THE flame from the worktop blowtorch burns blue and fast as Zoë Garner dons her safety goggles and picks up a long, thin tube of glass.
“This should take around 10 minutes, but I’ll be as quick as I can,” she says as she holds the glass into the flame, explaining that she is about to make a pendant to give me an idea of what a day in the life of a glass artist involves.
“It takes a couple of minutes for this kind of glass to reach the right temperature, it needs to be at 1,100 degrees before I can work with it. You don’t want to be putting your fingers anywhere near it, I did once and believe me, it’s not a mistake I’ll make again!”
At just 33, Zoë has already made a name for herself as one of the country’s leading jewellery designers.
Last month her unique designs appeared in Vogue magazine in a celebration of British jewellery design talent, and she is set to feature in upcoming editions of Harpers Bazaar, and exclusive London publication Company High Street Edit.
For the last 14 years, Cambridgeshire-born Zoë has lived and breathed glass, after discovering an aptitude while studying a Craft and Design degree at Staffordshire University. “I’d always wanted to do arty, crafty stuff but it wasn’t until I started the course that I discovered glass work,” she recalls. “It was one of the modules and I loved it instantly.
“They took us out to a hot shop where they blow glass and I was captivated. I knew straight away that this was what I wanted to do.”
She quickly swapped courses to study glass design, and after gaining her degree worked at various studios in London, including the renowned Danny Lane Studios.
Taking a year out to travel the world, she stayed in Australia where she worked for the hugely successful and renowned Cydonia Glass Studio in Sydney creating large-scale glass interior installations.
Zoe says: “It was great in Sydney but I wanted to come home because all of my friends and family were here. I spent a year out there and when I came home I decided I wanted to work for myself.
“I had a great time working for some fantastic designers but when you’re an artist, you want to be concentrating on your own work. I knew that the direction I wanted to go in was developing my own ideas, and working for someone else was never really going to allow that.”
Determined to make her mark in the glass design world, Zoë knew that she had to make the move to the North and study a Masters degree at Sunderland University.
She says: “Sunderland is the place for glass work, the facilities here are far better than any others not just in the UK, but in the whole of Europe. They have the biggest kilns, a water jet for glass cutting and top-class studios.
“If you want to be a successful glass artist, you have to come to Sunderland. I was impressed the moment I arrived at the facilities, which include a big studio inside the National Glass Centre. It means students are in the hub of things and immersed in the world of glass. It’s a brilliant place and since coming to Sunderland I’ve never looked back.”
When Zoë first arrived in Sunderland, she was still experimenting with her work. “I loved all aspects of design and at that time I was making larger things like wall panels, lighting and vases. It was more full-on glass blowing.
“Then I decided to master flame work, which is basically using a small flame and gives you the chance to do more intricate designs on smaller pieces. You can still do larger pieces with the small flame, but I realised very quickly that with the smaller work it gave me great scope to develop jewellery ideas.
“Once I began doing the smaller work I realised it was something I was really good at, and I love it. I had so many ideas and things I wanted to do.”
Zoë set up her own business, Zoe Garner Glass, in 2007, based in the National Glass Centre, where she shares studio space with fellow glass artists. Being her own boss means she can do the work she wants to do, and explore new things.
“With the jewellery there is always some new skill to learn, and whenever I have some time I take myself off on courses. I’ve learnt how to work with silver and platinum, I’ve been to Canada on a course, I’m always hoping to pick up something new when I can.”
Last month, Zoë’s work featured in Vogue magazine, after editors at the leading fashion bible spotted some of her jewellery. “They contacted me via email and I was so busy I didn’t even spot it for a few days,” she laughs. “It was sitting there in my inbox and I was completely oblivious as I’d been so caught up with work.
“I eventually got around to opening it and realised what they were after and I couldn’t reply quick enough! I think I caught them just in time ... any longer and I would’ve missed out.
“The article featured my Trapeze necklace and I was delighted because there was my work appearing alongside top British designers including Breshkin & Co London, Silver & Gauld and Liz Tyler. It was a buzz. I was proud and excited.”
While the jewellery is what takes up much of her work time, Zoë still loves her other glass work, and it’s clear that others agree.
Seaham Hall in County Durham has one of her large wall panels hanging in its White Room restaurant, which is a similar design to one which won her the Pearson’s Glass Prize in 2008 for best use of flame working.
And she also has a piece in the Vivienne Westwood Boutique in Wansford, Cambridgeshire. “It’s a glass light, and it was something that came about completely by accident,” she explains.
“I’d walked past the shop and hadn’t realised it was exclusively Vivienne Westwood, I’d thought it was just a shop selling designer brands.
“I went in and asked if they would be interested in selling some of my jewellery and they explained they were just Vivienne Westwood – but then added that they were looking to commission an artist to design and make them a light. That’s how it came about.”
And while the business is now getting very strong, Zoë knows that she needs to keep an eye on how much work she takes on. “I work a lot on commissions, and while it sounds good that I’m so busy that I would need to take on staff, that’s no use for me.
“My company is about my work, my ideas, so getting someone else to come in and work with me wouldn’t work. It’s the same reason why I decided I had to work for myself. Art is such a personal thing, you can’t just hand it over to someone else and expect the same thing to come from it.
“My designs are mine. Someone else couldn’t do them, nor would they want to, so it’s not a job where you have to look at bringing in more staff to help. Instead you just have to work three times as hard yourself.”
Zoë’s plans for the future involve doing much the same as she does already, as she reveals she has never been happier. “I love my work, I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else.
“I have a few ideas of new projects I’d like to try, like I have a few ideas about wedding jewellery, things like that. As long as I can do what I am doing now, working for myself and creating my artwork then I’ll be very happy.”
To see more of Zoë’s work or to contact her, visit her website at firstname.lastname@example.org