by Inigo del Castillo in New Fashion on Wednesday 26 March 2014

Trade in your stable and lucrative architecture profession to design jewellery for guys? Sounds a bit crazy, right? Apparently for former architect, Clara Ho, the idea doesn’t seem so farfetched at all. She quit her day job as an architect and started ‘Burton Metal Depository’, a jewellery line for men. She’s then been designing quality pieces that aim to change the mindset of men towards jewellery.

In this exclusive interview, we ask her about the humble beginnings of her business, and the ups and downs of creating a clothing line that’s not traditionally frequented by its target market.

When and how did you realize that there wasn’t enough high quality jewellery for men being made in Australia and that you were better off making your own?
There were two major stepping points for me – I first realised how difficult it was to find high quality jewellery for men when I was shopping for a gift for a close guy friend of mine. He already had a necklace he wore and loved, but wanted something else.  Not being able to find anything, I ended up making a number of pieces for him.

Then, after working in various jewellery boutiques for a number of years, I realised I wasn’t the only one with the problem – I met so many customers looking for quality men’s jewellery and being disappointed.  So I decided to help others out too by shifting my attention to men’s design and launching the label.

How did you make the transition from architect to jeweller? What was the reaction from your friends and family?
I’ve always been passionate about jewellery – I remember being sent to my grandmother’s when I was young, to help with her garage sales, but I would always end up ‘rescuing’ all her jewellery and keeping it for myself! After doing a silver-smithing course with a friend during uni, I fell in love with designing and creating my own pieces. 

After the course ended, I continued taking classes at nights and weekends, and got a part-time job at a jewellery boutique whilst still working in full-time in architecture.  Eventually I realised that if I didn’t do what I loved, or at least give it a shot, I would regret it for the rest of my life. It was just after the GFC, and a lot of us were re-assessing our careers, thinking about alternatives and dreaming of ‘what if’ scenarios, in case we got made redundant.

My friends weren’t that surprised when I made the switch and they’ve been amazingly supportive, particularly my partner who acts as my muse, model, and handyman when required!  I’m also lucky enough to have a lot of friends in similar situations – running their own businesses in the creative industry – so we all help each other out.

My parents’ main concern was that I was leaving my full-time, steady-paid job.  They come from a very different cultural background – to them, job security was the most important thing, and this could only be obtained in a traditional profession like Architecture.  Despite this though, they’ve been really supportive of me ever since.

How different is your life now that you’re a jeweller, compared to before when you were an architect?
There are actually a lot of similarities between working as a jeweller and an architect – the process of design is very much the same.  You start with a concept, develop it, get input from others, and keep testing and refining it until you’re satisfied with the final product. 

Of course the time taken to get from concept to finished product is generally much shorter in jewellery than in architecture.

The real difference that occurred in my life is that I went from being a full-time employee to owning my own business, which I’ve found is a 24 hour job in itself! There’s no “9-5” office day anymore and definitely no sick leave. 

Now, every day is so varied – I might be working at the bench one minute, and then deciphering accounting spreadsheets the next. Every decision I make is a huge learning curve, which is really exciting.  Building my own label definitely has its challenges, but being able to see the direct impact of my work is so satisfying.  

I now have a much broader outlook on the process of design and production, and immense admiration for other business owners, especially in the creative industry.

Take us through your creative process in integrating architectural concepts into your jewellery design.
I think there are a lot of cross-overs in the creative process when designing in 3D, whether it’s creating a building, a piece of jewellery or a household appliance.  I draw a lot of inspiration from the work of architects I admire, such as Louis Kahn, Carlos Scarpa and John Lautner, and I apply the lessons I learn from their works to my current designs.

Proportion, for example, is a really important element in both disciplines, and I love Kahn’s work for the way he balances masses of concrete with light and structure to create beautiful forms.  I’m always trying to find this balance in my designs – creating a piece of jewellery that has strength and masculinity, as well as beauty and elegance, is a constant challenge.

Detailing, and how to treat a junction between two forms or materials is another lesson I’ve learnt from architecture. I’m a huge fan of the work of Carlos Scarpa – every detail, right down to how a handrail ends, is so carefully designed and constructed. 

I believe it’s these details, which might be only noticeable up close, that really distinguish a piece of design from an every day object.

On a different level, I incorporate the skills I learnt during my architectural work on 3D cad programs to help me design and create my jewellery pieces. It’s amazing what can be achieved with technology now.  I always keep in mind though, that no matter how advanced the technology is, without a carefully thought-out and detailed design, the end product will be flawed.

I strongly believe there’s a place for both technology and traditional skills to exist. Some aspects of my designs just wouldn’t be achievable without using 3D cad, but conversely, nothing compares to a handcrafted artefact. That’s why each of my pieces is still individually hand finished – each one gets imbued with a character that can’t be reproduced by a machine.

Men (generally) aren’t into jewellery as much as women. How do you intend to break that mindset and stereotype with your brand?
I think the reason men (generally) aren’t into jewellery as much as women is because they get so little exposure to good quality examples of it. Most of what’s seen as ‘men’s jewellery’ is generally a stereotype of the macho male – imitation dog tags, studded leather or heavy gold chains. It’s often mass produced, because it’s producers see it as a passing fad or ‘costume’ accessory and therefore one the consumer won’t spend much money on.

With my label, I try to show men (and the general public) that jewellery for men can be well designed and beautifully made, so that it lasts beyond fashion trends. Just as with women’s jewellery, I educate men about the value of owning a hand-crafted, uniquely designed piece.

With my designs, I try to show men that an understated, minimal piece can still make a statement – a piece can be refined and elegant without losing its masculinity. And if it’s a quality piece, it can have the same luxurious feeling as wearing an expensive, top of the line watch.