This Christmas a girl's best friends are not diamonds but old plastic bottles and papier mache, says Tamsin Blanchard
T he jewels you see here may not be the sort of thing that would be stolen from a duchess's bag at an airport; they are all made from what most of us would consider worthless rubbish. However, one person's rubbish is another person's gold, and a whole host of jewellery designers are proving the point with gems made from waste materials, scrap paper, broken glass and penny sweets.

Recycling rubbish has focused attention on the possibilities of waste. Bottles thrown out with everyday garbage do not fire the creative juices. But stacked up together, plastic and glass bottles suddenly look like a valuable resource. Brigitte Turba, a German artist based in Ireland, makes unusually fine jewellery out of plastic Ballygowan water bottles. She cuts out flowers and mounts them on bands of plastic for rings, or threads them together with clear fishing line to make necklaces that look as if they are from another planet. Looking at the finished pieces, it is difficult to make the connection with the raw material. The plastic is treated with heat until it turns a milky white colour and so that the petals curl at the ends. The only clue is the sheer weightlessness of the pieces; Ballygowan water bottles have never looked so other-worldly.

Turba works with everyday materials. If it's the right colour and texture, she will use it, even toothbrush handles, which she heats and forms into bands for rings. Her jewellery is sold alongside some of the best of contemporary jewellery at Electrum gallery on London's South Molton Street. Barbara Cartledge, director of Electrum, liked Turba's work the minute she saw it. She is no stranger to jewellery made from recycled materials and points out that much of the gold and silver we wear today has been recycled. Turba's work shows that junk can be made into something durable, elegant and refined. "I like the feeling of usefulness in Brigitte's work. Making something out of nothing appeals to me," says Ms Cartledge.

Designers such as Turba are liberated when using inexpensive raw materials. They are free to experiment without the fear of wasting precious metals or stones. Using inexpensive or recycled materials has a long history. The Anglo-Saxons used paste, and the Romans wore beads made of glass. Today, Haitians make jewellery out of tin cans, while in South Africa, ostrich egg shells are used. The need for adornment runs deeper than the need for gold, silver, diamonds and pearls.

Gina Cowen's necklaces are made of pebbles and glass found on beaches, from the Black Isle in Scotland to Cape Town, where the colours are aquamarine and pale white. Cowen's cold, smooth pieces of glass and stone are carefully hand-drilled and threaded together, often themed by colour. Some are in aquatic blues and turquoises; others are vibrant shades of green and yellow, or deeper hues of blue. Cowen shies away from the idea of making her pieces commercially. "It's the whole process I love - the walking along the beach, the finding of the pebbles and glass, and the making of them. It's an Aladdin's cave - you feel like you've found gold."

Lighter than Gina Cowen's seashore finds and cruder than Brigitte Turba's sophisticated plastic flowers, papier mache is one of the cheapest materials for jewellery. Everyone has memories of making things at school from paper and paste, but Julie Arkell has gone on to make a career of it. Her pieces have a child-like quality - oversized, colourful beads for a necklace, or a heart-shaped ring set with sparkly beads. But behind the naivety of the painting, the print of the newspaper (often pink from the Financial Times) shows through.

Another designer working with the eyes of a child is Georgie Mortimer, whose sugary love-hearts are set in glittery clear resin to form rings, cuff links and brooches. The designer also uses sweetie wrappers and will set just about anything that will fit in a mould for her jewels. Mortimer's gems also sell at throw-away prices.