Welcome to 99U’s Wait, What’s That Job? series, where we take a behind-the-scenes glimpse of creative occupations that are unusual, mysterious, or simply fascinating. We’re going beyond small-talk staples and diving into what makes these careers a calling for those pursuing an unexpected path.
Artist, taxidermist, and jeweler Julia deVille has always been fascinated by mortality. As a child, she brought a shark’s head to show-and-tell in kindergarten and would often play dress up with her grandmother’s taxidermy fox-fur stole.
As a former vegan, deVille only uses subjects in her taxidermy that have died of natural causes (usually found via farmers and zoos). She has been prolific in her work from bespoke wedding rings to brooches made from mice or bird wings, and has exhibited in Australia and abroad.
We delve into what it means to be a taxidermist and jeweler, along with Julia deVille’s creative background, process, and the intricacies of a rare practice.
Q. Taxidermy and jewelry design is quite the combination. When did you first combine the two and how has your practice evolved since?
A. I started out studying fashion in New Zealand, and after a year I knew it wasn’t for me. So I moved to Melbourne to study shoe making. A year and a half later, in 2002, I did some short jewelry courses and knew right away it was what I would do for the rest of my life. Around the same time, I found a taxidermy mentor, so it was natural for me to combine the two techniques. The next year, I enrolled in an Advanced Diploma in Engineering, specializing in gold and silversmithing, and I have since worked with other resident taxidermists from museums.
At first, I was making brooches out of small birds and mice, adding diamond eyes and silver tails and so on. Slowly, this evolved into larger sculptural taxidermy works, adorned with jewelry. My latest exhibition featured a diamond-and-pearl-encrusted baby giraffe, a carousel baby zebra, and several lion cubs. Now I’m focusing solely on my jewelry, wedding and engagement rings in particular.
How did you establish an audience and support yourself when you were starting out?
When I was still studying, I was working in a night club, a gallery, and making jewelry that was carried by some retailers on the side. After graduating, I had an exhibition that got a full-page write-up in an Australian newspaper, so that was incredible press. I’ve learned that when you find what excites you, that is when you are going to do your best work and have the best chance of people appreciating what you do. If you start making things just to find an audience, it’s not going to work in the same way.
After studying, I enrolled in a year-long supported business mentoring program in Australia. I slowly dropped my part-time work to focus on my business. When that finished in 2005, there was probably a period of a month or two that was quiet because I wasn’t receiving the funding subsidy, but soon my business was established enough to start paying its own way and I’ve been full-time in it ever since.
What kind of work do you do as a jeweler and taxidermist, day-to-day?
Until recently, I was exhibiting multiple times a year [with taxidermy] as well as running the jewelry business full-time, which took working seven days a week to maintain. Exhibitions are extremely draining emotionally and physically, so I just decided to take an extended break. I should have stopped much sooner. I think if you are getting burned out, take a look at what you do and choose the thing you love the most but is viable. For me, my jewelry provides me a steady income and I enjoy it, it’s appreciated, and it has sustainable hours.
My focus now is my Melbourne showroom and making bespoke rings—for weddings, engagements, mourning, divorce—from precious metal and stones, which is a full-time job. Most of what I do now is custom and bespoke for private clients so this has freed me from the cycle of seasons, collections, and retailers. I’m in the process of moving home to New Zealand and I will fly to Melbourne every few months to keep the showroom and studio running.
Can you describe your work process?
I just sit down and make. I rarely sketch out ideas because my work is three dimensional. A sketch doesn’t give me the information I need and it takes up too much time. I don’t do collections either, I just make new things when I have time—the ideas are always there, but time is often what is lacking.
I hand-make all the rings myself and then my team facilitate the finishing, stone setting, plating and so on. I have two sales assistants running my Melbourne showroom, who host meetings with clients to show them my samples and help them establish what they are looking for. I also have a senior jeweler working for me and a studio assistant who runs errands and keeps the studio and office in operation.
Where do you see your work evolving?
Now it is just fine-tuning and stripping things back. I’ve done so many different things and so much work over the last 20 years, I now know what I like and what works. I don’t see myself doing anything different in the near future, other than aiming to open a showroom in Wellington. That said, if you asked me two years ago if I would stop exhibiting taxidermy and leave Australia, I would have said no, so you never really know what the future holds.