Jeweller Sarah Gardner On Building A Brand, Managing Motherhood + Battling Blood Cancer

Sarah Gardner is one of Australia’s most successful contemporary jewellery designers, best known for her treasure-inspired gold rings featuring Australian opals and other locally-sourced gemstones. 

She founded her eponymous label in 2011, and became a mother to her daughter Rose, with her partner Damien Coleman, in 2015. 

What most people don’t realise, is that for the last 18 months, Sarah has been living with a myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN)—a rare, incurable, and progressive blood cancer. She was diagnosed in December 2021, and has been sensitively navigating parenthood, running a business, and her ongoing health issues ever since. 

We joined Sarah for a conversation about how she manages these many roles, and how the community can support her and others suffering from MPN.

Amelia Barnes

Sarah Gardner in the studio with with daughter, Rose. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files

Sarah manages her business Sarah Gardner Fine Jewellery alongside being a mother and living with blood cancer. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files

Sarah Gardner Fine Jewellery jewellery is made my five makers across the label’s Sydney showroom or head office, with precious gemstones set by stone setters. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files

Sarah’s pieces are brimming with coloured Australian gemstones reminiscent of buried treasure. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files

Rose assisting Sarah in the studio. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files

Sarah was diagnosed with a myeloproliferative neoplasm in late 2011. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files

‘We told Rose early on that there was something wrong with my blood. We did gently tell her it was blood cancer—I didn’t want her to hear cancer in another context and equate it with dying. It didn’t mean to her what you would think as she had no understanding of ‘cancer,’ says Rose. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files

Sarah works with locally-sourced gemstones wherever possible. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files

Opals are a signature of her jewellery designs. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files

Being with Rose and creating brings Sarah joy. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files

Early morning walks are a must for Sarah. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files

Amelia Barnes
10th of March 2023

If you’re on Instagram, you’ve likely come across Sarah Gardner Fine Jewellery’s account brimming with coloured Australian gemstones on handcrafted gold pieces reminiscent of buried treasure. Think pebble pendants featuring iridescent opals, unconventional engagement rings with irregular-sized stones, and knotted pretzel rings embedded with multicoloured local gemstones.

Sarah’s career spans almost 30 years, including many personal and professional highs and lows. She currently manages her label, alongside being a mother to her seven-year-old daughter Rose, and battling a rare form of blood cancer.

You can support sufferers of myeloproliferative neoplasms by donating to Sarah’s fundraiser to raise awareness and fund further research into MPNs.

Sarah joins us for open and intimate conversation. 

When did you start Sarah Gardner Fine Jewellery and open your Sydney store?

I had always wanted to be a jeweller. Since I was 12 years old, I dreamt of having my own shop with a bench that I could work from.

I started with a short eight-week silversmithing evening class when I was still at school, then I found a master jeweller who took me on for a week of work experience in year 10. After that finished, I stayed on one day a week doing work experience (while still at school), then a couple of years later, I started a four-year apprenticeship while studying through Enmore Design Centre. I stayed and trained for seven years all with the same master jeweller.

After a stint living overseas, I came back and was disgruntled with the creative job opportunities in Sydney. It was a hard time, but the push I needed to realise my lifelong dream of having my own little jewellery shop with my bench as the main star. I opened my first shop in a back street of Paddington in 2011. I had literally no existing customers or following apart from a few private clients I’d stayed in touch with prior to leaving Australia. 

I had a few wobbly years, but I slowly built it up organically, and have been lucky to have stayed inspired and passionate about what I do. I am so grateful to have grown an amazing and loyal client base.

What led to your diagnosis with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPN)?

I had gone from being someone who was super healthy and might go to the doctor every couple of years, to experiencing all these weird symptoms that didn’t seem related. It was at the start of Covid, so I put it down to the stress of running the business and trying to keep everyone employed plus being a mum to a young child. 

After a stint of just not being able to get better from a cold, I ended up in hospital with pneumonia. I had a blood test that came back with a slightly high platelet result and was told to have another blood test in a month when I was over the pneumonia. I did, and my GP phoned me on a Friday afternoon to let me know that my platelets had doubled (not good) and that we would need to investigate. She told me not to Google anything, but I already had while I was still on the phone, and of course read some very scary things! I had the longest weekend of my life which turned into the longest four months of my life while I waited for a diagnosis.

I was diagnosed with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPN for short) just before Christmas 2021. It has been just over a year and I am learning to live with it and the uncertainty. It is sometimes okay and sometimes a very scary place to be, especially being a mum to a young child.

My blood cancer is incurable and progressive, and unlike other cancers, it isn’t staged and there is no way to tell who will progress into myelofibrosis or acute myeloid leukaemia. I had an updated diagnosis when I finally found my MPN specialist, and I sit in a prefibrotic myelofibrosis zone.

I have monthly tests to monitor how things are tracking—my haematologist will be my friend for life. My day to day treatment is a blood thinning medication due to the risk of clotting from high platelets. I am also currently on an immunotherapy drug that I inject fortnightly. It was weekly, but it was making me too sick, so we are trialling a higher dose fortnightly. I sometimes feel like a human guniea pig!

How does having MPN affect you day to day?

My main symptoms range from fatigue, bone pain, dizziness, brain fog, migraines, light sensitivity, red skin, plus nausea and stomach issues from the medication… All the fun things!

There are things I can’t do, but I really try to not dwell on them and I’m hopeful they are not permanent issues. I currently can’t get travel insurance or go to some places due to the risk of getting sick while away and not being near an MPN specialist—of which, there are not very many! I currently can’t drive due to light sensitivity and dizziness, and the fatigue and nausea is often disruptive to life in general. The symptom that is up there as being the worst is the brain fog. I had never been lost for words before; you can think them, but just can’t get them out—so frustrating.

I have found being sick challenging and confronting, particularly as a mother. I have always been a machine and wouldn’t stop. I got so many things done everyday at work and home and it has been one of the hardest parts to try and adjust to the fact I can’t do what I previously did. I had never had a day nap once in my daughter Rose’s life pre-diagnosis, and I really struggle with that fact she is seeing me in bed so often. It is hard accepting the new version of yourself, but I am hopeful of new treatments and that these will be passing moments.

Who have you leant on for support? 

We have been so lucky with family support, and my team have been so amazing and caring. My partner Damien stopped work to help out more. We have felt great support from the community and some close friends, but we are aware of the ongoing nature of what we’re dealing with, and that kind of adds another layer and does feel like a burden to others at times. I think we’ve learned to lean into each other more.

My haematologist told me a while ago that as my disease and treatment is lifelong, people will get bored of it. While that may sound harsh, I definitely think it is true. 

How have you navigated running your business since being diagnosed?

I am so grateful that this has happened now and not five years ago when the business couldn’t have coped without me being there six days a week. My team are one of the biggest supports I have, and I’m so proud of how they’ve all dealt with this, which has made my job of running the business so much easier. I still grapple with the guilt of not being in the studio as much as I have been. I know the guilt doesn’t serve me or anyone else though, and I am working on that!

How did you tell your daughter Rose about your illness?

We told Rose early on that there was something wrong with my blood. We did gently tell her it was blood cancer—I didn’t want her to hear cancer in another context and equate it with dying—but it didn’t mean to her what you would think as she had no understanding of ‘cancer.’

As with my business, my motto is always honesty and respect, so while we’re not going to tell her the scary parts and possibilities, it is also important to me to be truthful with her. To this point, all she needs to know is that there is something wrong with my blood that makes me tired and means I have to take medicine and see Cecily, my ‘blood doctor friend.’

Rose has been involved in helping with my fundraising and knows that we’re going to keep raising awareness and funds until there is a treatment that will be able to put people with MPNs into remission. We’re so close!

It is obviously not what you would want to have to tell your child, but I think we’ve done it in a way that she feels safe and secure. It is also very important to me to instil in her that through our actions we are all capable of creating change, so that has been amazing to see in play.

What are your favourite things to do with Rose?

My favourite thing is to just be with her. She is the best and easiest person to hang out with. Our days always start together; I wake her up after my morning walk and then she gets ready for school. I pick her up most days from school and I might go back to work if I’m feeling okay. She sometimes comes to the studio, otherwise she goes home and hangs out with Damien until I’m back. We always have dinner together and have some time together before bedtime stories. 

What advice would you give someone else experiencing a health issue?

You are your best advocate. Question anything that doesn’t feel right and don’t be afraid to get a second, third, or fourth opinion. Don’t rely on doctors to remember where you’re at (even good ones sometimes forget things)—you need to have ownership over your journey. Finally, do nice things for you! Every time I have a blip I go treat myself to something… Hello, Gucci shoe collection!

What brings you joy, and what are you hopeful for?

Rose and creating brings me joy. I am also very hopeful that there will be a breakthrough for MPN treatment. There is a team of researchers in South Australia that I have been raising money for that are starting clinical trials this year which is very exciting, and whenever I’m feeling down about my future this brings me hope.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Donate to Sarah’s fundraiser to raise awareness and fund further research into MPNs.

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