Gemma O’Leary of “Inner Island”

Clutching a punnet of Wexford strawberries one fine May morning I pay a visit to the lovely Gemma O’Leary of “Inner Island”. As I pull up to the drive, I am greeted by Wilson and Olive, the pair of pooches that keep Gemma company as she designs and handcrafts the most beautiful pieces of jewellery. It is here in this little pocket of the Sunny South East that Gemma designs and creates pieces to be treasured.

What I wanted to know was how the second youngest of 7 children from a farm in Burnfort becomes a jeweller selling to all corners of the world including France, Japan and the USA. So, we tucked into the strawberries and got chatting…….

As a child Gemma loved to be in her Dads barn. That’s where all the cool stuff was, the tools, the welder, the sparks! It was her happy place, but coming from a traditional Irish home where she was one of 3 girls, she was pushed into the more traditional roles. As she helped in the home with cooking and cleaning, Gemma longed to be in the barn with the boys, getting her hands dirty.

Not really knowing what to do after school Gemma applied for Business Studies in Galway. She describes the 6 months she spent there as “awful”. Knowing it wasn’t for her she dropped out and studied Fashion, Design and Textiles in Cork.

Although Gemma enjoyed the course, she knew she still hadn’t found her passion.

Gemma’s next stop was Edinburgh in Bonnie Scotland where she worked in a vintage clothing shop. It was actually in that very shop she met her now husband, Gary, who hails all the way from Canada. So, when his visa expired, the pair moved to Vancouver.

In Vancouver, Gemma worked as a waitress and a rag picker. Now I knew what a waitress was, having been one myself once upon a time, but I had never heard of a rag picker. As Gemma described it, “Going to a warehouse to pick vintage clothing to sell at a vintage company”, to me it sounded a bit like the dream job. However, the devil is in the detail, because these warehouses were the size of football stadiums. You were one of many trying to find clothes to resell and her co workers were not as niche as her and got paid by the weight of what they found.  If Gemma found a garment in their pile that was vintage, she would have to trapse the warehouse to find something suitable to replace it for them. There was often a language barrier making the job even more difficult, so it is safe to say, she still hadn’t found her passion.

However, one thing was certain, Gemma wanted to do something creative!

As I clicked away with the camera, Gemma told me how, she knew from day 1 that she found her calling when she signed up for a “Make Your Own Ring Course”. Gemma loved working with fire, melting metal. It was dirty work and not at all delicate and brought back fond memories of her Dads barn. It was then she decided she was always meant to be a metal worker – just on a smaller scale!

Just before the recession herself and Gary were on the move again, this time to Dublin, where Gemma studied parttime in the National College of Art and Design. After NCAD, she signed up to a FÁS course that was fulltime. Part of this course involved an apprenticeship with Goldsmith Matte O’Connor. What was meant to be a 2 month apprenticeship turned into a year and a half. Gemma says Matte was “worth their weight in gold” because it was here she learned the practical side of jewellery making.

In her next job with Aliquo, Gemma learned more about the business side of things. In her two years there she gained knowledge on a whole host of the non jewellery making side of things such as packaging and photos and websites.

Her confidence was building, she decided to work parttime and focus on her own brand. Thus, Inner Island was born. The name INNER ISLAND comes from a song by a Swedish artist called El Pedro Del Mar. The song encourages one to be true to yourself, don’t copy, use your own creativity and spread it out to the world.

With the support of her wonderful husband Gary, who Gemma says was great, always encouraging her and behind her every step of the way, she got herself a tiny studio on Dury St in Dublin. Gemma describes it as the Best Street in Ireland.  The way she depicts it makes it sound magical, full of creatives and independent stores and studios.  A place I definitely want to photograph in the future.

As we wind down our little photo shoot Gemma tells me Ireland is a lovely place to do business, but it is all a learning curve. She is the first to admit she was very green in the beginning and took everything to heart. The jeweller thought she had hit the jackpot when Inner Island began being sold in Arnotts and then wept for days when they didn’t renew the contract.

After the initial let-down she brushed herself off, began to learn more and grow her business. Gemma took Inner Island to a big tradeshow called “Showcase” where big name shops attend and buy from you.  It all paid off as eventually, Arnotts reapproached her, along with other independent and international retailers.

There have been so many unexpected opportunities that have come Gemmas way.  Inner Island has even been featured on Nationwide! Gemma was blown away by the exposure and the impact it had particularly on her online business.

And the good times continue to roll. Gary got a job that meant moving out of the big smoke. The move allowed Gemma to expand as the demand for Inner Island grew and grew and continues to do so. She now works from a purpose built studio in Kilkenny.

As I wave goodbye to Gemma and the doggos and start the drive home, I reflect on all we talked about. Gemma’s story though unique to her, speaks volumes to others, especially at this time of year. As the dreaded Leaving Cert and CAO and points hang over the nation’s current 6th years, I hope that reading this little piece shows that there is no one path to success.

Like myself, Gemma tried a whole host of different things before she found the right fit and has been driven by her passion ever since.

If you haven’t yet please check out www.innerisland.ie and discover the beautiful handcrafted jewellery made right here in the Kilkenny Countryside. Gemma’s pieces are made from recycled gold and silver where possible. And all packaging is environmentally conscious and is both recycled and biodegradable.

So, you can treat yourself, shop local and be kind to the planet all at once!