Martina Hamilton is a jewellery designer, retailer and gallery owner based in Sligo.
Together with a small family team of master goldsmiths she designs and makes contemporary jewellery collections. She owns The Cat and the Moon craft shop in Sligo, which showcases a selection of Ireland’s leading craft makers and designers. She also owns and and curates the Hamilton Gallery in Sligo which hosts monthly solo exhibitions by Ireland’s leading visual artists. Martina Hamilton Jewellery also offers a bespoke commissioning service.
She has enjoyed many prestigious commissions, including the creation of bespoke cuff links for President Barack Obama during the St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington DC in 2016. Martina has won numerous awards for her jewellery collections from DCCOI, Showcase Ireland and IJL (International Jewellery London).
Martina is also an elected member of the Design and Craft Council of Ireland, a member of the Made in Sligo Network, Craftfest, and Yeats Day Committees.
Martina will speak in the LookWest.ie Marquee at SeaFest on Sunday, 02 July at 1pm. See full details of LookWest.ie at SeaFest here.
Martina, can you tell us why you are located in the West of Ireland?
I was born and raised in north Sligo. I now live in a place called Ballygilgan, near Carney village, its where the wild Barnacle geese come to spend their winter months.
Most people know the area as it is beside beautiful Lissadell beach.
When you grow up in such a gorgeous place the real question would be why would you ever want to leave?
I was 21 when I met my husband, writer and founder director of Blue Raincoat Theatre Malcolm Hamilton, we both wanted to live here so we began our careers together here in Sligo.
When did you start your business and what inspired you to do this?
Having grown up on a farm I guess I was always going to work for myself. My parents were both self-sufficient and hardworking people who encouraged us to be self- reliant. Even when I was little I was always drawing, and making things. Art became an abiding passion through my secondary school education in the Ursuline College Sligo and after. When I finished my Degree in Fine Art Sculpture in 1989 I decided to start working in precious metal.
I started to make jewellery at home, then in my first workshop in The Market Yard. The Cat and the Moon shop followed a few years later and I established the Art gallery in No 4 Castle St when I was fortunate enough to purchase the building in 1999.
What were your start-up costs? How did you get the money, and what did you use it for?
The costs were minimal. I needed a work bench, pendant drill and polishing lathe to get started. I worked from a converted bedroom in my parents home for the first year and for a year after that when I got married in the small apartment in which we lived. I was able to avail of some small marketing grants to get to my first trade shows in 1990.
Thankfully customers followed, Kilkenny Design in Nassau St was my earliest customer and I have been selling to them ever since.
Where is your market? How have you targeted international markets?
In the northwest region I’ve managed to build up wonderful customer loyalty for both The Cat and The Moon and my jewellery brand. This has sustained our business through thick and thin. I’ve a strong presence nationwide with key retail outlets like Arnotts, Avoca, Blarney Woollen Mills, Design Yard, House of Ireland, Kilkenny Design, Kilkenny Shop, and The Steensons carrying our collections. We have outlets for our jewellery in the US and the UK as well. We target wholesale customers through attending national and international trade shows.
Our customer base is quality driven. I’m working in a valuable resource – precious metals, and for customers who are buying something that might stay with them a lifetime. So I put a great deal of consideration into my designs. I want to create pieces that are contemporary, alive with elegance and authenticity, but not belonging to any particular trend. I think this is where my sculptural training comes to the fore and why my designs seem to retain a popularity For example I have collections in the shop today that I began making in 1989 and they are still really popular. The designs are story led like I said. They might be inspired by an ancient rock carving or a broken shell but they then emerge from how we work with our chosen materials.
In the last two years with assistance from Sligo LEO we’ve begun to develop a more consistent approach to our online presence as we want our websites to embody what we do in a more precise or targeted way to the customer base we know exists for our work. Carolin Collins at InTandem helped us develop a new website for The Cat and The Moon last year. We also built new websites for Martina Hamilton Jewellery Brand and Hamilton Gallery.
We’re going through an on-line marketing mentoring programme at present with another Sligo firm Bua Marketing which is helping us to focus our message and target it to people all over the world.
How long did it take you to get everything your business off the ground?
I look back at the establishment of the Martina Hamilton Brand as being the most significant step along the way.
I had spent the first 10 years or so trading only as The Cat and The Moon and most customers of the shop didn’t realise we were making the jewellery on the premises.
Eddie Shanahan was providing me with some mentorship at the time and he pushed me to start operating under my own name as a designer. This made me come up with an entire new suite of jewellery collections which enjoyed an immediate response.
From that time onwards we saw steady growth in sales of our jewellery in all the shops that we stocked and increased interest year on year from new outlets. Thankfully the collections continue to evolve alongside new designs.
Last year we launched two completely new collections ”Shore” and “Island Links” which are making a real impact for us. So we’re continuing to attract new customers of all ages to the brand which is a great sign for the future. I think part of this is down to growing public awareness and interest in Irish design.
How do you recruit and retain a talented team?
I’ve been really blessed in this regard. My sister, brother in law and sister in law and my husband are all involved in the business all down through the years.
In addition the staff that have come to me have been wonderfully loyal and creative and inspirational. They carry me along with their enthusiasm every day.
The diversity in the make-up of the business, between designing, retailing and the gallery probably makes it a dynamic place to work in.
How did you learn and acquire the skills you use to make your business successful? How do you continue to grow and learn?
My degree in fine art / sculpture gave me a really solid foundation both as a maker and also as someone who can contextualize my instincts in a grounded way.
I’ve undertaken several skills courses down through the years, but I am most blessed to have a highly skilled team of makers in the workshop who are bringing lifetimes of skills, of learning and expertise to bear on all we do.
I like to think I’ve always been open to new thinking and I’ve always enjoyed undertaking mentoring programmes where I get new perspectives. In that regard I’m learning incrementally all the time.
How do you promote your business?
Within a region like Sligo the thing that promotes you most is your reputation and word of mouth. The last piece you created for someone is your best advertisement, so we’re always aiming to provide the best quality service we can.
But of course we have to do an awful lot of marketing and advertising for all the different aspects of the business as well and we do it across all platforms, digital, printing, broadcast. There is a lot of ground to be covered as we’re really marketing three buisnesses, all of which require very different approaches and thought processes. For example The Cat and The Moon needs high quality retail marketing to suit its Irish designer ethos. The jewellery business is about design and fashion, about ensuring your profile is benefitting the wholesale customers who are your principal clients. The Gallery is a showcase for Irish contemporary art. So in each instance the marketing message and methods have to be different.
The key thing you find at the end of the day though is that any success you might have in terms of marketing will flow from building authentic honest relationships with people. It’s that simple in the end.
How do you continue to grow and learn?
I try and get involved in networks, either setting them up or with ones that already exist. It’s from shared experiences I seem to learn the most. My recent involvement is establishing Yeats Day, and Craftfest took me well outside my comfort zone.
Being a board member of DCCOI at a key time has also focused me on the excellence and international potential for Ireland as a designing nation.
I never really expected to be involved in these kinds of things, but it seemed particularly important over the last 10 years to be involved in making things happen in the region and the country.
I saw lot of people put their shoulder to the wheel when things went dark in 2008 and I wanted to be someone who was doing that as well.
As I say it took me out of my comfort zone but I’ve learned so much from these experiences and been energised and transformed by exposure to some wonderful new friends I’ve made.
If you had it to do over again, what, if anything, would you do differently?
I would approach things with more confidence.
I would like to work shorter hours and stay in bed longer … but would I ?
What do you love most about being your own boss? What are the drawbacks?
For me it’s about having created the team of people I have around me. I love being busy developing ideas with a great team. We have fun most days …. though I did lose this entire profile piece off my computer earlier today which wasn’t much fun at the time …..
The work is demanding but there’s and laughter and friendship about this place everyday. After 26 years in business I’m very proud of that.
The main drawback is finding an off switch. Even when you’re not working your mind is always processing the minutiae of the business.
What should happen in the West of Ireland to encourage further entrepreneurship?
I would love to see more ways where the culture of entrepreneurship could be more open and more readily shared. I believe there is huge potential for the West of Ireland when we all begin to consciously look out for and promote our colleagues and our region.
What are the advantages / disadvantages of living in the West of Ireland?
Sometimes I think we don’t notice the disadvantages, and that ironically is probably a disadvantage.
You’re used to just getting things done when you’re self-employed so you tend to move passed perennial problems around service and infrastructure that affect regional centres like Sligo – which would be unacceptable anywhere else – and just keep going.
The recent call by Sligo Chamber of Commerce to complete the N4 motor way was a case in point for me. I’m so used to driving the road to and from Dublin I’d long since ceased to question why or when it would ever be completed.
The lack of cohesive vision for regional development is more than a bit annoying but you don’t really want to stop and dwell on it. But that’s a small complaint weighed in the balance with what we have here in Sligo.
We just need to make the things happen that we individually can make happen, perhaps the rest will follow.
What do you love about living in Sligo?
I can think of nowhere else that I would rather raise my family than Sligo. I try to see the world through their eyes and I recognise in that, a place where you can grow up safely and richly. I’ve never seen a day my children weren’t happy going to school, weren’t embraced by their community. My girls are very sporty and the voluntary efforts put in by their Gaelic and Soccer coaches is absolutely astonishing. Sligo is a place alive with art, theatre and wonderful music. And it’s a place of breath taking beauty. In a place like Sligo there is complete freedom to achieve in life what you want to achieve, and to enjoy a life amongst lifelong friends and family. That has been my life experience so far and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
To any tourists who come to Sligo my only tip is bring a pair of good hiking boots, or comfortable shoes and a waterproof coat, (a surf board and a guitar optional) Don’t let a passing shower ever spoil your day. My only other advice to visitors is to stay a while, get to know the place and the locals. You will never want to go home.
What advice would you give to anybody thinking about a life in the West of Ireland
Life in the west is what you make it. If you want someone to make your life for you then maybe here isn’t the place.
Thanks for your time Martina and for doing the profile, twice!