From her Welsh hillside lair, Annie Weallans (a.k.a the Black Dragon) crafts a range of unique solid pewter beads, pendants, buttons and clasps, each engraved with intricate and original Celtic knot designs. Recently we spoke with her about her passion and profession.
What is your own heritage/ethnic background?
Believe it or not, I was born in Sussex, in the South East of England. My parents had their honeymoon in Tenby, Pembrokeshire back in 1947 and later brought us for some lovely family holidays here in Wales. I got married and moved here in 1974, loved it from the start. We bought a ruin of a cottage and spent the next 10 years making it habitable. The empty field it stood in is now a beautiful mature garden. We started a family, kept chickens and sheep, grew vegetables and a business…and built a dream.
What inspired you to start the business?
Back in the 70’s, you could do almost anything and the world was but an oyster. In 1973 we went to California and I learned the art of leatherwork. We travelled down to Mexico and up to Canada, started a craft shop along the way. What a wonderful adventure! When we came home, I wanted to use my newfound skills and we came to Wales to visit some old friends. We never really left! I made bags and belts, purses and key rings…people loved them. I went to craft fairs and seemed to sell everything I could make. So I started selling to shops and a proper business was born. One day, I was asked to make a bag with stylized badger paw prints and Celtic knots on it…so I did my homework and started to love the Celtic art form. The bag was a masterpiece. I developed a technique to stamp Celtic knots into the leather using zinc plates and a fly press and all of a sudden my leatherwork was original and Celtic. Some say that Celtic knots are Symbols of Eternity…there is certainly something delightful, perfect and complete about them. Perhaps that is why there is so much satisfaction in drawing a knot? We went on another adventure in 1979, Europe in a VW camper this time. We bought some jewellery in Istanbul’s famous market…took it all apart to see how it was made and started making beaded jewellery when we got home. Sadly, at the end of the 80’s, my marriage fell apart. I was left with two young children and a busy business. A customer asked why I didn’t make my beaded jewellery with Celtic beads and when I couldn’t find any, I decided to design some myself. I found someone in England to make the beads for me and launched my first range of Celtic beaded jewellery in 1992. I won a ‘Best new Product’ prize with it! There are now 25+ bead designs and finally, nearly 5 years ago, I started making them myself, here in my own workshops. I cast them in solid lead-free pewter and I love them. They have proved very popular. That they are now 100% Welsh only adds to their magic.
Are these all the same reasons that you keep doing what you do?
I have found a niche and I am very happy in it. I love my beads and people say that it shows. I certainly haven’t seen any better ones! Here in my remote Welsh hillside workshop, we make lovely jewellery with them. We also sell beads on their own to other people who make jewellery. There is a website for both parts of the business.
What are the challenges of your profession?
Is ‘Beadmaker’ a profession? I like to think of myself as a bit of an artisan…which isn’t easy when there is always so much to do. Paperwork and parcels, designs and components, stringing and websites. I have a couple of lovely ladies to help with making the jewellery and recently I have had a sort of apprentice in The Beadoir, I hope she will stay! I made over 70,000 beads last year! There aren’t enough hours in the day but, fortunately, I don’t mind grafting and I work very long hours. My main challenge is getting the public to understand the difference between a product created with heart and soul, sweat and tears…and a product made for money, probably by children (in the dark?) somewhere on the other side of the planet. My beads aren’t just a commodity like coal, rice or paper; they are original, unique and unusual. They are my life. This is ironic, beads have always been used for trade….
What are the rewards?
It is wonderful to receive complements from happy customers and there are many Beaders out there who are inspired by my beads and make some wonderful pieces of jewellery. Our jewellery is gorgeous too, reasonably priced and beautifully packaged. We send it all over the world. My children may have grown up and left home but I am delighted to be able to support myself with my craft AND be able to go on living in this beautiful corner of the world. They say that my workshop has the best views for miles around!
Who is your typical client?
My main customers are shops as I still mainly supply the trade. They are Celtic stores and gift shops in USA and Canada, Ireland and Australia, Scotland and The Netherlands, here in Wales too. However, some of my individual customers have become my friends…they do wonderful things with my beads and we collaborate on projects for magazines and books. In 1990 a little group of us started a community craft co-operative here in West Wales, of which I am still a director. We have recently transformed a dingy old shop into a vibrant gallery, where the work of 34 co-op members is on sale. People come in off the street and are amazed at the wealth of local talent and the beautiful products we all make. This is Celtic Culture, these are tomorrow’s antiques.
Who are your potential clients?
High Streets and shopping malls must compete for trade with online stores…I can sell my work to both. No order is too small and I like to think that everyone gets excellent customer service. Fast and friendly. One day I’m helping Mrs Jones in Carmarthen chose a gift for her sister, the next I’m shipping a 10kg box to Disney in Florida! A fan in Japan has a St. Davids Day “One off” special order and a mail order catalogue in Seattle wants 50 identical necklaces. My customers are all individuals and they are all different. What they share is an interest in Celtic art and history.
How has the Celtic marketplace evolved in recent years?
Western society has become more and more cosmopolitan and multicultural. The Internet is called the ‘information highway’ for good reason…more and more people are interested in their roots and seek a cultural identity. Aren’t we all shaped by our past? A lot of us have a little Welsh or Irish or Scottish blood and love an artifact from the motherland. Especially one, like mine, which doesn’t cost the earth and is of the earth. The tin that makes up 95% of the pewter from which my beads are fashioned, is mined; the gemstones which we use in our jewellery were part of the earth’s crust…natural is good.
In your opinion, are young people interested in Celtic culture?
Yes and no. In this part of the world, the Welsh language is important. Sadly, I never made time to learn it but my children were taught it in school and can speak it well. Although ‘Wenglish’ (because I wasn’t born here) they are proud to be Welsh. Now that they have fledged the nest, I honestly don’t have a lot of contact with young people. I am a rural isolationist and I love my life here on this hillside. I do get letters from keen pupils doing Celtic studies and I have been known to give talks to students in the Art College! I hope that there will always be young people who are interested in Celtic culture…won’t they always want to dance and sing?
Are we doing enough to preserve and promote it?
I’d like to think we are doing the best we can! Celtic Life is one of a growing number of publications, which celebrate Celtic-ness. Which is great! For myself, each new dawn is cause for celebration and whilst I am interested in the myths and magic of Celtic culture, it is the artwork that fascinates me most.
What can we be doing better?
Education and more education. There are still too many people out there who pronounce Celtic with an “s” (like the Scottish football club!) and who still don’t know that the Celts were tribal and from the Iron Age. You keep publishing the articles and I’ll keep making the artifacts.