Shark Alley is the work of designer-maker Sarah Kelly. Sarah draws her inspiration from her love and passion of British wildlife, colour, texture and pattern to create original jewellery and home textiles for those who love nature. We caught up with Sarah to find out more about the brand…

How did it all start?

I trained as an illustrator and worked as one for over 20 years for clients as diverse as ELLE, Ecover, Tesco and Oxford University Press. However, it never really felt like the perfect fit and I was always doing little crafty projects on the side, like papier mâché, patchwork and mosaic.

An exhibition opportunity in the Brighton Festival Open House Trail in 2010 was the impetus to start creating some papier mâché jewellery that I’d had some ideas for, and although that was quite different to what I make now as it was very inspired by Indian designs, it gradually developed towards natural theme and animal shapes using various processes, until it ended up as it is today. I’m still learning and growing though, and would love to experiment with other processes and materials further down the line.

The story behind the name…

Shark Alley is an anagram of Sarah Kelly!
Right back in the mid-90s when having a home computer was rare, one of my friends ran all our names through an anagram program that he had on his PC. ‘One of yours is Shark Alley’ he said, and that struck me as such an excellent name that I stored it away in the back of my mind. When I started making jewellery, I need a business name and thought of that straight away. Some people spot the anagram straight away, others are slightly mystified by it and think I might be designing shark-based pieces – or scuba gear! I treasure the response of one customer, who said it made her picture a shark ducking into a narrow street. That always makes me chuckle.

Where are you based?

I’m based in Brighton – well Hove, actually – on the South Coast. It’s an incredibly artist and vibrant city and I love being by the sea as well as having the beautiful South Downs on the doorstep. I came here to do my Illustration degree and never left.

What inspires you?

Nature inspires me. To me there is nothing more beautiful than nature – the colours, the patterns, the textures.
I have loved birds and animals since childhood, particularly birds, and often used to go bird-watching with my dad. I still get excited when I see something interesting!
I’m also a massive pattern fan – I love all sorts of patterns, particularly ornate ones or ones inspired by natural forms, so things like Art Nouveau and Turkish tiles, Ancient Egyptian friezes, the textures of sun bleached and weathered wood in the Mediterranean. I love good composition, full flowing lines and curves, and these are so important to me when designing my animals. I can spend literally hours getting my lines just right.

What is your creation process?

I start off by doing a bit of picture research, usually on Pinterest, and collect together a reference board of photographs, sculptures and illustrations that I can use to get a feel for the details of the animal or bird. I then start making sketches to get a more general or stylised shape that will work as a piece of jewellery. Sometimes I might just quickly sketch the shapes I have in my mind first, and then use the reference to neaten them up and make them look more realistic. I’m after creating a shape that is recognisable, but slightly stylised and simplified. Fussy designs don’t really work as jewellery, and I can’t have anything long and thin sticking out (like tails and ears) so all of those things have to be thought out properly at this stage. I quite often incorporate tails as areas of negative space cut into the body.

I often make a few different studies, then when I’m happy with one or two of them, I’ll scan them into my computer and use the Illustrator app to draw them out more graphically. The lines are easy to move around in Illustrator, so I can get the curves and shapes really perfect. Then I’ll design and add the patterns which go on the creatures’ bodies. These are usually floral, but on the new British Birds collection, I’ve been inspired by the patterns of their plumage, and used stylised versions of these instead.

I’ll then print these out and send a long time looking at them to make sure I’m completely happy with the shapes, and this is when I’ll make a decision about size. I mostly make brooches because they are simple, contained shapes – no need for holes, which would usually be somewhere on the head and might look weird or uncomfortable. Then balance of the shape becomes an issue, especially for earrings or pendants.

My jewellery is laser cut, so when I’m happy with the designs, I have to convert the digital drawings into different coloured lines that will tell the laser cutter what to do – cut, etch or engrave. I don’t yet own a laser cutter, so these are cut for me by a lovely local company who cut for many designers across the UK. They produce their own jewellery too, so they know exactly what they’re doing and are always super helpful if I have any questions, as well as baling me out when I make mistakes. They even deliver the finished batches by hand!

When the pieces come back, they need wiping down to remove any scorch marks and then I get to work on the painting and finishing. The antique-looking distressed paint pieces go through many processes to create that weathered effect and these definitely take the longest, but they are the most fun to do as I never know quite how each piece will turn out. I use the same techniques on each one but each piece is an individual.

What makes you, your brand or products unique?

I think my illustration training gives my pieces a particular identity and personality, as the drawing part is so essential to the design. I’m also really not interested in trying to mimic the many other styles of laser cut jewellery on the market (even though some of them are truly wonderful). In fact, I really resisted this way of working for a long time until I felt I could create something individual that was unique to me. I strive for authenticity and beauty in my work – I create things that I love and hope that others will love them too, rather than trying to please everyone or conform to any trends. If I didn’t feel 100% passion for a design, I wouldn’t be interested in selling it and I certainly couldn’t make it.

What is your next project?

I stuck a toe in the water of textile design last year with four tea-towel prints and a sell-out make-up bag and I’d like to do more of these, as well as producing some illustrated greetings cards featuring my favourite animals.
I want to get back into using collage and found objects to create these, and I’m also particularly excited by a recipe I found online to make a kind of clay out of shredded recycled paper. I’m thinking birds . . . but we’ll see how that goes! I’d also love to try enamelling and creating some one-off colourful pieces this way.

What is your biggest achievement?

I think my biggest achievement is just getting here finally! I’m terribly slow to learn lessons and make choices. Making jewellery just seems so obvious to me now as it brings together all my favourite things in one thing, and I never stop having ideas for new pieces and collections. It’s very exciting. Having people tell me how much they love what I make and seeing them wearing and enjoying the creatures is so flattering, and that joy never gets old.

What is your best-selling product/line?

My hare brooches are undoubtedly my best-selling pieces, particularly the antique-effect ones. That design came out of my head and on to paper so quickly and effortlessly, it was really quite extraordinary. It’s my husband’s favourite design too.

What do you love about Country Living Fairs?

I absolutely love Country Living Fairs because the visitors are so friendly and enthusiastic. They are so loyal to the brand and I can’t believe how far some of them travel to attend the events. They are definitely my ideal audience and although taking part in the fairs is hard work, they are so worth doing, not least because of all the people I meet. As an online retailer, I don’t often get to meet my customers and so these events are just the perfect opportunity to get feedback, make connections – and friends too.

Your three top tips for crafters and makers…

1. Love what you do, do what you love. This is a phrase you see quite often but it’s so true. Running your own business as a designer-maker isn’t always easy – you need a lot of guts and determination to get through sometimes, and if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it’s going to be a bit of a struggle to stay focused and keep going.

2. Don’t undersell yourself. Pricing is just about the HARDEST thing for creatives, but if you consistently underprice what you make, you’re not only harming yourself but other makers too. It’s so hard to get the balance, but I do and try and offer things at different price ranges, so if a customer feels they can’t afford that particular hand-painted brooch, maybe they can come away with the natural wood one, or a small pair of earrings instead.

3. Ask for help. I’m actually really bad at this, but as a sole trader, it’s almost impossible to wear all the hats successfully. Mostly I just want to sit in a room and create and not deal with marketing, newsletters, accounts, PR etc etc, but sadly I have to acknowledge that all those things need to be addressed as well. I try and make an effort to do some online training in the areas I’m weakest in (The Design Trust are particularly helpful for this) and each year, I invest in one thing that I can’t do as well as I’d like that I feel will help push Shark Alley forward, such as model photography or brand design.

Any advice for fledgling businesses…

Be clear about who you are and what you’re doing – your brand values if you like. Sometimes this takes time (I’m still on the journey). Be honest and authentic, get to know your strengths and play on them as much as you can. What you find easy and effortless might not be so for anyone else, so really work on developing those things, as they’ll be the things that make you stand out.

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