One is always drawn to those amongst us who exude a sense of inner calm. Individuals who touch us with their grace. They remind us to take the time to stop, breathe and appreciate the stillness. Tonya Gilbett is one of those people. A tall, elegant woman with clear green eyes that catch in the light every so often.
When Tonya speaks about herself it’s laced in authenticity. Relaxed on a lounge with her legs folded under her lithe frame, she easily shares honest opinions about herself. Tonya is a woman happy to point out her own flaws, to question her own direction and to ponder over her future. Equally, she speaks readily about what drives her, where her talents lie and what she has to offer others.
Tonya doesn’t claim to have been creative from childhood, but she can easily trace her love of jewellery back some 40 years. “I remember a big pink plastic cross that I adored as a little girl,” she laughs fondly. “I also had an obsession with Holly Hobbie. I vividly recall being absolutely devastated when I lost a Holly Hobbie earring.” Considering this memory for a moment she adds, “Maybe I should have taken more notice of what I was drawn to back then.”
Interestingly, that little girl grew up to be an occupational therapist. Tonya spent her twenties travelling the globe, devoting her calming presence to helping others work through everyday, functional activities. “I’m a people person,” she explains. “It’s so rewarding to help others, especially when you can see the impact your work has on families.” Continuing softly she adds, “Being around people who are unwell really makes you appreciate what you’ve got.”
Landing back in Sydney a little older and a little wiser, Tonya found herself searching for something else. Unable to put her own finger on it, she took a punt and signed up for a vocational careers assessment. The little girl who loved jewellery was quickly uncovered. “There was just one result that day. The assessment said I should be a jeweller.”
The outcome resonated instantly with Tonya who within a week had doorknocked Sydney and found herself an apprenticeship. “Looking back at that time now, I think I was pretty brave,” she murmurs. “But at the time, it simply felt like the right thing to do.”
Within an apprenticeship under her belt, Tonya’s determination remained unwavering. “As soon as I finished training I applied for a job at one of Sydney’s finest jewellery stores, Fairfax and Roberts. I couldn’t believe it when I landed it.” The role allowed her to solidify her skills under the guidance of some of the country’s best and to create stunning high end designs for Sydney socialites.
A change arrived in 2010 when Tonya’s husband floated the notion of moving from Bondi to Tasmania. “James was the one who really drove the decision to relocate. He was seeking some solace from the busy pace of Sydney,” Tonya recalls. “I was quite reluctant at first. It meant leaving my family, and my job, and moving our three young boys to the unknown.”
Smiling as she considers the last decade, Tonya decides, “It’s really been a blessing. Moving to Tassie gave me the impetus to start designing for myself. If I’d stayed in Sydney I would have remained working for someone else. The move pushed me outside my comfort zone in the best possible way.”
Tonya’s current workplace is tucked within a leafy suburban street. Her studio is unpretentious. A quiet space defined by her compact workbench and tools, antique timber storage boxes, and bookshelves holding a purposeful collection of treasures. The high ceilings and simple polished floorboards add an air of uncluttered simplicity.
Despite the sense of calm, Tonya’s life is overflowing with youthful energy. Ben 15, Jasper 13 and Saxon 11, round out this energetic family of five. The boys love a joke and share Tonya’s love of people, meaning this is a home constantly full of friends, dogs and food. “I find myself surrounded by boys,” muses Tonya. “I love it, but I sometimes think it’s ironic given what my passion is. They don’t show a whole lot of interest in my work,” she laughs.
Tonya’s authenticity is reflected in the jewellery she creates today. Her collections are a contemporary twist on the beauty and symbolism found in ancient jewellery, combined with raw beauty drawn straight from the earth. “I love working with gemstones as well as gold and silver. I source some stunning stones, but I’m not about glitz. I think I’d describe my work as symbolic with a rustic edge to it.”
“Life’s about joy and the true gifts of breath, body and mind, but it’s also about hardship. This is what I pour into my work. I like each piece to have a deeper significance. I design with meaning and my work celebrates everything that life represents.”
Tonya tends to group her work into collections that reflect her areas of focus. She describes a recent body of work on unity, “The pieces in the Unity Collection are inspired by the concept of connection. I took inspiration from the simplified fish form. I love looking at ancient symbols and considering how they reflect life today and how they can connect us to the earth.”
Gorgeous, simple and elegant pieces are Tonya’s hallmark. The flowing lines of the Purity Collection feature silver drop earrings in the graceful form of the calla lily and show off the stunning colours of peridot and blue topaz. “That was a mix of ancient and antique jewellery, the flowing lines of art nouveau with my own modern minimalist twist thrown in,” Tonya says.
In recent years, Australian opals have captured her imagination. “Opals are from our own land and we should value them more,” Tonya explains seriously. “I’m designing for Australian women and I want to encourage them to embrace stories from our own earth.” She takes a long moment, rolling a striking dark blue opal over and over between her fingers. “Many of our best opals head straight overseas and into mass produced commercial designs. My work is far less pretentious.”
Tonya pauses to consider her words carefully, “As Australian women, the opal is something we really need to take another look at. We’ve ignored it for far too long.”
An artist who considers her work to be continually evolving, she adds “I’m constantly consolidating my signature style. I’m guided by shape and colour and I look to enhance the stone – to let it be the hero.” Pouring over a box of natural treasures, she keenly selects a few favourites, “I love how they’re all so different. I can spend hours deciding what to do with each one of them.”
Custom designs are nothing new to Tonya who finds fulfilment in creating each unique piece. “I’m disappointed if someone comes to me and asks me to copy a design. It detracts from the creative process and uniqueness of the finished piece.” This she experienced all too often when shaping jewellery in Sydney, “I’m one for delivering a product that tells a story and that the owner will treasure forever. I want them to have a real connection with the piece.” Laying an opal gently in the palm of her hand, Tonya describes how the tiny beauty could look when she finishes with it. “Imagine how this would look cased in gold and set above a simple gold band. It would be a magnificent engagement piece for someone looking for that special ring with a difference.”
The opal market is big business. Variations in colours and tones can command huge prices across the globe, however Tonya finds herself drawn to the less commercial beauties. “Red and black opals are traditionally prized in the Asian market, but I love the greens and blues.” Perhaps her intrinsic love for these colours reflects her relaxed seaside upbringing.
Many of Tonya’s opals are sourced directly from the miner. It has become increasingly important to this skilled artist for her raw materials to be sourced using environmentally responsible techniques. “It’s part of the journey of each piece,” she explains. The process is another story within itself. “One of my miners, from Coober Pedy, visits me here in Tasmania. I can hand select what I’m looking for and talk with him about each of the stones individually.”
Earrings, pendants and rings are often encased in recycled silver, another layer in journey. “I haven’t found a suitable gold recycler as yet, so I often melt down and reuse gold myself. Sustainability is key to all my pieces.”
As her boys grow and life has freed a little more time during the day, Tonya has found a balance between shaping her stones and her previous love affair with occupational therapy. She’s currently working two days a week helping others, and spending the rest of her time pouring over work in her studio. “I’m finding this a good balance for me,” she explains. “Working as an OT gets me out and about and mixing with people. It’s where I find inspiration – thinking about what we all go through in life and helping others with their own journeys.”
For Tonya, it’s all about meaningful connections, particularly in a market swamped with the results of computer aided designs. It can take a couple of days for Tonya to craft a unique pair of earrings, longer for more complex pieces. Her work is never rushed, she chooses to let it evolve over time. “I’m about unique pieces from Australia that reflect our lifestyle and our country – I think all Australian women can relate to that.”
Tonya’s handcrafted pieces are available in a number of Tasmanian boutiques and galleries, or via www.tonyagilbett.com