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Interview with Jocelyn Burton

Renowned British silver and goldsmith, Jocelyn Burton was the first woman to be made a freeman of the worshipful company of Goldsmiths an organisation that has had a men-only membership since it’s inception in 1327.

Celebrated for the incredible scope of her creative force she is as famous for her teaspoons as she is for her ten-foot chandeliers. In 1967 she won the

De Beers International award for diamond jewellery design and in 2003 became the first woman to receive the

Prince Phillip medal for exceptional contribution to engineering.

She talks to First Women about the challenge of male indifference – and at times ‘disgust’ – as she made her indelible mark in the Goldsmithing world.

‘Sorry, we don’t teach Goldsmithing to women because they run off and get married’

That’s what they told me in 1966. Of course it’s not the case nowadays but that was only a mere fifty-odd years ago. I was shocked when they told me, ‘it would be a training wasted.’

Goldsmithing is not a skill affected by gender – but women bring something quite remarkable to it

Women bring an intimacy of creativity to the art that doesn’t come naturally to men. This quality helps enormously in whatever women do, in fact. A woman’s work is more visceral. It comes from the interior being. Men are more intellectual and it’s not always what you want in works of art.

Femaleness brings a multi-tasking to the table

It is terribly useful. Life has become even more complex in the 20th century in all businesses and artist endeavours. We multitask better as women because we have always had more to consider – kids, the home, work. It doesn’t make us ‘better than’ but it’s a helpful skill

The sheer indifference from men in the industry was very challenging

I wasn’t taken seriously at the beginning of my career and I just had to swallow that and carry on. Just because a woman won’t physically be able to use a 9lb lump hammer or grasp the finer points of engineering there is a general lack of belief that they have any future.

The unfailing support of my parents made things possible

They gave me huge confidence from birth. They encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. When I won the de Beers medal, part of the agreement was that you made the winning piece. My tutors assured me that students never won… and of course I did and had to find three grand! Bank managers then would not give a woman the same level of financial backing as men, so my dad convinced his bank manager to back me.

I only became an accepted part of the Goldsmithing freeman’s community by making it happen myself

I remember the first lunch I was there, the old man next to me was disgusted to have to sit next to a woman. So I told him a few spicy jokes until he got that I was there as a goldsmith – not as a woman.

I am now well armed for disappointments

There is nothing as constant as change. Buddhist thinking has taught me well how to approach this. If I am disappointed or frustrated I simply move onto the next thing. One must live in the moment and understand that what seems to happening is simply to do with differing points of view. Making something personal or good or bad is simply a judgement. Take responsibility for yourself. Rather than thinking, ‘oh, they didn’t choose me’ for a piece of work, I try and think – ‘there will have been a very good reason why this isn’t happening.’

I have to admire my mentors

You must also share the same standards. It must be someone you trust. And someone with a sense of humour.

When responsibility lands upon you, revel in the challenge

Approach it with enthusiasm! Focus on what is actually required. Understanding any challenge properly is absolutely key in meeting what has been asked of you. Rather than focusing on the pressure that comes with the responsibility, spend your energy seeking out the reality of what it is you have been asked to do.

We all have too much to do all of the time

So focus on the to-do list. Categorise each task and complete each one fully – absolutely fully – before moving on to the next. I have found that operating this way makes it seem as if I have loads of time. Without clarity, it’s impossible to gain perspective on what is really important.

Any decision is better than no decision

Women often shilly-shally and sit on the fence. Being more decisive is a lesson to be learned from men.  Women can be inclined to not make a decision as then no-one gets upset. That said…

Men could learn to be more sensitive

In all relationships – including work ones. It would make men a lot happier I think. Women understand this. I didn’t want to give in to being harder and tougher. It’s easy to presume that if you are in a man’s world you have to take the tough line. I’ve found that you can make tough decisions without being hard and understanding this was how I survived as the first woman in this role. Forge a new way.

There is always a pain barrier to cross when you choose to do something worthwhile

Encourage yourself. Athletes and musicians do this very well – they push through. Surround yourself with good friends – this also helps.

Looking back across the history of the freeman’s Goldsmiths and its absence of women I chose to see that as an opportunity

A blank canvas. It meant I could never be compared to anyone! I saw it as very freeing to have no one to have to live up to.

Interview by Deborah Willimott
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