Above one of Melbourne’s iconic lanes is the boutique and design studio of Tallulah Designer Jewellery. For the past 25 years, owner Rebecca Sampson has been creating beautiful jewellery for discerning clients across Australia. I first met Rebecca while on a gemmology tour of the Top End in June 2019. I am excited to now be sitting in her design studio, a clutter of tools, materials and drawings around us. Drifting up through windows open to catch an afternoon breeze, are fragments of conversations from the coffee shops in the alley below.
How people step into their respective occupations has always fascinated me. Rebecca’s journey is an interesting story.
“I was always interested in silent films, the actors and photographs, the black and white images, silhouettes, and making clothes. This led to thoughts of being a costume designer once I finished high school. One holiday my parents introduced me to a jeweller, James Rae. He offered me work. I remember the excitement of it all - the gems’ colours, the shapes, tools and also the smell of the workshop; the creative space, the possibilities seemed endless. I couldn’t believe this was something I could do - for work! Within the month I had a job. Later my boss gave me a beautiful handmade workbench. I was 19. I remember him telling me, ‘This is what you are meant to be doing.’ Since then I’ve learnt more by working alongside other jewellers, watching them and their techniques. For me, making is not only about technique, it’s about building confidence in your hands, and keeping the practice up.”
Rebecca points to the heavy, wooden bench at which she is sitting. It looks well used!
“Here it is, some 30 years later, my method of travel….”
I ask Rebecca to describe her design inspirations.
“There isn’t a formula to creativity. For me it’s being connected and deeply expressive when I’m designing and making jewellery. Sometimes in the making you refine the ideas, tweak the design. It’s a moving state, and it helps being curious about life and people. Inspiration might come from an amazing gemstone I come across or a story I’m reading. From poetry, art, travelling to exhibitions, gardening or a song our son has played. A feeling happens and then …… it’s inspired. I might walk into a high end fashion store, touch the fabric and look at the way the clothes have been made. I find myself thinking about an outfit and then I am back at the bench making some earrings or a ring. Divine fun!”
Does she have a favourite style? Rebecca’s eyes instantly light up.
“Art Deco - because of the early images of silent screen stars. It led me to naming my business Tallulah. I had a dream of walking into Tallulah Bankhead’s closet, trying on her Art Deco jewellery. What a delight! It was my idea of play.
I also like to dismantle ideas, to change what you would expect, keeping to fine quality jewellery, but with an interesting surprise. My designs are a touch rebellious and modern. When you produce a beautiful piece, it’s just like a taking a great photo, you feel it more than see it.”
(Images above, L to R: green sapphire and diamond ring; spessartite (garnet) ring; emerald, green sapphire, tsavorite (garnet) and peridot earrings; 18k white gold diamond studs. Images: Tallulah)
“I adore working with my clients. Jewellery is all about personal perception, it is an extension of ourselves. Some clients have a definite style, others want to change or expand on their style. For some clients, designing is a dynamic collaboration, while others give me carte blanche. Some pieces are made in secret. When I know who the jewellery is for, it makes designing an added pleasure.
I’m sure all jewellers will tell you that every piece comes with a story. For me, it’s the most inspiring part of my work: the love, memories, intimacy and inspiration to wear a piece that reflects their time. I am humbled to produce pieces that are treasured and held close, my heart expands.”
I have noticed that Rebecca’s creations boast beautiful lustre and colour. Is there a gem or metal she favours?
“I have favourites in all sorts of colours. That’s my main obsession – colour. So beautiful are the rarer colours of a particular gem that you never expect to see. I love coloured diamonds and also the rare Padparadscha sapphire, which is an orangey pink, fleshy colour.
I also love the variations of colour within the same gem family. In fine material, the red of a Thai ruby with be different to the red of a Mozambique ruby. The green of a Zambian emerald differs to that of a Brazilian emerald. The attraction is about the colour and life in the stone for me. Quite a lot of coloured gems change hue in different light sources because of the colouring elements within the gem. You can wear a piece of jewellery and notice subtle changes throughout the day and night - it is so curious. The exciting thing about gems is that they can often be recut or polished to enhance their beauty. Some stones that have been held a long time in a family come in very worn. Fortunately, we can often restore their beauty.
I once saw a massive 80ct Kashmir sapphire. It was set in a platinum brooch in a New York store. I will never forget that colour - a rich velvety blue. The mine was exhausted in 1920. Such sapphires are so, so rare. They kindly let me take some photos. As a gemmologist, I am always looking at stones internally. A gem’s inclusions can be as captivating as its colour.
With regard to a favourite metal, 22 karat gold is wonderful. It’s like carving butter!”
Rebecca is also an accomplished photographer (all the images here are Rebecca’s). Jewellery is notoriously tricky to photograph, so what is her secret to creating a stunning image?
“I take all the photographs for my brand. It’s important to work with clean, exceptionally well cut stones that have an even hue. Beautifully finished metal is critical, as is knowing how light responds in certain gems. My focus is all about the overall image.
‘Sublimity’, one of Rebecca’s exhibition images. Golden topaz earrings Images: Tallulah
The boutique’s door buzzer sounds. My time is running out. I ask Rebecca about her plans for the year ahead.
“There are some projects in the pipeline. I have new styles and designs to work on. I also have some stunning commissions to make. My own direction is to stay spontaneous and present.”
Thank you Rebecca for making time to chat with me and for providing images of your beautiful designs.