Metal Urges Jewellers’ owner Chris Hood has the air of a man on a mission and a mind plump with thoughts. When we meet at a local coffee shop, there’s no need for small talk between long friends. Chris launches straight into his backstory with barely a prompt.
“From early on I’ve been fascinated by my own ability to do something and for others to see the value in it and pay me for that value; I was the kid who was mowing lawns up the street. I had an entrepreneurial spirit before the age of 10.” Our conversation is anchored and punctuated by a canvas roll-bag – undoubtedly pillowing gems – which he percussively taps and plays with as we speak. The bag is symbolic of another trait; the strong desire to share: knowledge and passion.
It was in the metalwork rooms of Hobart boys’ school Hutchins where this passion for literally imagining an object into life was ignited and fostered by teachers who identified an early talent; later crystallised into a career pathway in jewellery design during a gap year overseas.
“I visited diamond cutting factories in Amsterdam, saw Fabergé eggs in Dresden. Then returned home and went straight into a three year jewellery manufacture course and then into a traditional apprenticeship in Melbourne.” After winning four of the major jewellery design awards in Australia, being head-hunted multiple times and starting his own business in Melbourne, Chris returned home to open Metal Urges and started exploring his own backyard for gems to fill his graceful pieces.
In the jurassic-like forests of Tasmania’s north-east, Chris frequently slips down mud banks into glassy rivers seeking that perfect blue “other ringstone” – the sapphire. “I do see the Tasmanian stuff as relaxation, eight hours in a Tasmanian river, there’s no arduousness to it. Eight hours feels like 10 minutes. “The stuff that does get a bit tougher is the overseas work.” An understatement for the mining environments in sometimes war-scarred regions like Burma, Sri Lanka and Tanzania where Chris works in and around the local mining camps and towns, amid knotted politics and colourful economics to source the majority of his gems.
Many of these regions require street smarts of the like not often required in sleepy hoods of Hobart Town. Layer on a determination to source responsibly and ethically in environments of ‘functional corruption’ and you start to understand why stone buying could stress the savviest young creator-preneur. But Chris was forced to learn his gem-smarts fast. Cut to one particular stone buying expedition in Burma: “I realised the mining jig was set up to collect only larger stones; then it hit me – I said ‘we have to go downstream’ (where the smaller gems would have been washed to). “So these ladies in Burma they just all rock up each day – they know where to go – on the edge of a legal gem mine.
“I bought everything they produced that afternoon.” A move that didn’t impress the local trader expecting his delivery of stones from the women later that evening. “They told him ‘some giant white boy came and bought all our stones’.
“He found me pretty quick! He said, ‘How am I supposed to feed my family?’ and I was like, good point.” Needless to say, the trader was quickly remunerated for his inconvenience. As for the stones? A lesson too valuable to sell. “They are now sitting on my fireplace at home.” But it was during Chris’ first stone buying trip to Sri Lanka that the personal impact of gem economics truly hit home, an experience that would go on to inform how Metal Urges does business. “I had been looking at stones and mining and word had gotten around the village. A boy came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me sir are you a stone buyer? My father has a stone and he would like to show it to you.’
“I went back to their family home where they had made me a beautiful meal, then was shown the stone… which was clearly lovely! The negotiating started and I was able to get the price down to about a quarter of what I was actually prepared to pay and their original asking price. They nearly fell over when I said I wanted to pay the initial price despite negotiations.
“Because I source, I negotiate, I mine, I buy – there are up to three or four people missing from my supply chain. This means we have a margin to play with.” Rather than pocket this margin, Chris prefers selling for a fair price in Australia, then putting that margin back into the communities and homes of people at the beginning of the supply train. Over the last 10 years that Sri Lankan stone-seller’s two sons have gone to Colombo University and bought a new home. “I still buy from them today, but it’s not a negotiation any more, it’s a happy meal and a transfer.”
This ultra lean, end-to-end and deeply personal approach spills into his M.O. back home. “Our creative process is simple, we listen to the customer and are honest about what they are requesting; often my clients aren’t aware of the engineering and what it takes for a piece of jewellery to last 100 years.” Most customers seek out the finest quality gem they can possibly afford. But there are always those that would prefer something from a forest they could drive to.
“While the jewels from Tasmania are perhaps not the same colours or size as what can be sourced elsewhere, they have a special value being Tasmanian. “Every time I look at them I am reminded of that. They are the most beautiful in my mind, being Tasmanian. On the world market they are not the most valuable, but infinitely the most precious to the people who value Tasmania.” It’s time to unfurl the canvas bag. Stunning shades of blue spill into maker’s hands.
By Sarah Caddick originally published in issue seven.