Meet the maker: Rowena Sheen
How did you start making jewellery?
Design and craft have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember - my mum is a knitwear designer and my dad is a furniture maker and beekeeper. Both of them have stalls at the Saturday market in Galway and so I used to help them out when I was a child. I was obsessed with beads and beading and so I would often have my own little stall selling all sorts of beaded and Fimo jewellery. When it was time to go to college, I chose to study Metals and Jewellery at NCAD in Dublin, but having always had an interest in fashion and textiles I was lucky to get work in the costume department in the Abbey Theatre when I finished college. From there I went into film and TV, where I honed my skills as a historical costume maker. While I really enjoyed the work, I missed the process of researching, designing and making something from start to finish, and after 13 years I had had my fill of Dublin and city life in general, so I decided to move back west in 2016 with the idea to set up my own jewellery design business. The Dublin Christmas Flea Market in 2017 was my first major selling event, and it’s been all go since then!
How would you describe your work?
Lightweight, wearable art - ethical, sustainable and local!
What materials do you work with?
Right now I work mostly in Yew wood, one of our beautiful native Irish species. Yew has a beautiful fine grain and an amazing variety of colour and figure, from pale cream to orange to brown and sometimes even tiny flecks of purple. I also ebonise some of the pieces of wood to get a deep, rich black that provides a nice contrast. I finish all of my jewellery with sterling silver findings, and finally I polish them with beeswax from my dad’s hives in the Burren.
Sustainability and community are values that we share, can you tell us more about how this impacts your work?
I grew up in a very rural setting surrounded by the beautiful nature of the Burren, and had a love of nature and the outdoors instilled in me from a very young age. This appreciation and respect for the natural world follows was paramount in my decision to use native Irish woods in my work. Materials for me are really important. I think as a designer you have a responsibility not to contribute to the ever mounting pile of socially and environmentally destructive ‘consumables’ we have become so addicted to. I wanted to use a material that was completely natural, was available locally and was uniquely Irish, so wood seemed like an ideal choice. Natural, renewable, sustainable and beautiful! Now that I’ve been making my jewellery for a few years, and people are aware of my ethos and how I source my raw materials, I often get calls from people in the spring who have a tree or a limb down on their land, after the winter storms, and so I’m now building up a good store of all sorts of beautiful native Irish woods for future use, all sourced locally from the community around me.
What inspires you?
I’ve always been really interested in pattern and geometry, and there is so much of both to be found in nature, so most of my work comes out of looking for those patterns and structures in the natural world around me. I’m also really inspired by travelling and different cultures, especially the very geometric art and architecture typical of North Africa and the Middle East.
I always take lots of photographs and notes while travelling and these will usually filter through into my work over the following months.
What does your creative process look like?
Because I don’t buy commercially produced wood, there is a fair amount of work involved in getting it from tree trunk to a finished piece of jewellery. First it has to dry - 1 year per inch of thickness. Then I get it cut into thin planks at a saw mill - followed by a lot of sanding until it is beautifully smooth. Once it has reached this stage I get all of the individual components laser cut to my designs, then everything gets sanded again to a finer grit. At this stage I ebonise some of the pieces for contrast. I use iron oxide (wire wool dissolved in vinegar) which reacts with the natural tannins in the wood turning it a deep rich black. Then there is some drilling, assembling and polishing with beeswax polish and finally I put everything together using sterling silver findings. It’s quite a bit of work!
How would you like people to feel when they see/ wear your pieces?
Comfortable, natural, beautiful, happy.
Is there a piece from your collection that you are particularly loving right now?
At the moment I’m really loving my Oriel drop earrings in black. They are part of my “Windows” collection that I designed during our most extreme lockdown in 2020 when a lot of time was spent looking out of windows. Each piece from this collection has a cutout ‘window’ section, some tiny and some a little larger, and I made sure to use the cut out section somewhere else in the piece, as I find it really satisfying to waste nothing! Aside from loving the way these look, they are also just some comfortable to wear. I’ve made sure to soften all of the edges by sanding them nice and smooth, and the wood is so lightweight you barely feel them on your ears.
Can we find you on social media?
Explore and shop Rowena's designs here