In a modestly-sized workshop on the side of a green hill in west Wales sits Black Dragon Crafts, a manufacturer which specialises in the creation of Celtic beads and jewellery. The whole operation is now run almost entirely by its founder, Annie Wealleans, who began crafting the historically inspired jewellery back in 1990.
The business was originally established in 1974, but the inspiration for the Celtic beads came about when Annie was playing with a bit of malt loaf bread during a tea break one day. She proposed the idea of creating jewellery with Celtic beads to her staff at the time, and using the malt loaf Annie formed a rough design of what the beads might look like – making a rather humorous origin to what would eventually end up as a her defining product.
They were originally made from recycled plastic, and Annie had them plated with silver by someone who turned out to be a “reprobate”. “It turned out that it was silver paint and not actual silver at all, and would flake off the plastic,” she explains glumly, “It wasn’t until we’d made a few thousand that we realised they weren’t going to be good enough.”
This didn’t put a dent in her resolve though, and Annie found another company to work with in Commercial Road in London. The business specialised in button making, but she made contact with the business owner’s son – referred to as Ray – who offered to start making the beads for her in pewter and plate them with proper silver. He worked with Annie for a number of years, but the day eventually came when he decided that he wanted to retire.
“My little world crumbled,” she explains, “until he offered to sell me all of his equipment and teach me how to do my own casting.” She says it was a “huge leap” into the unknown for her, but she confidently “bit the bullet”, built an extension onto her workshop (lovingly known as her Beadoir), bought some big gloves and went for it. Within six months, all the equipment had been installed, she had been trained and was producing her first beads.
That was almost 10 years ago, and since then Annie has created over a hundred thousand beads, and introduced numerous new designs. She sells these beads to other jewellery makers, but also produces several ranges of Celtic jewellery which customers can buy straight from her.
MANUFACTURING THE BEADS
The manufacturing process starts with a delivery of pewter, currently being purchased from Scotland, which Annie says suits her “perfectly” because it is coming from “another Celtic country”. The pewter is lead free, and Annie stresses that there is no nickel in any of her products either.
It arrives in “shiny”, one kilo sticks which measure about 15 inches long by an inch wide. Annie melts the sticks in her furnace, which sits next to her “antique” centrifugal casting machine. “I melt it between 330 and 370 degrees celsius and the workshop can become quite warm,” she says, “hot metal burn holes in everything.”
“This is why I don’t employ anyone to help me in the Beadoir, and why when I am casting I won’t have anyone else with me. Otherwise it’s too dangerous, health and safety would have a fit,” she says with a laugh.
After this, Annie pours the molten metal into rubber molds, which spin inside her centrifugal casting machine. “When I get them out they’re obviously quite hot. But we have developed a technique to cast them with their holes in already,” she adds, “But they also come with extra little blobs and baubles and flashing. These are all filed off individually by hand.”
It’s a lengthy crafting process, and Annie says that if she turns the casting machine on at 8am, by 10pm she will have cast around 2,500 – 3000 beads. “That’s a long day of casting, and in the evenings I’ll sit down at the kitchen table and file,” she explains, “One batch of a thousand beads could take me three nights to file. You should see my fingernails.”
But despite the labour intensive work needed to create the beads, Annie says her “passion” for making them keeps her motivated. “They are fabulous, and their appeal comes from their weight. They’re heavy and you can feel it. When you are wearing a piece of my jewellery, it is proper metal, and it is big and chunky and you know its on,” she says. “Even though making beads is a hot, dirty, dangerous and dusty process, which involves many hours on my feet and zero romance, I love it,” she exclaims.
CUSTOMER SERVICE IS KEY
Annie says making a connection with people is essential if you’re selling handmade jewellery. “I need them to understand that if I get their order wrong, or if it is not the right colour or its too big or small, I will change it,” she explains earnestly.
Additionally, if a customer has lost an earring, Annie expects them to feel able to come back to her and say: “I have lost an earring, can you make me another one.” “That’s part of the process for me,” she adds.
“All I ever wanted to do when I set up the business was to sustain a lifestyle, I never wanted to be rich, have a hundred employees or a fancy car,” she says: “I am happy with what I have got. I never wanted the responsibility of lots of employees, that’s not where I am coming from. I like hand made things and love the whole process of being the person that made it, filed it, threaded it and sold it.”
Annie also thinks the secret to her success is that her “beads are beautiful”, and goes on to say that the Celtic style is something that seems to be cyclical. “Celtic might go quiet for a while, but it will come back,” she notes. “I also have a rather Victorian work ethic and I’m not afraid of hard work,” says Annie triumphantly, “I will work around the clock if I have to, to keep someone happy or to get an order out on time. I am not a complainer. If there are no orders on the books then I will make sure I do something to get some.”
When asked about the future of the business, Annie says she can’t imagine what is going to happen in five years time. “I don’t think my business is worth much without me. I don’t see how I could pass it on in good faith to anyone else, unless I went with it.”
She says the business is not something she could sell, although she could train somebody and teach them how to do it, Annie says “they still wouldn’t be me.”
Annie adds: “None of us are getting any younger. I can’t just shut the door and walk away – the workshop would always be at the top of the garden, just sixty steps from my front door. It would be a waste just to shut the doors and try to pretend that my whole working life had never existed.
“But I can’t see that happening in a hurry. I don’t want to stop making Celtic beads and jewellery because there is definitely a market for them. And people appreciate them. My beads will live forever, but I won’t. It would be foolish to let it all die, wouldn’t it?”