Located in Stockholm, Mia Larsson extends the beauty of the sea beyond the shore. She has discovered in molluscs her allied material to create contemporary jewels that represent the spontaneity of nature and its incredible ability to sculpt unique shapes that speak to us of an encouraging scene. Respect for the environment, a new way of consumption and the ability to turn into art what others consider to be trash, define the work of this jeweller who has bet to point out the value of what goes unnoticed to anyone. A statement of sustainability that fits in your jewellery box.
You started in the world of jewellery not so long ago, why did you choose this creative discipline? What is your artistic background?
I had a background as a wardrobe and props stylist in fashion and commercials but I wanted a change. I started art school in 2003 while having kids. Finally, I landed at the Master of Arts in Jewellery at Ädellab, the metal department at Konstfack, University of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 2012.
Where does your fascination for the sea come from?
I’ve always loved to swim and dive since I was a kid. Our summer house is by the beach and I used to spend a lot of time in the water until my lips were blue. I remember that I felt so miserable when I got ear infections, which I had quite often, and I couldn’t swim underwater. As a grown-up, I still love to swim below the surface, I feel connected, a meditative happy state of mind while making loops under water.
My family has also a quiet romantic connection with the sea. My father used to build ships for us, he had boats and loved to sail with his mates. My brother was a dreamer, he was always drawing boats and he became a sailor for a couple of years.
When did you decide to use seashells into your jewellery and how did this decision transform your work?
Actually it wasn’t a romantic choice connected to the sea. It was because I wanted to find a recycled and organic material for my master exam, Moving Matter. My thesis was about how materials are connected to us in every way. Nature, materials and humans are all connected and shouldn’t be looked upon as separated. Our material choices represent and affect us in every way. Before the petrochemical revolution, we only used organic materials, and now we have to find our way back. Nature is also a skilled maker of fantastic materials in a sustainable way and still decomposable.
I thought of shells as trash from fantastic food that I could recycle from restaurants, clean them and use in my jewellery. They become part of a great upcycling. I got a lot of resistance from my teachers, who thought at first that my pieces were holiday jewellery. Fortunately, a lot has changed since then, when there were no discussions about materials and sustainability.
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What are the advantages of working with natural materials? What difficulties or troubles have you found?
They are produced in a sustainable way by nature and also decomposable. Little molluscs create fantastic high-tech ceramic material. They produce these amazing shells as a protection from intruders. I find it one of the great wonders how intelligent the material is and what an amazing construction different shells have.
Organic materials are often more complicated to work with because they have their inner organic chemistry and you don’t know how they will react to other materials. You have to experiment a lot and try out. They could also be more delicate and not as durable as things made with petrochemicals – that’s why petrochemicals came as a revolution after the war. Things with an oil and chemical base were so easy to apply to everything and also became so durable. We have recently understood the downsides of being so toxic for the environment.
Oysters are your main working tool, what makes them so special compared to other shells?
I think it’s the fact that it has such a strong connection to the imaginary of glamour, I almost mythicize food. When you eat an oyster, it’s like if you were swallowing part of the sea. They have a strange shape, almost like stones hidden in the sea, but when you open an oyster, it’s magical in its beauty with the white, grey, beige shiny mother of pearl, like porcelain made of nature.
As a material, it isn’t the easiest because the oyster shell is quite soft and chalky, but I have found my ways. I’m also a fan of the outside that has this stone with different patterns that I find mysterious. It has also two sides, one flat and one bulky, they stick hard together like a treasure box which contains this amazing food inside the white porcelain and sometimes even a pearl. I have chosen not to work with the pearl because it is such a common part of the jewellery expression and I prefer to take care of the waste.
Do you collect the oyster shells yourself or do you have a supplier?
I get them from restaurants. Right now, I have one supplier, close to where I live. They are very kind and let me come and collect the shells in my blue Ikea bag in the evenings when I need new material. I also save leftover shells when we eat seashells, and many of my dear friends are kind and save shells for me.
“Our material choices represent and affect us in every way. Before the petrol chemical revolution, we only used organic materials, and now we have to find our way back.”
What characteristics does a shell must have to be suitable for your creations? What processes do shells go through once you get them?
They need to have a certain nice shape. The white nacre shouldn’t be too attacked by intruders. I clean and rinse them carefully in my studio or in my bathtub. I take away remaining parts of the seashell inside it. It’s important to make it straight away because if you leave them, they start to smell quickly. I let them dry on newspapers for at least twelve hours. I keep them in a dry place, a paper box preferably.
I sometimes go through the shells to choose the best ones. When I make jewellery, I collect different shells that are suitable for the special pieces I have in mind. Sometimes I know what to do and sometimes I get inspiration from looking and playing with the shape and patterns of the shells. I try to use as many parts of the shell as I can if I don’t use the whole one. I cut them in different ways to make different styles. Then I treat and polish them in different ways and take away seaweed and other things that have been growing on them to have them clean and presentable. The shape and material are my main source of inspiration.
Some of your pieces include elements as common as mussel shells, how do you manage to turn something so ordinary into a jewel?
Mussel shells were actually my starting point, getting sacks from a local moules restaurant in Stockholm. Oyster shells came second. I have a stronger bond with the mussel shell because that is really my childhood memory of beach treasures, the black outside and the heavenly blue mother of pearl inside.
They are quite tricky to work with because they are so fragile and brittle. I experimented a lot with them so I found out a way to treat them so they became hardened and more like porcelain. When treating them, other beautiful colours on the outside appeared, which was a fantastic revelation. I made some art jewellery working with them but I’ve been a bit afraid of making commercial jewellery with mussel shells because they are more fragile than the oysters or abalone shells.
Why do you think sea fossils are not as popular in jewellery as gems?
I think it is due to many things. Most importantly, it’s because they are so common, they are easy to find and collect. Precious stones are more difficult to find, rare, and you need special skills to refine and grind gems. They are also more durable and become longer lasting.
For many people, shells are also associated with banal holiday jewellery, but in the South Pacific, they have historically made beautiful crafted shell jewellery. As the Indians and people from the north have beautiful jewellery made of bones and horns. Also one of the first adornments, a pierced shell from 80.000 BC, is the oldest evidence of artwork.
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You don’t only give molluscs a second life but also use recycled silver in your creations, what is the origin of this silver?
I take all my silver from a company in Stockholm that sells 100% recycled precious metals. You can also submit your own leftovers and get it back as metal. They send it to a special factory in Germany which is specialized in this advanced refinement.
Your pieces are made to order, how much time do you spend approximately making a piece?
It varies but approximately among one or two days.
What statement do you think a person wearing your jewels defends?
I see them as amulets for sustainability, caring of the oceans, nature, people and coming generations and the importance of recycling. I think they could also be seen as a protection for your integrity. The shell makes this beautiful shell around itself to be able to protect its softer parts and maybe also its ‘secret’ inner thoughts. If the clients bring a special shell, the jewellery could remind them of the occasion they ate it or the place where it happened.
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Last year, you collaborated with & Other Stories creating a limited-edition collection, used to produce on demand, what was it like working for a big company?
It was much better and fun than what I anticipated. I worked with a very creative small team with two designers and project manager, who worked with collabs. We had several meetings both in my studio and their office. I made sketches first and then we decided together what the jewellery collection would consist of. They made the same kind of boxes that I use from a small-scale factory in Stockholm. They made similar jewellery bags sewed by a women’s collective to help immigrant women get work. The bags were made from leftover fabric from dresses. It became a very creative, fun, open and respectful cooperation, and very nice for me since I mostly work alone.
Do you think that this kind of collaboration helps to reach a wider audience that begins to question their consumption habits? Or are the alliances between big brands and more conscious creators still very specific?
I think that collabs could be good in many ways. They help artists and small-scale designers to get out and show their work and make bigger companies work with smaller limited collections. The audience could benefit from more original and not so commercial artistic ideas. It’s much better than those companies which in many cases copy designers and take their ideas, a common problem unfortunately. I think it could also be good to change our way of consuming. My father used to say that consumption is a choice, and that becomes more and more evident nowadays.
Collabs could be a very good thing for both parts, they both could gain as long as the smaller designers and artists are treated with respect. The artist should be heard and be ok with the collab in all parts, from the product, packaging, production to presentation. It’s also important that these artists get economic recognition. If they deliver ideas to the company, they are giving part of their research and training during years of study in art schools. Collabs could be a very good platform to be seen and get recognition. It feels like they have become much more common these days, maybe because craft is trendy. It’s terrible when big companies steal from art school students, new designers or smaller companies. I think it’s evil and unimaginative.
A good jewel is eternal, do you think jewellery is aware of the sustainable potential of its industry?
Jewellery holds so much potential, it’s a fantastic tool for communication and showing relations. Jewels are often gifts of love that link us to former and future generations when they are given or inherited. Jewellery is also a powerful container of symbolical values displaying believes, subculture belongings and even political standing points. It also connects us to memories and geographic places. With all its possibilities of connecting us to people, ideas, nature, past and present and also power and protection, jewellery is the perfect tool to represent the power of sustainability. As long as it’s not used as a way of showing status and wealth.
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