Coal often gets a bad rap. Most of us would remember our parents warning us that we would wake up to nothing but a bag of coal on Christmas morning if we had been naughty that year.
Unlike most of us, Newcastle artist Sophia Emmett would gladly wake up to a bag of coal any day of the year. For her, the ancient, sedimentary rock is one of the key materials she uses to create her eye-catching range of hand-made jewellery.
Emmett, originally a glass maker, has always found herself attracted to the colour black, and often chose to work with black glass.
“I’ve always been into black because it’s a combination of all the colours. There’s something very intriguing about it,” she says.
So when she moved from Canberra to Newcastle seven years ago for a sea change, it’s no surprise that the black lumps of coal washed up along the shores of our city’s beaches caught her eye.
“I was just down walking along Merewether Beach and saw the coal there on the sand and thought, it’s so beautiful,” she says.
“It’s an amazing material, particularly when you cut into it.”
After collecting pieces of coal from the beach, Emmett takes them back to her Mayfield East studio where she carefully studies each piece, taking into consideration its shape and feel before deciding what it could be transformed into.
“There are different grades of coal, too, and that will also determine what I do with it. Some of it’s really hard, some of it is really soft,” she says.
Once her vision comes to life, she uses diamond tools to shape each piece, cuts facets into the coal, then polishes it to create a unique collection of dangly earrings, studs, statement necklaces, and cufflinks.
Working with coal can be a messy business and just like a coalminer, she needs to take precautions, including wearing a respirator and using water to control the coal dust.
Emmett says some environmentalists have been quite shocked that she has chosen the medium of coal to work with.
“They say ‘yuck, I hate coal’, and question why I would want to work with it.”
Initially, the reaction came as quite a surprise to Emmett, because she is by no means a supporter of the coal mining industry herself. In her opinion, making jewellery out of coal is actually a really good way to start a conversation about the way we use coal today.
“The exploitation of it as a fossil fuel has made people see coal in a negative light,” she says.
“I wanted to make jewellery out of it to draw attention to how we value natural resources. I wanted to get people to appreciate it in a different way; as a beautiful thing that takes 300 million years to form. Yet we sell it off so cheaply. We totally undervalue it.”
Coal isn’t the only medium that Emmett works with. She also creates striking pieces of jewellery from graffiti and mesh.
“I try to make work using locally sourced and recycled materials,” she says.
For her graffiti range, she collects graffiti that has cracked, flaked or washed off surfaces around Newcastle. Just like her work with coal collected from the beach, she is breathing new life into undervalued, found objects from around the city.
Back at her studio she then laminates the pieces of graffiti to create quirky, bold and colourful earrings and necklaces. Those wearing her graffiti pieces get to carry around a small piece of Newcastle with them that would have otherwise been lost forever.
Emmett also makes mesh jewellery using heat-treated woven nylon, hand-beaten steel alloy and silver. These bracelets, earrings and necklaces are truly miniature works of art. And that’s exactly how she seems them.
“I really believe that jewellery can be like a form of sculpture,” she says.
While it may look dramatic, Emmett notes mesh jewellery is actually very comfortable to wear thanks to the material being so lightweight.
“I want to create thoughtful, beautiful pieces people will love,” she says.
In all of Emmett’s work she shows that beauty can be found in surprising places.