From her base on Orkney, Sheila Fleet and her team produce individually-designed and hand-finished pieces of jewellery that have captured the hearts of customers around the globe, as Peter Ranscombe discovers.
Christmas always comes early for Sheila Fleet. Like so many entrepreneurs working in the manufacturing and retail sectors, Fleet and her team must start thinking about the festive period way back in the late summer and early autumn, even when the warm sun is still beating down on her workshop at Tankerness on Orkney.
Yet “workshop” doesn’t really do justice to the craftsmanship that goes on in Fleet’s headquarters. Each of her designs originates and gets made on the premises and is hand-finished there, combining silver and enamel coloured with glass to create everything from brooches, earrings and necklaces through to rings, cufflinks and kilt pins.
It’s a treat to see Fleet in action as she leads the way through the workshop, passing on her design for a piece of jewellery for a German customer to a member of her team. Around her, craftsmen and women are busy beavering away at their wooden benches, their hand tools neatly lined up in rows, working hard to meet the Christmas orders.
This is no soulless factory either. Even though it’s just a short drive from Kirkwall, Orkney’s main town, Tankerness is a rural community, with the workshop surrounded by fields and only a short walk away from the shoreline.
What’s perhaps most striking about Fleet’s jewellery is the way in which it captures the essence of the landscape of Orkney, an archipelago of around 70 islands lying 10 miles off the north coast of Scotland. Her designs incorporate the patterns created by waves on the sea, sand on the beach, colours in the rock; capturing each ripple, each curve, each colour.
Her home is strewn with pieces of rock, perched on tables and surfaces around the house. Like a magpie, she collects stones with colours or patterns that will inspire her designs, while friends and family also contribute to the collection.
She holds up an example from Yesnaby, a set of sea cliffs on the west coast of the Mainland and her favourite place on Orkney to go collecting rocks. Fleet clearly feels a very strong connection to the land of her birth and it’s intriguing to see how the landscape has inspired her work.
Later, sitting at her dining table, she spreads a series of old photographs across the surface, some showing family portraits, other showing scenes from the family croft in the 1950s, including the “stooks”, sheaves of grain standing upright in fields, in the days before combine harvesters and baling machines could create the now-familiar cylindrical or rectangular hay stacks. Some of the photos are in frames and ready to be passed on to relatives or friends.
“You had to cut the stooks at just the right angle, so they would stand up properly,” Fleet remembers. Precision and an eye for detail emerged at an early age.
Creativity also clearly runs in the family. A large painting that hangs in her house is one of 500 watercolours created by her mother – who only took up the hobby when she was in her 80s.
Born in 1945 on South Ronaldsay, one of the islands connected to Orkney’s Mainland by the Churchill barriers at the eastern end of Scapa Flow, Fleet left school at the age of 15 without any qualifications. Yet her talent for art and design was already evident.
Fleet joined Edinburgh College of Art in 1963 and spent two years on its general course, studying drawing, painting and sculpture. After joining a “lapidary” club – the cutting, polishing and engraving of gemstones – and creating her first piece of jewellery, she began specialising in jewellery and fashion design, gaining her diploma from the college in 1967.
She was then awarded a further year’s post-diploma professional training in jewellery, which came with industrial endorsement. A small bursary allowed her to study in London under Andrew Grima, one of the most famous jewellers of his day, who designed pieces for the Queen.
Gaining top marks in her post-diploma studies and a series of awards allowed Fleet to spread her wings even further, travelling extensively through Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. She joined Corocraft, the world’s largest costume jewellery company, in 1969 and won a series of prizes in British and European competitions, meeting and marrying her husband, photographer and blacksmith Rick Fleet, along the way.
Fleet and her husband moved back to Orkney in 1977 and she began working with local jewellery company Ortak as its first professional designer and modelmaker. In 1993, she took the bold move of setting up her own business, building her first workshop in a converted chicken shed in her garden.
“We still use the shed,” Fleet laughs. “The members of staff who work in there have the best views from their windows because they can see down to the shore – they may have the oldest shed, but they have the best view.
“After 21 years in industry working for other people, the time seemed right to work for myself. My son was in his teens, so it felt like he was old enough for me to start my own business.
“My husband had been ill at the time, so it was a way of us working together. We were looking for a quality of life where we could work together as a family.
“It had been great to be in London and the south of England during the swinging years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But the time was right to come home – Tankerness is beautiful because I love being by the sea and my husband loved aeroplanes and we’re only five minutes from the airport.”
Construction work began on the current workshop, showroom and offices in 1995, with the premises extended several times over the years to accommodate the growing business, Sheila Fleet Jewellery. Now, an even more exciting expansion project is underway. Next year, Fleet will open an exhibition space and café in an old church that sits next to her workshop. The sanctuary of the church has been sympathetically restored, with a mezzanine level creating extra space inside.
It’s been a long time in development; the company bought the building in 2007 and work was already underway back in 2014. But Fleet has been keen to renovate the church to the highest standard and the result will be well worth the wait.
The new visitors’ centre is expected to create around 12 jobs, swelling the headcount of the company from its current complement of around 80 staff, some 50 of whom are based on Orkney, with the others spread throughout the businesses’ shops in Kirkwall and Stockbridge in Edinburgh, and its concessions at Jenners department store in Edinburgh, House of Fraser in Glasgow and Loch Lomond Shores.
The concession at Jenners opened in 1995 and expanded in 2000. Over the summer, Fleet’s company took the window displays in the store, advertising her jewellery to the thousands of visitors who flocked to the city for the 70th Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival.
Another development about which the designer is particularly excited is the chance to use Scottish gold for the first time. Permission was granted to extract gold from the Cononish mine near Tyndrum in 1996, with Chris Sangster founding Scotgold Resources to carry out the work in 2007.
Sangster was interviewed by Gillian Law in issue nine of BQ Scotland magazine back in the autumn of 2012 and last year the first Scottish gold was sold at auction in the form of 12 rounds or coins, with Fleet paying £2,517 for her share of the precious metal – round number six. Back in June, a second announcement from Scotgold revealed that a deal had been struck to sell more gold to two Scottish jewellers, one of which was Fleet’s company.
“Scottish gold is a rare commodity,” explains Fleet. “We’ve just created our first few pieces – it’s quite nerve-racking because we know we can produce items in other metals, but now we have to prove to our customers that we can work with Scottish gold as well, so we’re at a very exciting stage. We have now made our first ten items in Scottish gold.”
Fleet is not only a keen supporter of Scottish gold, but also of the wider “Made in Scotland” movement. “We need to do more to promote the provenance of our products,” she says.
Having run her own business for 25 years, Fleet still relishes the challenge of designing new pieces. “When I create a range, I’ll continue to develop themes from previous years,” she explains. “But I’ll also take a chance and throw something new into the mix – and it’s often that new design that sells the best. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket, so it’s good to push the boundaries.”
One of the highlights of running her own business is the connection with the customers. “We are there with them at some of the most important moments in their lives,” she explains. “We have men getting in touch asking us to design engagement rings for their girlfriends. It’s really special because we have to help keep it a secret for them.”