Working under the name Rosita Bonita, Camberwell illustration graduate Rowenna Harrison makes beautiful jewellery that would be at home in any trinket lovers dressing-up box. Her pieces celebrate all things vintage glamour and have a whole host of other influences from the mythical to the historical. We’ve mentioned Rosita Bonita before as Amelia stumbled across her work at Wilderness Festival 2011 and her stuff is still just as inspiring.
Her pieces are gaining a following and she has recently been shortlisted to win a stand at Treasure Jewellery Show by Professional Jeweller Magazine (you can vote for her here). She’s a busy girl and a few days ago had a stall at the Secret Emporium Pop Up Shop in Boxpark, Shoreditch where she launched her latest collection Siren ’13.
More than just pretty pieces, her hand-crafted beauties are keep-sakes rather than regular old fashion knickknacks. I especially love the heart necklaces from her Sweet Black Heart collection, but all of her pieces are real treasures and her latest collection is sure to bring out your inner ’30s pin-up gal as well as rekindling your (my) childhood dreams of one day becoming Ariel the little mermaid. Siren is a collection of necklaces, earrings and more, which explore the sea-side feel from era’s past, as well as hinting at more magical influences. Looking at these treasures, I can’t help but think of the tongue twister we would recite on the playground: “she sells sea shells on the sea shore,” and be reminded of the feel of sand between my wiggling toes on British summer beach vacations.
I spoke to the lovely Ro Harrison, the face behind Rosita Bonita, about the launch of her new collection, her plans for the future and why she switched from illustration to jewellery design.
How did you decide on the name Rosita Bonita?
The first product I made to sell commercially was pasties (nipple tassels). This came about after making a pair for a friend to replace ones she’d lost at a fancy dress party, then making a few more as birthday presents. They quickly evolved into brooch versions, for those (like me) that don’t tend to have the occasion to wear the originals! I’ve always hated selling my work, so I wanted to create a brand name to create a degree of separation; to make it easier for me to go out and find shops to sell to. I starting experimenting with variations of my name and Rosita Bonita just kind of popped out. I had a vision of her being a ’50s Mexican burlesque dancer, it just felt right!
What made you choose to take the jump from illustration to jewellery design?
For as long as I can remember I have been drawing and making. I love both and don’t see a huge difference between the two. Illustration and jewellery (for me) are both about decoration, engaging with materials and creating characters and fantastical worlds. After graduating I struggled to find enough work as an illustrator (I was never very good at trying to sell myself), so I spent years working in what were supposed to be temporary jobs, in a cafe and managing a vintage shop. All the time I was drawing and making and waiting to be ‘discovered’. In the end, I had the idea to take my drawings and put them onto a physical product that people would want to buy. I had done a lot of screen-printing at college, and I had made various accessories (jewellery, purses, fascinators) out of leather, so it seemed like the next logical step to combine to two. Leather is so tactile and a joy to work with and it seemed to be a great surface to print on, so I did some tests, liked what happened and out came my first collection (Orchard).
How do the two skills influence each other in your work?
All my pieces begin as drawings, and the pieces are often formed from a combination of separate 2D elements, so assembling them into the finished product is a bit like collage. Having had no training in jewellery, I suppose my whole approach is influenced by image-making; having said that, with each new collection, I am adding more metal elements and playing with different construction techniques. For my next collections I am working on a few more sculptural touches.
You worked as part of design duo Dirty Drawers with artist Laura Gill, how did this relationship come about?
My best friend from my Foundation course went on to do a degree at Central Saint Martins and I met Laura there. She’s such an inspirational character. She has tremendous energy, a really positive outlook, a carefree demeanour, and a brilliant imagination, which all come out in her work. Laura met a group of artists who were squatting a big house in Peckham and were turning it into a gallery to show their work. She’d been allocated a room in there to use as a studio and exhibition space, and she asked me if I wanted to show there too. It was all quite short notice and I didn’t have anything prepared, so she gave me some drawings she had been working on and asked me to add to them. We had a pile of books of documentary photography, full of inspiring characters and began drawing from them. The process worked like a game of exquisite corpse (which became the name of the series). We would draw sections and cover them up before swapping and continuing to draw. It was more to amuse ourselves than anything else, but we liked the results and kept working and exhibiting together for years to come.
[Jessica: You can see one of Laura’s illustrations in this article as she provided the beautiful portrait of Rowenna]
Do you feel Camberwell prepared you for entrepreneurship?
One highlight I remember from my course at Camberwell was a talk from Tatty Devine. They didn’t come from a jewellery background and didn’t have financial investment, and seemed like genuinely lovely people, so their success story was (and still is) a huge business inspiration. In my final year I did a number of work placements. The first was a short stint at an Illustration agency (CIA). They kindly took me under their wing and showed me a glimpse of the goings on. Then I was lucky enough to work for my 3 heroes of the time; Marmalade Magazine, Shona Heath (Art Director) and Julie Verhoeven [Jessica: I recently mentioned Julie in a Bath in Fashion 2013 Listing which you can read here] They were all hugely inspirational learning experiences and gave me the opportunity to use my craft skills, and feel valued for them. They also supplied me with bits of freelance work after I graduated. However I still didn’t feel I had the confidence to go out hunting for my own work in the real world. The course itself felt like a bit of a bubble. Because I got a 1st, I just stupidly assumed that people would come to my degree show and offer me work. When I graduated, the bubble popped.
What’s been the biggest challenge so far of setting up shop?
The biggest challenge in setting up shop is money. I started Rosita Bonita when I was still working four days a week managing a vintage shop. I didn’t have much cash (or time) to spare, so I have always made things according to the material costs I could run to and the skills I had to make things myself. It’s really frustrating as I have so many ideas of things I would love to make, but am very limited by costs. As things have been going better and better, these frustrations are highlighted more and more. Ideally I wouldn’t be producing everything myself. I would love to just be designing and making samples, then getting the bulk manufactured, and it would be great to have PR, but this is just not possible yet. The business is growing, but very slowly! The further it goes, the more you realise how much you need money. Designing, manufacturing, selling, promoting, building websites, taking photos, and doing accounts and admin all by yourself is not ideal. I’ve also just had one of my designs copied (by someone who does have money for manufacturing, sales & PR), but I can’t afford to take them to court.
What are the main inspirations of your work?
My inspiration comes mainly from the past. I’m obsessed with vintage photography and graphic design, anything from the Victorian era through to the ‘50s. I look a lot at Hollywood studio shots from, particularly from the ‘30s. The sets and costumes are mind-blowing. I love watching movies from that time too. The characters are so glamorous and almost cartoon like. I am always amazed at how little we’ve artistically progressed since then. I’m not excited by realism and the mundane. I also love to look at the history of jewellery and the social meanings attached to it. I want people to put on my pieces and feel like they are becoming a fantastical character, or that the jewellery is bringing them luck or special powers.
Your new collection Siren has a seaside theme, what made you choose this?
The Siren collection came out of my research into amulets. There was too much material in there for one collection (it’s actually now spawned 3 – Amulet, She’s my witch & Siren). Mermaids and seahorses, as well as certain types of shell, have been used as charms or amulets. I wanted to take these motifs, but treat them in a different way to the previous collection, which was quite dark and magical. They seemed to be perfect for a light summery collection. There is a still from a lost George Méliès film from c1905 which I had photocopied when I was at Camberwell and had always wanted to use somehow. It was a shot of six ‘mermaids’ posing in this great stage set in a star formation, with solid tails. I tend to visualise the photoshoot/video for the collection before I design the actual pieces (usually including which models/friends and which music to use), and knew I wanted something like this, but with a brighter, more ‘30s seaside resort feel to it. I drew my own version of this (which I’ve since printed on framed glass and t shirts), and that became the basis of the collection. I also looked at loads of other mermaid imagery, from ancient myths, fairytales, figureheads, movie stills, tattoo designs and carnival exhibits. I wanted to capture girlhood escapist fantasies of being a mermaid.
Your jewellery has been featured in places like Nylon and Elle, how does it feel to see your work in mainstream mags?
It’s very rewarding to see my work in magazines, of any kind. I Google myself every few months and usually find some new mention in a blog or something. It keeps me going. More please!
What plans do you have for the future?
I’m not very good at planning ahead and managing my time. I have the next two collections designed in my head (just need to grab a moment to get them on paper and to develop the samples), but beyond that I’m never sure exactly what is to come. I will be working on finding some new stockists, so more people can discover me. I have three new international ones in the pipelines, which is all very exciting.
How would a reader go about purchasing one of your pieces?
I have a shop on my website . I don’t discontinue previous collections, as I don’t like the disposable nature of fashion, so most pieces are still available to order, if they are not in stock, and certain pieces can be made in custom colours. I’m also open to illustration, design, bespoke accessory/costume commissions and collaborations, so feel free to get in touch!
All unreferenced illustrations and photography were provided by the lovely Rowenna Harrison.
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