Seeing that hill every day inspires the jeweller, but its gentle curve isn’t echoed anywhere in his work. Pick up an Ash Hilton ring, rather, and you’ll find a handful of blackened lines depicting a lancewood or a clump of nikau trees, etched sparingly in an expanse of steel.
The tree image is pulled directly from Ash’s upbringing in Karamea at the top of the West Coast, where bush clad hills rise steeply on one side of the highway and, on the other, a handful of nikau lead the eye to the roiling Tasman.
“I have that image etched in my mind,” he says, “of looking out to the horizon line, with a few trees sticking out of the paddocks in the foreground.”
Ash ‘fell into’ jewellery making about seven years ago, when he returned to New Zealand after spending several years cooking on super yachts in the Mediterranean. “I was the classic burned-out chef trying to find a job where I didn’t have to stay up until 2am.”
He took a weekend course at the local polytech to learn to make a paua shell ring and was hooked. “I’d always enjoyed pottering around making things.”
New Zealand – and particularly the West Coast – inspires his work in ways other than his choice of imagery. He illustrates what he means by describing the sensation of returning home after working in Europe.
“I landed back in New Zealand, took a deep breath, smelt the cut grass and it was like a weight lifted off me.
Growing up on the West Coast amplified that. “Karamea is a place people go so they can do what they want to do. I think there’s a really individual spirit to the place.”
There’s a freedom here to do what you want, your way. I’m not a trained jeweller and that’s accepted here. The value is in what I do, rather than in what I’ve learned.
There’s also a more direct connection to the Coast in the ‘beach gold’ Ash uses, sourced from a one-man alluvial mining operation at Charleston. “This is really low impact, just a little pond on the beach that disappears when the tide comes in.”
However, most of us buy jewellery not out of ethical considerations, but because we like it.
“These designs have struck a chord with people,” he says. “There’s lots of New Zealand-flavoured jewellery out there, but mine is not as in your face as some of that stuff. It’s not a big silver fern; it’s just a hint. And I think New Zealanders are like that – they love their country and they want to take a bit of it with them, but they’re understated.”
Reported by Matt Philp for our AA Directions Autumn 2021 issue