Jewellery is too large a word. It can refer to commercial trinkets and gold-pleated name tags as much as three-dimensional body sculptures and ground-breaking material research. Central Saint Martins graduate Giada Gianchino briefly flirted with the first, but went resolutely for the latter. As an MA student, she started experimenting with shellfish material and has developed a technique to re-use lobster shell in jewellery. Sustainable and highly innovative, Giada’s research might never be sold in souvenir shops, but it is bound to change the way we perceive the discipline.
What kind of projects have you been working on since you graduated from the MA in Jewellery Design at Central Saint Martins?
I had my final collection, and then I started to destroy it to make something new. In the beginning my collection consisted of three separate sections: one part was made with shell lips, another part with lobster powder and resin, and the other with mussel shells. In the beginning I analyzed everything. The collection was called PER INCISO, which means “to be engraved”, referring to the skills that artisans apply to cut the shell material. I took the shell parts and made a whole new collection.
I’ve also been working in partnership with the University of Maine. It’s more of a research project, about how we can take lobster shell – a byproduct of the food industry – and recontextualize it in design; starting with jewelry but expanding into product and furniture design. There are currently no patents on this material, I am the only person who can generate 10 colours from the same lobster shell. It’s interesting because there is 10 million tonnes of shell waste each year, and besides agricultural and pharmaceutical purposes, no one really knows what to do with this material.
Why do you choose to use raw materials found in nature and how does that affect your work process?
When I start a collection I usually already have something in mind. I met a 180-year old coral company in the south of Italy, and saw that something interesting was going on. I went to the company and asked them who the designer of the collection was, and they told me that there is no designer. Instead each of the artisans proposes designs and they are collectively selected. I felt like that was a gap that could benefit from having a designer in place. I started doing a lot of research on the material, the history and the techniques that go into working with these shells and their uses in cameo carvings. The shells that I use are the same shells used in cameo carving, but only 60 – 70 percent of the material can be used for that, the rest is too hard and cannot be carved so they are discarded. I thought the discarded material was very beautiful and I wanted to work with it for my collection. I worked with the artisans and their skills to harvest and cut these shells so they could be used in my collection.
After I decide on the material and the technique, I go through an iteration process where I do hundred of drawings of different variations and then I narrow down the pieces I want to create.
I had the shells cut and the bezel settings done, but then I realized that it doesn’t really work. The cameo carving has a tradition, it’s more descriptive than conceptual. So I refocused on the essence of this piece which was about taking an up-cycled material and treat it like a gem. From there I eliminated all the gratuitous elements so that what is left is the bare essentials. The result is a kind of raw looking bezel with two large pieces of shell connected with a silver thread. When you wear it you cannot even see the thread, the shell becomes a stand alone object.
That’s the thing that people don’t understand, that this shell is the origin of the cameo work. There are often so many steps between the raw material and the final result, sometimes we don’t understand the value of the things we see. My process is really analysis, iteration, then refining the design to its essence, then making them.
How do you feel your work fits into the culture and system of the jewellery industry?
I think you can have two different points of view. Big companies like Cartier and Bvlgari are about material and heritage. Materials like precious metals and gemstones have value as a commodity, regardless of their design. This creates a kind of resource gap that supports the value of the companies. Some of the bezel work, for example, could not be accessed by other designers because they cannot get their hands on gold.
The second point of view is more open, where an independent designer can propose new materials and play with the perception of value. To do so, you have to create a narrative and build a context to support the objects. You can look at Dior as an example, it’s not just about their ability to create silver plated earrings and sell them for 300 pounds. It’s about the beauty of the artisans that create the pieces in a workshop outside Paris, the silver plating makes the object more accessible, or creates an additional narrative of sustainability in recycled silver.
If you go down Old Bond street and you take a piece from each store, at the end you will end up with a collection of pieces that look more or less the same, but the thing that sets them apart are the story and the processes that each brand attaches to these piece. That is where value is derived from. The same goes for my work. I have artisans in Italy who cut my shell for me and I know that they are the only ones in the world who can cut this material for me. So it becomes rare, like a YSL jacket that takes 1000 hours to embroider.
Can you elaborate on your development of the lobster powder?
My work on the lobster powder with the University of Maine started a year and a half ago. I was trying to look for a material that was an alternative to coral. Coral is a highly endangered marine invertebrate that grows in selective spots on the ocean floor. It takes ten years to grow one centimeter in the Mediterranean sea. It also grows in Taiwan, but it’s a different type of coral. The most valuable coral grows around Sicily, Sardinia, Naples, Spain and Algeria. I started looking for material alternatives. Coral is made up of calcium carbonate, so I was looking at other materials made with calcium carbonate that I could engrave and use in more or less the same way. Calcium carbonate is in basically everything, teeth, bones, every kind of shells, it’s in stones. I was completely lost. Then I met Margaret Pope – a materials consultant at CSM – and she told me about these researchers in Maine who made a golf ball out of lobster shell. I sent an email to the director in the biology department in the Lobster Institute. I told them I knew about this high end biodegradable golf ball that they had created for cruise ships and I asked them how they created it. Dr Robert Bayer from the institute became my mentor after four months of back and forth. Having someone outside of my field is really beneficial for my work, especially the scientific background that he provides.
After treating the lobster shell, the first powder I got was pink, and then I started looking for a binder to suspend the powder in. But after a tutorial I realized that this colour isn’t well suited for all skin tones. I went back to Naples and did a workshop. The story behind coral is really about the nature, the beautiful blue oceans, the blackness of Vesuvius.I started from there and developed new colors of lobster powder. The material is always the same, but it’s the process that creates the different colours.
Most of the lobster in this country is actually imported from Canada and the US. I source my lobster shells from restaurants around London. Most of the time I get the tail, the claws, the legs. I go back to the studio and clean the shells. The raw material has to be perfectly cleaned, perfectly dried and they need to be really fresh before they can be processed. I have to remove all the residual meat, skin and hair from the lobster. The shell retains a lot of water, and it’s very oily, so I have to leave it out to dry. At the beginning I was using a plaster dryer to speed up the process, but the carotenoids that makes the lobster shell red is very sensitive to heat from the dryer, resulting in powder with less intense colours.
The powder can be suspended in a binder, like resin, but the thing I’m trying to work out is how to create a building material without the binder. The golf ball created by the University of Maine was completed without using binders; instead using a technique that binds the material together with a high level of compression. The idea is that you can potentially use this material on its own as a building material, and after ten years you can put it back into the sea and it will be completely biodegradable, so it will disappear. It’s about figuring out the whole cycle of the product, not just about making it in your workshop and then selling it.
Words Lydia Chan Images Vicente Mateu