Meet The Makers: Mitko, Our Diamond Setter
We interviewed one of our talented diamond setters, Mitko, in his studio in the heart of London’s jewellery district, Hatton Garden. From a young age in communist Bulgaria, Mitko’s talent for craftsmanship was fostered through creating miniature planes and boats in his spare time. His interest in technical work led him into the jewellery industry, moving to London in 2003 to eventually start his own business. We delve into his journey, looking at how his experiences led him to where he is today!
How did you get started in the jewellery industry?
My journey began when I was a teenager, in Plovdiv, communist Bulgaria– I was maybe 13 years old. I joined an after-school crafts club, run by members of the community. We would create airplanes and ships from scratch, using pieces of wood, little engines with petrol and controllers! At the end of the year, we would go and race our devices! I developed a talent for the crafts, which was pivotal for me.
When I was 14 years old, I began to take less interest in the after-school activities–it was more interesting to go out for coffee after school with the girls. I didn’t continue with the club for a few years. However, there happened to be a program offered at school, an organisation where jewellers and watchmakers sponsored the best students and offered them apprenticeships. It was a great way for people to train in crafts and a way for companies to train students for various roles in the working world.
In my last year of school, an Armenian jeweller came to my school looking for an apprentice. My teacher organised a meeting for me with them. I didn’t have a plan for after I graduated, so I thought, why not? I took the opportunity, and that’s how I begun in the jewellery business.
How did you find your first job?
They put me on a trial for a week, introducing me to the workshop to see how I adjusted to the work and to assess my mentality. I learnt how to recognise different metals, such as gold and brass. I learnt how to clean the jewellery with different chemicals and I learnt how to solder.
In the first week, I sat down with the owner on the bench. He told me to observe the others working and not to worry about making mistakes. He showed me a box with a few rings inside. He said, “don’t worry if you destroy something, it’s fine, it’s only brass.” He showed me how to buff, how to drill a little bit and how to make little shapes. A few months later, after I had become more confident, I learnt that the rings weren’t made out of brass, but of real gold!
In the first couple of years I learnt how to mount, how to solder, how to cast and assemble all the mounting work. In the third year I learnt about setting. After that, you can decide what you enjoy most, and what you would like to specialise in. Setting stones was always the most interesting for me, so I went to a workshop that specialises in setting.
How old were you when you started at the apprenticeship?
Sixteen years old.
How long was the apprenticeship?
It lasted three years.
How did you get to the point where you decided to start your own business?
Starting my own business came much later. After my apprenticeship, I moved to another workshop and then I worked for a big jewellery brand called Sara trait. I was there for three years. While I was there, I completely changed their production method, and improved the quality of their pieces. I became a senior of the workshop there, and trained a lot of other jewellers working for the company. Right now, I can confidently say there are excellent setters working for that company!
After three years at Sara Trait, I decided I wanted a new challenge, to do something different. I thought about coming to the UK to check out the jewellery scene here. I wanted to understand more about British craftsmanship so I came to London in 2003. Initially, I only wanted to come for a year. Now it’s 2020 and I’ve been here for 17 years.
It was difficult when I first arrived in the UK–I only knew a little bit of English I had a friend who was a jeweller here and my brother-in-law was here too, working as a builder. I began working with him, digging basements and holes in the dark! I stayed there for two and half months, but managed to eventually change my job from building to making jewellery.
I found a workshop in Hatton Garden that specialised in setting, and I was there for nine years. While I was there, I thought about starting my own business. I had realised that not many craftsmen really knew how to do everything well, often just specialising in one aspect of jewellery making. Over time, I grew confident that I could start my own business. After three years, my wife moved over to the UK, and we had a daughter in 2010. That was when I finally decided to take the plunge!
How many years have you had the business?
For seven years. I began the business in 2013, I started in a tiny room!
How many people work in your workshop?
At the moment we are five in total, including me and my wife, two setters and one mounter. We always toy with the idea of having a bigger workshop with more workers, as we tend to take more work than we can do. However, it’s extremely difficult to find excellent craftsmen!
Do you enjoy running your own business?
Yeah! I never realised how far we can go. I couldn’t have even imagined it, but I’m pleased with the results. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of hours–so much more than when I was an employee myself. At times, my wife wanted me to give up the business and work for someone because I was always home so late. I have two daughters, so it was difficult to balance everything!
Also, when I began I didn’t know if I would always have customers. I thought, what if there’s nothing to do? Luckily, I was never in that situation. People knew about me because of my previous work in Hatton Garden. So when they heard that I was working for myself, they found me. I have never had to pay for any advertisement and the business just gets busier.
What does your typical day look like?
Well, I tend to dabble in everything. I work mainly as a setter, and check on what everybody else is doing. Every piece that’s coming out of the workshop goes through me. Sometimes my clients will call me, and I spend some time on the phone, or they will come into the workshop to drop things off. It’s very busy, sometimes I will have two or three customers waiting inside the workshop. It’s stressful too, but when you do what you love it’s totally worth it.
What is your favourite piece that you would like to work on?
I would like to make some antique pieces, maybe a brooch. Brooches are unusual. The person who wears a brooch is an unusual customer, and that makes my job more interesting. I have also made some amazing pieces for some famous clients, and the red carpet.
What’s the biggest stone you’ve ever set?
A ten carat princess cut diamond. That was my biggest diamond. For a coloured gemstone, it was a 52 carat tanzanite. It was a pale blue and huge! It took me half of a whole day to set the stone. It had a huge claw, about four millimetres thick.
What is your favourite aspect about your work?
When I’m on the bench and setting gemstones, I really enjoy that.
What is another designer or style that you admire?
We love jewellery theatre, founded in Moscow by Maxim Voznesensky. The works are pieces of art. They are not vocational, they play with colours, shapes, it’s not typical. It’s more unusual, experimental and niche.
What is your favourite gemstone to work with?
My favourite gemstone to work with are diamonds. I don’t really have a preference about shape. I would love to just make jewellery for pleasure for one day, to experiment with different gemstones and cuts. I look forward to the time when my workshop will be big enough that I can just be creative for one day.