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Issue 99 - Sheila Fleet

Scotland Magazine Issue 99
June 2018


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Sheila Fleet

Sheila Fleet OBE has come a long way since she decided to open her first jewellery workshop in 1993


After starting out in a converted shed, Sheila Fleet now employs more than 55 skilled craftspeople in a dedicated workshop and showroom, and Sheila Fleet Jewellery is one of Orkney's biggest and best-known exports. To mark her 50th year of jewellery making and her company's 25th anniversary, we sat down with Sheila to talk about her inspirations and plans for the future.

How did your interest in jewellery begin?

I loved beautiful things as a child and would collect the costume jewellery and interesting items my aunt in America sent us in a little pewter nouveau-style treasure box, which also came from her! Beside this natural attraction to anything pretty and shiny, I also spent hours playing along the shoreline below the family farm, watching the sea and exploring the rocks and rock pools.

I’m sure this is partly why I grew up fascinated by the forms, structure and textures of rock and stone. Later while I was at Edinburgh College of Art I joined a lapidary club and learned how to cut, polish and set stones. I was hooked and decided to specialise in jewellery and fashion for my final years. I’m still as excited today about creating new designs as I was setting my first piece of Scottish stone! And now we even have the possibility of making rings in Scottish Gold!

What inspires your designs?

Orkney is my home, I grew up here and I’m in this landscape more than I am anywhere else in the world, so yes, Orkney is a major source of inspiration to me.

I often think how lucky I am to live and work in such a beautiful place. Every day the light changes, the sea, land and sky all change with the seasons and it all provides me with a neverending source of forms, textures and colours.

Then of course there’s Orkney’s history and archaeology... several of my collections have been inspired by ancient monuments and the art of our ancestors.

But it’s not just Orkney, some of my designs also have their origins in the wonderful scenery found on mainland Scotland. One of my recent collections, Captivate, for example, was inspired by the beautiful valley and river of Cononish near Tyndrum in the West of Scotland, where Scotland’s gold mine is situated.

You are one of only two jewellers permitted to use Scottish Gold from Cononish Gold Mine. How did this come to be? What do you feel stands out about Scottish Gold?

We were instrumental in encouraging the operators to provide Scottish Gold that was traceable and ethically produced for making jewellery in Scotland. It was an exciting day when the first gold arrived in the workshop. I think our reputation for high quality, fine finish, good customer service and, of course, our bold and distinctive designs were also important factors us being chosen as one of the two Scottish Gold jewellers.

We’re still learning about the properties of our new 18ct Scottish Gold, what it can do well and what challenges there may be. It has a lovely colour and sheen. We’ve found our textured Matrix rings work particularly well in Scottish Gold

It’s a dream come true for me to work with Scottish Gold. Now I can offer my customers a ring or piece of jewellery which is mined, designed and made in Scotland!

How has the Scottish jewellery scene changed since the start of your career? How would you like to see it evolve in the future?

Tourism is becoming ever more important to the Scottish economy and I see a very bright future here for craftspeople to tap into. We’re all crafting products which are made in Scotland and that’s important to our visitors. We like to say, ‘take home a little piece of Scotland!’

Within the industry, we like to help each other make the visitor’s experience a good one. It’s ever-changing and we need to move with the times and embrace new technology. The internet and a good website are invaluable in connecting us with the world from our tiny island archipelago in the North Sea. You are well known for creative use of colourful enamel and stones in your jewellery.

What inspired this?

The amazing colours all around me! We’ve really become known for our vibrant enamel colours on silver and 18ct yellow gold. Enamel is a very interesting material to work with. It starts as grains of coloured glass. We take several pots, each containing a different colour, and blend the grains together on a piece of jewellery to create a unique colourway. It’s a traditional method all done by hand - our enamellers use trimmed goose quills.

Next, each piece is put into a small specialist kiln and fired at over 800 degrees. This fuses the glass grains into enamel. This requires precision timing, too short and the grains won’t have properly fused, too long and the colours spoil.

I choose colours which I feel enhance and complement each design. Over the years, we’ve developed a wide palette of enamel colourways and we use this expertise to benefit our customers. For example, if a bride has a special colour she’d like for her bridesmaids we can offer to match the enamel colours of the bridesmaids’ jewellery to their dresses.

Colour, of course, can also come from gemstones. We set both precious and semiprecious stones. White diamonds, blue sapphires, red rubies and green emeralds are the most highly-prized stones. But it’s possible for the customer to have the colour without the cost. If you like red, a garnet is an affordable semi-precious alternative to a ruby, a topaz has a wonderful flash of blue, a peridot will give a green gleam and a cubic zirconia a white twinkle. We set all these gemstones (and different stones are possible) in many silver and gold rings, although often only a diamond may be shown in gold and platinum. You recently launched a new collection, Sea Motion.

What makes this collection special?

This is a wonderful collection for summer! I have very happy memories of the first creative moments. I was on holiday with my late husband, Rick, and it was a lovely day. I was gazing at the sea and found its elusive, rhythmic motion had a very calming effect. This really helped release my creative side and I reached for my sketch pad.

Those drawings became bold, contemporary designs with enamel colours that almost seem to move. Sea Motion is available in silver with a choice of two different enamel colours and we’ve also made a Sea Motion ring in gold. If you want to feel the movement and colours of the sea try this new design!

What’s next on the horizon for yourself and the company?

We’re hoping to complete our Kirk development project next year. We renovated the old parish church beside our workshop and it’s now a unique exhibition space for my jewellery collections, with a new café attached! Next, we plan to refurbish our old showroom so we have an interpretation centre, where you can view our workshop. By next year we should have a varied and interesting experience ready for guests at the home of Sheila Fleet Jewellery in Orkney!


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