Peter Coombs Eyewear
Bachelor of Metalsmithing and Jewellery
President Design Institute of Australia | SA/NT
(also National Councillor / Director DIA)
International jewellery designer and UniSA alumnus, Peter Coombs, has been designing rare, if not one-off designs, since he completed his degree in 1986. His renowned handcrafted ‘jewellery for the face’ is widely celebrated with many happy customers including Sir Elton John, who has purchased numerous pairs over the years.
Recently, Peter generously donated a pair of his limited edition ‘4 O’Clock Champagne’ sunglasses to UniSA’s 25th Birthday Gala Dinner, which is included as one of the prizes in the Raffle.
We caught up with Peter to learn more about his unique and fabulous brand, Peter Coombs Eyewear, why he continues to call Adelaide home even though his sells more designs internationally, and his fundamental advice for new designers, including his philosophy - Show Up, Speak Up, Follow Up.
Why have you chosen to base yourself in Adelaide considering your significant global market?
Over the years I have been fortunate that my work has taken me to many interesting places which I’ve appreciated, however Adelaide has always been a great place to work. In the beginning a lot – maybe 70% - of my work went overseas. Over the years more and more is domestic. Being based in Adelaide has led to some outstanding commissions including the Lord Mayoral Medallion and Penfolds’ VIP Tasting Suite. Another proud moment was when a piece of my jewellery - based upon the City of Adelaide - flew five million kilometres around Earth on the Space Shuttle with Andy Thomas and was then presented back to the City.
Adelaide has never really thrown up limitations in creating. I have a good workspace and know a lot of people who I call on when the need arises. Most of my sales are not in Adelaide, but everywhere else is a plane ride away. The quality of designers and creative folk in Adelaide has always been really high – fashion, music, all aspects of design and the creative arts. We’ve always had quality educational institutions and mentoring options, including the JamFactory staff.
You have become an established and renowned international designer. Please describe your journey from UniSA to where you are now:
My final year (1986) at Underdale campus was a year of hard work. I remember arriving at the studio around 7am most days and remaining until 9pm most nights. First up, I would make a pot of Russian Caravan tea (I still do) and get stuck right in. This time was a gift, with access to a substantial machine workshops, studio facilities and the opportunity to continue to develop, to stretch my ideas and skills throughout the year culminating in a great final exhibition.
Throughout the summer I worked in my own studio and taught sailing, hopping on a plane to Los Angeles in February 1987.
The idea was simple and perhaps naïve, but within a couple of weeks the centrepiece from the Graduation Exhibition was in the hands of Sir Elton John, with thanks to l.a.Eyeworks. Thankfully, more pieces followed. This was an era before fax machines, the internet and email, so the only option was Show Up, Speak Up, Follow Up. This is a philosophy I still adhere to.
Apart from the technical skills acquired, how did your time at UniSA prepare you for the future?
At that time it was a full week, I think about 34 contact hours a week. Also three full days were spent in studio / at the work bench, along with drawing, rendering and photography.
The philosophy was by having a clear understanding of processes you could then further develop or research said process and be proficient on talking with others who you might subcontract with. For example, we studied casting and whether or not you carried out your own casting, you knew how to create cast masters, make moulds and prepare for casting. We were taught of the pitfalls as well as the possibilities.
When I was studying, the design metalsmithing and jewellery education was quite broad. I’ve always considered it similar to how musicians learn. They need to know all the scales and many, many standards. This knowledge gives you the skills to create your very own ideas. We were made to push materials to breaking point and from these test pieces you came to know the possibility of the materials, what might be too thin or too heavy. It’s an intimate knowledge.
To achieve this level of success must have taken a lot of hard and determined work. Were there any bumps in the road?
Throughout my career there have been a few hiccups, however thinking back over thirty years they all seem minimal. A supplier has failed to come through, the quality of finish was substandard, and I’ve had to start again after spending 20 plus hours. In every case there has been a scramble, sleepless nights and juggling until completion. I’ve tried to learn from each experience so as not to repeat them.
I was fortunate to learn my craft in a pre-digital age and know how to do most things manually. When all else fails I go old-school and work by hand. This is also the case when there is a ridiculously short time-line. This sort of work requires a high degree of concentration and calm.
What is your advice for other designers starting out with their own collections?
The most important thing you can do is to find your own voice and your own style. I’ve always loved strong bold lines and never wanted for the fussy; this has led to my own specific style. I now know a lot about designing and making eyewear, when I began I did not, but I am still proud of the first frame I made more than thirty years ago. If I were to design and make it today, the construction would be refined to a higher degree. This frame is not perfect, but led me to where I am today. My advice to anyone starting out is to begin. Miles Davis said his band would always walk into the music; they would start off shaky but soon got into the groove and no one remembered the shaky start.
Also, when developing a new product don’t be blinded for the sexy new technologies. These are excellent and may very well form a large part of your project. However there may be a process or technique that was prevalent in the previous century that will offer a better outcome. This is especially relevant in a time when there are many idle machines and potentially lost knowledge due to the shutdown of traditional production such as you might find in the car industry. Your first idea may not be perfect but you will learn from the exercise and the next design will have more insight. Make something you love and then share it with the world. You are the expert about your idea, product or process. The market wants to hear from you. Show Up, Speak Up, Follow Up.