Every winter, I walk by Oxo Tower and pop into the Dazzle Jewellery exhibition being held there. Organised since 1981 by Christina and Tony, Dazzle Jewellery showcases the best and most innovative of contemporary jewellery, nurturing young craftsmen -and craftswomen- throughout their creative journey. I was really curious about how it all started so I reached out to them and Tony very kindly agreed to be featured on this blog! (Thank you!!)

What was the eureka moment that led you both to start Dazzle? Did either of you have experience with such events before?  

The magic moment was in the late 1970s at LOOT in London where I (Tony) first saw the best of contemporary British jewellery in one place.  In those days, the work was very hard to come by and to see- in a small handful of galleries mainly in Edinburgh and Oxford…  usually it was art galleries that had a small selection of jewellery.

Early in 1980,Christine was working as theatre manager at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.    I had previously visited LOOT organised by Goldsmiths Hall and was so impressed by the work shown.  So, the whole thing just came together. Christine  was looking for exhibitions front of house and I had already shown contemporary jewellery in the Portland Gallery in Manchester city centre.    It was an ideal opportunity.    We organised a 4 week exhibition in Manchester at her venue and then the National Theatre in London came in and asked to be included in a double exhibition. 

Then along came the Bede Art Gallery in Jarrow Newcastle and asked if they could be a third part of the whole.  We made friends with Susie Arbuthnot who was assistant to the Director at Goldsmiths Hall, the iconic Graham Hughes.  She asked if she could be involved.  So from nothing, we had three interconnected exhibitions in 3 major venues.   Christmas 1981: We had a target of £10,000 of sales over the three exhibitions – which we achieved on the opening day at the first exhibition in Manchester and repeated the success a week later in London.  

BBC TV attended the Jarrow exhibition opening.     During the filming the power was lost and the tarantula spiders we had used to guard the exhibits started to move in the dark!!!!!! It was shown all over the BBC and made a full page feature in the Sunday Times.

Wow that sounds like amazing coverage that event organisers would die for!  (and a bit scary too…) Are you both working at Dazzle full time and , if so, when did it become a full time job? How big is the Dazzle team? 

Dazzle is now our only occupation – we spend our time divided between the exhibitions and running the website.  However, we have reduced the workload by just focusing on London and Edinburgh.

Those are great locations! I have always thought that the only place besides London I’d start a creative business in would be Edinburgh. (I lived in Scotland for 4 years when I was younger)

What has been the best and worst moment of the Dazzle journey so far?   

Dazzle exhibitions has suffered massively from the impact of the internet.  It has hit our sales hugely as our makers are now able to target the public directly.    However, we attempt to ameliorate the effect by selling ourselves through lovedazzle.com.   Revenue is still higher from direct exhibition selling, though our internet sales continues to increase all the time.

At one time, we believe we were selling more contemporary quality jewellery than anyone else in UK. Quite a few of our jewellers sold the majority of their annual turnover through us.

Sorry to hear that, but hopefully online coverage like this post will help ameliorate some of that effect! Have there been any exhibitions that make a loss?  

Some exhibitions have made a loss over the years Glasgow was effectively subsidised by our other exhibitions. Some smaller exhibitions in towns like Sheffield, Bath and Leicester were unprofitable.

That’s very informative. Thank you for sharing!

How do you market the online site besides through the exhibitions? Running an ecommerce site is very different from an exhibition- do you have any anecdotal stories to share?  

We have a huge ever increasing emailing list and send out monthly emailers which are linked to our blog.  The blog stretches from sociable news to question and answer sessions with our designers. We do regular offers and have a very generous loyalty scheme.  Our exhibition mailing list is even bigger at around 60,000 and they get hard copy invitations to our annual exhibitions if they are recent buyers.    By the way, our Private Views (PVs) are truly amazing each one is attended by thousands and we have to manage very carefully who receives invites.  We still have insanely long queues to buy at the PVs – everyone seems to want to get in first, especially with the new jewellers we find.

Do you have any favourite designers? It’s awesome that designers such as Jane Adams have been with you for 25 years. 

Yes almost all the designers we had in 1981 are still with us showing at some of our exhibitions but of course we have to allow space to introduce new designers especially those fresh out of college.  Some sadly have died and others have not changed their work in that time, so some fail to make it through.

We believe that over the 36 years we have been going we have shown at Dazzle almost all the major names in contemporary jewellery going back as far as Edward de Large, Tom Saddington, Frances Loyen, Kim Ellwood, Mike Abbott, Malcolm Morris and Frances Allison.    Many are now living and working abroad.

What is your criteria for designer applications?  

We receive many hundreds of applications, but we have a policy to strongly favour graduates at the very point of graduation.  We therefore do not encourage applications, as we just do not have the spaces.  So many very ordinary makers apply without any idea of what we are or what they are applying for.  Most do not even have websites.

What do you see as the upcoming trend in Jewelry? 

3-d work is coming through.    However trends in our world do not really exist as unlike fashion jewellery, people are looking for originality and use of new materials and fresh ideas.   Churning out similar work to another jeweller is a real no-no.

Part of your mission is nurturing young designers- how do you do so besides offering them an avenue to sell?  

By taking them when they most need us – as fresh graduates- and by nurturing them and advising them especially on pricing.   Colleges are dreadful in offering the commercial advice they so badly need.   A Dazzle exhibition is very democratic in that you can see how your work compares in terms of selling and accolades with your young(usually) peer group.

Last but not least what would be your top tips for designers selling online?   

The problem for young designers is that retail galleries are disappearing at a rate of knots.  The very act of selling online has killed most of them off.  However one asks the question, where can you spot a designer if retail galleries are not there and exhibitions like Dazzle (which attract tens of thousands of interested buyers)  are not there to point people in their direction?    We can see this being a huge longer term problem.  The demise of galleries is creating a space for direct selling at markets and retail specialist fairs but they charge at the door and unlike us and the galleries are not free entry.  So this limits hugely how many people see their work.   This could be a massive long term problem for makers and selling online.   For if jeweller X wants to sell direct then they have to find the market.