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February 22, 2021 —

Love What You Do: Roberta Ashley of Hunt the Pearl

From early childhood, Roberta Ashley appreciated the beauty of the faded and time-worn. Following a corporate career, motherhood meant that the time was right to return to her first passion, in the form of online antiques and vintage emporium, Hunt the Pearl
Sine Fleet - contributingeditor of 91 Magazine
Sine Fleet
91 Magazine contributing editor,
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Hi Roberta! How would you describe Hunt the Pearl, in a nutshell?

Hunt the Pearl is a place for those who see beauty in the weathered and the worn. From faded oil paintings, to crumpled and tatty books; it is an online emporium of rustic, decorative old pieces for homes with character and soul.

Roberta of Hunt the Pearl interview with 91 Magazine

What inspired the idea of setting up your business – how did Hunt the Pearl come to be?

My business comes from a lifelong love for old over new. I’ve been antique hunting since I was a child as my parents have always decorated their home with old finds and it’s something I’ve always loved doing. I had thought for quite a while that it would be great to turn that love into a business, and when I had our son in my late thirties and wanted to be with him with as much as I could, it felt like the right moment to pursue it. I started small, working around him, finding pieces at weekends and styling and photographing them while he slept, packing orders late into the night… It was a juggle but I’ve loved every minute of it.

What did you do before setting up your business?

I started in advertising and then moved into some government work, which led to a 15-year corporate career in people development. I’m a trained coach, and spent many years working with people one-to-one and designing development programmes to help people learn and grow in their careers. I’ve always had creative outlets on the side, as my original career aspirations of being a prop buyer or set designer for theatre and film has never left me. I think Hunt the Pearl is me living that many years later in some ways!

Roberta of Hunt the Pearl - interview with 91 Magazine

Where do you find creative inspiration?

I love photography and independent film and find these a great source of inspiration. We have lots of interiors books and magazines which I’m often flicking through, and of course Instagram and other social platforms can be helpful, although I try to avoid too much of that as I don’t want to be influenced by others with similar businesses to mine. My go-to remedy when I’m stuck is generally to take time out and flick through a book or magazine. I often then see something which sparks my imagination and I can go from there.

How would you describe your style?

Simple, minimalist and rustic, with a touch of faded glamour.

Do you have a design or photography background, or are these self-taught skills?

A couple of years in advertising when I left uni gave me a bit of grounding in both of these, and photography has been a passion for a long time. I was a part time wedding photographer for a number of years, but I’ve never studied – it’s something I would love to do one day.

Roberta of Hunt the Pearl - interview with 91 Magazine

Are there themes that run through your work?

How people used to live is a big theme for me. I studied history at university and I’ve always been drawn to this sense of simpler times when life was slower and things were cherished for a long time.

How did you first discover your love for what you do?

I grew up antique hunting as my parents have always bought old pieces, but I think the moment I realised it was a passion I wanted to pursue someday was the first time I went to an antique fair to buy for my own home. I was completely absorbed by it for hours and just felt really in my element. It was such a lovely feeling.

Which alternative career would you pursue?

I would love to develop as a photographer to the point where that could also be part of my career in its own right, rather than something I do for my business today.

Roberta of Hunt the Pearl - interview with 91 Magazine

Your partner Is an interior architect – as a creative couple in the interiors field, do you find that work and home life blur?

Yes, it’s a complete blur! We both love what we do and find ourselves talking about our work a lot and it’s great to be able to share ideas. He’s been so supportive of me pursuing my dreams as he feels very privileged to do a job that he loves. Our home is also a backdrop for my business, so decisions we make about that become business decisions as well – which blurs the lines even further.

Could you describe a typical working day?

My working days are really varied, which I love. Most days start with some photography in my home studio. I will style and shoot pieces for my website before moving on to create more of the lifestyle shots for social media, etc. In the afternoons I might spend time preparing those pieces for my website, packing orders and organising shipping, or working on content creation. This all changes when there is a fair on – then I am up at 4am and out all day buying!

What are the values behind your business?

This is such an important question to me. Hunt the Pearl came from my belief that decorating our homes with old, weathered pieces, is more than just about the aesthetics; it’s also so important for our soul and our planet. When we choose old over newly mass-produced pieces, we’re bringing their unique character and history into our lives. Our homes become layered with stories of how people lived in the past and we’re reminded of simpler times when things were made to last. Living in a unique space like this brings me a lot of joy, and as an eternal romantic, fires my imagination and nurtures my soul.

I also passionately believe that choosing old over new is another way in which we can help to protect our planet. Sustainability and minimising our environmental impact are at the heart of my business. Pretty much all of the packaging materials I use are from sustainable sources and are fully recyclable or biodegradable, and I’m always looking for ways to do more in this area as it’s just so important for all of us.

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What has been the greatest hurdle in starting your own business?

Time has been a big challenge, combining running a business with pretty much full-time motherhood has been hard work, but it’s getting easier now my son is getting older.

How do you curate pieces for Hunt the Pearl?

My curation process is led by my own taste but edited for the Hunt the Pearl look and feel that I’ve developed. I come across so many beautiful things, but I have a real sense now of what is and isn’t ‘Hunt The Pearl’, and always buy with that in mind. This then feeds into how I curate this for my website and social media.

Do you travel widely to source your pieces?

I started out buying in France, but it was hard to juggle with family life so I tend to focus on the fairs in London and the south of England now – although I have been known to drive for hours, in the pouring rain to get to a market further afield.

Do you have a shop or studio space?

We’ve created a studio space in our house for my business, which I absolutely love. Strangely, this part of our house was once an antique shop, so it’s kind of come full circle!

Roberta of Hunt the Pearl - interview with 91 Magazine

And can you tell me a little about your business’s location and community?

My business is run from our home, a 600-year-old house in a village in Kent. This and the surrounding countryside definitely influence my business. Its community is ultimately global though, given I sell online and platforms like Instagram have helped me to connect with so many like-minded souls around the world who love old and worn as much as I do, and that has been very special.

Has your work evolved since you began?

Oh definitely. The look and feel of my business has evolved as I’ve learnt how to build a visual identity and consciously develop this. My taste evolves with time as well, so the pieces I buy change with that.

Is there an element of your work that you love the most?

I absolutely love the buying side of what I do – hunting out something that I think is beautiful and that I think others will love is just such a buzz. The photography work comes a close second though!

How valuable is the online community to your work?

It’s totally invaluable to me. My business is completely online and I’m so grateful for the online communities that exist across the globe today, as my business would not be here without them. Social media has opened up my world in so many ways and given me a platform to pursue something I love, which has been amazing.

Roberta of Hunt the Pearl - interview with 91 Magazine

What’s been the biggest eye-opener for you in running your business?

How long it takes to pack an order for shipping! I never appreciated how much is involved in wrapping each piece, having the right materials and so on. It can take a whole day to do a few orders sometimes. It has given me a new-found respect for all online business owners.

How do you differentiate yourself in a creative industry?

I focus on my own taste and only buy pieces which I love and would have in my own home. I feel like my ‘eye’ is the truly unique element and I try not to look at what others are doing, so that I can be true to this. I’ve also tried to build a look and feel which I hope is easily recognisable as Hunt the Pearl, and this helps to differentiate it from similar businesses out there.

Do you enjoy working as an independent – what are the joys, and what are the challenges?

Yes – I’m an introvert at heart, so I love nothing more than hiding away in my little studio, music or podcast on, and working on my own. I do miss having someone directly involved in what I’m doing to bounce ideas around with, but my partner has been amazing for this and there is a lovely community of similar business owners on social media platforms who I chat with regularly, which has been great.

How do you approach marketing and PR?

I don’t know if I’d say I’ve had a particular approach so far, it’s something I need to develop going forward. I’m lucky that I’ve had some wonderful opportunities come my way and I’ve built up a bit of a network through social media, but I do need to be more deliberate around this as my business continues to grow.

Roberta of Hunt the Pearl - interview with 91 Magazine

What have been your business highlights so far?

Being featured in magazines and publications that I’ve loved and read for many years have been lovely, ‘pinch me’ moments.

What’s one thing people would be surprised you do in your job?

Regular visits to a local business park to buy all of my packing materials; it’s amazing how many cardboard boxes and bags of packing peanuts you can fit into an estate car with a small child in their car seat in the back!

Do you have any creative pastimes or hobbies?

Photography has been my constant creative pastime for many years, and I love visiting galleries when I can and the world allows again.

What is the most important lesson that running your business has taught you about life?

Follow your dreams – sounds corny, but it’s true.

Any good advice for independent creative businesses who are just starting out?

Think about why you’re doing what you’re doing – what’s your philosophy and values – and let this be your guide. Create a business from them that shows people what you stand for, rather than just sharing beautiful but independent pieces.

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What does the next year hold for you?

Continuing to grow Hunt the Pearl is a big focus and I also have some exciting projects in the pipeline for 2021. A couple focus more on photography, which I cannot wait to get started with, and I’m also developing a programme for other creative small business owners to share what I’ve learnt about styling and brand photography on my journey so far. It brings together my old world of people development with my new world, and I’m very excited about it. It should be launching in early spring so watch this space.

Quickfire questions

Books I love: The Stuff of Life – Hilary Robertson, The Foraged Home – Joanna Maclennan, Perfect Imperfect – Karen McCartney

Creative Heroes: Australian stylist Lynda Gardener, photography collaboration Albarran Cabrera, photographer Saul Leiter, and Degas

Shops I love: Any antiques shop or market, but a few favourites are A.G Hendy & Co Homestore, Butlers Emporium in Hastings, and Les Couilles du Chien in London

Inspirational places: Sunbury Antiques Market at Kempton, The Photographers’ Gallery in London, and the mountains of Italy

Instagrammers I love: @blackshorestyle @albertandgrace @_gabrielflores

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@hunt_the_pearl

www.huntthepearl.com

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