Made by hand: Burmester jewellery

Goldsmith Ray Burmester talks about making fine jewellery the old-fashioned way, and the stockpin that has made him world-famous.

Charlotte wearing her NZ-made stockpin at the 2015 World Cup Final (Image: Libby Law)
Charlotte’s stockpin

When dressage superstar Charlotte Durjardin won the 2015 World Dressage Cup Final in Las Vegas, one of the questions on everybody’s lips was ‘where did she get that amazing stockpin?’ Remarkably, the beautiful bespoke pearly pin was created especially for Charlotte by New Zealand master jeweller Ray Burmester.

Ray, who is already known to many Kiwi riders for his coveted bit bangles and bracelets, has released a collection of unique Charlotte Dujardin designs, created by Charlotte and brought to life by Ray. It’s quite an accolade for Ray, who single-handedly produces the pieces out of a workshop at the Waimauku property, north-west of Auckland, he shares with his wife Jane.

Ray’s work speaks for itself, and it is the quality of the finish that caught Charlotte’s eye. In an age where most jewellery is designed using CAD (computer-aided design) software, Ray is unusual in that he still makes every piece by hand, beginning with a sketch on a piece of paper, and personally hand-finishes every piece of jewellery. It’s a much more time-consuming process, but gives Ray great satisfaction. He operates as a one-man band, and intends to keep it that way.

“My jewellery is not mass-produced and everything is very much limited edition,” explains Ray. “I enjoy people being happy with what they buy and they seem to wear it 24 hours a day. They literally never take it off, which is a good thing.”

Ray might be a skilled master craftsman, but he’s definitely not a natural salesperson – he’s quietly spoken and much more comfortable behind his workbench than out front. Luckily, selling comes easily to Ray’s wife Jane, who runs the couple’s successful independent real estate company Burmester Realty. Jane managed the business for 13 years when it was a Century 21 franchise and has owned it for the past five; she’s well-known as an agent in the north-west Auckland district and has also recently branched out into the Waikato. Besides selling real estate and managing the realty business, plus running a team of show jumpers, Jane does all the marketing for RB Jewellery.

Ray and Jane at home in Waimauku

“It’s been a long process with Ray at the trade shows – I’ve had to drag him out from behind. If you get served by Ray it’s a real bonus,” laughs Jane. “But it’s good to have the jeweller on-site.”

Ray and Jane have been together for 30 years and married for 26, so naturally you’d expect Jane to have an impressive jewellery collection of her own. On the day we spoke she was wearing one of Ray’s signature pieces, the stunning gold bit bracelet. However, says Jane, she doesn’t get to keep much. “Ray does look after me and I have whatever I want, but he also tends to take it off me and I don’t see it again – it gets melted down and made into something else!”

Ray began his apprenticeship at the age of 16, with leading New Zealand jeweller Peter Minturn. Creative and good with his hands, Ray went on to specialise in hand-made pieces and creating master patterns, which is the trickiest part of the jewellery-making process.

When Jane broke her back in a riding accident nine years ago and was stuck in bed in a spinal brace, it provided Ray with the impetus to branch out after years of working for jewellery companies in central Auckland. He left his job and set up at home, ‘in a grubby little workshop’. “I was sick of the commute and it was time to do something on my own,” he says.

The popular riding boot pendant

The Burmesters had seen equestrian jewellery in Europe, but knew Ray could do it better. Ray’s first piece was the large bit bracelet, followed by the stirrup pendant and his collection has grown from there. It now includes a large range of stockpins, rings and earrings as well as the perennially popular bangles, bracelets and pendants. Despite its bespoke nature, the range is surprisingly affordable:  for example the beautiful, hand-finished solid sterling silver bit bangle – a best seller – retails for $150. Obviously, there are high-end options available too, in gold with sapphires and diamonds.

So far, RB Jewellery sells mainly to New Zealanders through its website, with tradestands at Horse of the Year, Equidays and Equitana. There is quite a large market in Australia, and with Ray’s forthcoming Charlotte Dujardin collection, the Burmesters anticipate an eager response from Europe.

“We sold a huge amount at Equidays and HOY last year, but then it also flows on, because at HOY we’re always writing on the back of cards for wives to show their husbands,” says Jane. “We had men turning up here right until Christmas Eve grabbing jewellery for their wives, good husbands that they are!”

RB Jewellery sponsors eventing rider Samantha Felton, who originally approached Ray after visiting his tradestand at Horse of the Year. Ray wasn’t really looking to sponsor anybody at the time, but told Sam if she went well, he’d give her the piece she had her heart set on, a riding boot pendant on a chain. Sam sealed the deal by coming first and second in the 2* that weekend and now has a collection of RB Jewellery that she loves to wear. “Sam is great to deal with – she’s really professional and a lovely person,” says Ray.

Ray is also currently working with Kelly, Vicki and Amanda Wilson, who already wear his jewellery, and are designing a horse-shoe ring and pendant of their own in conjunction with him.

Just for fun

Ray and Jane have been based on six hectares in Waimauku for 21 years, and in that time have developed it into an enviable equestrian property. There was nothing in the beginning except a little farm cottage down by the road, which the Burmesters dragged up the hill and built the existing house around. The land is all horse-friendly and fenced in post-and-rail, with a 60m x 40m reinforced turf arena, which they put in 16 years ago. “It was one of the first in New Zealand, based on a European surface,” explains Jane. “It’s 70/30 sand and topsoil mix, with shredded rubber, but then it has a lateral root system and rye upper. It’s quite spongey to ride on and we don’t have problems with the horses’ soundness, or the glare from a sand arena.”

Jane has ridden and competed for much of her life and evented to Advanced level with her mare, Harriet. She later turned to show jumping and produced the Grand Prix horse Absolutely, who placed with Bruce Goodin in the Norwood Gold Cup at HOY.

However, when Jane broke her back in an accident nine years ago, she thought her riding days were over for good. She took up running, which strengthened her back, but blew out a knee, and decided she might start riding again. “I didn’t ride for four or five years and it’s been a very long process to get back into it,” she explains.

Ray initially bought Jane a quiet little hack called Heidi to walk around the farm on, but typically she started to get excited about the thought of competing again. Jane ‘got through the pain barrier’ of her back injury by doing some show hunter competition, but has now built up a small team of extremely well-bred show jumpers, including the recent European import Corpus K who jumped at top level with Bruce Goodin.

During Jane’s forced hiatus from riding, Jane and Ray decided they’d like to invest in a Kiwi rider and bought a horse for Bruce to help him out. Since then, the Burmesters have owned several horses in partnership with Bruce, including Corpus K. Jane describes Bruce and his wife Ulrika as ‘the best horse people – honest and straight.’

“We were over in Europe watching Bruce compete last year when Ulrika said she would love us to take the horse back with us,” says Jane. “Ray and I were a little shocked as Ulrika had been riding him for the past three years and he is her dream horse, but she really wanted him to come to New Zealand!” Corpus K has recently come out of quarantine and although he jumped in 1.45m classes with Ulrika and higher still with Bruce, Jane says he is simply her fun horse. “He’s done the full circle, and now we can enjoy him. There’s no pressure – it’s just another journey that we’ll go on.”

Jane’s other main horse is Ariki Z, an eight-year-old by Lux Z, who she has competed in show jumping and dressage and was bought for her by Ray a couple of years ago. “He was exactly what I didn’t need when I was getting back into riding, a six-year-old 16.2hh green horse, but he’s really cool,” says Jane. She also has Coco Casall, a seven-year-old mare by Casall, plus another home-bred three-year-old by Casall, who is yet to be broken in.

“Ray has been involved with the horses for as long as I have – he’s the back stop,” says Jane. “We’ve been together for 30 years, so poor Ray has been dragged into it. He’s the perfect husband, as he doesn’t ride but loves the horses and always helps.”

The Charlotte connection

Jane and Ray take their collection to Equitana in Australia every year, and it was there that Jane struck up a conversation with dressage legend Carl Hester while queuing for coffee. Afterwards, Carl went to check out their jewellery and spent an hour and a half at the Burmesters’ trade site. Ray and Jane gave him a couple of pieces to take back for Charlotte Dujardin; she loved the jewellery and a fruitful relationship began.

The following year, Charlotte visited Jane and Ray at Equitana and asked if Ray would be interested in making a stockpin she could wear at the shows. She told Ray he had to come and watch her at the World Cup Final in Las Vegas and bring the stockpin with him – the rest, as they say, is history, with the beautiful blingy pin attracting much attention.

When Charlotte last visited New Zealand, she gave Jane a lesson on her horse Ariki, and asked if Ray would make a collection for her. “We wondered why Charlotte would want a Kiwi to do it, as we’re so remote, but she said she sees all the equestrian jewellery at the shows and it’s just not the same as what we do,” says Jane. “Charlotte wants anything she puts her name behind to be quality, but she also didn’t want it to be so expensive that it was out of range – she wanted something that most people can afford to buy.”

Ray in his workshop