A fine eye for beads

Conondale jewellery maker Renee Blackwell travels the world to collect material to make her designs.
Conondale jewellery maker Renee Blackwell travels the world to collect material to make her designs. Warren Lynam

ENTER the word "beads" into Google these days and the search engine will bring up more than 230 million results from wholesalers to retailers.

Look for beads on the Sunshine Coast and you will find stores at either end and in between, and women inside stringing their own wearable art.

To say beads are a little more accessible than when Renee Blackwell first collected some during a trip to Africa in the 1980s is an understatement.

But the Conondale-based artisan does not mind the population explosion in her once much smaller world.

"Not a bit," she said. secure in her own originality.

"I have, I don't know what I want to call it, this kind of evolving, changing style," she said.

"This is really one of my strengths, not to stay stuck.

"When people say, 'that looks pretty successful,' I'm on to the next thing."

"And I'm very high-end beads. One hundred and fifty stockists around Australia carry my beadwork so it's a very different category of beads."

Renee's eye, imagination, designs and technique for beads and beading has been refined over more than 30 years of collecting, buying and stringing beads.

She became fascinated and began buying them during a trip to Africa as a 21-year-old with a good friend, mentor and adopted aunt.

The beads were a hobby while she earned a living teaching aerobics, selling exercise and dancewear, and marketing her own range of skin care products.

But eventually, the beads took over.

When Renee is not fashioning new creations in a purpose-built studio amid the trees at Conondale, she and her husband Chris are usually found indulging their love of travel while searching for exciting, exotic and just plain different beads.

She and Chris have recently returned from a trip to India and Sri Lanka.

Central America, Morocco and the Ivory Coast are high on her list for further exploration.

Although it sounds a dream existence, Renee warns that it is hard work at times.

"It's fun but it's also hard work," she said. "You're shlucking around the backstreets of India with a backpack and a jeweller's loop.

"And when we're lugging boxes through an airport at three in the morning, where are the people then?" she laughed.

Renee is always on the lookout for something different to use in her jewellery.

Several years ago, she stumbled upon vintage and antique buttons, which added another dimension to her work.

She said there were plenty of interesting stones and beads to be found in Australia, naming chrysoprase, zebra stone, preonite, and a serpentine with stichtite called Atlantisite.

Renee and Chris are originally from the United States and lived in Mexico for five years before moving to Australia.

After moving to an acreage retreat 20 minutes out of Maleny, Renee then discovered Eumundi markets, the equivalent of a national and international display case.

She and Chris have been regular stallholders for the past 12 years, only recently dropping their Wednesday spot to concentrate on Saturdays, and there are visitors who return time and time again specifically to buy her jewellery.

Renee admits there are pieces that she regrets selling over the years, and some that she could never part with: a half a dozen or so settings that she has picked up during her travels, exquisite antique Swarovski crystals set as rings, a couple of pendants made from old Indian pottery shards picked up by her parents during travels in her childhood, and another pendant made from a jewellery loop which dates back three great-grandfathers.

If Renee feels guilty about hanging on to some pieces, she reminds herself that there are plenty out there.

"There are many, many of my customers that have more than I do," she said.

Her dedicated followers appreciate that each piece is different.

Renee describes her style as beautiful but edgy, able to be worn equally well with a T-shirt as formalwear, but that is not the only thing that sets her jewellery apart.

"I know there is part, there is a part of me in every piece I do. There, I said it."

And that will always be mighty hard for any one else to replicate.

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