On the seventh floor of the historical Nicholas Building in Melbourne you'll find the Two Hills studio, where Rhiannon Smith creates delicate jewelry entirely by hand. Inspired by everything from native Australian flora to ancient symbols and cave-diving on the Yucatan Peninsula, Two Hills jewelry is delicate without being overly feminine; sweet without becoming saccharine. Smith took some time out of her very busy one-woman business to speak with us in her light- and character-filled studio about technique, her ever-evolving style and the women she designs for.
You've been making jewelry for a long time, can you explain your training and entry into the industry as a professional?
My first introduction to contemporary jewelry was when I studied Fine Art at Monash University around 10 years ago. I’d worked in commercial jewelry workshops straight out of high school and knew that wasn’t the scene for me, but once I’d discovered what jewelry could be I never looked back. I spent a few years traveling, setting up a studio and exhibiting in both solo and group shows.
Has your style changed?
My jewelry back then was quite different, very fibers-based. About three years ago I decided I wanted to refine my metal-working skills, so I enrolled in a technical course, I found this time of investigation to be a real turning point.
Was there a moment that you realized you could really make jewelry for a living? A catalyst for it turning from a passion into your career—or was there never any doubt?
I’d always wanted to work in a creative field, and was most comfortable working with my hands, so I guess it was quite a natural progression to become a jeweler. However it wasn’t until I went back to study that I really felt things were falling into place and that there was potential to do this full-time. I’d made some rings for myself because I couldn’t find what I wanted anywhere else, then some friends wanted them too, then friends of friends, then strangers. It was at this point where I knew I wanted to dedicate everything I had to starting my own label.
I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with my own style, it can be awkward and quite simple but I feel it’s mine.
Can you explain a little about your process—do you start with sketches or just jump in an attempt making what's in your head?
My process generally involves a mix of intuitive hands-on experimentation and many, many hours of contemplation. Ideas tend to float around for weeks—sometimes months—before being crudely applied to paper. I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with my own style, it can be awkward and quite simple but I feel it’s mine. I like to make samples of each piece so I can wear them around and get a feel for how they will sit, act and move with and against the body.
Is there a lot of planning, since you're working with expensive materials and obviously can't waste them?
Absolutely, planning and problem-solving is a huge part of my design process. The process of sampling and making maquettes is integral to the success of each finished piece. There’s a lot to consider when making jewelry as it has to function properly as well as look right. It’s pretty amazing to see how much difference a point of a millimeter can make!
Have there been a lot of changes in terms of technique since you began in the industry?
Most jewelry techniques haven’t changed that much since humans first started threading shells and feathers onto cord, which I think is amazing! In fact, the methods used in some ancient pieces have only just been deciphered in the last 50 years or so, which is a testament to the skills of those artisans. Personally, the problem-solving and experimentation is what I find most appealing about making jewelry. It’s extremely satisfying to be able to take an idea and turn it into something tangible. Watching it transform in my own hands from beginning to end is something I never tire of.
For me, it’s not so much about conveying a mood or reaching a destination, instead it’s about the catalyst for investigation.
Is there a particular aesthetic or mood you try to convey with your pieces?
Each Two Hills collection is a progression from the last. For me, it’s not so much about conveying a mood or reaching a destination, instead it’s about the catalyst for investigation. There’s always a take-off point; be it an image, an experience, a memory or a collection of things. Often these can be quite oppositional, but through the filtering that is inherent in the design process they become refined or homogenized. I guess what brings these influences together is my particular way of working. I really enjoy working on a small scale with very fine materials, that way I can manipulate them without too much difficulty, coax them into submission rather than with force.
How has your style changed?
I think my style is always evolving as I’m equally drawn to both geometric and organic forms and everything in between. I guess the one constant is there's always some evidence of the handmade—a file mark here, remnants of a fingerprint there. I tend to pull away from things that are too perfect.
Who do you make jewelry for—partly yourself, partly the customer?
My designs have always been a reflection of a very personal interest but I’ve also been lucky enough to be surrounded by many amazing women in my life: family, friends and colleagues. Each one is beautiful, creative, intuitive and have an immense strength of character. These are the women I like to design for.
Is there one designer or piece or artwork that you found great inspiration from—or do you see it in little bits and pieces?
I find inspiration in many forms, but most often in small details—interesting patterns and textures from the everyday, those seemingly mundane things that are so often overlooked. Melbourne has a wonderful creative community, there’s always something to see and do. It’s hard not to be inspired by what’s happening all around you. There is also great capacity for support amongst those in the industry and that’s something I’m really proud to be a part of.
What's the near-future plan for Two Hills?
I’m very excited about the new collection. It references my experience of diving in a Cenote (underwater cave) on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico about eight months ago. It was such an amazing experience and the memory has stayed with me, so there’s a lot of subtle references to it in the new work, particularly in the use of light, color and texture. I’m also planning a trip to Turkey at the end of the year and I’ll be working with one of my retailers, Monk House Design, to create a very special in-store experience so stay tuned.
Photos by Jacinta Moore