Gems and the precious people of Afghanistan
After four life-changing visits to Afghanistan, Bermudian jewellery designer Melanie Eddy is getting ready to show off the fruits of her labour.
She is one of a handful of UK-based artists to be featured in ‘Gem', a new exhibit highlighting jewellery designs done in collaboration with Afghan artisans.
The exhibit will be on display at the British Council in London from now until November 29.
Over the past few years, Ms Eddy has worked with Turquoise Mountain, a non-governmental organisation based in Kabul, which aims to renew traditional Afghan arts and architecture and spur the sustainable development of the nation's craft industry.
She said: “It means an incredible amount to the Afghan artisans to have their work displayed at the British Council in London.
“And any opportunity to showcase their work outside of Afghanistan is welcomed, in particular as their businesses are dependent on developing demand for their work outside of Afghanistan — either through direct sales online or through working in collaboration with international designers to get their products on the global stage.”
Ms Eddy, who is also the curator of the exhibit, said it was titled ‘Gem' — not just because it features gems and jewellery, but because the people concerned and the relationships formed during the project “are just as precious”.
The exhibition aims to promote collaboration between artists in the UK and Afghanistan and encourage the exchange of ideas and practices to produce something that enriches both parties, Ms Eddy explained.
“I hope to present a different view of Afghanistan to visitors to the exhibition than what they often see on the news or read about in the paper or online,” she said.
“[I hope the exhibit will reinforce] Afghanistan's historical renown for high quality craftsmanship and art and to demonstrate that it continues to flourish in very difficult circumstances.
“As the work on show by students, graduates and young teachers demonstrates — along with the film interviews and the documenting of their processes — there are more similarities than differences in the aims and objectives of these individuals and [their counterparts] here in the UK.”
Ms Eddy said she has had “very positive experiences” during her visits to the Middle East region.
It has been rewarding to see former students now embarking on careers and establishing businesses soon after graduating. Other highlights include being able to take 32 Afghans to India for six months of training; and seeing them exhibit their work nationally and internationally.
She has also had some very moving personal experiences while in the country and admitted it has changed her outlook on life.
In addition to hiking and exploring different parts of the region, the jewellery designer has also been able to meet “some truly amazing individuals” and dine by invitation in the homes of colleagues and students.
One of the biggest challenges for Ms Eddy comes when she's back in the UK or Bermuda and has to see blasts in Afghanistan reported on the TV.
In those moments, she is left to wonder about the people there who have to carry on their daily lives despite the level of risk.
“Yes, there have been tears and sadness, there has been fear, but there has also been a lot of laughter and joy and excitement [when I reflect on my time there],” she added.
Ms Eddy always had an interest in art, design and fashion. As a child she watched her father, who is a talented artist, but she didn't think about it as a career until she had already started an undergraduate degree in another field.
“I had made some jewellery when I was in high school with the help of my art teacher at Saltus, Liz Campbell, but I hadn't really explored it very far. I was always interested in gems and minerals.
“I went to Gem Cellar to pick up a repair that my mom was having done when I was about 17 and was looking at the display they had at the time of gems. I spoke to Chet Trott, the owner, and noticing my level of intrigue he offered some further information and invited me to bring in some of my pieces and to find out more about jewellery making.
“I then started spending time with Chet and the other jewellers there on Saturdays and learned about the trade.”
After coming to London, Ms Eddy got involved in other aspects of the industry like writing, editorial work, teaching and exhibition installation and curation. She recently worked on installing “Pearls”, a joint exhibition by the V & A and the Qatar Museum Authority.
“I was part of a small team that was responsible for mounting the jewellery into the gallery space. Pieces on show range from amazing natural specimens to ancient roman pearl earrings to historical pieces from Cartier and Tiffany to pieces from HM the Queen's Royal collection,” she said.
“A particular shock was finding out I was holding a pearl and diamond ring owned by Elizabeth Taylor!”
She plans to continue her jewellery design business in the UK, but hopes to have her base in Bermuda so she can spend more time on the Island. She also welcomes projects that are about supporting young people entering a craft or a trade and helping to establish connections between older craftsmen and women who are keen to share their skills with younger generations.
‘Gem' aims to bring to life the personal stories of the jewellery makers and gem cutters, exploring how arts and culture can contribute to the rebuilding of a post conflict country.
It features gems in their uncut forms, maps of their origins in Afghanistan and tools of the gem-cutting trade as well as a short film by Afghan documentary filmmaker, Jawed Taiman, which will document the making process.
The exhibit is a flagship event of the British Council's new UK-South Asia season, a programme this fall to celebrate and explore the cultural relationship and connections between the UK and South Asia.
‘Gem' will be on show at The British Council, located at 10 Spring Gardens, London, from Monday to Friday, 10am- 4pm. It closes on November 29.
For more information visit: www.britishcouncil.org.