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The Jewel of Orkney

Neil J. Ridley talks to Scottish jewellery designer Maeve Gilles about the inspiration behind Highland Park's 50 Year Old
By Neil Ridley
Beauty is indeed truly in the eye of the beholder and recently, this classic old adage has perhaps never been more relevant within the design and packaging concepts of the global super premium whisky market. In the past few years, several releases have set to challenge the artistic and aesthetic perceptions of the high end whisky drinker, as well as their palates, such as Macallan’s association with Lalique Crystal and, more specifically, their 64 Years Old release, housed within a unique crystal decanter, made using the ancient ‘cire perdue’ or ‘lost wax’ method. But the interest in unique bottle designs has been taken to an altogether more creative level by Highland Park. It has been working closely with Scottish born, multi-award winning jewellery designer Maeve Gillies on the housing for its very own gem, the oldest release in the distillery’s portfolio, Highland Park 50 Years Old.

After graduating with a degree in Jewellery and Goldsmithing from the Edinburgh College of Art, Maeve found her niche in the design of engagement and bridal jewellery and co-founded MaeVona in New York City, which specialises in Celtic-inspired jewellery designs. So just how did the association with Highland Park come about?

“I’m actually a global ambassador for Scotland,” explains Maeve as we meet up before the official launch of the whisky at London’s flagship Harrod’s shop in Knightsbridge. “All my products have a Scottish theme. I happened to be doing a talk at an event some time ago, which Ken Grier (Edrington’s director of malts) was at. We discussed doing something special together. The 50 Years Old came up and I thought it was a great place for me to do what I do best, which is to create really high quality limited edition designs. I’ve being going to Orkney since I was a child so it was great to work the design around the island.”

So are you also a keen whisky drinker? “Absolutely!” she laughs “My father was a friend of Pip Hills (founder of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society) so I’ve always been around whisky. In fact it’s probably used more frequently than water in my house! In my shop in New York we also organise whisky tastings for some clients and Highland Park has been a particular favourite, especially the 18 Years Old.”

With Orkney having such a huge Celtic heritage, I imagine that was the starting point for your design of the bottle. How much did it influence your initial drafts?

“There’s a huge amount of inspiration from Orkney and especially its elemental forces. It was great to visit the distillery and work with the team there,” explains Maeve “Highland Park is so important to the locals and to capture a sense of the Island and something distinctly Orcadian was really essential.

“The concept around the design was a nautical/marine theme, I wanted to make something that looked like it had been washed up on the beach after 50 years. The whisky is like a jewel inside the bottle, so for me as a jeweller, it was like setting a diamond into a ring, like the bottle has grown around the whisky.”

One’s first impression of the bottle is actually an inspiring experience, in so much that despite its intricate design, the beating heart of the bottle comes from its beautifully simple choice of materials.

The outer casing, “designed to resemble a net” Maeve points out, is hand crafted from solid sterling silver and the particularly tactile carved wooden box, gives the whole package a distinctly timeless appeal. But at the real heart of the bottle lies a centre-piece inscribed with the Highland Park logo. I ask Maeve what the thinking behind the choice of material used.

Hopefully people won’t be locking this away, as each piece is very personal and dear to my heart


“It’s actually made from Orcadian sandstone, which comes from the very same quarry the 12th century St Magnus Cathedral was built
from, so it adds to the resonance of the island.

“There’s a stone mason who works at the cathedral and he showed me a stretch of beach where you can find worn pieces of the sandstone, it’s really striking to see this bright reddish colour standing out from the beach and it’s such a hugely important part of the island’s landscape so it was great to incorporate it into the design.”

And how long did the process take for the design to come together?

“About two years in all. Each of the 275 is totally hand made by a craftsman.

“After I’d visited the island, I sketched out the initial design immediately, which has only happened a few times in my life!” she laughs.
So the design came from your heart and your initial impressions of Orkney?

“Absolutely” Maeve explains, “sometimes you’ll base your original designs on something you ‘think’ it should look like and this happened almost straight away.”

For those lucky enough to afford a bottle of the whisky (which costs around £10,000) there is a further treat to enjoy, should they decide to open it and drink it, something which Maeve hopes will happen.

“On the back of the sandstone amulette inside the bottle, there’s a sterling silver replica of the St Magnus cathedral rose window, which you can only really see when the whisky has been drunk. Hopefully people won’t be locking this away, as each piece is very personal and dear to my heart, so I hope they’re enjoyed for a lifetime and beyond.”