Alex Thiel Didu, who describes her upbringing in the Polish city of Cracow as average, was not particularly interested in art or design as a child. She had decided to follow in her cousin’s footsteps by becoming a fitness instructor after she finished school, but a chance encounter with a neighbour who mentioned a job at the local cake shop resulted in the young student becoming an expert in cake decorations.
“I needed a job to support myself while I was in college. When I went into the shop they showed me how to make marzipan roses. It turned out I was a natural. I was good at making things with my hands. They sold the roses I’d made straight away and gave me a job. I had no real student life, because work started at 7am every day and my classes were in the afternoon. But I was proud of myself and felt very independent.”
After completing her studies Thiel briefly worked as a fitness instructor but then started thinking about jewellery design. “I was good at making the cake decorations, but they were made from marzipan, so we’d sell them and they were gone. I wanted to make something that lasted, so I got a job in a jewellery shop as a salesperson.”
When she was 23, Thiel’s cousin suggested the pair move to Ireland. Thiel’s mother, a university lecturer, had travelled in the UK during college, and she encouraged her daughter to try living abroad. The two young women packed their bags and flew to Cork in April 2008.
Thiel, who only planned to spend a year in Ireland, quickly found a job at a shop selling smoothies and started working to improve her English. Six months after she arrived the Irish economy crashed and shops started to close. “My hours were cut in half, and I had to look for another job, but I got lucky and a customer from the smoothie shop told me the jewellery shop where she worked needed to hire someone. It felt like I was meeting the right people at the right time along my path here.”
Eager to develop her jewellery-making skills, Thiel started looking for workshops and spent days walking the streets of Cork searching for a course she could afford and that fit in with her working hours. One day, after hours of walking in the rain from shop to shop, she came across a large workshop and introduced herself to the owner.
“I told him I was good with my hands but knew nothing about how to actually make jewellery. He told me about courses, but they were full time, and I couldn’t afford them. I showed him pictures of some of my work, and he said, ‘I’ll give you five lessons, and then I’ll tell you whether you’re any good or not.’ He was one of the most generous people I’ve every met.”
This man, who would go on to become Thiel’s artistic mentor, quickly discovered his new student had a talent, and after five classes he agreed to help further develop her skills.
“It felt like a completely new chapter of my life was starting. I knew there were opportunities, but I needed to be smart about it because I was on my own.” She spent two years preparing a portfolio to apply for the National University of Ireland’s diploma course in jewellery and goldsmithing skills, in Kilkenny. She continued working full time at the jewellery shop and in 2011 was offered a place on the goldsmith course, a diploma that only accepts 12 people every two years.
“I spent the next two years just eating, sleeping and making jewellery. I had saved up for it, as I didn’t want to work at the same time. I knew the programme would be intense. But they were the best years of my life, and I discovered a completely new world.”
Once she had secured her diploma Thiel moved back to Cork, where she did two internships before starting her own jewellery business in 2015. “Kilkenny is an amazing city, but there are so many jewellery workshops it’s almost impossible to get noticed. I had an opportunity to go to Dublin, but the cost of living there was way too much from me, and I’d always felt drawn to Cork, so I moved back there.”
Launching a line of jewellery was “a leap of faith”, particularly as she had no business skills. “It was a huge learning curve, and I made good and bad choices. The jewellery world is tricky. There’s huge competition everywhere and so many wonderfully talented people here in Cork. It’s difficult to get noticed.”
She describes herself as a “quirky designer” and says her work, which she sells online and through shops in Cork and Kilkenny, has been described as unusual. “At first I wondered whether that was positive or negative. But, actually, I like unusual. It makes me stand out. I’m not like everyone else.”
Thiel, who is now a member of the Cork Craft & Design collective, particularly likes working on commissions that have sentimental value and says all her pieces have a story behind them. She was recently asked to design a pendant for a woman whose husband had died using his wedding ring, and also designed a necklace for a woman who had suffered two miscarriages.
“She wanted to have two feathers, and I thought it would be nice if they were slightly different, because the two babies were siblings. So I designed the feathers to overlap so it would be like one sibling overlapping another.
“I’m an emotional person and have strong empathy for others. I could feel how hugely painful these experiences were for these women. This wasn’t just another job, it was an important order that I hoped could bring them some solace and comfort.”
A few years ago Thiel met her husband, who is from Sardinia, and the couple are hoping to buy a house soon. “Two weeks after we met I knew he would be my husband, and he claims that the moment he saw me he knew I would be his wife. We’ll be three years married in September and are settled here. Poland and Italy are wonderful for holidays and to visit friends and family, but our lives are in Cork now.”
Alex Thiel Didu will take part in a Meet the Maker online event tomorrow as part of Cork Craft month