How I Became - a Jewellery Designer // Interview - Billie Magazine

How I Became - a Jewellery Designer // Interview - Billie Magazine

Written By Fleur Mealing from Billie Magazine

How I Became - a jewellery designer w/ Sarah Cotterall.

Welcome to the ‘How I Became’ series where Billie talks to girls across New Zealand who are killing it in their chosen career and see how they got there!

Trying to decide what you ‘want to be when you grow up’ is hard enough as it is and your careers counsellor probably won’t have all the answers you need. 

Name: Sarah Cotterall

Age: 48

Job title: Founder + Designer

Current job: Silk & Steel Jewellery

Firstly, what drew you to jewellery?

Jewellery and fashion have always been a big part of my life and from a young age I was captivated by the beauty of antique jewellery and loved to customise pieces. I collected all sorts – from chains and brooches to rings and earrings.  

I started making jewellery for friends and myself when I was a teenager and loved to be unique and not follow the masses! I’ve always loved designing and creating, and I absolutely knew that one day I would work in the fashion industry!

What subjects did you take in high school that you think helped?

I took Art and design (specialising in Fashion), Business studies and French.

What did your pathway towards starting your career look like?

I always knew that I would work in the fashion industry and create my own brand. But before I could do that, I knew I needed to get some business acumen behind me…which is when my journey started. 

Instead of studying fashion at Central St Martins in London, I decided to get a degree in International Marketing Management - which I believed would one day give me a strong foundation to creating my own fashion brand. 

However, setting up Silk & Steel did not happen straightaway…  

After my degree I landed up working in Paris for two years for one of France’s largest IT companies, setting up their global online marketing. I loved the challenge of creating something exciting and new…and after having gained invaluable experience developing online web strategies in Paris, I then moved back to London where I worked for Leo Burnett (advertising agency) and I helped head up their digital arm. We created international award-winning campaigns for the likes of Kellogg’s and McDonald’s - new ideas forever evolving in a very fast paced industry.

I loved working in advertising - across various businesses and brands and feeling constantly challenged. It was never dull, and I was always busy. But my true passion was still to one day create my own fashion jewellery brand - which stayed with me throughout this journey.

I then met my Kiwi husband in London and a few years later we moved to New Zealand, got married and had children. My fast-paced life in Europe had changed - and this gave me a wonderful opportunity to combine everything I had learnt with my lifelong passion - to create my own jewellery brand. After a trip back to see family in Italy, I was so inspired to create beautiful, luxurious couture jewellery for the New Zealand market - that’s when Silk & Steel was born.

It all started with $100! I bought beads, collectable vintage costume jewellery and started making one-off pieces, which I then sold to friends. It really snowballed from there. 

Every dollar I had made from selling the jewellery went in to buying more materials and creating new designs. Everyone loved them. They were unique and each piece a labour of love. I loved creating - but to have a business I knew that the jewellery was only the half of it. I needed to create a brand and market that brand…

I was very hands on and did most things myself. I created the logo, designed labels and business cards and as soon as I could afford it, I engaged a web agency to help create our first website. I was lucky that I had the background to design the site's functionality and I took all the photos of the jewellery myself.

It was then time to start selling - so I approached beautiful stores and boutiques in Auckland - including Smith & Caughey’s and Yvonne Bennetti - which was over 10 years ago now and still going strong!

In the early days I was doing everything myself - from making jewellery to selling it! I think it's incredibly important - to learn a business from grass-roots - listen to your market and adapt accordingly. I think that’s why Silk & Steel has been so successful.

What started off as only one-off Couture pieces, has since evolved in to limited edition, affordable everyday jewellery- across 3 ranges, from our main demi-fine mainline range to Superfine and Steel. We are now stocked in over 70 stores around New Zealand and Australia.

What did you study/where/how long did it take?

I studied a BA (Hons) International Marketing Management in the UK for four years - 1 ½ years were spent studying and working in France, as part of the degree.

What’s the best thing about your job?

Everything! I feel incredibly lucky that I get to do what I love every day! From designing collections and bringing them to life, to working with our wonderful stockists and talking to our loyal customers – it’s such a varied and rewarding job, every day is exciting and different. The absolute highlight is receiving lovely feedback from our customers and seeing them rocking their Silk & Steel jewellery!

What’s the hardest part?

Switching off! 

What surprised you most about your job once you started working?

When I very first launched Silk & Steel in 2010, I was most surprised (and extremely humbled) by how the media supported my brand. From our first editorials to collaborating with some of New Zealand’s most loved fashion designers and being on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week, it has been an amazing journey that keeps getting better!

What does an average day look like for you?

My day usually starts with answering emails and getting on top of my general workload before I head into the studio. I then work with the team to prioritise marketing activities, any upcoming photoshoots, designing new ranges, liaising with our lovely stockists and customers, and working on production with our manufacturers. There is always so many things happening, each day is different! I stay across everything and I’m very hands on. 

What advice would you give to those looking to follow a similar career path?

There is never the right time to start a business - just believe in yourself. Learning first hand is a great way to learn but if you need professional advice to get started there are lots of mentors out there that can help. Stay true to your values. And, quality over quantity - always! 

If you can visualise your dream, you can make it happen!

What are the biggest challenges in your opinion to getting into jewellery design?

You can be an amazing designer, but you need to be able to market yourself. Having a clear vision and brand identity is very important - jewellery is only the half of it.

What kind of skills does your job require?

In the early days I had to wear many hats – from jewellery designing (and making everything myself!) to finance, sales, and marketing. Even today, I like to be across everything and have an appreciation for the business on every level. I now work with a great team of people that help my vision come to life. 

If passion, hard work and tenacity are skills, then they are key! 

What part of your job gives you the most satisfaction?

I love designing collections and seeing my vision come to life, especially when shooting our campaigns. I love having one on one dialogue with our loyal customers and visiting our beautiful stockists – that’s always such a highlight for me, as so many have become friends over the years. I have an amazing team and feel very lucky to work with such great people, both in New Zealand and overseas.

What has been an absolute highlight of your career?

I would have to say the highlight is seeing Ellie Goulding wearing Silk & Steel! I made her an amazing bespoke necklace, which she loved and wore on stage at her last concert in Auckland.

She loved it so much she posted about Silk & Steel on her social media channels. Funnily enough, it was on my birthday that she wore it, so it was quite a birthday present! We also spied Ellie wearing some of her other favourite Silk & Steel’s pieces after the concert, too!

And of course, seeing Silk & Steel being worn and enjoyed by our wonderful loyal customers is always super rewarding! I absolutely love hearing from our customers and seeing them enjoy Silk & Steel – that’s what it’s all about!

What’s an unexpected element to your job that people don’t realise you have to do?


Describe your job in three words

Dream come true.

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