Yellow gold may be her favourite, but now silver is also a very precious metal to jeweller Leah Straughair.
The Melbourne Polytechnic graduate won a silver medal at the Worldskills Australia National Championships in Sydney on June 2 to 4.
The competition pitted the 23-year-old against the best from around the country, all tasked with producing a piece of jewellery from the same design brief within a time limit.
“It was a paper with a drawing on it and I had to replicate that drawing into metal,” was how Leah described the challenge.
She created an 18-carat yellow gold pendant featuring detailed scrollwork, a gallery and settings, effectively turning that picture into a beautiful piece of wearable art.
And along with the impressive technical skills required, the contest demanded nerves of steel over its three-day duration in Sydney’s enormous International Convention Centre.
“There was a lot of pressure, it was a really full-on experience, especially on the last day when 8000 schoolchildren were walking around and watching us,” Leah said.
A win at the regional level of the Worldskills competition last year set Leah on the path to her Nationals success, much like the Certificate III in Jewellery Manufacture (apprenticeship) got her started in a career as a jeweller.
Love for the Arts
Leah found a love for art and design through a Visual Arts course in which she tried painting, drawing, photography and particularly enjoyed sculpture. She was also enjoying working at Prouds The Jewellers so she “decided to give it a go” with the Jewellery Manufacture course at Melbourne Polytechnic.
Her flair with precious metals also saw her score a win in the 2017 JAA Australasian Jewellery Awards, taking out the inaugural $10,000 Career and Education Award donated by an anonymous benefactor to help students and apprentices fund further studies.
Leah has put it towards a Practical Diamond Grading course run by the Gemmological Association of Australia, as she sees herself on a path of lifelong learning and wants her future self to “have a lot of different skills in the trade”.
And she’s still learning on the job in her position as a fourth-year apprentice jeweller at MDT Design in Swanston St.
“I just make things – wedding bands, pendants, I do repairs,” she said of her day to day tasks. “I’m starting to learn to make engagement rings, from drawings and measurements on paper” – just like the brief for the Worldskills competition.
Award Winning Students
Melbourne Polytechnic apprentice coordinator / teacher Stephen Keogh said Leah’s win was the latest in a run of gold, silver and bronze medal successes for jewellery students at the Worldskills challenge.
“It’s a competition that we push really strongly because it’s a life changer,” he said. “It’s a really good experience for them, it broadens their horizons.
“For someone that’s really skilful the way to become better is to challenge themselves and have difficult projects to do. It improves them as a tradesperson.”
More Than Just Theory
Stephen said students come from all around Australia to study Jewellery at Melbourne Polytechnic, with a choice of courses and the apprenticeship stream.
The course is “very practical based, really hands-on, there is not a lot of theory, it’s the old-fashioned practice of traditional skills”.
Because those skills are back?
“Well they never went away for us,” said the teacher of 17 years. “There are new technologies but basically our course is the old-fashioned hand-made skills.”
So what’s Leah’s hot tip for cool jewels right now? She was hard-pressed to decide on a personal favourite to wear herself, though she loves yellow gold. Her latest passion is 'Mokume Gane'.
“It’s a traditional Japanese craft used for sword handles, different metals are put together and fused to make a woodgrain kind of look,” she explained.
“I love it with white gold and yellow gold together.”
If you have a passion for gold or a penchant for diamonds, find out more about Melbourne Polytechnic's jewellery courses..