A nice bit of sparkle

Rockbourne Jewellery designer Paul McDowell in his Dunedin showroom. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Rockbourne Jewellery designer Paul McDowell in his Dunedin showroom. Photo by Peter McIntosh.

A gracious house on Dunedin's York Pl is said to be home to one of the city's best-kept secrets - a literal treasure trove. Reporter Ellie Constantine knocked on the door to see what the fuss was about.

Heaving with baubles, bangles and beads, Paul McDowell's showroom is enough to make any woman weak at the knees.

The costume jewellery designer says he enjoys seeing people's reaction when they enter the dazzling haven of Rockbourne Jewellery.

"I love it when they walk in and say 'Oh wow'."

Their surprise is matched, to some extent, by his own. He did not always expect it would be this way.

When he opened the showroom in 2008, on the ground floor of his 1906 home, he thought he would be exporting most of his creations.

"I did not think people in Dunedin would buy it," he says.

McDowell's pieces have been widely used in both film and theatre, after 30 years working in Australia for the likes of the Queensland Theatre Company, Queensland Opera Company, and Warner Brothers.

Raised in Dunedin, McDowell first started making jewellery for Plume and got a break across the Tasman when Nom*D designer Margi Robertson wore one of his creations to a fashion show in Perth.

Upon seeing the piece, a woman asked her if McDowell could make a brooch for her.

He did, and she went on to order $1800 worth of product - more than enough to fund a transfer to Sydney.

Originally intending to live in Australia for about six months and sell his wares in a local market, McDowell "ended up getting stuck over there".

Returning home to visit his ill mother, he saw the York Pl home for sale and was compelled to buy it and establish a studio and gallery.

The business has been growing, simply by word of mouth, ever since.

Rockbourne Jewellery pieces bear the words "art to wear", which is borne out by the price tags, which are not over dressed.

"My mentality is basically wholesale prices," McDowell says.

He says he has always tried to make his jewellery affordable and it is paying off, people often choosing to buy something for themselves and as a gift.

A warm and welcoming experience also ensures customers keep coming back, and telling others of their encounters.

"[I] always listen to my customers, especially if they are shopping with friends. They are often only too eager to discuss their ideas and wants, so any gaps in my range can soon be filled."

The range of jewellery includes a wide variety of styles, from heavily laden necklaces featuring dramatic dazzling skulls, to resin brooches and studs, simpler silver chain necklaces, and vintage tiaras.

Jewellery design is always on his mind and he describes the creation process as "like a board game".

"It's almost channelling it, really. It's basically a collage of different components."

McDowell makes many of his own prototypes using imported jewellery components from New York, Germany and Czechoslovakia.

By restricting the amounts of components he buys, and using vintage beads, some up to 60 years old, he is forced to keep developing new styles and pushing his creative boundaries.

"The reason I like making jewellery is that I can fashion it in a really short time."

His history with theatre influences his designs, though he often forces himself to tone it down when it becomes too big or bold.

Vintage pieces, which customers tell him reminds them of their grandmother or aunt, are his favourites.

"I like things to look glamorous. I've always loved women that stand out in a crowd and express themselves through the art of jewellery."



Rockbourne Jewellery is open Tuesday to Friday 10am-5pm, and Saturday 10am-4pm. Phone (03) 474-5511, 298 York Pl.

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