Georg Jensen has returned to its roots with a collection by Sophie Bille Brahe, the first homegrown creative to design for the Danish house in more than a decade. By Jeni Porter.
Sophie Bille Brahe is the first homegrown creative to design for Danish house Georg Jensen in more than a decade.
Danish jeweller Sophie Bille Brahe has had a lifelong fascination with a 1730s Chinese chest passed down to her father through generations of his noble family. It’s an eccentric piece with intricately painted doors that are so wonky they’re hard to open. Inside are nine gilt-edged drawers full of curious treasures amassed over the centuries. “It’s completely crazy. There’s a whole drawer of old toys, a whole drawer of weird little boxes collected by weird members of the family: there’s one from Nice from 1901 with a hand-painted beach, and inside someone has put tiny pink shells. Every time I look through it I find things I haven’t seen before,” says Bille Brahe. When she was a child, her father would let her choose a drawer and she’d sit all morning in a reverie laying out and rearranging its contents. For her the chest was the equivalent of the wardrobe leading to the magical land of Narnia, a portal through which she would disappear into her imagination, dreaming up stories about her forebears.
Last year, Copenhagen-based Bi l le Brahe accepted a commission to make a jewellery collection for Georg Jensen, her first outside her own brand, which has a cult following among the fashion crowd. It was a coup for Georg Jensen, not only because she brings It-girl street cred – she’s also the first Danish designer to create a jewellery collection for the storied Danish brand in more than a decade.
The first thing she did was to visit Georg Jensen’s archive of rare jewellery and silverware, which is considered a national treasure, and heritage-protected by the Danish government. Let loose in the attic, Bille Brahe was like her young self lost in her thoughts, as she laid out earrings and bracelets that caught her eye. “I had a whole day almost by myself and I started gathering things. Some looked really modern and some old. I wasn’t worried about who designed what, but I was trying to see where I could find room for my language.” Energised and inspired, she went away and within weeks presented Georg Jensen’s creative director Nicholas Manville with the equivalent of three collections based on a simple round shape and hoops. “It’s easy talking about it now, but when I’m designing it feels like walking when you can’t see. When you’re in it, you use your intuition, use the metal, use your source of inspiration and then play around until it somehow takes the right form,” says Bille Brahe.
Ten years ago, she captured the Zeitgeist with her first piece, a single earring in gold, curved to the shape of the ear lobe, with an arc of graduating diamonds. Called Croissant de Lune, it redefined fine jewellery by mixing precious materials with a street- style attitude. It’s hard to credit now, but Bille Brahe was told she was crazy making a solo earring and even crazier using 18-karat gold and diamonds. But it took off, and from her workshop in a converted 18th- century schoolhouse she’s won international renown and a celebrity fan base that includes Madonna, Rihanna and Zoë Kravitz.
Unfazed by the fame, and probably to her financial detriment, Bille Brahe remains totally her own person, a mix of control freak and self-doubter, with five-year-old son Johan to care for and a border collie called Snoopy constantly at her side. She agonised over aligning herself with a corporate brand, but said yes because of the special place Georg Jensen has in her heart. “I’m life- or- death with everything I do. I had many doubts, because I was concerned about my own company and my own brand and merging into something where I don’t have control over everything. But in the end, I wanted to do it, because I feel it’s a responsibility as a Danish jeweller. I love Georg Jensen, because of the craft and its history. As Danes, it’s part of our story in a way.”
Manville says after collaborating with international jewellers “it’s nice to have a Danish designer working with us. Sophie is taking us back to our Scandinavian roots”. Her collection is a lighter take on gold, he says, that strikes a balance between her signature precise clean lines and the sculptural silver jewellery the house is known for.
He’d wanted 10 pieces but was so enamoured with her designs he selected 19, including variously sized single earrings, pendants and a cocktail ring with a diamond floating in three delicate circles. As a tribute to the heritage, Bille Brahe made a bracelet with a lock like one made by Georg Jensen himself.
She called the collection Halo, referencing diamonds and stars. “A halo is like this glow around a star. Then also I wanted this collection to be effortless, and I think Beyoncé’s ‘Baby, I can see your halo’ somehow captures this.” She wants women to wear her jewellery the way she does, all day and every day with ease.
Lucky is the word the 38-year-old uses to describe her career, but you could also say it was destiny – written in the stars, even. She went to a school that nurtured creativity, and her teacher set her up in a workshop where she could work with fire and glass. By the time she was 14 she was making earrings and chandeliers that she sold to her parents’ friends. After high school she trained as a goldsmith in Copenhagen, an exacting initiation in turning lumps of metal into precious objects, which, she says, was all “sore, sore fingers and tens of millimetres” and not especially creative. “You learn the craft from start to end. But when you’ve done that you almost lose yourself. My fascination is the fire, working with gold, the way it looks when you heat it up.”
In 2007, the year she designed the croissant earring, she decamped to London, where she spent two years doing a masters in jewellery design at the Royal College of Art. Then she followed her heart to Paris, and when that proved a romantic disaster returned home in 2011. Fame found her: she made a triple ring as a commission from a Swedish filmindustry friend, who gave it to Madonna for her birthday. The pop star wore it when she was mobbed by paparazzi at the Venice Film Festival.
In Denmark the name Bille Brahe has a certain aristocratic cachet. Her father, a surgeon, is a baron, although you’d never guess it meeting him, and his children inherited titles. They are descended from the 16thcentury astronomer and nobleman Tycho Brahe, and in another arm of the family were wealthy patrons of Hans Christian Andersen and the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. The family lineage is important to Bille Brahe: the night sky is a recurring theme in her work, as is storytelling and the sense of being part of a long and continuing history. “I don’t care that I’m a baroness; it doesn’t give me any money or a castle. It’s just a title that was very difficult to have as a kid. But the way it matters is that it’s history and it’s having a family that has this Chinese cabinet where you just find these things and you can only guess what this box has been used for or who was using this pipe with little dogs carved in ivory on it. The funny thing is my son has now started asking about it and I’ve only shown him one drawer and he completely loves it.”
“You use your intuition, use the metal, use your source of inspiration and then play around until it somehow takes the right form” – Sophie Bille Brahe
Georg Jensen double-row ear hoop, $2,750 for a set, and Halo earring, $3,200 for a set. Solitaire ring, $11,550, and double-row ring, $3,200. Halo bangles, $13,750 each.