Recycled Treasures – Alexandra Abraham

Brought up on the North Yorkshire coast, my earliest memories are of finding fossils on the beach at Robin Hoods Bay and my mother showed me how to tell if yellow stones were amber by rubbing them against my cheek and seeing if they felt warm.

I also picked up sea glass, pebbles, shells and once, thrillingly, a piece of Whitby Jet. I had a little museum on my windowsill and unlike most small children I looked down at the ground to see what I could find, rather than up towards the sky. Later, from art school to crewing a sailing schooner around the Caribbean and then marriage and travelling the world with my family, wherever I went I brought something back, bleached coral from Mauritius, stones from the Kalahari Desert, bags of tiny clam shells from Antigua, seed pods from Africa, cockle shells from a Norfolk beach, sea washed tile fragments from Tunisia.

 Closer to home I inherited a bag of old costume jewellery from my racy Great Aunt Kay, was bequeathed the three generational family button box and my father gave me the remains of his coin collection. I went mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore and picked up river softened blue china, tea pot spouts, clay pipes, Roman oyster shells and iridescent 16th century glass. On a walk across Hampstead Heath I followed a trail of china fragments embedded in the soil back to their secret source, the forgotten Victorian rubbish tips. Careful inspection revealed cranberry glass, crystal chandelier drops and beautiful old china. This was all sitting quietly in the corner of my studio until three years ago when, inspired by a mosaic course and a tin of very old Venetian glass I found in a Brighton car boot sale I laid all my treasures out like a giant palette and began to play.

 I fell in love with gold leaf when I worked as a specialist decorative painter, so initially I made paintings incorporating gilded assemblages of coins, china and glass. I thought how wonderful it would be if I could actually wear the golden encrustations and began creating small brooches. These became bolder and when they could get no larger I moved on to bangles. I experimented with large gilded chargers and made sets of napkin rings using the old blue Thames china. Then I began to worry that I would run out of things to recycle, it is important to me to know the provenance of all the pieces I work with so I put out the call to my friends, family and clients, and donations began to arrive. One client whose father, a distinguished international architect, had just died gave me a bag of coins he had collected on his travels. I was invited for afternoon tea with an elderly Hampstead couple who ceremonially handed over their small collection of old pennies and exquisite buttons. A neighbour I met at a Christmas party had a mother who was addicted to bling, a passion which no one else in her family shared. So Joan’s jewels came to me and they have gone into the making of some of my most outrageous bangles. Every time I use one of her sparklers I think of Joan and the fun she must have had while wearing it. This is what I love best about upcycling, knowing that most of the pieces I use have had a previous life, that many people have touched them, and that possibly, hopefully, something of their spirit endures in my work.

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