The sparkling 50-year career of Dunedin master jeweller Tony Williams

by Linda Herrick / 13 August, 2018
Dunedin jeweller Tony Williams' Bee on a Flower brooch.

Dunedin jeweller Tony Williams' Bee on a Flower brooch.

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“I hit bits of metal with a hammer,” is Tony Williams’ modest summary of his 50-year career as a master craftsman whose pieces are in demand worldwide.

A handsome new book, Tony Williams Goldsmith, in fact portrays a man driven by steely resolve. It includes numerous photographs of Williams’ exquisite work and essays by Dunedin writer Emma Neale and Auckland art historian Rigel Sorzano.

Williams, 69, claims he was a semi-reluctant participant in the book, a co-production between his company, Tony Williams Gallery, and Potton & Burton publishers.

“A couple of people said there ought to be a book – one was my sister, Bridget Williams, who is a publisher,” he says. “I have been hiding in corners ever since it was suggested, trying to do as little as I can. Biddy [Waldron, his wife] has done a huge amount of work compiling the stuff, so it has been a team effort, with me being the least-willing member of the team.”

Williams doesn’t like talking about himself, unless it’s about the work, then he really lights up. But, in researching her essay for the book, Neale took him back 50 years to a common teenage crisis: “What am I going to do?”

Tony Williams. Photo/Bridget Waldron

Tony Williams. Photo/Bridget Waldron

As a high-school student, he rejected the concept of studying. “I was bright, but I DID. NOT. WORK,” he told Neale.

By default, he drifted to the University of Otago for a year, earning D and E grades. A short period at the University of Canterbury’s Ilam School of Fine Arts also proved fruitless, and Williams ended up in hospital suffering from exhaustion.

“It’s very odd talking about oneself in these terms,” he says. “We all grapple with the issue of what we are going to do. It was a huge issue for me. I was a bit of a lost soul; I had this great anxiety, with no sense of direction or purpose.”

He’d dabbled in making copper jewellery when he was 14, and post-Ilam he renewed the skill and looked for an apprenticeship. Three big-name contemporary local jewellers – Kobi Bosshard, Jens Hansen and Guenther Taemmler – were receptive, but had no openings. The trade response was that he, at 18, was “too old”.

Tourmaline ring.

Tourmaline ring.

His father, then vice-chancellor of the University of Otago, was travelling in England in 1969 and made enquiries about training opportunities there, resulting in Williams gaining a place at the Birmingham School of Jewellery.

Williams was ready to learn “in spades” and his interest blossomed into an obsession – he was first to arrive each day and last to leave.

After graduating with honours, and spending three years in jewellery workshops in London, Williams returned to Dunedin in 1975.

His repertoire includes rare expertise in enamelling, a skill he furthered in 1989 when an Arts Council grant allowed him a year’s sabbatical in London and Italy.

His approach to jewellery making is influenced by the international Arts and Crafts movement, focusing on traditional, high-quality craftsmanship, self-sufficiency and pushing the boundaries.

Dog stick.

Dog stick.

He credits “senior members in the trade” for providing him with “good, honest work”, allowing him time to develop his style and eventually open a gallery in Dunedin’s Moray Place. Last year, he moved his business to his home workshop and is now semi-retired.

Williams’ work is often witty and whimsical, including brooches with moving parts, dog’s head handles for walking sticks, and earrings, bracelets and necklaces inspired by birds and insects.

Commissions gradually became a significant feature of his business, often resulting in deep emotional connections between customer and craftsman. “You really have to try to get a feeling for people,” he explains. “You often hold a lot of confidences in trying to disentangle what they want. You have to be very careful.”

Many of his works have become collectors’ items. One of his necklaces, featuring a silver and gold octopus, was commissioned by a marine scientist using photographs he had taken in Otago Harbour.

Silver and pounamu spoons.

Silver and pounamu spoons.

Williams has also been heavily involved in Dunedin’s fashion scene, taking part in the jewellery breakfasts at iD Fashion Week. He created one of his most distinctive pieces, the bat choker, from oxidised silver with rubies for eyes, for the event in 2009. “I loved the opportunity to make big flamboyant pieces and the bat choker was one of those,” he says. “Someone had given me a copy of National Geographic showing bats spiralling down through the sky. So, I came up with the idea of the bats flying around the neck. It was a one-off, but I also made a limited line of bat brooches.”

Although Williams uses diamonds, he eschews the “privileging” of the gemstone so common in commercial jewellery, preferring instead to use semi-precious stones such as citrine and tourmaline.

One of his heart-shaped silver spoons with pounamu handles was presented to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they visited St Paul’s Cathedral, Dunedin, in 2014. “I have used pounamu at various stages,” he says. “But I have not made a major thing of it, because I am not a stone carver. I am a metal worker. I hit bits of metal with a hammer.”

TONY WILLIAMS GOLDSMITH (Tony Williams Gallery/Potton & Burton, $79.99)

This article was first published in the July 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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