By Ainomaija Lehtonen, April 2008
In the last few years, Helsinki goldsmith Tiina Arkko has become one the best-known names in Finnish jewellery for her individual, clean designs. The Goldsmith of the Year 2007 award committee said it well: "Arkko's strengths are her modern design, a strong brand of her own and technical accomplishment."
Arkko herself humbly downplays all of the praise. "Although this distinction was given to me, it really belongs to the both of us," she explains, referring to her husband and business partner, silversmith Vesa Nilsson.
Arkko and Nilsson own a gallery shop, OZ Jewel, located in downtown Helsinki across from the luxurious Kämp Hotel. Last year, OZ celebrated its 10th anniversary. "We create and make jewellery together, as a team. As smiths, we have developed and grown together," says Arkko.
The couple's story began over twenty years ago during their studies at the Lahti Institute of Design. Both went on to study further at the world-famous jewellery design company George Jensen in Copenhagen. Securing a training position at George Jensen is a dream come true for students and experienced smiths alike. Nilsson remembers how it all happened. "I bought a ticket to Denmark and marched straight into the Jensen silversmiths' workshop with my portfolio under my arm, without an appointment, to talk to the shop manager. I was surprised when he agreed to see me. He skimmed through my samples quickly, looked at me and asked me when I would be ready to start. I agreed to start the next autumn." Tiina Arkko soon followed her husband through those same doors, and she too was hired on the spot.
For the next six months, Arkko worked in the goldsmiths' shop at Jensen while Nilsson worked in the silversmiths' shop. The first six months were tough. Learning the language and searching for an individual professional identity required real effort.
"It was a man's world. That is not to say that it was unpleasant or demeaning — on the contrary, everyone was eager to help and open about sharing the secrets of the trade. But there was clear pressure; I knew that no woman had ever worked in the shop for more than three months. You can imagine my relief when, after six months of work there, the shop manager came up to me and said, 'Tiina, wherever you want to work when you leave us, I will be happy to write you a recommendation.' It did wonders for my self-confidence," says Arkko.
"Only once I was in Denmark did I see what was really necessary to become a good goldsmith. You can't learn this profession in school. At Jensen, I learned their work philosophy, which still affects my work today. Seasoned professionals in the field taught me all of the modes of jewellery production and stressed the importance of finishing touches."
"I learned that creativity is born from working diligently. It is how the smith can instil something personal into the jewellery, something beyond the beauty of the design," continues Arkko.
Nilsson adds, "At Jensen, they followed an almost Zen Buddhist approach. We were encouraged to work without thinking too much. We were to concentrate only on the quality and polish of the finished product."
In 1993, when Arkko and Nilsson returned to Finland, they decided to found an association, along with a number of colleagues, to maintain a workshop and exhibition space. OZ association was born. "Finland was going through a recession in the 1990s, and there was not much of a market for art jewellery. Going into business for ourselves seemed impossible, and we didn't want to work for a big jewellery producer. The OZ association gave us breathing space to see which way the wind was blowing and to begin creating our own collection," recalls Nilsson.
By the end of the decade, the other members of the association had left, and the OZ Jewel brand became the exclusive property of Arkko and Nilsson. "After our time in Denmark with Jensen, we wanted to make silver jewellery of really high quality. Here in Finland, silver wasn't valued as jewellery material, and we would often hear derogatory comments about what we were doing and speculation as to our success. Eventually, however, the customers came around and embraced our work. It gave us the faith to soldier on," says Arkko.
Ten years later, business at OZ Jewel is solid, and the clientele is established. Arkko comments, "At the beginning of my career, I tried to picture a target group and then create jewellery for it, but I always got it wrong. If I thought I had made something for young people, older people would be interested, and vice versa. These days, we no longer try to analyse our target groups, we just prefer to make jewellery that looks like us."
"It is easy to experiment when you have your own workshop. Because we make the jewellery ourselves, we don't need to be fixated on production costs and income objectives. Naturally, we have to maintain a certain profitability, which means we need to make jewellery that has the right combination of artistic flair and customer appeal," says Nilsson.
As business partners, Arkko and Nilsson complement each other well. Arkko's method of working is to mull over ideas in her head and on paper, honing her vision of the jewellery carefully before she takes up her tools. Nilsson creates by doing; new pieces are the result of experimentation in the workshop. He explains, "We are always doing something new, bouncing ideas off each other continuously. It may even be the case that one of us will pick up an idea where the other left off. The fundamental guidelines are the same for both of us. We strive to design jewellery with a lasting presence, with simple design and clear lines, no nonsense."
The jewellery of Arkko and Nilsson always has an element of sculpture and insight that distinguishes their work from their contemporaries. As Arkko herself says, "There's no ‘wrong side' with our jewellery, or if there is, it must also be beautiful in some way." The jewellery mechanisms are also considered as part of the design structure; only then is the jewellery design complete. Arkko continues, "Jewellery should have substance, you can't cut corners with that. But jewellery is also much more, it is part of the personality of the person wearing it."
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