Jorie Grassie recently acquired Harvey Nichols as her first English stockist and is on a mission to revive deer tusk jewellery in the industry. Hailing from the US prairie state of Illinois, Grassie left her American home to come to Scotland almost 20 years ago.
Living on the Culachy estate with her husband and four sons, Grassie took in her surroundings in the Scottish Highlands and decided to make a living out of the materials naturally available to her: deer tusks. Reviving a jewellery making method which was widely used in the Neolithic era, Grassie says her decision to make pieces using this long-forgotten technique, sayin “excites me” because of its “rich history dating back 15,000 years”.
On the Culachy estate she owns and lives on, deer are culled to allow the species to flourish, limit damage to trees and prevent the spread of Lyme disease. As Grassie explains: “Deer culling is a necessity to ensure the good health and sustainability of the deer population. It is also required by Scottish Law. For those not familiar with stalking, the beasts are taken with skill and dignity. Additionally, there is no waste as every part of the deer is used.”
In the Neolithic period that deer tusk jewellery was birthed from, the men and women who wore these pieces were considered and identified themselves as “skilled providers”. The style continued to prove a popular style of accessory, with the most recent and prominent record of the jewellery being used in the Victorian times, when people still used to incorporate human hair and teeth in their jewellery. Deer tusk jewellery is probably most well known among the royals, as Prince Albert commissioned a necklace, earrings and brooches as a sign of his love for the Scottish Highlands and his wife, Queen Victoria.
Nowadays, the art of creating jewellery using deer tusks seems to have been long forgotten among most designers. Apart from Grassie, it is difficult to find anyone still using this prestigious method once favoured by high society.
One reason for the change in preference may be the limited resources available to create such pieces. Strict requirements on the number of deer culled mean it can be difficult to find enough tusks to make enough consistent pieces for an extensive range. “It is harder and harder,” says Grassie, “to source deer tusks in enough quantity and quality in order to make enough pieces to run a business”. Of the 50 or so deer culled in a year on Grassie’s land near Fort Augustus, each deer has two usable tusks. So this means Grassie only has 100 or so pieces a year to work with. She manages with limited resources by occasionally obtaining some from friendly neighbours or buying more to replenish her stock.
To make her jewellery, Grassie uses the top two incisor teeth – or tusks – of the Red Deer Stag. Perhaps surprisingly, she does not bleach the tusks to a pearly white colour – commonly seen with most traditional deer tusk jewellery – as she prefers “their natural colours.” Explaining the process, Grassie says: “Once the tusks are extracted from the culled animal, they are cleaned, buffed and polished to a perfect sheen.
“I then start designing with precious and semi precious stones,” she adds. Choosing to source all of her materials first-hand, Grassie does not restrict herself to the resources immediately available to her on the Culachy estate and its neighbouring stretches of land. Instead, she travels far and wide in search of the precious and semi-precious gems which are also used in her pieces. “I like to source my own stones, for instance, my best trips have been to Tanzania where I have found spectacular Tanzanites.”
So far, the most notable piece in her Culachy collection is a necklace costing £63,500 which houses 250 diamonds. As well as using a rarely used means of creation, Grassie also cuts the stones used for her jewellery in an unconventional and archaic way. “I use tumble cut semi-precious stones, which is an ancient way of preparing the gemstones.” This is a basic form of gem-cutting which helps the precious stones retain a unique and organic shape.
Each piece is then thoughtfully presented in a bespoke box and travel pouch which was designed by the jeweller in 2002 and made out of tweed exclusive to Grassie’s estate. The tweed has a history of its own, with each design reflecting the individuality and heritage of each manor. The Culachy tweed is characterised with a muted green background, with a pale salmon thread and a bold Scottish blue.
Apart from developing a love for deer tusk jewellery some 20 years ago, Grassie appreciates the distinctiveness it gives to her brand. Given her method of making jewellery is relatively rare in modern times, it is unlikely that there will be anything similar on the market. “I have chosen this style because it is different and difficult to copy,” she asserts. This also means that each piece comes with its own story.
Manufacturing this kind of jewellery is not an easy feat; each piece takes roughly six weeks to make depending on the design. The hard work and dedication has paid off for the jeweller who started off creating pieces for friends and family 20 years ago, but just a year after the release of her first official collection under the brand name Jorie, her line was picked up by Harvey Nichols.
Off the back of Harvey Nichols’ decision to become a stockist, Grassie hopes to continue to build her brand and consumer base through PR and social media channels. Saying that word of mouth has been “very effective” for Jorie Jewellery, Grassie is appreciative of the company’s growth so far, stating: “I am really grateful that so many people have taken an interest in Deer Tusk Jewellery.”
As many of the brand’s customers are attracted to its offerings due to its “classic look”, Grassie insists she will be sticking to deer tusk jewellery but she has not fully closed the door on other forms of jewellery making.
Grassie hopes to see more jewellers follow in her footsteps and make deer tusk jewellery a more common commodity. With a slogan of offering “quality, creativity and beauty”, her love for this style of jewellery pushes her desire to see more designers give it the attention she feels it deserves in the future.