About her, About us, About fine jewellery
“I was born and still live in the beautiful and remote Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland. Many folk have dreams of escaping to a place like this: some to visit, some to start a new life. Until the day you escape, share a few of my dreams: dreams of our island heritage that I have transformed into fine jewellery with a unique Orcadian style.”
Ola is an extremely modest and self-effacing person, and would never claim for herself any major role in helping to create the modern Scottish crafts industry. Many people would want to disagree with her own modest assessment of her contribution! Certainly, when we talked to Ola about her early days in fine jewellery making, it was clear that she didn’t have any grand scheme in mind when she started out!
A WORD WITH OLA
With Duncan McLean, son-in-law and current manager
DMc: You graduated from Gray’s School of Art in 1960, their first jewellery graduate. Did you study Celtic jewellery when you were there at all?
OG: Not really, it was more contemporary, fine art inspirations that I was working from. I suppose I’d imagined I’d make very modern jewellery when I graduated.
DMc: This was when you came back from Aberdeen to live in Kirkwall?
OG: That’s right. And what I found was it wasn’t easy to make a living in Orkney by designing modern jewellery! So I thought, well, what jewellery would people want to buy? What struck me was, there was really nothing that visitors could take away from Orkney as souvenirs; there was nothing locally made or designed that you could give as a gift, even. About the only thing you could buy here was a straw-backed Orkney chair. I love Orkney chairs, but you can’t exactly slip one into your suitcase at the end of your holiday as a souvenir! So I had the idea of coming up with a few pieces that drew inspiration from Celtic or Norse sources – Orkney ones initially.
DMc: Can you remember the first piece you designed?
OG: I think it was actually the Maes Howe Dragon, based on the carvings made by Vikings inside the Maes Howe chambered tomb – just down the road from where we now live, funnily enough.
DMc: We’re still making the dragon nearly 50 years later – it’s a classic!
OG: I suppose I just went on from there, and gradually started adding more pieces from various Orcadian sources: Norse, Pictish, Celtic. We’re very lucky of course in having such a rich history to draw on.
DMc: Were you aware back in the early sixties of other people doing something similar?
OG: Not really, to be honest. There were of course people making Celtic jewellery: mostly it seemed to come out of factories in the Glasgow area. But there’d been no innovation for years, it had no freshness about it. You saw it everywhere, but it wasn’t really very high quality: it was just the same obvious Celtic motifs repeated again and again, a lot of it with the same semi-precious coloured stones plonked in the middle. I hope I’m not offending anyone in saying this! There may have been makers here and there doing interesting work, but they certainly weren’t high profile – I wasn’t aware of them in Orkney. It wasn’t really till the late sixties or early seventies when things like the Aviemore trade fair got going, with Craftpoint a bit later still – that you started to see other folk doing good new work. And it was about that time of course that other people in Orkney started making jewellery too.
DMc: How about going back in time a bit? Was there anyone from earlier eras who was an inspiration?
OG: Well there were the Ritchies of Iona – Alec and Euphemia – who were art school trained, and lead very interesting lives, mostly on Iona. They took a lot of inspiration from the monuments there and produced some really beautiful jewellery. That was from about 1900 up till the early forties I suppose. It seems they had a good going business there, even exporting to the States and elsewhere. And they were certainly very talented – they never compromised on quality either. I admire what they did, but to be honest I was only vaguely aware of it when I was starting. I think the Ritchies are rather like Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Macintosh: they’re much better known and appreciated now than they were when they were active – or for quite a long time after they died.
DMc: Is there anything final you’d like to add?
OG: Just that I’m not really a great expert on the history of the Celts, or of modern Celtic jewellery making. There might have been a lot going on that I didn’t know about. All I did was open my eyes and look around me. I looked at the wonderful history and ancient art we had in Orkney and Scotland, and tried to come up with fresh interpretations of it. That was my way of working – it’s not the only way, but it worked for me.
DMc: It certainly did, Ola. Thank you very much.
THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE
At Ola Gorie, we are used to taking the long view: we live and work amongst houses, monuments and standing stones dating back to Neolithic times, 5000 years ago. And, on a slightly shorter time scale, Ola’s family has been in business (of one kind or another) on exactly the same spot in Kirkwall since the 1850s. We have a reputation to live up to, both at home and abroad. So all our jewellery is designed to look fresh and stylish for the long run, not just for a few minutes of fashion.
And all our fine jewellery is made to the highest standards, mostly by one of the island’ finest craftspeople, Karen Duncan, who has been making Ola Gorie jewellery for nearly twenty years. From a long line of Orkney boat-builders, Karen is based in her home workshop in the tiny island of Burray, a few miles south of Kirkwall over the famous Churchill Barriers. Nothing leaves her hands till it has been finished to perfection. At which point we check it one more time just to be on the safe side!
Our range is strengthened from time to time by launches of fresh new collections, as well as the continued production of proven ‘classics’ from our extensive back catalogue. Ola herself retired in 1997, but Ola’s daughter, Ingrid, is closely involved in the design side of things, as well as running her own fashion accessory company, Tait & Style.
In spring 2007 we decided to stop selling via other retail shops across the country. Now, we sell our fine jewellery exclusively through our own shop in Kirkwall, The Longship, through our mail order catalogue (email for a copy if you want one) and of course via this website.
All in all, we are proud to be a design-led company, still independently owned and managed, in an increasingly impersonal, mass-market world. And we are delighted to be taking forward Ola’s vision, by ‘opening our eyes and looking around us’, at all the wonderful inspiration that our rich island heritage provides.