THE FIRST THREE years I spent establishing my business were difficult – I was very close to closing on a couple of occasions.
I was supplementing my income by teaching art in a local secondary school, and the thought of going into education full-time did cross my mind. It would have been a simpler life, with a regular pay cheque.
I had opened my own shop in Sligo, designing and selling my contemporary collections of jewellery, but the location of my starting premises wasn’t great.
Not only was I trying to tempt customers to a street where there was little retail, I was also showing them something new, contemporary designs, that they weren’t entirely convinced of.
My passion was still there, but it was tough to keep going because there wasn’t a sustainable return for the energy we were putting in. I had people working for me, but I thought, “How am I going to keep them when I can’t pay them or myself properly?”
I could have gone one way or another, give it up or knuckle down and put all my time into the business. I went for the latter.
I wasn’t a quitter and knew what I was doing deserved to succeed. That’s when I realised, what I’m doing just wasn’t being seen. I, quite literally, needed to give myself a better shop window.
So, I went looking for a new location in Sligo. The instant I found the new home, it was a game changer. The new building had space for a bright spacious workshop, stock room and retail space.
It’s such a cliché, but when the property experts say “location, location, location”, they’re not making it up. Location is such a big deal in retail. Now you have the internet, but back then you either had a good location or things didn’t work.
When I moved to the new location on Castle Street, in the heart of the town, I had space to display and give a presence to each designer’s work. It gave the business a completely new lease of life and raised the bar of what I did.
I began stocking a much larger range of Irish-made craft, furniture and fine art as well. What I was attempting to do didn’t need to be explained any more, because it was embodied by the quality of the craftsmanship that was in the shop.
Now it’s automatically understood that we are a destination shop for Irish-made arts and crafts.
Sculptures to jewellery
I’m best known as a jewellery designer through my own Martina Hamilton Collection brand. Although that’s only in existence 10 years, I have been making jewellery for three decades and selling through The Cat & The Moon.
There is no history that I know of that’s particularly to do with creativity in my family. My parents were farmers, not an obvious business background, but they gave me the basics, an understanding of hard work, practicality and determination.
I learned you need to make money in order to live, but I’ve always seen making money as a means to doing something else with it or an opportunity to try something new. This attitude comes from my early childhood with my parents.
For example, when I was able to take on the mortgage on the building I work in now, that meant I suddenly had space to open my own art gallery.
So I didn’t take a conventional route into jewellery design. I studied sculpture in Sligo IT at a time when if you said you were doing anything in the arts, your parents would look worried at one another thinking, “Oh my God, what will become of our daughter?”
I discovered while I was studying that I was really drawn to craft making and had a natural ability in my hands. It was a case of finding the craft that would fit my imagination.
I didn’t go straight into jewellery design, I worked in pottery and used to decorate and throw pots. I did a lot of that to earn a living back then when there weren’t many jobs in the craft industry.
But I found several short courses in how to make jewellery and began learning the craft.
Subsequently, I learned a huge amount from Jane Huston who pioneered the Jewellery Designers course for the Crafts Council of Ireland, as it was called back then, in Kilkenny. She would come to Sligo and mentor the team and myself.
As I started designing, I discovered I really liked collaborating with people when it came to commission work. The relationship between the client and myself to deliver something special is always such a rewarding experience.
The good and bad days
I like creating something for someone for a wedding or special occasion. People sometimes show me a piece I made for their parents or another family member years before; it shows me my work has played a part, however small, in that family story.
When your work is taken up by people you really admire, it’s a real boost to the ego too. Sonia O’Sullivan went to visit my old secondary school, and they gave her a piece of my jewellery as a thank you.
She loved it so much she tracked me down to find more jewellery to go with the piece she had. Now I feel great every time I see her on telly and she’s wearing the earrings she got from the collection.
And we’d a visit from Joanna Lumley to Sligo a few year ago. She’s a huge fan of W.B. Yeats and she was presented with a pendant of mine. She whispered to me she’d wear it “till the day I die”. I know she was just being her charming self, but it’s a happy memory.
I’m a positive person. If something bad happens, I reinvent it as a positive. And if something isn’t working out, I have such a great team I just know we’ll get through it.
My biggest obstacle through the years was confidence. For half of my working life, I hid behind the name of my shop as a brand. I knew most of my contemporaries would all have used their names as a brand, but I couldn’t do it.
We are, of course, a team in the collection that carries my name now, but it was a genuine lack of confidence that held me back. It’s about 11 years since I feel I began to start conquering that fear and rebranded my designs as the Martina Hamilton Collection.
People are more intimate in their response to a person’s name in my line of work. If someone would like a piece of jewellery from the collection, if they speak to me, the designer, they know they’re getting a more personal service.
I had my design ethos honed over so many years, and now had my story straight about who I was as a maker. From that moment on, press and media attention became much easier, and I’ve been blessed to get taken up by many of Ireland’s leading retailers.
Noticing that need to change came from stepping back from my business and seeing the bigger picture.
The advice I give is that it’s good for a business owner to have a long holiday. Remove yourself completely, and when you come back you’ll see opportunities you didn’t know where there.
Entrepreneurs also need to try to see how others see them. You are immersed in what you’re doing each day, so it’s important to be able to step back and be objective.
We finally seem to be emerging from all those horrendous money problems that the whole country went through. All that is behind us now, hopefully for good.
So I feel I’m certainly hitting a moment where things are poised to take off in a more adventurous way.
My sister passed away last year as well, something which makes you think about yourself and your sense of what’s important. You take serious stock of your goals in your life and pick the ones you need to prioritise.
There are new things I would like to start, another significant project I have in the works. But I’ll take my own advice and enjoy an overdue holiday before I start a new adventure.
Martina Hamilton is the owner of The Cat and The Moon, Hamilton Gallery, and designer for the Martina Hamilton Collection.