The Jewels of Jasmine Thomas-Girvan

A Jamaican childhood, a penchant for collecting and a love of small things all shaped the career of jewellery designer Jasmine Thomas- Girvan. Mariel Brown reports

Bracelets (sterling silver with semi-precious stones). Photograph by Mark LyndersayButterfly (pin, sterling silver figure, 18ct, 2inches). Photograph by Mark SterlingFull Flight (from Hummingbird series- pin, sterling silver, 18ct; beads and driftwood). Photograph by Mark LyndersayHummingbird necklace (18ct), ear ring (18ct), iolite stone. Photograph by Mark LyndersayJasmine in her studio. Photograph by Mark LyndersayJasmine wears her own The Conversation (sterling silver, 18ct, carved). Photograph by Mark LyndersayNumber 3 of Flower Pin series (oxidised silver, gold leaf, 3.5 * 2.5 inches). Photograph by Mark LyndersaySalad servers (sterling silver surrounded by wooden strips). Photograph by Mark LyndersaySpirit pendant #7 (sterling silver, 18 ct). Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

She is a collector of things. Her studio is littered with sundry buttons and beads, bits of rotting wood, mushrooms, feathers, flowers, wax, pebbles, gemstones, pieces of discarded jewellery, old watch parts, scraps of fabric and flecks of gold and silver that seem to be there just by the way. But this is no collection of detritus on its way to the garbage. These are the things that will inspire Jasmine Thomas-Girvan, the disparate fragments which will be transformed into beautiful objects. “I believe it is a gift to see something extraordinary in a very common and ordinary object,” she says. “And I do see it, sometimes before I even create an object, I see what is there, what is real.”

I’m sitting in the living room, which is painted the colour of afternoon sunlight. There’s a table with family photographs, a wooden what-not full of antique teacups and saucers, none of which match. The coffee table is made of old suitcases piled one on top of the other. A huge vase stands on a sideboard, containing a giant staghorn leaf and red-and-aubergine croton leaves. Scattered about the room are groups of objects placed just so, like shrines to one thought or another, places to pause for a moment.

“I was always, and to this day am still, a collector. I used to collect fabric and other things and take them to school,” recalls Thomas-Girvan. “The kids at school used to see me coming and say, ‘Here comes bag and pan!’” The strange bits and bobs she gathered obsessively as a child contributed to her awakening creative imagination. As she describes them, her family home and garden were vivid, dynamic places where the mischievous and imaginative meanderings of a little girl could take flight.

 

Originally from the working-class area of Molynes Road in Kingston, Jamaica, Jasmine says her childhood was not typical. From the front, her home looked like the other homes of the area. But a wander through the house and into the back yard revealed a whole new world.

“We used to come home from school and change from our school clothes into our yard clothes and run down to what we called ‘the bush’ [the three-acre plot that constituted the garden]. It was like running into a completely different world — past the ducks that would be flapping about while we searched for mangoes and plums. We had lots of fruit trees. We used to create fantasy worlds on the arm of a plum tree or at the ankles of a bamboo grove.”

It was a comfortable home environment. Her mother had to make and decorate much of what furnished the home, and her father was always commissioning pieces of furniture from the local joiner. Jasmine and her sister Elaine, the two youngest daughters, would scrounge from the leftovers of their parents’ endeavours the materials and ingredients necessary for their own projects — dolls, dresses and the like. Overseeing the activity in the family home was Jasmine’s grandmother, a brave and determined country woman. Emboldened by her Grandma’s tales, young Jasmine felt, in some regard, free to do as she wanted.

Spending time with Jasmine, it’s easy to imagine her as a child. She looks like a pixie — there’s a playful youthfulness about her, a mischievous sparkle in her black eyes, a joy and laughter. It infuses her relationship with her teenage children Alexander and Alatashe — forever rolling their eyes ceiling-ward and exclaiming “Mum, please!” in mock horror at something she’s said or done — and her husband, Norman, an economist who is Secretary-General of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS).

 

This playful spirit infuses Jasmine’s work as well. Her first solo exhibition in Trinidad and Tobago, Elemental Spirits (November 2001), featured whimsical pieces of jewellery with tiny figures playing hide-and-seek on a bit of tree-bark (brooches); or perched on minuscule silver swings just beneath your ears (earrings); or fat little market ladies toting baskets of rubies and garnets. Alongside these pieces were more reflective, mythical totems, which could be viewed either as body adornment or as art objects in their own right.

As a child growing up in Jamaica in the 70s, Jasmine evolved ingenuity from the scarcity of the times. She gathered inspiration from the characters around her during those tumultuous days. She remembers a painter called Dorothy Henriques Wells, who seemed much larger than life. “She would wear huge straw hats with fresh flowers stuck in the brim and shocking pink dashiki dresses. And she constantly sighed and laughed, and looked, to me, like she was having a grand time.” Greatly impressed, young Jasmine decided that if this was the kind of life that artists led, then it was what she wanted.

Of course, now that this is her life, she knows there’s rather more to art than that; talking about her own work, she becomes quiet and serious. She graduated from Parsons School of Art and Design in New York and soon established her own studio on Madison Avenue, designing and producing jewellery for retail giants like Lord & Taylor, Macy’s and Fortunoff. But despite this early success, she never believes her work is good enough. “The children tell me I’m a perfectionist. It’s something you have to grapple with as you get older, because it can be a very self-defeating and negative thing.”

The medium often requires a minute scale, and Jasmine makes this a way of paying homage to small things, which she believes are too often overlooked. “I love it when people bring me bits and pieces, a lock of hair from a grandmother, an old button a grandfather wore on a uniform during a war. Things that signify something sacred in that person’s life. It gives me great pleasure to create pieces for people that embody something that is meaningful to them.”

Naturally, she is a great believer in beauty. “There is so much agony around us. It’s wonderful that people experience even a minute of happiness if they see something of beauty.” She recalls the time she hung a Christmas banner from a branch of the guango tree in her garden in Kingston, Jamaica. The tree had recently been pruned, and a branch had emerged that presented the perfect rail. It protruded over the garden wall, so people on the pavement had to walk beneath the swaying banner. “It said ‘Peace on Earth’, and at that time we were having a lot of trouble in Jamaica. Do you know how many people came to the gate and said, ‘Thank you so much for doing that?’”

This attention to detail is a central theme in Jasmine’s day-to-day life. She is the consummate gardener, a fine cook, and the creator of a luxurious and comfortable home. “If there needs to be a lamp in a certain spot, then I’ll embark on making a lamp. And if there needs to be a carpet then I’ll embark on making that.” Within a few months of arriving in Trinidad and Tobago (where she currently lives) Jasmine had rented a studio, sought out all the best garden shops, discovered hard-to-find sources of culinary loot, and made her family’s new house into a home that could easily find itself in the pages of Architectural Digest.

 

Preparing for an exhibition, Jasmine is relentless in her pursuit of beauty, an obsession she’s grateful her family understands. In the weeks before Elemental Spirits she was scarcely ever at home. “I wouldn’t pick the children up from school, I never cooked, I never did anything, I just concentrated on the work.” This raises the question that many women artists seem to grapple with: how to reconcile the needs of a home and family with one’s creative/working life? Many women sacrifice one to the other, believing it impossible to succeed in both spheres.

Jasmine too initially found it a difficult situation to come to terms with. At 25 she married, and soon became pregnant. She wondered to what extent looking after her son would curtail her time in the workshop, and initially resented the intrusion. She found a way through by relaxing into her new situation, taking the baby to the workshop with her, and accepting that there would be times when no work could be done. “But,” she adds, “I definitely haven’t surrendered to my domestic life.”

When she needs time in the studio, Norman steps in at home. “He knows that if I don’t get that work done, I’m a bitch on wheels. I’m miserable, vex, cantankerous. He has cancelled business trips so I can work.” In time, Jasmine was able to take the demands of family life so much in her stride that two of her solo exhibitions in Jamaica were produced immediately after the births of her children. “Producing in the body, producing by the body!” she jokes.

In 1983, while still at Parsons, Jasmine was awarded a prestigious Tiffany Honour Award for Excellence. (This slips out as an aside, after much prompting.) Doesn’t she miss New York, that early success and promise of greater things to come? She grows quiet again. Old clients from the United States still call her with requests for new lines of work, she admits. “If Norman hadn’t come into the picture,” she adds, “I would probably still be there working in the jewellery industry, tremendously successful in that area, but not in my family life.” She is not truly interested in fame and posterity; she makes art because that is where she finds her voice. What she really wants is to create good work, and to be a positive force in the lives of her family and the people she loves. “To try to honour the visions we carry in our hearts.”

“I think there is tremendous magic around us that we just don’t see,” Jasmine says. “There is an allure that is speaking to us all the time, and there, there are always stories for me.”