JEWELLERY - Rowena Sheen Jewellery
I am fascinated to share Rowena Sheen’s story of her jewellery business - how she crafts tiny pieces of jewellery from tree trunks! It totally amazes me. With a natural craftiness and eye for shape, her designs are distinctively geometric and earthy. Her interesting story, which she shares with us here, will have you looking at fallen trees in a new light. Pair her creative career path with adventurous travel stories and life in the wild outdoors of the west of Ireland, and here is someone exciting to meet!
Hi Rowena! Thanks for taking the time to feature on this website! You started your business just 2 years ago. Can you tell me a little about your background, where you grew up and what you studied that led you on a path to become a jewellery designer?
Hi Jennie, it’s my pleasure!
I was born and grew up in Clare, on the edge of the Burren. My family home is pretty remote with very few neighbours, and we didn’t have TV growing up, so I had to get good at entertaining myself early on. I’ve always loved designing and making all sorts of things - my mum is a knitwear designer and my dad is a furniture maker and beekeeper, both working from home, so I was raised in a creative, productive and hands on environment which has really rubbed off.
I studied Metals and Jewellery at NCAD, but having always had an interest in fashion and textiles I was lucky to get work in the costume department in the Abbey Theatre when I finished college. From there I went into film and TV, where I honed my skills as a historical costume maker. While I really enjoyed the work, I missed the process of researching, designing and making something from start to finish, and after 13 years I had had my fill of Dublin and city life in general, so I decided to move back west in 2016 with the idea to set up my own jewellery design business. The Dublin Christmas Flea Market in 2017 was my first major selling event, and it’s been all go since then!
Was it always your intention to work for yourself? Is your design business now your full-time work?
Yes, I think I always knew I would work for myself eventually. My whole family are self-employed so it’s what I know, and I guess the flexibility that comes with being your own boss suits my temperament. It can be really tough and lonely when things aren’t going your way, but when something works out, or you achieve something you’ve worked really hard towards, it’s so much more rewarding than working towards someone else’s vision. I occasionally do some very short stints of freelance costume work but for the most part I now work full time designing, making and running my business - and there really aren’t enough hours in the day!
Your collections have a uniquely distinctive look about them and reflect the nature of Ireland in their creation. Can you describe how you come up with the designs and your thoughts on the particular materials that you use?
I’ve always been really interested in pattern and geometry, and there is so much of both to be found in nature, so most of my work comes out of looking for those patterns and structures in the natural world around me. This appreciation and respect for the natural world follows through into my decision to use native Irish woods in my work. Materials for me are really important. I think as a designer you have a responsibility not to contribute to the ever mounting pile of socially and environmentally destructive ‘consumables’ we have become so addicted to. I wanted to use a material that was completely natural, was available locally and was uniquely Irish, so wood seemed like an ideal choice. Natural, renewable, sustainable and beautiful!
Sustainably sourcing the materials that you use is a strong value for your business. It is a message that comes through in your marketing. How do you find the materials and then process them into such delicate finished products?
For now, I have a good store of Yew wood that my dad rescued from a bulldozer about 30 years ago. You can make quite an amount of earrings from a whole tree, so I’m not going to run out any time soon, but I’m starting to build up a collection of other native Irish woods too. Everything I have has been rescued in some way or another, either from storm damage, land clearing or general tree maintenance.
Because I don’t buy commercially produced wood, there is a fair amount of work involved in getting it from tree trunk to a finished piece of jewellery. First it has to dry - 1 year per inch of thickness. Then I get it cut in to thin planks at a saw mill - followed by a lot of sanding until it is beautifully smooth. Once it has reached this stage I get it laser cut to my designs, then everything gets sanded again to a finer grit. At this stage I ebonise some of the pieces for contrast. I use iron oxide (wire wool dissolved in vinegar) which reacts with the natural tannins in the wood turning it a deep rich black. Then there is some drilling, assembling and polishing with beeswax from my dad’s hives, and finally I put everything together using sterling silver findings. It’s quite a bit of work!
Do you generally live by a plan or strategy with annual goals for business development or is it an organic evolution?
I’m very much a ‘take it as it comes’ kind of person and love not knowing what’s going to happen next. As my business grows I’m having to start planning further in advance, which surprisingly I am actually enjoying but it doesn’t come naturally to me! I thrive on uncertainty which I guess is a good thing as business is nothing if not uncertain.
Do you work from home or a dedicated studio? Is there any particular music / podcasts that you like to listen to while you work?
I have a studio at the Courthouse Gallery in Ennistymon. It’s a great space with good light and lovely studio neighbours, and the separation between home and work is for me essential. It’s rare that I’m not listening to something, but it really depends on what I’m working on. If I’m doing paperwork it’ll be classical, design work will be electronic or jazz, and I generally stay away from anything with vocals if I have to focus. I’ve recently rediscovered Cian O Ciabhain’s An Taobh Tuathail on Radio na Gaeltachta, it’s great music to work to. If I’m on sanding or polishing I’ll either listen to podcasts, the radio or an audio book to keep my mind occupied. Regular podcast favourites are Radiolab, Invisibilia, 99% Invisible, The Conversation and Ear Hustle.
You were runner up in the Best Young Entrepreneur Programme this year. That is a fabulous achievement and great motivation. Congratulations! What are your plans for the prize that you were awarded?
Thanks, yes I was delighted! It was a really good programme to be a part of and has led to other opportunities for me in the meantime, which has been great. It’s really nice to get a bit of validation at this early stage, and certainly is motivating! I currently get someone else to do my laser cutting for me but I’m planning to buy my own machine with the prize money which will mean I’ll be able to do a lot more experimenting and will have a lot more flexibility in general, so that’s really exciting.
What does a day in the life of Rowena Sheen look like? Do you have any rituals to keep you motivated?
I’m not a morning person so I don’t get up especially early. The first thing is to bring my dog out for a walk, either along the river at the back of my house or out to the beach in Lahinch, and always with a Keep Cup of hot tea, no matter the weather. Then it’s home for breakfast, some housework and general life maintenance, and I’m usually in the studio by 11. Some days I’ll leave by 6, some days I’ll stay ’til 1 or 2 in the morning, depending on what needs doing, or if I’m particularly engrossed in something. It it’s hot like it is now I might head out for a quick dip in the sea or meet a friend for an evening walk and then back to the studio for a few hours. I’m all about flexibility!
You live in Clare which is a beautiful part of Ireland. Has that always been your home and where are your favourite spots that I should visit?
I left Clare when I was 18 and lived in Dublin for most of the intervening years, with a semester in Prague for Erasmus, and plenty of travelling in between. I’ve been back nearly three years now and there’s nowhere I’d rather live, it is indeed a beautiful part of the country. There are so many amazing places to visit, and I prefer the quieter spots where you can have a nice long walk without meeting too many other people. Mullagh Mór is a really nice hill walk in the Burren, or Black Head near Fanore has amazing views over Galway bay. Lahinch is great for some live music and Ennistymon, where I live, is a thriving little town with a surprising variety of cafes, galleries, shops and pubs - well worth a visit!
Where do you enjoy to escape to when you get the opportunity?
I generally try and get one good trip away each year, usually to somewhere with mountains or beautiful landscapes. I do quite a bit of caving, hiking, and some climbing so I usually try and incorporate at least one of those things into any holidays I get. I was in Tasmania in January which was incredible, last year was Iran, and the year before Albania. India may be on the horizon for next year, we’ll have to see.
What do you like to do when you have some downtime in the evenings or weekends?
At this time of year I like to be outside as much as possible, so that’s lots of walks, sleeping out a bit, and some climbing and caving. I’m not averse to a few pints at the weekend, and there’s no shortage of great pubs with live music in the area. One of the major benefits of having moved back west is that I get to see a lot more of my family now, so I’ll usually tie in with some of them over the weekend too.
- Coffee or tea?
Always tea, never coffee - at least 8 cups a day.
- Yoga or HIIT?
I’m afraid I’ve never heard of HIIT so I’m going to go with yoga, though I’m more of a stretcher than a yogi.
- Early to bed or late nights?
Late nights - I’m at my best after dark.
- Beach or mountain?
Mountains - for the peace and quiet, and the grandeur.
- Favourite book to read?
I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby at the moment, she’s amazing. She manages to weave history, sociology, nature, activism, philosophy - all sorts - in to something really enjoyable to read.
- Best podcast?
Invisibilia. Or serial. Or S-Town. Too many!
- Blogs or Instagram?
I try not to spend too much time online, but I’ve been getting a bit more into Instagram recently, it’s a really nice way of keeping an eye on the craft and design community in Ireland and is much less intrusive than facebook.
- Online shopping or actual shopping?!
I’m not much of a shopper but generally for clothes it would be actual shops once or twice a year, when I start to look particularly raggedy! Ideally I’d make all my own clothes. I probably have enough fabric for a lifetime, finding the time is the only problem.
Thanks so much!
Rowena Sheen jewellery Stockists:
Foust Gallery, Ennistymon
Laura Vaughan Design Studio, Ennis
Olive & Crew, Lahinch
Russell Gallery, Newquay
Cait & I, Sligo
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
In the meantime, to find out more about Rowena, you can find her here:
All photographs copyright of Rowena Sheen.