Irish artist Grainne Morton is best known for her eclectic style of jewelry making, in which she juxtaposes found objects. Now available in The Met Store at The Met Fifth Avenue, these elegant treasures offer reminders of history in a modern and unexpected way.
Today, we speak with the artist to learn more about her designs.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I was born in Northern Ireland, brought up on the beautiful North West Coast, surrounded by beaches and natural beauty. I left Northern Ireland at 18, moving to Edinburgh to start what would be five and a half years at Edinburgh College of Art. I don’t think of myself having hobbies as such. My work forms such an integral part of my life – observing, collecting, creating in a way that is an extended hobby. A way of life. I do love fashion and style, though and see myself as a collector of clothes.
Can you tell me a bit about how you decided to become an artist?
I always loved making things. When I started secondary school, the art department was my favorite place to be. I knew really early on that I wanted to pursue a creative path.
What interests you about jewelry in particular?
I have always been a miniaturist. It was the scale that drew me in.
How did you begin your business?
Coming from a family of self-employed people (both my parents and aunts and uncles ran their own businesses), it was a given to me that after I left college I would set up in business. I was incredibly fortunate to start my business in 1995 with a startup grant from the then-Scottish Arts Council (now Creative Scotland). It was a lucrative time for craft in the UK, with many wonderful galleries and a show run by the Crafts Council called Chelsea Crafts Fair. This fair built my business in those early years with buyers’ trade and retail customers visiting from all over the world. Sadly, the fair is long gone and so are most of the galleries. The market changed so much when I started my family. When my children started school and I was able to work more regular hours again, I made a conscious decision to make more wearable, fashion-forward jewellery – jewellery that I wanted to wear rather than producing for the gallery market. I haven’t looked back.
I see on your website that you cite family antique shopping trips as a key influence – can you tell me about those trips?
When I moved to Scotland my parents had a successful antique business and would travel over with their van for the weekend once a month. The entire weekend (except evenings) was spent at antique fairs (the trips were timed specially) and shops in the entire area. When Mum and Dad went off to buy for their shop I would collect pieces for my own use – originally as ornaments for my flat, eventually as materials for my work. My flat back then was stuffed to the brim with collections. Many of the miniature items housed in wooden printer trays – these trays were the inspiration for my compartment brooches.
How do you collect the findings that you use in your designs? Is there a particular quality that you look for in those objects?
The found objects I use in my work have changed over the years. At the moment I am interested in Georgian and Victorian periods. In the past it has been 1930s – 50s. The Victorian period has been a continuing source of inspiration I guess since school, when we read Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest. I was fascinated by the styling, the glass domes and floral arrangements. Another constant object I use in my work is the button. I started collecting buttons at art college while antiquing with my parents.
What else do you collect?
I love vintage clothes and have quite a collection. I collect a number of things, sometimes sporadically for short periods of time. I have too many to mention. Tins, miniature cabinets, tree paintings, antique toys—the list goes on and on. Collecting is an obsession.
Can you tell me about the making of one particular piece from start to finish?
The compartment brooches – which incidentally are the only pieces still in production from the very start of my career. They are a real labor of love to create. I start with sheet metal – copper. I cut long strips of metal with a piercing saw. The boxes are forms by filing and folding the metal. The compartments are added in rows, then the compartments are added and soldered in place. When filed, silver claws are soldered on to hold the glass tops. When the boxes have been cleaned up and oxidized (blackened), the compartments are ready to be filled. This can be a very time-consuming process, making sure all the elements inside connect. I use such a varied number of materials in these boxes – and that was why I decided to make them (inspired by wooden printer trays). I wanted my jewelry to have color and materials you wouldn’t normally expect. In these boxes you will find: drawings on paper, enamel, shells, fishing flies, glass, sea glass, precious stones, vintage rhinestones. The list goes on and on.
How would you define your aesthetic?
Individual, unique, eclectic.
Have you ever visited The Met? If not, where in the museum would you like to visit?
I haven’t spent any time at The Met. When I’m in New York it is mostly for work and it’s difficult for me to fit in museum time. I did pop in when I had my meeting with Cherisse [editor’s note: Cherisse Straw is The Met’s Product Manager for Jewelry] and was overwhelmed by the scale and the grandeur. One thing that really stood out was the floral displays in the Great Hall. They were breathtaking. I would like to see the painting Lady with Her Pets by Rufus Hathaway. I’ll be in New York really soon and am determined to visit. I missed the David Hockney exhibition in London so I’ll definitely catch it at The Met.
If you’re willing, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Cornell’s assemblage work, which bears similarity to your compartment brooches.
It’s interesting, ever since I made my compartment pieces and slightly earlier work which was in a similar vein, people would tell me that it reminded them of the work of Joseph Cornell. I had never heard of Joseph Cornell, and I think I made the conscious decision not to research his work in any detail as I didn’t want to be influenced. I must make a conscious effort to read up on to his work, it looks really interesting.