Words: Lara Candido Porter / Pictures: Remco Merbis
Generations of families have trusted Harold to design and make their jewellery. He has dedicated more than 50 years of his life to mastering his craft, training at the prestigious Central School of Arts and Crafts and Sir John Cass College. After gaining experience in both Canada and London, he decided to settle in Clifton, Bristol, at the Dragon Workshop.
It is here that we meet Harold. We ring on the shop’s doorbell and he welcomes us in as if we are old friends. The workshop itself is a hidden gem behind the main shop, and it’s so wonderfully charming that it looks almost like the work of make-believe. Yet this is reality, Harold’s reality, which has naturally evolved with the blessing of time.
As he returns to his main workbench in the corner of the room, he tells us how much jewellery has taught him about people and prosperity.
What do you make?
I create jewellery, anything in gold, silver, platinum, palladium, or even some people want things in copper. That's very rare. It's mainly gold and silver.
There's lots of stuff going on together. You don't just make one. Like now, I've got probably six wedding rings to do and cufflinks to make. And then people call me and ask, ‘Is that ring ready?’. I reply ‘Yeah! I've nearly done it!’. Then I say to myself, ‘Quick! Let's do it!’.
Of course, the time-precious jewellery is always the wedding rings. I'm making more and more of them. Young couples usually come in on a Saturday, and they'll say, 'Oh, you made my mum and dad's wedding rings and I want you to make mine.' That happens very often. I often joke with people when they come in. I’ll say, 'Oh, when are you getting married? Erm, you can't get married a week later, can you? I'm a bit pushed for time.' And they’ll go, 'What?'. They think I'm serious about it.
I always start off by making a wax model, so people get the idea and can see the shape. It’s got to be as close as possible to what the person wants, and a wax model is better than a drawing for that. The best is when people go, ‘Look, Harold, I want three diamonds in this and I want it sort of like this, but I'll leave it to you’.
Why is it important to make things?
It's a natural thing to want to do. You’re creating something new, and that’s exciting.
I guess it’s an achievement. I can go home in the evenings sometimes and think, ‘I've done something today’. Or even go, ‘Oh, I messed something up, but at least I know I won't do that again’. You always make mistakes.
As my old boss used to say, 'Harold, if you ever meet somebody who says I never make a mistake, they never made anything'.
Which precious metal is your favourite to work with?
Gold. Yellow, white, or rose. But, the more you work in gold, the more you have to be careful.
I get it on my trousers sometimes and it goes onto the floor. You do that for forty years, you're going to get a lot of gold dust. So, I sweep the floor every evening and collect the gold into massive bags. Then this company come to collect it, and they take it away and they burn it down. It's quite a normal process in goldsmith workshops and things like that. And then, a cheque for three-thousand pounds comes through. So that's what I get, when I'm careful.
What inspired you to become a goldsmith?
Gold fascinates me. I remember looking at a piece of gold when I was 15 and thinking, ‘Wow, that's gold’.
I’ve also been extremely lucky with the people I’ve met in my working life, because I've learned so much from them. They were willing to tell me and show me stuff. Probably because I was really interested and always used to ask to be shown how to do things — so the generation before has influenced me.
Goldsmiths today, we're nothing compared to the goldsmiths thousands of years ago. You have a look at the stuff they made. They didn't have gas, they had to do it with fire. They didn't have electricity. They didn't have glasses. The stuff they made! Beautiful things. I couldn't do that. They had something different. It's like everything, like their buildings, like their pyramids. You couldn't even build them today.
So, we think we're good but we're not that good. Everything's been done before. A goldsmith could come in here from thousands of years ago and he'd look and go, 'Yeah, yeah, I've done that’. Even though they didn’t have the tools we’ve got today.
What do you love most about being a goldsmith?
It's the people. You couldn't do this sort of work and not get on with people. They make me want to try to do the best I can.
If I died tomorrow — not that I want to die tomorrow— but, if I died tomorrow, I’d think, ‘Well, Harold, you've done what you wanted all your life'. It’s been an easy life. Just fiddled around, made things, luckily some people wanted to buy it so I could make a living from it. Some people don't have a nice life, do they? I've always appreciated that. I don't take it for granted. We really shouldn't take anything for granted.
The one thing I’ve learnt about jewellery is never to be too flippant about it. A lady came in here once and she had a silver chain — just a silver chain. I'll always remember, it was a Saturday morning, and she said to me, 'Do you think you'll be able to mend that and put that loop back on there?'. I could have said, 'I can, but it's probably not worth doing’ — but I said, 'Yeah, I'll do that, solder it up’. She started crying. The chain was on her son when he died in a car crash. That taught me a lesson. You do not ever, ever, say anything derogatory about someone's jewellery.
When people give you things to do and they say, 'This is very precious, it was left to me by my grandmother', you've got to be careful.
Do you have a favourite place?
Here in my workshop. Well, it is one of my favourite places. I've worked in several places that all mean something to me. I did my apprenticeship in London, in the 60s. Worked in Hatton Garden, worked in Canada, so all those places have meaning to me.
I’d say it’s about people though. It's not so much places. Wherever I am with my family is my real favourite place, with all my kids and my grandchildren.
These drawings here are by my daughter when she was a kid. At Christmas time, she used to come in and play around in here, and now her kids do the same. They've even put their names on the side of my work bench: Molly, James, Maisie, Florence, Henry… I've got 11 grandchildren.
A hidden treasure in the heart of Clifton, Harold’s Dragon Workshop is filled with some of the world’s most precious and priceless mementos — beyond the beautiful jewellery that he meticulously designs and creates. Everywhere you look, your eyes will catch glimpses of gold dust shimmering on the floor, old newspaper cuttings of good news stories to share, and customers’ phone numbers drawn on the wall like a mural. There is even a silver necklace that has been packaged up ready for a customer to collect since 1990. Harold doesn’t know why they haven’t returned.
Why is this place called the Dragon Workshop?
I came here back in 1973 to work with a couple of people that had this, and it was named by one of the blokes here. He had a cat called Dragon and, when they didn't know what to call their shop, he said, ‘Call it after my cat’.
I've got a dragon that's always been here. It's a bronze dragon. I tell people it moves around at night. When kids come in — I love teasing kids — I always say to them, ‘Come and hold this dragon. At the moment, he's asleep — but at night, he starts to move.' They love to be frightened, kids, don't they? And I say, 'Do you want to hold it?'. 'No!', some of them go, 'No! No!'
When I was an apprentice, I couldn't afford to buy ready-made tools. So, this chap I was working for told me to go along to a normal hardware store and buy some ordinary pliers. Ordinary pliers and things like that. I then had to file them into the shapes that I wanted.
Sometimes I have to cut at them again, because they wear away a bit. If any of them broke, I'd be heartbroken. This one will be buried with me, like they did with the Egyptian mummies, to see me through to the next life.
My wife doesn't understand my love for these tools. I don't know if it's a bloke thing. But tools, you know...it's the look of them, and the feel of them. The designs are fascinating. They’re like my fingers. I’ve had them with me since I was a kid. That means something.
This was given to me by a bloke I was working with when I was an apprentice. I whack-whack-whack things with it every day. It doesn't even move. Usually with a hammer, when you hit it — bang-bang — it goes loose. The times I've had a hammer and it's gone loose.
You can get this kind of one from a hardware store. My son asks, 'How do you know it's the exact same hammer?'. I reply, ‘Because I was there when I bought it and I remember the date: 1967’. I use it every day of my life.
This old knife was my father's. He was in Burma, in the war. It's got 1942 on it. He carried that during all his time in the 14th army. He gave me that and I put my initials on it: HH.
Today, you couldn't use it because it's just an old-fashioned thing. It’s just a knife, but it means so much to me. Like jewellery does to other people, I guess.
I don't wear jewellery myself. I don't like it. I don’t get it. I only like jewellery as a thing. Something that I can look at and think, ‘I'd love to make that’.
Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.