Fashion

Holly Ryan’s new collection of jewellery is a sweet homecoming, fashioned from recycled materials and inspired by her lifelong fascination with the ocean. By Lucianne Tonti.

El Agua Mágica

A piece from Holly Ryan’s jewellery collection El Agua Mágica (The Magic Waters).
A piece from Holly Ryan’s jewellery collection El Agua Mágica (The Magic Waters).
Credit: Taylah Golden

The campaign film for Holly Ryan’s latest jewellery collection opens with a voiceover. “In the big ocean in the Pacific there is a small island; on this island is a girl.” The girl in the film swims in the sea, takes long walks, eats cacti and talks to shells.

It’s hard not to see the film as at least semi-autobiographical. Ryan lives in Queensland in an 1880s worker’s cottage on the west-facing side of Mount Coolum, surrounded by 2.5 hectares of rainforest. The film was shot on nearby Mudjimba Island, just off the Sunshine Coast.

This is where Ryan grew up, swimming in the same waters as her fictional character. But she tells me the girl is based on the French filmmaker Jacques Cousteau, who is famous for his love of the sea and the world beneath its surface.

After more than a decade living in Brisbane and Sydney, Ryan returned home last year, and found herself designing a collection called El Agua Mágica (The Magic Waters). The collection was inspired by her childhood memories. She describes the process of designing it as “a sort of homecoming, a return to the beautiful nature that abounds up here”.

At times that inspiration is literal: a necklace of irregular, luminescent Australian pearls is made in the likeness of a species of seaweed called Neptune’s necklace. The seaweed is native to Australia and New Zealand and can be found all around the island. The seaweed is a soft green, hard on the outside but spongy to touch. Ryan says it “looks like little beans all strung together, like pearls on a chain”.

The necklace is made by hand, with a single line of pearls strung together and the occasional group of two or three pearls dangling off the main chain. The matching earrings are chaotic clusters of pearls, strung in groups of three or four and anchored to a single larger spherical pearl.

One set of earrings draws its inspiration from the nautilus shell. It has a spiral shape that begins small and narrow in the centre and widens as it wraps around and around to form a circle. In Ryan’s imagining, the outline of the spiral is drawn in gold. To form an earring, two spirals are joined together. One is fastened to the earlobe, the other dangles below it. The earrings have an accompanying necklace, a line of spirals in slightly varied sizes that sit on the collarbone.

 

Almost all of Ryan’s jewellery is made by hand in Australia using recycled metal, a practice she inherited from her parents. “My parents studied silversmithing in Mexico in the 1980s,” she says. “They lived in a colonial city in a valley. It had cobblestoned streets, tiled roofs and mariachi bands everywhere.”

Although Taxco was one of the silver-mining capitals of the world, the townspeople did not have a lot of money. They found different ways to be resourceful, including melting and recasting metals so nothing was wasted.

Ryan was introduced to silversmithing by her parents, who spoke Spanish throughout her childhood, hence the Spanish name of the collection. They taught her to make jewellery the only way they knew. Now she sources recycled metals from local manufacturers, and when they can’t satisfy her demand, she says, “I buy things in op shops and melt them down myself.”

Her resourcefulness comes from her love of the natural world. “I was taught this way, so no other way made sense to me,” she says. “Out of respect for the environment, I didn’t want to take more away than I was able to give back”.

These good intentions extend beyond the materials Ryan uses. She has partnered with the artisan-based fair-trade organisation Setu in India to make chokers from tiny pink, blue, yellow and green-grey sapphires. The different-coloured stones are strung in a single line in the measured order of a rainbow fading in and out of its gradient. The chokers are made by women who have experienced domestic violence and the profits go directly to further education. The necklaces are the only things made offshore.

“For me, the pieces themselves are a message of equality. A rainbow is a natural, beautiful occurrence of the world and it’s a reminder of that sentiment,” Ryan says. “Whenever it rains there’s something beautiful to come afterwards.”

Given Ryan’s evident deference to nature and the power of its cycles, it should come as no surprise that the star of the collection is a diamond ring in the shape of a half sun. As though it is partway through rising or setting, the band acts like a distant horizon. It mirrors a tattoo on the inside of Ryan’s wrist that reads, “the sun still rises”.

Ryan describes herself as a person who wakes with the sun, that it dictates the rhythm and productivity of her work. “I can’t live without it,” she says. “I don’t feel like me if I haven’t had that connection to nature in the morning. I can’t design on those days.”

The ring is made from pale, recycled gold, with a large diamond shaped in a semicircle sitting on the flat edge along the band. Nine gold points fan around it, five of which enclose a smaller marquise diamond. The setting is finished with little droplets of gold framing its lines. She tells me it is a reminder of herself, of the sun as a giver of life, and of every day being a new day. She says these diamonds will bring the wearer sunshine.

 

As is common to childhood stories, there is an element of darkness running beneath the enchanted world Ryan has created. From the girl alone on the island, to the mysterious depths of the sea, to her need to be reminded that the brightness of dawn follows night. Or designing a ring that gives the wearer special powers. No tale of homecoming would be complete without hints of overcoming trials and tribulations.

In many ways, Ryan is the protagonist of her own fairytale. She has been on an adventure, using the skills inherited from her parents to take on the world. She says it is family folklore that making jewellery “runs in her veins”. After years away, evolving and honing her craft to surpass the challenges inherent to building a business, she has returned home to live on the land and sea where she grew up, with her golden retriever and a chicken named Lady.

 

She tells me the feeling of coming home is best embodied by her favourite quote from Carl Jung, which was another source of inspiration for El Agua Mágica: “Back to the sea again where the overstimulated psyche can recover in the presence of that infinite peace and spaciousness.”

She says the quote is a reminder of how it feels to dive headfirst into the ocean. The moment when the surface of the water breaks against your skin with the slight sting of the cold and you are completely immersed. It is like being new again.

“I think that quote made the most sense to me in my life than ever before, having just returned to the Sunshine Coast and back to the sea,” she says. “It felt like a breath of fresh air after a lot of tumultuousness, like remembering how to breathe.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "She sells seashells".

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