In the wake of Theo Fennell’s win at the Walpole Awards for Best Luxury Craftsmanship, The Luxury Channel meets the designer to discuss the British jewellery industry past and present…
It should come as no surprise to learn that the winner of an award recognizing craftsmanship is a passionate advocate of originality. “Fashion jewellery has encroached onto real jewellery. Real jewellery has rather lost its way,” Fennell laments. “The high street is disappearing and without knowing it, our choice is being broken down by monolithic companies that control everything. We have to demand originality.”
This originality, he suggests, comes from the customer, as craftsmanship moves away from being design-led to being more bespoke, an idea encapsulated by Theo Fennell Masterworks. It’s not a new idea, however. “In the days when there was genuine craftsmanship and luxury, things were designed with huge care – people knew what they were asking for, and if they didn’t, they were educated into it by the shoemaker, the dressmaker, the jeweler or the silversmith that they visited,” he explains. “Then they became educated themselves and they knew what to look for and what to ask for, and they were much more sure of their own taste. They wanted unusual things.”
Now it would seem that being unusual is unusual in itself. “Very rich people are fed up with the same old thing, of walking into a room and finding that the thing they thought was unique is on five wrists or ten shoulders,” he says, clearly inspired by the concept of creating something completely unique for a client. “Everybody’s been bombarded with the idea of diamonds being a commodity. How many carats to say I love you?” If it’s the thought that counts, then bespoke will triumph every time. “The craftsman working with the customer to make something wildly beautiful is actually extremely democratic,” he adds – as it is to the benefit of the craftsman or artisan. “You need a bit of patience, you need to be educated into it – you can educate yourself into it. It is like a great wine, or enjoying pictures or any of those things – it is about appreciation. Then you really do know the difference between a well-known piece and a not so well-known piece, and it becomes a real pleasure – you become someone who really understands.”
With jewellery, appreciation comes from the craftsmanship involved, and thus the uniqueness of each piece. Fennell dislikes the homogeny that is becoming increasingly common-place in the jewellery world. “It was in the interests of the big brands to stop people wanting to be different,” he explains, determined to fight back in a society full of “the same thing everywhere.” So how to combat this? “What one is trying to do is develop a house style that can support originality of thought within it and originality not just of design but also of concept and manufacture,” he says. “This perpetuates craftsmanship; it brings people into the business to make things, and carry on making things; it perpetuates design and originality of thought – using new materials and trying new things. It brings the person who is buying it into the creative process.” This means that our jewellery will become much more personal by design and ultimately as a result, much more sentimental. “My feeling is that in really one-off pieces, every part of it needs to be unique – the concept, the design, the idea, the way in which it is carried out, so that in two hundred years, people will look at the mole ring or the garden ring and it will still be there,” Fennell says. “The person who buys it now – it will be their ring, Granny’s mole ring, or it will become Fred’s extraordinary watch and then in turn it will be passed down.” Sentimental then, but also timeless. Fennell agrees. “I would like to think in two hundred years time you could bring it all back and it would still stand the test of time.”
So, moving to the present moment, how is the modern British woman wearing her jewels? It transpires she wears them either very conservatively or with eccentricity. “I love the idea of eccentricity,” Fennell says. “The more eccentric ones wear it in a way that no-one else would dream of wearing, and I think that is the real beauty,” he adds, once again highlighting his passion for originality. It’s for this reason that he’s against the idea of product endorsement. “I have no brand ambassadors – I would rather people liked the pieces and bought them!” he laughs. “It all seems to me that if well-known people actually wanted to wear something, they would buy it and wear it, rather than having to be paid to wear it.” So who would he like to see wearing his jewellery? “It is invidious to say,” he responds. “I like seeing jewellery worn by less obvious wearers, so sportswomen, serious actresses, serious musicians or an adventurer. The idea of normal people wearing jewellery really well is much more interesting than an actress or a model.”
Finally, does Fennell think the British Government does enough to support young design talent? He admits that it could do more. He’s conscious that a lot of the reasoning for this is financial. He’s also acutely aware that the government sponsored initiatives “are on the whole somewhat fraught. The people running them do not have any experiences of being in the (creative) trenches, or any industry knowledge.” Fennell is playing his part to help overhaul this, however. He’s a big fan of The Goldsmith’s Company, who offer young apprenticeships, from which he sources his own apprentices – the future craftsman and artisans of an exceptionally original British brand.
Visit www.theofennell.com for more information, and to view the full range of jewellery.