Precious pieces at pocket-friendly prices? Gerald Tan travels to Norfolk, England, to explore this oxymoron with jewellery designer, Monica Vinader.
Monica Vinader with her sketches
Norfolk, a quiet English country some three hours east of London by train and car, is where I find myself chatting with Monica Vinader about lucky charms. “I love lucky charms,” Vinader admits, “If you go into any of my weekend jackets, there’s always a pebble or a stone inside the pockets. But I love them as objects and their tactile qualities. I’m not superstitious. I mean, 13 is my lucky number. I’m a bit contrary, so I like to do things a little differently.”
Different is an apt description for Vinader’s design studio, too. Converted from an old barn and situated within the expansive Holkham Estate (its star landmark, Holkham Hall, is currently the aristocratic home of the Earls of Leicester), its unusual location is not what you’d expect of a burgeoning jewellery brand that’s now stocked in 14 markets such as North America, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. Far away from the riot that is London, a sense of calm and serenity fills the countryside. Here, the air is crisp and invigorating.
Vinader recalls she is here by “accident”. After spending some time in Argentina and Mexico, the 48-year-old, Spanish-born designer chose to follow her husband back to Norfolk and start a family. It was here that her namesake brand began to take root. “For me, this is an incredible space for creativity. I would never be able to work in a space like this in the middle of London,” she observes. The move, however, presented its own set of challenges: “Hiring good people three hours away from London is not easy. Building the team has been really difficult. But it also means that the team is very together and strong now. I think it gives me an edge in terms of creativity and creative space.”
That edge shows in the way Vinader—together with the help of her media-shy sister, Gabriela, who previously cut her teeth with stints at Merrill Lynch and Amazon—has grown the nine-year-old brand into one that counts Emma Watson, Olivia Palermo and Elizabeth Banks as fans. In 2014, the brand scored its biggest PR coup thus far when the Duchess of Cambridge stepped out in Vinader’s designs to an evening gala organised by the Natural History Museum. Securing a fresh round of investments by private equity firm Piper and US-based investment firm Winona Capital in 2016, the brand’s turnover reached £26.4 million last year —a marked difference from when the sisters had to mortgage their parents’ home in 2009 for a £250,000 loan to expand the business.
Designed to be worn on their own or stacked to create interest and impact, Vinader’s range of handcrafted accessories (some 400 styles and counting) are easy to pull off. They boast either fluid and organic lines inspired by the natural world, or abstract forms that take their cues from Modernist architecture. “I love the work of Italian architect, Carlo Scarpa. I like his use of cement, gold and really beautiful steps. I’m always fascinated by steps,” Vinader says. She also immerses herself in the world of art, finding genius in the graphicness of paintings by Frank Stella and Mark Rothko. “I find art museums incredibly exciting. I can never tire of looking at art. In fact, I really wanted to be a museum curator,” she adds while laughing, “I may have a second career as a curator one day!”
Made from vermeil (a form of gold-plated silver) or sterling silver and often bedecked with semi-precious stones, Vinader’s versatile jewellery pieces are sought after because they are beautifully made but at purse-friendly prices. Her bestseller, the Fiji Friendship bracelet, is a sleek metallic band finished off with cords that retails from $220. Another signature, the Riva hoop ring with pavé set diamonds, is $470. Similar designs by other big-name jewellery houses could easily add another zero to the end of the price tag. It’s an accessible approach to style and luxury that has proven to be a winning formula for the brand. It also upends the assumption that precious jewels should cost an arm and a leg. Vinader adds: “We’re very pragmatic creatives. We’re just considered in how we do things and that’s important to us. It’s all very real, and I think it’s quite a relevant way of being these days.”
What sets the brand apart?
I really think having that balance in us is very much what defines us aesthetically. It is two parts of the coin. I’m excited by the way we’ve managed to do both with a lot of integrity and stayed very much true to our ethos. This is one of the most exciting things about the design process and I never want to compromise our creativity and integrity. It’s difficult when you’re doing this all the time. There’s a lot of pressure. But really, I never look at trends. I do what I love and what I want to do. It’s a very internal journey.
Have you had to compromise on anything since you started?
I don’t compromise, which is not very good sometimes. Creatively, you have to have the strength of your beliefs. You need to pursue what you really believe in.
Are you always certain about what you want to do when starting a new collection?
I’m really set on certain things, but I like the involvement that comes afterwards. I’m open to evolving ideas because I think jewellery design is quite an iterative process. You start with a drawing, then you do it with wax. You do a cast, then you polish it. It’s a back-and-forth process. You look at it together with your team, and I love how you start with an idea and it ends up so much better at the end of it. Sometimes, it doesn’t work and you have to stop. But when it does, I really do love to let it run.
What does modernity mean to you?
I don’t really like using the word “modernity”. For me, what’s important is to always look at things with fresh eyes. That is why I love travelling. I love going to museums because you see things through somebody else’s eyes that is different to your point of view. I find that refreshing. To me, it feels very relevant and contemporary. I don’t like repetition. I find that boring.
Is there anything you’d change about how you started the brand?
I have no regrets about anything because I’ve learnt so much from my mistakes. I think what’s really important in life is that the more mistakes you make, the more you learn. I’ve done lots of things that were maybe not ideal. Maybe they were—who knows? If it had been any other way, it wouldn’t be me. I still make mistakes and I will carry on doing so.