Founder and artist Ashleigh McCulloch talks about her artisanal jewellery brand.

The Striking Style of Monastery Jewellery


Monastery Jewellery | House and Leisure

Ashleigh McCulloch leads the dream artist's life. She lives between South Africa and Italy doing what she loves - crafting exquisite jewellery. Monastery Jewellery is McCulloch's designer brand; she creates handcrafted pieces that lie somewhere between art and accessory. Monastery Jewellery is sold in upscale galleries and artisanal stores around the world. In South Africa, you can view and purchase McCulloch's work at Haas in Cape Town, or shop it online. We caught up with McCulloch to find out more about Monastary Jewellery and the inspiration behind her work. 

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5 Minutes with Ashleigh McCulloch of Monastery Jewellery

Monastery Jewellery | House and Leisure

Did you always want to be a jeweller? 

I always wanted to make things. I grew up in a very artistic household. When I was younger, I actually really wanted to be a fashion designer – from when I was a small child, I loved dressing up. I did a stint in journalism, where a part of me really wanted to work in conflict zones, but I missed creating with my hands. So I went back to fashion design, but by that point I’d become much more interested in jewellery.

What first drew you to jewellery making?

I have always been really fascinated by the anthropology of jewellery; when it has a story or keeps a secret. People have always worn jewellery to make statements about themselves, and I like the idea of being conscious of that statement. The idea of wearing metal on your body to announce yourself is always interesting. And the process of making and metallurgy, of making a fragile, beautiful object, is often brutal and rough. The contradiction is alluring.

How did you decide on the style of Monastery Jewellery?

I am drawn to jewellery in its most basic and rudimentary form. The casting process is swift and crude. The weight of the metal can be felt. The conversation between the metal and skin can be heard. There is so much influence and thought that has gone into what I do, it’s hard to give a succinct answer.

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What is your earliest visual memory?

Lying on a picnic blanket in my grandparents' garden in Benoni looking at the trees.

What significance does wearing jewellery have to you?

I’ve always been quite awkward. I don’t like to deal with people I don’t know that well; I’m a bit agoraphobic. From when I was a teenager, I found the easiest way to deal with my social anxiety was via what I wore and my appearance. I began wearing solely black with the most outlandish pieces of jewellery I could find. My favourite piece was a Chinese fingernail guard I found in a thrift shop. I wore it all the time until I lost it somewhere. The jewellery I wear is armour against the outside world. It’s beautiful, but can be ferocious.

Why do you work between South Africa and Italy?

I studied in Italy. I feel very drawn to it and there is a large community of jewellers here and that works well for me. Making is far easier for me here than back home for the moment. I do miss South Africa when I’m not there. I also miss Italy when I’m in South Africa!

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What does a typical day in your life look like?

From 9am till 8pm, it’s full of filing, hammering, annealing and music, and sometimes laughing with people like ladies in a sewing circle. I love it!

Do you have special favourites among the works you’ve created for Monastery Jewellery, and do you ever tell anyone that a particular piece of jewellery holds this special status?

I have favourites, especially ones that come to me in dreams. It sounds pretentious, but it’s true. A ring I gave to my grandmother, who wore it until the day she died, stands out to me. It’s nothing particularly amazing, but for obvious reasons, I still wear it and cherish it.

What do you want people to feel when they wear one of your pieces?

Strong and spoken for. A piece of jewellery is the result of the touch between the jeweller and the wearer.

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