Meet the Maker: Mary Ann Simmons

Thu 14 Mar 2013

The career of silversmith Mary Ann Simmons has so far been defined by journeys which have seen her move from Canada to Britain, from jewellery to silversmithing and from box-making to beakers. Mary Ann talked Tom Bowtell through her travels and told him more about the delights of a well-fitted box lid than he could ever have expected. 

Interview by Tom Bowtell

Now recognised by industry and public alike as one of the leading UK-based designer-makers – she recently served as chairman of Contemporary British Silversmiths – Mary Ann Simmons has (literally) come a long way from her early days in Canada, where she trained as a jeweller and adopted a refreshingly uncluttered (if occasionally eccentric) approach to making: 

“One of the things I like about making is being able to make to things on the fly. I once went to Ottawa in the middle of winter and didn’t have a bench – eventually I soldered my brooches outside in the snow on a block of wood… It was blinking cold but I got them done.”

While much else has changed, this desire to be flexible and responsive has stayed with Mary Ann throughout her career, meaning that she strives to keep her work simple and avoids an over-reliance on modern technology (delicate computing equipment doesn’t tend to respond well to an Ottawa snowstorm):

“I do feel dedicated to the hand-making process, I love that feel of being able to manipulate something exactly the way you want it with your hands. There’s something freeing about being able to do what you do in any workshop anywhere.”

Mary Ann’s adventurous spirit brought her to the UK in the 1990s, and after an enjoyable mini-career in the film industry, she discovered that fitting private jewellery commissions around her day job didn’t quite scratch her creative itch:

“I suddenly realised that I was supporting other people’s art, and not my own, so I decided to go back to college and study metal-working more deeply.”

During this next stage of her studies (she ultimately went on to complete an MA at the Royal College of Art) Mary Ann found herself under the tutelage of distinguished craftsmen such as Roy Flewin, Howard Fenn and Simone Ten Hompel; all of whom are silversmiths. While acknowledging that their influence played a part in her gradual move towards silversmithing, she feels that her impulse to experiment with the scale of her work meant that her conversion might well have happened anyway:

“I’ve always been interested in things getting bigger, and my jewellery started getting larger and larger until I had to admit that I was actually making small pieces of silverware!”

Mary Ann is justly proud of the jewellery she created, and acknowledges that many of the skills she developed are still used on a daily basis with her smaller silver pieces. She talks with fondness about one piece in particular, an award-winning bracelet featuring hollow forms in a repeating pattern (pictured right):

“That bracelet came out well. I really enjoyed creating the forms, and working out how to fit the repeating pieces together just so. Those hollow compartments really intrigued me – it was something to do with knowing that there is an interior space enveloped inside which can’t be seen.”

This fascination with work which has hidden or concealed spaces, pieces which have an almost narrative mystery within them, was to blossom into a central theme of Mary Ann’s work. When she came to the classic silversmithing student’s challenge of creating a box – an object which has concealing space as its very raison d’etre – she was thus instantly compelled:

“What intrigued me was that what was going on the outside of the box wasn’t necessarily reflective of what’s going on the inside. As an observer, you want to know what’s going on inside!”

Mary Ann expands upon this deliciously mysterious aspect of boxes, suggesting that it connects to her curiosity as a child:

“It takes me back to my grandmother’s jewellery box. It has all those implications, all that intrigue and mystery – you didn’t know what you were going to find. And it’s that moment, the anticipation before you open something. Sometimes I feel that I am recording that moment over and over again when I’m making boxes.”

There is also something about the physical tangibility of a box which appeals to Mary Ann:

“That feeling of picking up a box and thinking to yourself, ‘what is going on in here?’ – that satisfaction of opening, that moment of discovery, the pleasure as it fits perfectly into the palm of your hand.”

Warming to her subject, Mary Ann then embarks on an utterly magnificent description of the almost sensual delight to be gleaned from a snugly fitting box lid:

“The four way push fit lid never feels exactly the same in a handmade object, so you’ll have a favourite direction that it fits in, one where it slides in smoothly, another where you have to snap it in. They’re all slightly different and it’s such a tactile object you get a sense of pleasure when the lid goes on.”

Mary Ann’s wonderful mini-seminar on lids goes further as she confirms that she “doesn’t do hinged lids”, instead enjoying “the feeling, the tactility, of two distinct pieces coming apart.”

At around the same time that she was discovering this affinity with boxes (and their lids), Mary Ann was realising that she was, and still is, “devoted to silver”. Whereas some makers speak almost poetically about their personal connection to the metal, Mary Ann describes a somewhat more fractious relationship:

“I’m dedicated to silver, although I don’t know why as it’s such a funny material. It’s absolutely stubborn in its rejection of most attempts at innovation and you often need to trick it to get it to do what you want to do! It’s a lovely metal to work, but it can be a real pain: I guess part of the satisfaction comes from mastering it.”

Mary Ann has another, rather more personal reason for appreciating silver:

“It’s because of my allergies! It’s a funny thing to say but I’ve worked with materials which I can feel triggering them. I was working with acrylic one time and I really didn’t get along with it at all. So I’m very cautious about working with certain materials, whereas silver doesn’t kick off any allergies and feels a pure material.”

As she ruefully acknowledges, one core element of Mary Ann’s work requires her to handle chemicals which might not only set off her allergies, but actually burn her: the assortment of acids required for photo-etching. Mary Ann uses photo-etching in a variety of ways, sometimes adding decoration to the external surfaces of her work, and sometimes using it to personalise boxes, heightening the mystery of their enclosed space:

“I photo-etch bespoke handwritten messages from clients onto boxes. Sometimes these go on the outside, but sometimes I put them on the inside so they are only found when the box is opened.”

This possibility to create personalised pieces feeds into Mary Ann’s interest in the appeal of tangible, tactile objects which can be carried about the person, adding a glimmer of pleasure to every day life:

“I’m drawn to the idea of small pieces such as a snuff box or a pill box, pieces which are tactile, slip into the pocket. I even made a chewing gum box which stops the gum getting all nasty in your pocket, but also feels lovely when you reach into your bag and find this little object with the lid that snaps open pleasingly.”

While it is the satisfying tactility of small objects Mary Ann enjoys exploring with these pieces, the very fact that they are small means that they are more affordable, something which isn’t entirely accidental: 

“Through selling I realised that a lot of my objects were quite expensive. So I started to make pieces which were smaller and more affordable as a sort of entry in to silver, a way to allow people to enjoy it without feeling too out of pocket.”

While these experiments in smaller pieces have allowed Mary Ann to explore one aspect of her fascination with scale, she admits to still being “drawn to the big”. While she scoffs at the idea of her actually making sculptures, she relished working alongside architectural jeweller Vicki Ambery-Smith to create a sizeable silver replica of a 19th Century town house, and is excited by the prospect of one day taking her fascination for boxes onto a truly enormous scale (although she admits she might “go off piste and make something in steel” in order to be able to afford the metal).

For the coming year, Mary Ann’s desire to ‘go big’ will be met with a new project for an exhibition for Contemporary British Silversmiths:

“The association has been given an exhibition at Christie’s and it looks like the members are going to be working on some very special tablepieces, and I’m just working on some ideas for that now.”

Intrigued, I ask if Mary Ann can give us any sneak previews of what we can expect:

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything at the moment. This isn’t because it’s top secret, it’s because it’s all buzzing in my head right now. All I can say is that I’m definitely thinking tablepiece, and I’m definitely thinking big!”

When in 2011 she served as Chairman of Contemporary British Silversmiths, Mary Ann’s journey to the heart of the UK silversmithing world seemed complete. But it seems that Mary Ann Simmons is an itchy-footed artist, and my conversation with her confirmed that her eagerness to embark on new creative journeys remains strong. Fittingly, Mary Ann credits her long involvement with Contemporary British Silversmiths with playing a key role in helping her discover these new artistic directions:

“I designed a beaker last year for the association's 'Fit For Purpose' exhibition at the V&A. I haven’t always made silver to be ‘used’ in that way, but that exhibition gave me a focus to explore that area. The beakers I made are completely functional, there is nothing notional about them. They are simply beakers, and the best thing is they sold! I find the challenge of working to a brief has pushed my practice in really interesting new directions – it has forced me to think outside the box.”

The pun is unintended and there’s a pause before Mary Ann laughs, realising what she has just said. When she stops, I politely thank her for providing me with such an excellent closing line for my article.

Please click here to view Mary Ann Simmons’ Who’s Who in Gold and Silver page.

Please click here to view Mary Ann’s personal website.

Details of all Contemporary British Silversmiths’ members and exhibitions can be found on their website: