A Personal Understanding of What Preciousness Can Be – a chat with jeweller Nicky Hepburn

27 September

In the 1950s town planner Alistair Hepburn was hired to redesign the city of Perth and, in recognition of his work, had Hepburn Avenue named in his honour. In 2016, his daughter, Melbourne- based contemporary jeweller Nicky Hepburn is mapping Western Australia’s land in a different way.

The RMIT-trained gold and silversmith is exhibiting a series of jewellery inspired by the state’s north west until November 16 at The Goods Shed alongside fellow Victorian artists Yuko Fujita, Pennie Jagiello and Natalia Milosz-Piekarska for Worn Land : Four Jewellers in the Pilbara.

Jewellery, for Nicky Hepburn, is not just something that you put on.   

“Jewellery isn’t just an engagement ring – and what is an engagement ring? It’s a symbol. It’s a sentiment; It’s to make you feel good. It’s to make you cry. It’s a memory. It’s all those things to me – it’s not singularly one thing, although it can be.  I make jewellery and then when the owner puts it on, it becomes totally theirs and their own symbol. I love to see that happen. I think one of the nicest things is to make something for somebody and then watch their reaction when they take it over, because then it becomes them ; how they use it, how they wear it, and how it changes. I love getting back some of my pieces for repair or cleaning and you can see the wear on the pieces, how they’re worn. It’s someone else’s now and they’ve put their spin on it – and it’s gorgeous.”

Nicky Hepburn with fellow jeweller Pennie Jagiello at the opening of Worn Land : Four Jewellers in the Pilbara at the Goods Shed. . Image by Kim Kirkman.

Nicky Hepburn with fellow jeweller Pennie Jagiello at the opening of Worn Land : Four Jewellers in the Pilbara at the Goods Shed. Image by Kim Kirkman.

Worn Land is a response to the material of the landscape. The colours, textures, light, forms and details of the Pilbara.

“I think that my shock was seeing these oases of just breathtaking beauty that you don’t experience anywhere else. Maybe it’s the contrast of miles and miles and miles of red dirt and big huge skies and then a pile of white salt, a pile of black manganese, and these machines in the background thumping away and then stillness. And then a shock of colour or a flock of these incredibly intense green little birds flitting out of nowhere. Just amazing. The Pilbara – I’ve got it now and it’s going to plague me for the rest of my life. It gets under your skin and I still haven’t worked out whether it’s just because we’re Australians or whether it happens to everybody but I have a larger-than-life sentiment or emotion or reception I suppose to the place.”


The Pilbara in late afternoon. Photograph by Bewley Shaylor.


Nicky Hepburn’s pieces often inform the aesthetics of her commercial work. 

“I use traditional materials like gold and silver and I love production jewellery, it pays the bills, but I got into this line of work in the beginning because of fine art.  I wanted to express myself which sometimes means making jewellery which is not necessarily wearable. These pieces are fine art jewellery and I’m loving exhibiting pieces that are made out of less durable materials.  Materials that are often considered junk by a lot of us, reusing them, making them into jewellery and appreciating them the same way we’ve traditionally appreciated precious metals.


Her work is moving toward the use of natural materials like pumice, shell, natural resin and sap.

“During our residency (Pilbara Indigenous artist) Jill Churnside  took us out for a day in Roebourne and showed us this amazing Acacia tree across from her place. She was telling us the story of when she was a young girl and she and her siblings used to fight over the sap from the Acacia tree – they’d to eat it like toffee. It made me realise how lucky we are for how much we can get from our natural environment. I’ve actually taken sap from a tree and then worked it into beads. I’m now researching working with sap and reworking leaves and flowers; dehydrating them and making them into powders I can mix with resins and saps and cast into jewellery. It was a fascinating link, my time spent in the Pilbara for Worn Land and the direction my work was beginning to take.”


Nicky Hepburn, in residence at Spinifex Hill Studios, South Hedland, 2014. Photograph by Bewley Shaylor.

Nicky Hepburn, in residence at Spinifex Hill Studios, South Hedland, 2014. Photograph by Bewley Shaylor.


For Nicky Hepburn, being a jeweller is a way of seeing.

“As a jeweller being at the bench and attending to tiny wee settings and findings – it’s all in the detail for me. Subtle, often simple details; the light, the textures, the forms, the colours. All those tiny wee things I like to put together to try and make the viewer look at them.  A lot of the time you don’t actually look. You don’t spend the time stopping and actually taking notice of the texture, how rough or smooth or how beautiful it might and how we could use that beauty in different ways.”


A selection of works exhibited as part of Worn Land, The Goods Shed 2016. Photograph by Andrew Barcham.


“For me this body of work has been an accumulation which started a number of years ago when I did another project called Walk in Victoria’s Great South West. I’ve always walked and gathered things. Even way back even when we were kids, down on the beach collecting little shells or periwinkles and stringing them up to make something from them. I love doing that, and I’ve come full circle because that’s basically what I’m doing now.”

People relate to this.

“Foraging, walking the land, gathering simple things, and making simple things out of them. I’m trying to develop ways of using twigs, or palm fronds, and making them into bits and pieces that are wearable and useful. It brings attention to our wastefulness as a country and as a people, our different perspectives of what’s precious and what isn’t precious.”

Worn Land exhibits at The Goods Shed until November 16.



* Quotes in this blog have been edited for clarity.