Featured Designer: Eels Jewellery

FK chats with Tenille Evans about her scrimshaw jewellery, eels jewellery

Where does the inspiration for your label come from?
I specialise in the traditional technique of scrimshaw. It was originally practiced by the Yankee whalers of the 1800’s. The word scrimshaw is actually derived from Dutch nautical slang meaning ‘time wasting’. That’s basically what it was, a way for the sailors to waste time during many years at sea. They would recycle the left-over pieces of whale teeth and ivory, carving intricate patterns into the surface, then rub ink into the designs. They would make trinkets for their loved ones when they returned, or just use the objects to tell stories about their journey. The name of my label, ‘Eels’ comes from my name, Tenille. I guess it began, like most crafts, as a fun way for me to waste time too! Then progressed into my way of telling stories.

What lead to you where you are today?
I studied Jewellery and Object design in Sydney. I learnt so much during my studies, but none of it was about scrimshaw. I just happened across the technique and taught myself, with a lot of trial and error. My design studies did help me learn how to play and experiment and how to engage with materials. It definitely taught me the importance of following a process and developing concepts. Saying that though, I really think it takes something other than education to start and grow your own label. Insanity maybe. I think in my case, it was driven by a very strong desire to work for myself, to have more flexibility around my family and work from home.

Can you tell us about the materials you love working with and how it makes your label unique?
The jewellery I make is really centred on the material I use. Scrimshaw was originally practiced using left-over sperm whale teeth, bones, and baleen. Of course I don’t use whale bone but I use other recycled organic material like buffalo and cow horn and bone. Before I even start crafting them, these materials I use often seem to have a story of their own because of their organic nature. Whether it is in the swirling caramel variations in the surface of horn or the fine mottled grain within a piece of bone, these materials have a history.

This is part of the reason I love working with them so much. It is inspiring. I also love organic materials because they are warm, light and imbue each piece with a sense of individuality. In addition, recycling an organic, bio-degradable product that would otherwise be discarded is ethical and sustainable. This makes me feel better about adding to the glut of objects people own!

When did you launch the label and what has been some of the highlights so far?
I started working under the label Eels at the beginning of 2011. I had made scrimshaw jewellery before that and had also been making other work for exhibition but I really didn’t start on the type of thing I am making now until I was having a maternity ‘break’ from fulltime work after having my son Cash. I think it was honestly out of a desire to not have to go back to a ‘real’ job! One highlight was being asked to make an exclusive range for Edition X (www.editionx.com.au). Being featured in Tattoos Downunder magazine was pretty exciting for me too! Another was the Finders Keepers SS11 markets in Sydney. It really topped off an amazing debut year for Eels.

Can you tell us about your working space and your design process?
I work from home. So firstly my drawing and designing is done all over the house. In front of the TV, while playing with my son in the yard, on the train. Most of my scrimshaw designs are stylised from old nautical books, traditional tattoo flash, antique illustrations and woodcuts so I also spend time looking for inspiring images and photographs that I can draw from. Saying that though, I could scrim a whale ship with my eyes closed! Because I repeat designs and am familiar with my unique images, although each one is hand etched, I never use a stencil and always scrim freehand.  I have a small ‘dirty’ workshop area where I cut, carve and polish pieces of horn and bone using saws, files, drills and polishers and then usually do the scrimshaw detailing at the dining table with my tiny custom-made scrimshaw hand tool.

You were recently at Sydney FK markets – what was your experience like?
To be honest, at the start it was a little daunting being in such amazing company! The other artists and designers there were all so talented and the calibre of work at FK just keeps getting better and better every year. Everyone I met was just so lovely though, and inspiring. I felt really privileged to be involved.  I found one of the best things about it was the opportunity to talk directly to people buying my work. As someone who usually sells through retail stores or online, I don’t often get the chance to have such direct feedback and hear immediate positive reactions to my work. That was really fun. The follow up responses in the weeks after have been really overwhelming too.


One Comment

  • Marina says:

    What a lovely story – great to hear the background of your evolving work and history. Definitely adds character to all your pieces. Thanks for sharing.

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