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A Jewellery Kiln: The Closest Thing to Alchemy

Hilary Bowen with her nine-year-old SC-2. Note that the kiln should not actually be fired this close to flammable materials.


Hilary Bowen teaches silver clay jewellery in Breamore, a village in Hampshire, England.

Q. How did you get started in glass and silver clay? What was your reaction to PMC the first time you heard of it?

A. I got started in silver clay when I went to a three-hour class in 2004. I was hooked. It was just the most amazing stuff I had ever come across and the nearest I was ever to get to alchemy! So I spent a year making silver clay pendants, mainly from leaves, spending every spare moment working with the clay.

Eventually I found a place in Corfe (in Dorset), run by Petra Cameron, which offered whole-day introductory classes, so I booked on to one of those. A few months later I did my Level 1 Certification course with Petra Cameron followed by the Level 2, in November 2005. Then I bought a Paragon SC-2 kiln and started my own classes. (I use Art Clay Silver rather than PMC simply because that was what I was trained to use, and my supplier gives me a good discount.) Now, nine years on, I still find silver clay fascinating. I love its versatility, and I love developing new designs.

Q. Please describe your first firings in your new SC-2. How did your first pieces turn out?

A. When I bought my kiln, I was very excited but a bit nervous about using it. It took me a little while to get the hang of programming it, but I have since found it very easy. I was delighted with the results particularly as it enabled me to fire things that I would not have been able to do with a gas torch, such as certain gemstones and bronze clay, and pieces made from syringe-work on cork-clay.

Q. What are the most interesting things you've learned about firing the SC-2 during the 8 or 9 years that you have owned it?

A. About three years ago I started learning to make lamp-work beads by melting rods of coloured glass over a torch flame fuelled by propane and oxygen. My kiln has been useful for annealing the beads, which prevents them from cracking later.

In recent months I put my kiln to further use by firing ceramic clay. Although it doesn't reach high enough temperatures for stoneware or porcelain, it is fine for earthenware, so I have spent may a happy hour making pots. I don't have a potter's wheel, and have no intention of buying one, because there are so many methods of hand building with ceramic clay. I use white earthenware clay, which looks like porcelain when fired. I often colour it with oxides to produce pastel shades.

I have done a little bit of enamelling on silver, and loved the results.

I learned to make dichroic glass jewellery when a colleague started her own classes. I went to a couple of classes and loved the vibrant colours of dichroic glass. So I bought a load of glass and that was the beginning of a new hobby! When I became more experienced, I began running my own classes in that, too. Of course, already having the Paragon SC-2 kiln was advantageous.

Then I learned to produce silver jewellery with embedded dichroic glass, and that led to a whole new range of designs. I like to combine different media in my jewellery and often add 24-carat gold or semi-precious stones. I might combine glass and gemstones and silver all in one piece. I use a low-fire silver clay (650° C / 1200° F) so I can combine the silver with glass and some of the fireable gemstones.

But silver clay remains my favourite medium. It still has a certain magic for me. I enjoy running the workshops, where people have an enjoyable day and go home proudly wearing the pieces they made. Sometimes the students get quite excited when the pieces are about to come out of the kiln.

Once a lady came along for a two-day course in silver clay and brought a nutmeg that her daughter had found on one of her travels. Her daughter was about to graduate from university, and the mother wanted to make a replica of the nutmeg in silver clay as a graduation present. Despite being inexperienced in silver clay, she made a perfect replica of the nutmeg. I was struck by how good silver clay is for making personal pieces that have special meaning.

I run evening classes, and two established groups of regulars come on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. Some of them have been coming for over two years, and good friendships have been made. I also give talks and demonstrations to women's groups. Most of the ladies have never heard of silver clay, and they are amazed to watch the transformation from clay to silver metal. I sell my work in galleries and local exhibitions and also take commissions.

Q. Please describe life in Breamore village. What are your favorite landmarks there?

A. My home is in Breamore village, which is on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire, England. I live in a thatched cottage, and in the garden I have a large studio where I teach classes and make jewellery. One of my favourite pieces that I have made is a bracelet with scenes of Breamore. It has five panels. Each one depicts a scene from the village: a thatched cottage (there are many in the village); the church in an 11th century Saxon building; the Miz-Maze--an ancient maze cut into the turf on a hill on the outskirts of the village; the Marsh (an area of Breamore where I live); and a goose. (Breamore is famous for its geese.) This bracelet has been much admired, and I have subsequently made three more, all slightly different, for neighbours.

Q. What are your favorite silver clay themes?

A. My designs often tend to be influenced by nature. I make lots of moulds of shells, fossils, pieces of bark and coral, leaves, dried starfish and sea-horses, seed-pods, etc.

While it is possible to make these things in the traditional way using sterling silver, it is much more difficult, because it involves pouring molten silver from a crucible, etc., with the health and safety issues. Using moulds for silver clay is relatively quick and easy. Many of my first-time students often choose to use one of my moulds of a fossilised ammonite. It makes a delightful piece and involves little more than rolling out the clay and pressing it into the mould. So it means they can go home with an unusual and striking piece that they are very pleased with.

Q. Do you have any touching stories about people who made silver clay gifts?

A. Two sisters came to a class, and they brought leaves from a tree that was growing in the garden of their mother, who had recently died. They made jewellery from these leaves as a keep-sake in remembrance of her.

Q. What is it like to live in a thatched house?

A. Living in a thatched house is a mixed blessing. Most thatched houses (mine included) are listed buildings, which means there are restrictions on remodeling. So you can't just rip out a window and put a new one in, or paint the front door bright red, or whatever. If you want to make even minor structural alterations, you have to apply to the council for planning permission, and you may not get it.

The thatch needs to be re-done about every fifteen years, and it is expensive. Also, most insurance companies won't insure thatched properties, so the premiums are high. They also insist that you have the chimney swept every year by a registered chimney sweep, and you have to submit the certificate from the chimney sweep to the insurance company every year. Otherwise the insurance is invalid.

With a large fireplace and an open log fire, you have to be especially careful with a thatched cottage. These old cottages also tend to be draughty because of holes in the brickwork, etc.

However, it is lovely living in a place that has so much history. My cottage was built around 1636 and has huge exposed beams in the ceilings and walls. (Apparently many of these beams came from old sailing ships.) You can't help wondering about the lives of the people who have lived under these beams. You have to admire the building materials and the skills of the builders in producing buildings that are still standing after all these hundreds of years. And it is lovely sitting in front of a roaring log fire on long winter evenings.

Driving through the New Forest on a sunny summer's morning is a sheer delight. On the other hand, it can be hazardous on dark wet winter evenings! Breamore is on the edge of the New Forest, which is a National Trust area of outstanding beauty. It is famous for the wild ponies and other animals that wander freely. During cold winter periods the council puts a gritty salt on the icy roads. The cows love this and congregate on the roads licking the tarmac to get the salt. So you have to be careful when you are driving.

Q. Do you live near Downton, of “Downton Abbey” fame?

Downton is four miles away from Breamore--almost walking distance. Downton Abbey is a fictional place, but the TV series is closely based on real aristocratic families who lived during that time.

The house used in the filming of the series is actually Highclere Castle, in Berkshire, which is about 75 miles away. It is open to the public, as most of these stately homes are nowadays, as it brings in the money that is badly needed for the up-keep of the huge lovely buildings. I've never visited it, but I've visited similar ones nearby. There are many of these stately homes, but not all of them are as big as Highclere Castle.

The antique furnishings and lovely gardens are quite interesting. The families who own these houses usually still live in them, and the bits that they live in are not open to the public so they have some privacy. In fact Breamore, owned by Lord and Lady Hulse, is open to the public.

Hilary's silver clay bracelet depicts scenes from Breamore.

Hilary fired these delicate ceramic pieces in her jewellery kiln.

Hilary's thatched house is in the background.

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