There’s a jeweller I know who lives in my city, Nelson – a quaint little seaside town at the top of the South Island of New Zealand.
I think this jeweller is possibly one of the most creatively talented individuals I’ve ever met.
I’m grateful to call Ben a friend and have learned a lot about unleashing creativity from him.
What’s a jeweller got to do with leadership? If you want to learn a thing or two about how to tap into the creative process, about following your vision, hard work and an entrepreneurial attitude then you can learn a thing or two from this dude.
I sat down for a chat with him and learned a lot myself.
Suzi: Tell me about how and when you discovered this passion for making jewellery?
Benjamin: My father is a watchmaker so I grew up tinkering around in his workshop. I started making jewellery around the age of seven and would sell my rings at the local markets to make a dollar or two. I guess I always had a bit of entrepreneurial spirit as well.
School and I didn’t get along very well, at least not academically. I was good with the practical subjects – woodwork, technology – but not the academic side, and I desperately wanted to leave.
An opportunity came up for an apprenticeship with a local jeweller and I jumped at the chance. After about 7 years there, I found I needed the freedom to create my own designs. So I left, joined forces with my partner Amy, and we started Benjamin Black Goldsmiths.
Whenever I hear stories about kids not doing well at school, or just not ‘fitting in’, I want to share my story with them. I want to give them hope – and their parents. To tell them they have something to offer the world that doesn’t necessarily align with what we learn via the prescribed school curriculum. We all have a purpose, we all have something significant to contribute, we just need to find out what that is.
Suzi: I’m fascinated about how you go about creating a piece of jewellery – how you start the creative process. The beginning of creating or innovating is an important stage, regardless of whether it’s jewellery or a new product or idea. I’ve heard yours is very different from how most jewellers start a piece.
Benjamin: I work a little bit differently from most other jewellers when I’m creating a new design. Generally people start with a concept and sketch it onto paper, then work out the various components, maybe CAD it up, and then create the design with wax or metal.
I don’t sketch at all, or do any prep for that matter (unless I’m working with a client to create something specific).
I prefer to pick up a piece of metal, then start working on it, without giving any thought to the concept or even the outcome. I let the creativity flow through me, without thinking, just using my hands and the metal, then a piece eventually evolves. Sometimes I have an idea in my mind beforehand, sometimes I don’t. This is almost always how I create my best work – plus it’s how I really enjoy working. This is what fills me up, makes me feel as if I’m doing what I’m meant to.
I think this also relates to leadership and business in general. Quite often we can overthink the ‘plan’. Strategies, objectives and outcomes are important, but if we want people to really tap into their creativity and come up with innovative ideas, it’s important to give them freedom.
Also, every individual works (and creates) differently. What stimulates or inspires one team member won’t necessarily light the fire of the next. If you want to build a creative culture, find out what catalyses creativity in your team members, then give them the tools and space to go for it.
Suzi: Yes, I agree. Also I’ve noticed that when leaders become too myopic on one way forward, they can sometimes miss the opportunity that may present itself through the process. There’s something valuable in a more organic ‘evolving’ such as how you create your pieces.
Suzi: What do you do when you get a creative block? That’s kind of a sucky place to be in given your livelihood depends on it….jus sayin’
As co-owner of the business, and being a small business, a lot of my day is spent managing people, talking to customers and working on the business. I don’t get as much creative time as I would like and it’s one of my goals to create more space for it. Because my creative time is limited, I have, through trial and error, worked out how to get the most from it.
Firstly I need to create at night. I’m a night person, so this is when I work best creatively.
Secondly, I need my space to be quiet. To be alone, without any distractions or outside influences. Even energy from other people can stifle creativity.
Finally, if I’m having a creative block, I just have a break. I usually work on something else when this happens. I’ve had pieces that I’ve worked on, but haven’t had the inspiration to finish, then picked up months later and known the direction I wanted to take.
I’ve learned that if there’s a creative block, you can’t force it. Likewise, if creativity is flowing, often you can’t stop it.
It’s best to just roll with it. In times like this, I just continue working for as long as I possibly can.
Leaders could potentially learn from this by finding out when and under what circumstances or environments people are most creative, then giving them flexibility when creativity strikes. If someone is more creative at night, like me, perhaps they would like to work late one night a week, then come in late the next day. Or if someone is more creative when in the company of others, group them into teams or collaborative working spaces where they can feed off each other’s energy.
Suzi: What’s been the toughest part of being an entrepreneur?
For me the toughest part has been not knowing whether the direction I want to take is the direction which makes the most business sense. The best thing we have done has been surrounding ourselves with people who know more than we do. Having a great team is so crucial.
Suzi: Who or what inspires you?
The great thing about jewellery is there are always new techniques to learn – you never have to stop learning. I’m inspired by the concept of self-improvement, I love to learn and this is what motivates me.
I’m also inspired by shape, form and movement. For example, if I come across an unusually shaped stone, it may inspire me to create a design for it. Form found in art and nature is also a source of inspiration – the constant moving formation of waves, for example, or the undulating, rhythmic movement of music, is really prevalent in my work. I love creating pieces that embody movement.
Suzi: Any advice for someone about how to tap into the creative process? Even dudes and dudettes in corporate suits?
Think about a time when you were at your most creative. What were you doing. Seeing. Feeling.
Find someone that inspires you. An artist, a musician, a writer. Study them. Read their books. Watch their documentaries.
Remember everyone is creative. We all have something to contribute. All we need is the confidence to show our creativity to other people – and this is where great leaders come in.
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