“You need to be resilient enough to stand up for what you know you’re worth”
I’m a jewellery designer, maker and teacher; I run my own business called Jane Ruljancich Jewellery.
I knew I wanted to do something creative early on, but didn’t know what. I thought perhaps interior design would suit me, but after a year doing a degree at RMIT, I realized it wasn’t for me. I dropped out and decided to travel the world.
During my travels, I worked as a councilor for Camp America – the working holiday program allowed me to extend my overseas stay, and was a lot of fun. Completely by chance, I was made a craft instructor at the camp. I loved it: I found a real joy in making things with my hands. One of my friends there was studying ceramics, and it was a revelation to find out you could actually study a craft as a degree.
I came back to Australia wanting to do something, to achieve something. I looked through a course catalogue for Monash University, and jewellery just jumped out at me.
I feel I was particularly lucky with one of the teachers we had. She taught design in a way that made conceptual development easy. It wasn’t wishy-washy, we learned practical approaches – how to develop a range of textures, how to look at color. We had good workshop teachers, too, quite young, and very passionate and engaged.
Being a slightly older student, I really focused on learning. I was often the first one in, last one out of the workshops, I worked really hard.
The teachers started to encourage me to put work into craft exhibitions. In my final year I put in a proposal for a high-profile exhibition that was touring around Australia, and was accepted. I was thrilled, it was a great boost to have so early on.
After finishing my degree I interviewed for a trainee program at a state-funded crafts and design centre in Adelaide. I became a trainee in a Metal Design Workshop at the Jam Factory Craft and Design Centre in 1993.
It was a two year program, and I had no plan to stay in Adelaide longer than that, but nearly 9 years later, I was still living in Adelaide!
I did the traineeship for 2 years. It was unpaid, so I also had to scrape together a living. Like most young people in the arts, I relied on the dole. While surviving was hard, the learning process was fabulous.
Being in that environment, there was always something interesting; there were group projects, you could collaborate with someone pursuing other craft forms. Sometimes we were commissioned to do something, and that could earn a bit of money.
Most of my work at the start was object making – making tableware was my main focus. I was really interested in developing production ranges of tableware: things like pepper grinders, napkin rings, cutlery etc.
After the traineeship finished, I rented a subsidized workshop at the Jam Factory. I was working independently, mainly making things to exhibit. I got involved with various projects, for example I got an arts grant from the South Australian government to design wine related utensils – strainers, carafes etc.
For another project ran by Craft South, I got to collaborate with Maggie Beer to design a cruet set – a piece that holds the various condiments for the table.
It was a stunning piece, and practical, too – Maggie’s husband ended up buying it for her.
I was making one-off projects, pushing my own creative agenda. But over time I was getting more interested in the feedback of the end user, and leaning back towards jewellery.
I met some great people working as metalsmiths/jewellers and we decided to start a business together – a workshop with a gallery next to it. It allowed greater client contact – people would come in, we showed them our work and could talk to them about commissions.
The business was called Zu Design – jewellery and objects. It was a successful venture, set up as a cooperative. That business still exists, with the one person left of the original group running it.
I also continued my individual practice.
From about mid-90’s I was supplying jewellery to craft galleries around Australia. I built my relationships with the gallery owners by sending them sample pieces, or even just visiting them to introduce myself.
I had my first solo exhibition in 1997 in Adelaide, called “Tablewear”. I received an Australia Council grant to travel the exhibition to Melbourne.
From 1997 to 2000, I also taught at the University of South Australia, while still working at Zu Design. Even though I didn’t have a teaching degree, the university approached me to teach the second year students in the jewellery course, which was quite a challenge! In that time I also curated two large group craft exhibitions, one for Craft South and the other show for The Jam Factory gallery.
I loved Adelaide, and the support of the creative community there was vital to my career. In the end though, I wanted to move back to Melbourne for family reasons.
Back in Melbourne, at the end of 2001, I rented a studio in the Nicholas Building with some other jewellers I knew. It was a fantastic workshop. I continued supplying the galleries, and found a few more customers to do work for, through word of mouth.
There are actually a lot of people buying jewellery directly from a jewelers – it’s not uncommon.
It represents good value compared to jewellery retailers, and it’s a much more intimate and customized process, which a lot of people prefer.
In 2005 I met my husband David. When we started our family, I made the decision to stop work to concentrate on our two children. I packed up my workshop for 8 years. I made only a few things in all that time.
I was drawn to it, but I knew I would be constantly frustrated, because the process has a way of eating your time that wouldn’t have allowed me to be the mother to my two boys that I wanted to be.
Just before I became pregnant, I started teaching jewellery short courses to beginners and intermediate level students at TAFE one night a week.
It was good to keep up with the skills and to get out, have adult contact. I did it continuously until quite recently, for almost 10 years. It is lovely to see people embarking on something new, often they’ve saved up money or time to do the course and the experience means a lot to them. I really enjoyed watching my students thrive, come alive by doing this thing they become passionate about – and I was a part of it.
There were a lot of young people coming to short courses just to try it out. It’s nice when some of them go on to a full-time course and then you find them on Facebook, exhibiting in Germany or something like that! Teaching can be really rewarding.
In 2010 we moved to the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne, 30 kms from the city. We decided to buy in an undervalued place that gave us enough space and no mortgage. It gave us a bit of wriggle room when it came to starting new businesses.
Starting my business was a logical step.
Instead of travelling to Fairfield to teach 15 people, I could do the same thing for fewer people, and the same rewards. I love the freedom of my own teaching workshop – I can develop my business at my own pace. After working at an organization, it’s very freeing to do your own thing, even with all the added responsibilities.
I added the “Make your own Wedding Rings’ service to my short courses in jewellery, and these represent the majority of my business.
We didn’t have to invest too much in the workshop space. Combining my tools and David’s tools I now have two lifetimes of tools here! David and a friend made the benches. We already had the security system in the house. Really, we just got some stuff from IKEA and put it all together. I had kilos of scrap silver that I needed to refine and it lasted me through the first year.
There was, however, a huge emotional investment – you are crafting the website, getting clients. My sister was an inspiration, she’s built a business on Facebook. I’m not such a social media person, and we work in differently competitive environments.
There aren’t many people offering what I do, and in the case of my ‘Make Your Own Wedding Rings’ business, there are only a couple of places in Melbourne that advertise that.
I had someone do basic SEO for my website, focusing on jewellery classes as keywords. After about 3-4 months I ended up third on the search page. A lot of my students are women who spend a lot of time at home taking care of kids, or their own businesses, and they are Googling a lot, so that was a big help.
I also printed out postcards, did some events. I’ve picked up a few students that way, but it’s mostly about the website.
Now I’m having my busiest term so far. I teach regular classes about four days a week. I also run an on-and-off gem-setting course about 3-4 times a year.
I do some commissions, but only 1-2 at a time, I can’t work as quickly as some jewellery makers. The thing is, I have a chronic disease, rheumatic arthritis, which affects joints in my hands, arms, and feet. I’ve had it since I was 15, so it’s been with me most of my life.
I’ve had ups and downs with it, sometimes I got along fine, at other times it got so bad I had to tie a ribbon to my car door because I couldn’t open it with my fingers – had to thread my arm in through the looped ribbon to open the door!
Right now I’m in remission because of the new drugs that I’ve been lucky enough to access, so I’m now just contending with decades of permanently degraded joints.
It’s hard for people who know me now to imagine how unwell I used to be.
So, while I do good work, the speed is not commercial. I’ve always picked up my skills by osmosis. One of my students recently saw my hands and was shocked. She wanted to know if they got like that through jewellery-making! I had to re-assure her. Actually, if anything, doing jewellery has helped me to keep fitness in my hands and arms.
I was making an item recently and joking that it wouldn’t need any repair work till after I retire.
Then I skipped to thinking about retirement: will I keep working at 58, at 65?
Most jewellers have eye problems too. Now I have glasses on most of the time, and I wear magnifying glasses for fine work as well, my eyes are certainly not improving!
What I see for the future is still in development. I’m not even a year and a half into this business, teaching my 6th term. It has grown organically – people are coming back for more. I see it becoming a bit larger, taking on more students. I might need a new space, more oriented to the public, less hidden away. It is vague at this point, I need to crunch some numbers.
Best part of my work? I love helping people make their wedding rings, it’s my favorite part of my practice – so fascinating.
You spend a few hours with people you don’t know, quickly establish rapport and you find out how they met, all the wedding details. I get to help them make rings that (hopefully) they will wear for 50 years or more.
We do it in two half days. It’s quite intense, if the student is right handed they need to use the left arm a lot more than they might in day-to-day activities, it’s a bit of a surprise workout. I show them through the steps, I help them make a silver ring first, so that when they use platinum or gold, they are feeling better about their skills, comfortable with tools.
And we don’t learn the full set of jewellery skills, we are focused on making the rings only. Not everyone wants to do the soldering either, but I’m happy to do it for them, help get things right.
I exhibited a lot when I was a newly emerging artist, but I’m now more interested in making work for people, because there is an end user, and it is great to connect with the client, being able to customize a piece to a person.
With the teaching, I get intense satisfaction from helping people learn. Some of the challenges I face are, given the diversity of my students, it can be hard to maintain class cohesion sometimes.
The fluctuating price of gold can also be hard to explain to my wedding ring people – it changes alongside world events and you have to quote people a range of prices until the day you buy it. And sometimes it’s hard seeing something you’ve made with care treated roughly, a bit destroyed by use, but that doesn’t happen very much.
My career regret is that I wasn’t able to work for more experienced goldsmiths early in my career. It was beyond my control because of the arthritis, but I still think about it.
I would have liked to gained knowledge more quickly (and more directly) – fast tracked myself a bit.
However, over the course of my career I have learned a lot about what it takes to be in the arts – you need to be resilient, to bounce back a lot. I’ve recently heard Noni Hazelhurst say on the radio that artists need to be tough, kind and good communicators.
And it is so true. There’s so much cheap work in the arts, it’s so hard to ask for a fair price. You need to be resilient enough to stand up for what you know you’re worth, stand by something that you put months of work into. And you need to find your community: I believe there’s a lot of strength in unity for artists.