An intellectual sci-fi romance

Jo Baker's jewellery

Q. What is it that drew you first to jewellery design and making?
A. love making things by hand, from painting pictures to binding books and growing flowers. I enjoy wearing unusual and artistic jewellery and was inspired to learn how to work in silver after my sister took a weekend class and presented me with a pair of earrings that I still wear.

Q. You didn’t start out as a jeweller. How did you transition from physics, astronomy, and landscape architecture into jewellery? Is there an overlap between the disciplines that you can identify?
A. It’s a strange route I know, but there are overlaps. Forms and natural processes are central to each of these disciplines – from gravity to spiral galaxies to ecological cycles to metallurgy. I have shifted away from trying to test mathematical descriptions of nature to try to find my own more expressive ones.

Q. Your most recent collection is inspired by Robert Smithson whose work you describe as an exploiting chaos and serendipity. How did you discover Smithson? What was it that drew you to his work and encouraged you to explore his themes on your own? Is the dichotomy of chaos and serendipity an important message for you?
A. Yes, I like the idea that you can’t control everything in life and some of the most beautiful moments are unanticipated. I first heard of Smithson from his Spiral Jetty work in Utah – a giant spiral causeway of rocks set into a shallow salt lake. But I really came to appreciate the variety of his work when I saw an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Arts (MOCA) in Los Angeles. I was amazed at the breadth of his ideas – from his obsession with maps, contours and landforms to his love of geology (crystal shapes, weathering and decay). And his humour, from collages of Godzilla with mining machinery to his Hotel Palenque video where he documents a dishevelled hotel in Mexico. I share some of those interests and thought that because he is process-led he would make an interesting subject for a project.

Q. Do you design jewellery that you would wear or is your view on the pieces you create broader or dictated by another factor?
A. My graduate collection is experimental – it is not necessarily something that you would find in a high street store – but it is also wearable, if sometimes for dramatic effect or special occasions. I try to work with metal in the workshop a bit like a scientist would in a laboratory, trying out new methods and seeing what surprises await. I want to push the boundaries of the materials and techniques I work with to make something that is unique.

Q. Can you tell us about the actual techniques involved in realising your jewellery pieces? Is your design process quite in-depth or is the fluidity of silver your starting point and you allow that to direct your creations?
A. For the poured silver pieces I first build a frame from silver wire of the basic structure I want to make (a ring, or some shape) and suspend it on a clamp. I fill a crucible with silver beads and melt them with a blow torch. When the beads become a pool of liquid I pour the silver quickly over the frame, trying to ensure it runs down the wires. Sometimes the silver goes where I want it to; other times it doesn’t. Some of my favourite pieces are serendipitous, when the frame breaks or a stone falls out, leaving behind an unexpected silver strand.

Q. How do you go about choosing which semi-precious stones and other elements to incorporate into your work?
A. Most jewellers choose cut precious or semi-precious stones like diamonds or topaz because of their shine, colour and value. I am also interested in geology and ordinary materials, from concrete to uncut stones. My current work uses fine opaque stones like (black) jet and (red) jasper, minerals such as (green) malachite as well as clear quartz, volcanic glass (obsidian) and translucent flakes of mica. To show off the forms and textures of minerals I often use them in the raw or in crushed form. Some of these were sourced from Arizona, where jewellers use stones like red opal and turquoise for inlays. Others are from geological specimen collections.

Q. You work as an editor for a scientific journal. How do you balance your work as an editor for Nature with your jewellery practice?
A. Barely! Both fuel my curiosity in different ways – scientific editing keeps my mind spry and swimming in ideas. Jewellery pushes me to think more creatively and to realize those ideas in concrete forms. Making jewellery is very physical and when I leave the workshop after a day spent sawing, soldering and sanding I feel grounded and less stressed.

Q. Do you think being in London is important to your practice? Would your work be different if you were not in an urban, cosmopolitan, cultured environment?
A. London is full of diverse and creative people and I don’t think I would have been bold enough to make jewellery with such a strong theme without the tutors and other students on my course, who were really inspiring and encouraged us to ‘go for it’ and explore unusual ideas. It is also helpful to be able to go to lots of galleries for inspiration. And to walk along the Thames – the river is the heart of the place in my view and I am always drawn to its banks. It’s a good place to think.

Q. You’re a January baby and quite fond of garnets (the January birthstone) – is there anything in particular that you associate with them?
A. Yes, I love garnets for the depth of their colour – like rich velvet or pomegranate seeds. When I studied geology at university my favourite rock was garnet schist – the red garnets peppered through a silver-grey stone seemed almost unreal. And on a recent trip to Prague, I admit I did buy some lovely garnet rings and earrings – garnet jewellery is a speciality there. The stones are especially effective packed in clusters. (I’m wearing a garnet ring now!).