You were a for­mer in­ter­na­tional model. Af­ter be­ing in the lime­light, why did you choose to de­sign jew­ellery?

Adorn - - CREATIVE CHARISMA -

My pas­sion for jew­ellery re­ally started when I lived in New York, and lived above the Bulgari store on Madi­son Av­enue and 66th. I never wanted to model for a long time as I had al­ways wanted to pur­sue a cre­ative ca­reer, but it was then that the penny dropped!

When did you move into the world of jew­ellery? What were the trig­ger fac­tors?

From the day I made the de­ci­sion to move into fine jew­ellery, it has been a full-time vo­ca­tion. The trig­ger fac­tor was when I re­alised that more than 70% of the ma­te­ri­als used in fine jew­ellery come from Africa and there isn’t one sin­gle fine jew­ellery com­pany or brand owned by an African. That made me very sad and gave me the im­pe­tus to cre­ate a fine jew­ellery brand that re­flects the qual­ity, crafts­man­ship and the ethics that is VanLe­les to­day.

We need to be part of the cre­ations and not just con­sumers; we de­serve to have a seat at the ta­ble and a store on ev­ery high street. So ac­quir­ing the best train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence was of para­mount im­por­tance for me.

So where did you get your train­ing?

I took up a jew­ellery de­sign­ing and gem­mol­ogy course at GIA in New York, which gave me a won­der­ful foun­da­tion. Then I worked with Graff in the UK as their in-house gem­mol­o­gist, and later, at De Beers. My last po­si­tion be­fore set­ting up on

my own was at Sotheby’s where I worked as a spe­cial­ist and client re­la­tion­ship man­ager in their jew­ellery de­part­ment – the most mag­i­cal job, as I was in­volved in some very ex­cit­ing sales and de­vel­oped a real ap­pre­ci­a­tion for jew­ellery both vin­tage and con­tem­po­rary.

We would like to know more about your ex­pe­ri­ence at these iconic houses of the jew­ellery in­dus­try.

Work­ing for Graff, De Beers and Sotheby’s gave me in­valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence and courage to set up my own com­pany. Graff helped me to de­velop my ex­per­tise in analysing the rarest di­a­monds and pre­cious stones. De Beers fur­ther helped me fine-tune my ex­per­tise in di­a­monds and client ser­vic­ing. Sotheby’s ex­posed me to jew­ellery from many dif­fer­ent eras, from great houses and in­de­pen­dent de­sign­ers. And as a client re­la­tion­ship man­ager it was also won­der­ful to work with clients and col­lec­tors from dif­fer­ent cul­tures who come to Sotheby’s for unique pieces.

You are pained about the il­le­gal di­a­mond trade in Africa. What steps do you take to en­sure that you source eth­i­cally mined gem­stones? More im­por­tantly, do you ed­u­cate your con­sumers about cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of di­a­monds, etc.? My West African her­itage, and growing up with first-hand knowl­edge of the gem­stone trade, has im­bued in me a sense of true beauty – not only in the jew­els them­selves, but in the sourc­ing of them right from the mo­ment they leave the ground. I try and ed­u­cate my cus­tomers on di­a­mond cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, and also about the im­por­tance of eth­i­cal sourc­ing and pro­duc­tion. I be­lieve that as a jew­eller the beauty of a piece doesn’t be­gin when a jewel is fin­ished and shown to the cus­tomer. It is my role to en­sure this beauty and hon­esty is seen at all lev­els of pro­duc­tion, from the mo­ment the di­a­mond or gem­stone is dis­cov­ered.

Part of this makes my job much more dif­fi­cult as we have to en­sure that sourc­ing of all nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als hap­pens from mines that ad­here to be­ing so­cially re­spon­si­ble, pay taxes and treat min­ers and their fam­i­lies fairly. When did you launch your brand and tell us how has the jour­ney been so far? Be­fore launch­ing my brand in 2011, I had a pri­vate ate­lier in Ea­ton Square in Lon­don where I did be­spoke com­mis­sions. While I ab­so­lutely love do­ing pri­vate com­mis­sions for my es­teemed clients, I in­creas­ingly wanted to push my­self cre­atively and as such de­cided to start my own brand that houses col­lec­tions that re­flect my aes­thetic. Tell us about your early years. I grew up be­tween West Africa (Guinea–Bis­sau) and Por­tu­gal, and am a very for­tu­nate daugh­ter of two amaz­ing par­ents. My mother worked for the United Na­tions and the Amer­i­can em­bassy in Guinea, and my fa­ther is a vet­eri­nar­ian, so we trav­elled quite a lot and have a won­der­fully di­verse group of friends. Our fam­ily is huge – I re­cently cel­e­brated my birthday and nine of my friends came to Lon­don to cel­e­brate with me for three days, which was a re­ally happy time but ex­haust­ing (es­pe­cially for my hus­band!). Most of your jew­ellery is suf­fused with colours. Do you hand­pick gem­stones? Yes, I hand-pick all my gem­stones. The true beauty of a jewel can’t be seen on a com­puter screen. You have to hold it in the light to see char­ac­ter and charm.

To date, which are your favourite gem­stones? Any spe­cial cuts that you pre­fer?

I have to say Zam­bian emer­alds and Mozam­bi­can ru­bies have been the most fas­ci­nat­ing gems that I have worked with.

As for di­a­monds, I have al­ways been drawn to their vi­brancy and play of light, but am in­creas­ingly at­tracted to the depth of colour and var­ied hues of sap­phires, ru­bies and emer­alds. That said, pearls also have a very spe­cial place in my heart be­cause when I got mar­ried I wore heir­loom pearls from my hus­band’s fam­ily. So, they will al­ways re­mind me of the most happy time of my per­sonal life. Re­cently, I have fallen in love with nat­u­ral pearls from Bahrain and the Gulf re­gion. I am now plan­ning a cap­sule col­lec­tion us­ing nat­u­ral pearls from Bahrain and will be work­ing with a lo­cal fam­ily of pearl mer­chants who have been trad­ing for the last 170 years. I am so ex­cited about this as it fo­cuses on eth­i­cal farm­ing of pearls.

Your pieces, in gen­eral, high­light na­ture in a va­ri­ety of at­trac­tive forms. Do you get in­spired by na­ture? What leads you to cre­ate such won­der­ful and vis­ually at­trac­tive pieces? What is your de­sign phi­los­o­phy?

I am al­ways in­spired by na­ture and land­scapes, and try and re­flect the shapes and colours I see in what I cre­ate. I don’t re­ally have a de­sign phi­los­o­phy. I just do as much as I can when I feel in­spired. I don’t push my­self when I am not suf­fi­ciently in­spired be­cause that only leads to frus­tra­tion. I’m in a for­tu­nate po­si­tion where I de­sign cap­sule col­lec­tions at my own pace as I don’t have to meet pro­duc­tion tar­gets. That al­lows to­tal cre­ative free­dom. I de­sign pieces that are true to my­self and try not to take refuge in ‘com­mer­cial’ pieces.

A dou­ble-strand South Sea pearl neck­lace with a di­a­mond bow from the Lyla’s Bow col­lec­tion.

Lyla’s Bow white gold earrings with di­a­mond bows with and with­out pearls.

The two-fin­ger flo­ral ring from the En­chanted Gar­den col­lec­tion is mounted in white gold and pat­terned with di­a­monds and sap­phires.

The 18-karat white gold flo­ral ear studs from the En­chanted Gar­den line are suf­fused with di­a­monds and Gem­fields-sourced emer­alds.

The Legends of Africa 18-karat rose gold ring is stud­ded with di­a­monds, sap­phires and tour­ma­lines.

De­pict­ing the beauty of her home­land, the iconic 18-karat rose gold Legends of Africa earrings are set with tsa­vorites, sap­phires and ru­bies.

The Legends of Africa earrings cre­ated in 18-karat white gold, di­a­monds and sap­phires.

Classic bridal 18-karat white gold stylised hoops adorned with fan­cy­cut di­a­monds.

The 18-karat white gold Classic dan­glers are pat­terned with fancy-shaped di­a­monds.

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