23 March 2024

A glittering career ahead for the next generation of Riverina jewellers

| Chris Roe
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Chris Van Honk is in the final year of his apprenticeship with Epica Jewellers in Wagga.

Chris Van Honk is in the final year of his apprenticeship with Epica Jewellers in Wagga. Photo: Supplied.

Wagga Wagga has a long and proud legacy in the jewellery trade and today boasts more than its share of skilled craftsmen and women.

Chris Van Honk is one of a new generation stepping up to continue the trade and is building towards a career in the booming jewellery manufacturing sector.

“At school, in Year 10 we did a unit of silversmithing and I made a couple of rings and I really enjoyed it,” said the former Wagga Christian College student.

“My dad used to be a geologist and got me into stonecutting and faceting so when I came to my major works for design and technology in Year 12 I liked the idea of continuing with that.”

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For his final assignment, Chris completed four rings with claw-set sapphires that he cut himself and four oval cabochon pendants.

After school, he secured an apprenticeship with Jake McPherson at Wagga’s Epica Jewellers and is now in the third year of his Certificate III Jewellery Manufacture at TAFE NSW.

“It’s really good fun, and you get to do a lot of problem-solving and really use your creative side,” Chris said.

“You also meet some really cool customers and hear stories about the jewellery that they’ve made.

“I get a lot of customers coming in with pieces and asking, ‘What can you make out of all these rings?’ – and you can help guide them in their design process.”

Epica jewellers Jake, Chris and Caleb focus on work in the Wagga store.

Epica jewellers Jake, Chris and Caleb focus on work in the Wagga store. Photo: Supplied.

While other manufacturing sectors have declined in recent years, jewellery manufacturing is going through a resurgence in Australia.

In the past five years industry revenue has risen 12.5 per cent to reach an estimated $4.3bn in 2023.

TAFE NSW Design Centre Enmore in Sydney is now the only institution offering the nationally accredited trade qualification in NSW and head teacher Gina Kind said the course was continuing to grow.

“We currently have more young students than we’ve ever had before and since COVID, I think people have come back to the idea of jewellery as a career,” she said.

“You can set up your own business., you can do it at any age and there’s no issues of gender or race and there is a growing demand for employment.”

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With a background in graphic design, Gina said it was fascinating to see the way new technology was being incorporated into jewellery design and manufacture.

“It is an ancient craft that’s been around forever and it is brilliant to see it being reinterpreted in a contemporary fashion.

“We see people not only using those traditional methods, but using new technology like 3D printing and CAD design and using different materials and reinterpreting those old crafts.”

Gina explained that TAFE NSW was looking to expand the program from next year to meet the increased demand.

“From next year we are relaunching the Diploma of Visual Art which will be more of a design-oriented qualification and a pathway for those students like Chris who want to keep moving forward to design their own work.”

Chris said he’d enjoyed learning the more technical design elements of the craft and was looking forward to more unique custom creations.

“One of the most recent things I made was a six-claw wedder for an engagement ring for a mate, which was really good fun,” he said.

“It was a pretty steep learning curve but Jake [McPherson] let me take it on, which was nice of him.”

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