How archaeologist Emma Thorpe unearthed a career in crafts
As the countdown to Creativity Month begins, the Portstewart-based artist charts her journey from digging up the Bronze Age to making it as a silversmith – plus tips for how you can move up the crafty careers ladder
Up on the North Coast you’ll find lots of creative folk doing lots of creative things. One such person is Emma Thorpe at Atlantic Rose, who designs and makes her own sterling silver jewellery in Portstewart, handcrafting chainmaille and Viking knit earrings, bracelets and necklaces. She also makes rings and creates bespoke pieces alongside her own designs.
Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find there’s a specific reason why Thorpe’s designs have an historic edge to them, as her original career was actually in archaeology. Indeed, for a decade, Thorpe worked on excavations ranging from the Mesolithic period through to the Industrial era (from 1750 onwards).
'My most memorable include one of my first excavations, which was a large Roman site in Walton-Le-Dale, Lancashire in 1996,' she says. 'Also, in 1998/99, the huge excavation in the centre of Coleraine, where the Diamond Centre now stands. We uncovered the remains of the Dominican Priory that stood on the site from 1244, along with over 200 burials.
'I was also involved in an excavation in St Pancras Graveyard when they were extending the Cross Channel line into King’s Cross. My last excavation, which was in Northern Ireland, was definitely the best – a Bronze Age cist burial which contained the remains of an adult male, complete with a bronze dagger across his chest and pig bones buried at his feet. Less than two metres away was a smaller cist containing the remains of a child, probably around the age of two or three. That was a stunning find.'
Emma on a dig back in 1996
Completely self-taught in the art of silversmithing, Thorpe’s archaeological experiences have no doubt inspired her work, and it is all very much inter-linked, she says, with her passions for science, art and creation.
'I’ve always believed that science and creativity and art go hand-in-hand. There’s a science to deconstructing something – that process of how things work – and an understanding of how something becomes something else.
'That’s how I’ve always looked at arts and craft. I was initially going to study medicine, but then did a degree and MA in archaeology instead. One of the areas we studied was metalworking and the different techniques that were used. I found that really fascinating and started studying techniques from the Bronze Age to early Christian period. I picked up things, like the chainmaille look, which I liked.
'Later, at a lot of the sites we excavated we would have found shards of pottery and flint and we were trying to see the process they went through to make that piece. How it originally looked.'
Thorpe also hails from 'a very artistic family' so has always been around people, like her arty mum and artist grandmother, who encouraged her to be creative. 'I suppose I grew up in a household where, if you liked something it was a case of, well - how can you make it?' she says. 'I suppose that stuck with me.'
Beginning to silversmith for fun, Thorpe later made her own wedding jewellery, including headpieces for herself and her bridesmaids. With friends and family then asking her to make them jewellery too, it was they who ultimately suggested she sell her work.
LoopyLu Back necklace design
Not feeling confident enough to do this, however, she signed up for the then Coleraine Borough Council’s Journey to Market Programme.
'That was brilliant because it gave me a good boost in confidence,' says Thorpe. 'It showed me that my business was viable and that I should put my jewellery out there. It also gave me access to advice I wouldn’t have had.
'One of the mentors said No. 4 Queen Street in Coleraine, had been looking for another jeweller/silversmith and thought my stuff might work. They liked my jewellery and invited me to sell there. That was the first time I was retailing in an actual shop. It was brilliant because that was the turning point where I thought I could actually do this. It just took off from there.'
Growing the business bit by bit over the last few years, Atlantic Rose jewellery is now stocked in a variety of shops, including Thorpe’s online Etsy store.
'There’s quite an art in selling online because when you’re selling tactile things like jewellery people like to touch items and try them on,' she explains. 'It’s a lot to do with your photography. You have to really get that right because that’s what the customer sees. It’s a lot more difficult than I think a lot of people realise.'
Sterling silver flower earrings
There is, however, a lot of support for crafters – both on and offline – Thorpe says, including local craft collectives, which are a great help and worth seeking out.
'I think that for anybody interested in developing a career in crafts and art, those little collectives are invaluable. They also help you to get used to the world of retail.
'Something I also found very useful was the ‘Etsy Resolution’ course for people getting started setting up their shop,' she adds. 'It was brilliant and we’re all still part of a social network.'
Aside from her jewellery-making, Thorpe also maintains a part-time job at NI Screen as their education and careers officer, so has her feet in two different creative worlds. Having previously returned to university to complete a PG Diploma in Museum Studies, she worked as a museum educator in New York before coming back to Northern Ireland.
'I’ve always loved film and have a passion for getting people to engage with heritage, so I applied for that and was lucky enough to get the job,' she says.
The rest of the time, however, it’s all about Atlantic Rose.
'For me, it’s definitely been a very refreshing journey – very interesting. I’ve certainly learned more than just making jewellery!'
This article has been published ahead of Creativity Month 2018, themed around 'careers in the creative industries'. Follow Creativity NI on Facebook and Twitter for upcoming news on this year's event programme celebrating the creative industries in Northern Ireland all throughout March. For more features from previous years click here.