop is a line of contemporary jewellery that elevates up-cycling to artistry.
“I trained in traditional metalsmithing techniques in London when I was coming up to retirement age,” Frances says. “Smithing was something I’d always aspired to do, but it was put on hold while life happened.” Eventually, she married her passion for manipulating metal with her lifelong fascination for sea glass, and so her elegant and original pendant, bracelet, and ring designs were born.
“I grew up in Scotland, at the seaside. As children, we spent a lot of time on the beach after a storm, picking sea glass for my mum’s collection. A few years ago, I visited my sister in Canada and we reminisced about those days, while scouring her local beaches for glass,” she says. “I brought back to Europe a big bag of sea glass, wondering how I could use it for decorating.”
Frances turns archaeological debris, smithereens of history, into wearable art featuring a tiny fragment of Gibraltar’s heritage.
A few pieces had a jewel-quality about them, and she decided to make them into pendants, for herself or as gifts at first. She was so successful that she went for an online business on Etsy, which nowadays allows her to ship her artwork worldwide – all crafted with Gibraltar sourced sea glass.
Frances views sea glass, although manmade, as the gem that nature returns to us after decades, if not centuries, of tumbling in the waves and in the sand, losing transparency and jagged edges, but acquiring coarse texture, which makes it tactile, as well as play with the light in a sophisticated glow. Upgraded from discarded shards to ‘mermaids’ tears’, Frances turns archaeological debris, smithereens of history, into wearable art featuring a tiny fragment of Gibraltar’s heritage.
“I like to think that I am up-cycling the rubbish tossed in the sea a long time ago, that’s why locations like the northern end of Eastern Beach, which have been densely and consistently populated, are ideal for collecting material,” she explains. The trained eye can spot several good pieces there during a wintry stroll, after a spell of choppy seas.
Green, yellow-brown and seafoam, a greenish off-white, are the most common colours, but she’s always on the lookout for bright white, turquoise, blue, grey and even black. Every colour has got its individual story: most glass was originally clear, but sea-tumbling might have turned it azure or aqua. Indeed, pure white pieces are quite rare and spellbinding when found, because they concoct images of solidified moonlight, when in fact they are scraps of windows or household items, while brown pieces, sometimes tumbled into a glowing yellow tinge, might come from beer or spirits containers.
“I am up-cycling the rubbish tossed in the sea a long time ago.”
Cobalt blue, a deep indigo, is very rare locally, particularly in sizeable pieces, and when Frances finds a suitable one, consistent in colour and wear ‘n’ tear, it always feels special, because she can feature it as the centrepiece of designer pendants, while smaller ones make perfect rings. Its rough surface reflects daylight to make it look like a starry midnight sky, or reminds of the inside crystal from a geode.
“It is popularly believed that cobalt blue glass was reserved for small flacons and jars destined to chemists, if not alchemists, so it has a bit of a reputation for having been the receptacle of some sort of poison, although most probably it was medication,” Frances muses, adding fascination to an already mesmeric colour.
No two pieces of sea glass are the same, and because our Gibraltar beaches provide a relatively limited supply of glass, Frances’s ability to craft earrings is limited too. However, once she found two small-ish, round-ish drops of a pearly grey tinge, not dissimilar to moonstone, which matched in shape and weight, so she mounted them in clean-lined pendants, featuring her signature silver ‘bubbles’, to perfectly balance them out and make them symmetrical in framing the face.
Most mermaids’ tears are too large for earrings, but are ideal for statement-piece pendants or bracelets, definitely not for the wallflower. Not all findings are of jewel-quality, if you will, as they must match strict criteria of translucency, luminosity, texture, roundedness and flatness, at least on one side, or else they aren’t suitable to being bezel-set.
Frances sets her pieces exactly as she finds them, after cleansing them from grime, because it isn’t advisable to split them in half, as this would compromise their refraction and would expose sharp edges and inside transparency. Naturally-occurring irregular profiles add charm to her… charms, while challenging her smithing skills.
A final polish and it’s done.
Starting with a reasonably flat-backed piece, Frances cuts out a roughly matching shape slightly larger than the glass from a sheet of sterling silver, to create the back of the bezel, which sometimes she stamps with starfish outlines, to add to the ocean theme. “I use a small jeweller’s torch to solder it to a strip of fine silver to make the frame of the bezel. I file, sand, and polish the empty case, add the bail and sometimes a few little bubbles – tiny balls of silver made by melting down scrap. Lastly, I set the piece of sea glass in it by pushing and bending the fine silver around the glass to keep it secure. A final polish and it’s done.”
Frances is quite popular with her customers for her wavy bangle she calls the ‘Forged Wave Bangle’, with or without glass or semiprecious stones set in it. This is one of her best sellers at the Arts & Crafts shop, together with pendants and earring studs inspired by ocean and flora.
Hammering is another forte for this energetic adopted Gibraltarian who started her career as a French literature graduate working in a bank in the City of London, to later re-train as counsellor and work for the GHA in Gibraltar before switching to private practice; now in retirement she’s been able to realise her long-held dream of smithing, the ancient noble art which requires technique and ingenuity in having a vision of the final product when staring at the piece of metal, and working towards making it tangible and tactile.
This materialises beautifully in her trademark olive tree (or perhaps citronella?) leaf pendant earrings, which start their life as a strip of silver and are hammered and tweaked into a dynamic silhouette. “I make one pair at the time, and they seem to turn out satisfactorily symmetrical, but when I move on to the next pair, even if I am aiming for the same style, their contour will always be slightly different to the previous pairs – and unique.”
Silver Quirk handmade jewellery is available at the Arts & Crafts shop in Casemates, as well as locally and worldwide from SilverQuirk.Etsy.com. Like SilverQuirkGibraltar on Facebook to keep updated on latest creations. Every purchase will make you the owner of a reasonably prized unique item. Commissions accepted on email@example.com.