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shaun leane jewelleryShaun Leane Jewellery

Today we speak with the multi-award winning and iconic international jeweller Shaun Leane about his progress to goldsmith, the finer points of running a jewellery business and the things that inspire him.

Can we start at the beginning? How did you begin to work with metal and make jewellery?

I was 14 years old and I wanted to do fashion. Before I left school (age 15) I went to the careers officer and told him that I wanted to study fashion. He suggested that I go and do a foundation course in jewellery design until I was old enough to go to fashion college.


So I got into college [for the foundation course] and that was it really. I fell in love with jewellery. I was at college and we were learning to manufacture and design. I loved the design element and I loved making but even before I’d finished the year I was bored and restless and my tutor could see that was happening. He suggested that I go and do an apprenticeship in Hatton Garden: a traditional goldsmithing apprenticeship.

So that’s what I did. I went and worked for a small company called ‘English Traditional Jewellery’. They were brilliant. They were two masters, Brian Joslin and Richard Bullock. They taught me everything I could ever possibly need to know about goldsmithing and I sat in between the two of them. One taught me technique and attention to detail and the other one taught me speed. I had the best of both worlds and remained working there for 13 years.

I served my 7 year apprenticeship making things from coronet clusters to tiaras. We were producing the most beautiful pieces of work for Bond Street shops; they would send the design & we would manufacture it. And, I loved it. I just learnt so much; everything about setting and manufacture and all in gold, platinum, diamonds and rubies, the top materials.
My favourite period was near the end of my time being there. We went through a 4-5 year period when we did antique reproduction and restoration.

Now this is where I began to get inquisitive because I would work with Victorian, Art Nouveau & Art Deco work and I loved it. I fell in love with them because I would look at a piece and think, a hundred years ago someone put so much love and care into this piece and they’re long gone, but here I am admiring their work and admiring their craftsmanship and attention to detail. So I romanticised about that being me. I thought that in a hundred years I want someone to look at my work and respect it; for it to be distinctive of that period too. When you hold a Victorian piece of jewellery, you know it’s Victorian. I thought, I want in a hundred or two hundred years for somebody to hold a piece of my work and say, ‘This is so 21st century’: to be an identity of the times we’re in.

How old were you when you had that thought?

I was 22? 23?

So early 20’s? And you had the idea that you wanted to be something big?

Well not big, I just wanted to create beautiful things that would be respected in years to come. I love the Victorian times because they were so innovative with the materials they used and the versatility of the pieces; a brooch could be a hat pin or a tiara was a necklace. While working on those pieces was when I started to think about design. I thought that I’d love to be able to design my own pieces that have this stature and resemble the times that we’re in.

And through a moment of serendipity I met Alexander McQueen.

And then it began.

He told me he loved my work, he loved my attention to detail. He was from Saville Row - a background similar to mine, very traditional and we were exactly the same age. He understood; he was a tailor from Saville Row and he wanted to push the boundaries. He saw my craftsmanship, my history and training and thought ‘this is a man with fine goldsmithing skills, he’s hungry to push the boundaries and he’s hungry to create something different’.

It was a perfect marriage because he allowed me to create the pieces that I always wanted to create. I didn’t have the restraints of commercialism because they were catwalk pieces. No one was going to buy these pieces; they were just freedom of creativity.  Then I started working for him making all the catwalk pieces. It was a beautiful time because I had no boundaries. I went from one extreme to the other: from my very traditional background to extreme innovation and avant-garde, with the catwalks in Paris and the body sculptures. I had to teach myself silversmithing for the demands of the catwalk because the materials had to be light and cost effective.


I was working for Givenchy, McQueen, Philip Treacy and I became known as a fashion jeweller. I was in my element; but at the same time I was still making. I was still with English Traditional Jewellery for 3 years in the beginning. They let me use their workshop at weekends and evenings - that’s how I began. For three years my social life took a little bit of a beating because I was working constantly in the evenings and weekends creating pieces for all the catwalks. At one point I was working on 8 shows a year and that was just McQueen and Givenchy - it was a lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So at that time did you have a team?

Just me on my own; until Ben Rowe joined me in 1999, then the Shaun Leane Jewellery team began.

Doing 8 shows a year?

Yes, but I was still working, I was still in full time employment which allowed me to feed myself, basically. Then slowly Brian and Richard who I worked for could see where I was going and they very kindly said, ‘Why don’t you go part-time with us? You are killing yourself here – you’re working nights & weekends’. So they let me go part-time and I hired a bench in a workshop in Hatton Garden - carrying on with the catwalk pieces and still making coronet clusters and diamond single stones as they were my bread and butter. So I was still connected to both industries; the very traditional side of the jewellery industry and high fashion as well.

Then there became a demand for my work - people wanted to wear ‘Shaun Leane’. Harvey Nichols approached me and asked for my collection.  I had to tell them that I didn’t have one, so they said, ‘Well, make one and we’ll buy it!’
So, I then began to create my collections. What I did was to take my traditional skills as a goldsmith and fuse it with what I’d learnt from fashion. I created fashionable pieces of jewellery in silver that were beautifully made, as if they were fine gold pieces of jewellery. I experimented with the silver collections first to see whether people would understand my work.

And then the rest is history?

And then the rest is history.
But the nice thing about our business is we still do all those things. I insist on doing the fashion catwalk pieces and the collections.  I still do the coronet clusters and the single stones. It’s important to keep connected with every element of the industry, not just think ‘right, I want to do fashion, that’s it’. Everything feeds off the other.

Do you remember the first piece you made?

I remember the first piece I made, which was at college. Everybody had to design a piece of cutlery and make it. Everyone chose to do a spoon, but I decided to do a knife……… I should have realised then that something was a little bit more macabre [about me] than everybody else!
I designed this beautiful knife in silver with a beautiful filigree handle and onyx settings on the end. It was quite medieval to a degree, but then it had this really beautiful slick shaped blade on it, so already I was mixing something quite old with something really slick and clean.


At English Traditional Jewellery the first piece I made was a diamond single stone. That was a normal engagement ring with a six claw collet, bezel and shank and my Mother’s got that.
And the first piece I made for Alexander McQueen was a long beautiful tusk earring.  It was very elegant and refined, the form of it, and the shape - it produced a very strong image. That’s where I started thinking ‘this is my signature; something that’s refined, delicate, but powerful.’ These elements are carried through to this day.

So, does Shaun Leane offer apprenticeships?

We’ve got an apprentice, he’s been with us 7 months now and he’s learning setting. He’s a Goldsmith’s apprentice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s clear from looking at ‘Shaun Leane’ the company that you’re a very astute businessman. Where does that come from?

Astute businessman? I don’t know - I never went to business school or anything; this whole company has grown organically. I think I have a good way of structuring things because when I was at English Traditional Jewellery I’d finished my apprenticeship and I had certain clients that I had to look after. They would send me bespoke pieces in the post. I would get them, I would quote for them, I would get the go ahead on them, I would do the job. I’d do the repair, set it, finish it, polish it and seal it in the bag, wrap it in the post, invoice it and send it to the client so I learnt at a very young age (19-20) the importance of customer care, delivery dates and jobs being well done, because everything would come back to me. I was like a self-employed person within a company. You know, one piece of jewellery must have about 25 people that touch it to get that piece from start to finish and I learnt the importance of every single stage.


I’ve projected that into my team; it’s something that I’m very aware of and the whole team is. As a company, as a jewellery house, we try to project that. As a businessman I think I’ve made some mistakes along the way, definitely, but I’m learning as we go along.  The company has grown beautifully and organically with passion - because here we create what we love, we don’t get constricted by commercial restraints. We do have all the different price brackets because we think we’ll make this beautiful big piece for a lady, but what about the girl that just wants a piece of Shaun Leane? We want to make a piece for her too. We follow our heart and our vision, really.

You’ve won ‘Jewellery Designer of the Year’ 4 times and collaborated with some of the biggest names in the fashion and art world. You produce some amazingly creative work that’s absolutely on the cutting edge and you’re also able to produce a commercial line that is a success. Has it come as a surprise to you that you’ve gained recognition for what you do?

We work with so many different industries and talents.   We’ve worked with Boucheron, De Beers, McQueen, Bjork, Bacardi - we’ve done so many different things.
When we get a moment to stop and actually think about what we’ve achieved it’s quite amazing. Though to be honest, we don’t go around with that in our heads as we rarely have time to stop. In the beginning I just wanted to create beautiful things, the team that work with me and have grown with me have always believed in that too. I’m really honoured that we’ve had the chance to work with some of these amazing people. I never thought we’d work with Sotheby’s and Boucheron, people I admired when I was an apprentice! All I ever wanted to do was to create museum pieces. As a young teenager I used to walk around the V&A as if it was my second home and still do; and now my work is in there which is quite amazing! Sotheby’s described my work as ‘antiques of the future’ which is a real honour to me because I collected all their auction brochures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Do you find it a challenge to go from making those fine, small pieces of precious jewellery to creating your huge catwalk pieces? I look at some of them and think ‘He must have a degree in engineering to be able to pull that off!’

It just takes a bit of imagination that’s all. Alexander McQueen taught me that. When I first started working with him he said to me ‘I’ve seen what you can do: you make tiaras and you’re amazing.

Now I want you to make me……this’.
I said ‘But it’s big! That’s a big piece of jewellery - Look I’m a goldsmith; I don’t make things that big. A tiara’s the biggest thing that I’ve ever made!’
He said, ‘Well, if you can make things that small and beautiful, you’ve just got to think big. Just make the same thing, but bigger and if you have to, use bigger tools’.
And it’s as simple as that. It was about being open minded and being able to improvise with the things around you. He taught me that; just to think big. It’s just about thinking out of the box.
How am I going to make a coiled corset out of aluminium?
How am I going to put them all together?
And you challenge yourself.  You say well, I’ve never done that before, I’ll do it!
And you do do it - If you’ve got a passion for anything, you’ll do it.

What would be a typical day for Shaun Leane?

I normally spend some time in the morning talking to every department, the commercial team, the press team - it’s just if they need me - the workshop to see how they’re getting on with the new collections and then I’ll come in here [the showroom] and work with the design team. In between I’ll have meetings and interviews. Then normally of an evening I would be out at an industry function or taking clients out for dinner. Really the only time that I do get to myself is at the weekend. And normally I’m so shattered by then that I just want to sleep!

Do you get time at the bench anymore?

Last year, I have not spent as much time at the bench as I wanted which saddens me a lot but this year I’m going back on the bench! I’ve been away from the bench for about 10 months and I miss it terribly.  Making jewellery is very therapeutic, it’s like art, it’s like painting; you go into your own world when you’re making a piece of jewellery.

Are there any other jewellers or artists that you particularly admire?

I admire, obviously, the greats such as Boucheron.  Also Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier in the twenties; what they did then was distinctive of its time. JAR (Joel Arthur Rosenthal) – he is a big inspiration to me; his designs are beautiful and avant-garde with wonderful craftsmanship.

Art world, goodness, I love Sam Taylor-Wood’s work.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Inspiration is everywhere. I think as a creative you see things differently. Some people will see a building, but a creative mind will zoom in on a part of that building; it’s everywhere.
Organic forms are one of my favourite inspirations.  Nature is beautiful and fragile yet there are hidden elements of strength and danger.  A rose can be beautiful, yet its thorn makes it dangerous -   That balance is something which I love.
Romance as well, I have a love of poetry and am hugely inspired by history.  The V&A museum has been an inspiration to me for many years.

If you could choose a muse from any time in history, who would it be?

Wallis Simpson. She’s very elegant and I love the romance between her and Edward.  I wish I’d been around to make something. I respected the love they had - they just followed their hearts. As a woman I think she was very graceful and elegant. I would love to have her as a muse.

What’s your favourite film?

One of my all time favourite films is ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ - Billie Holiday’s life story. I love that film because I love Billie Holiday and her music.
‘Crash’(2004) is also one of my favourite films. It’s a great film because it really shows that in this world we think we’re all alone, but the things we do have an effect on everybody, all the people around us.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is there any advice that you would give an aspiring jeweller?

Follow your vision. It’s as simple as that. Do not be side-tracked in what you love.

Thank-you

It’s a pleasure

 

With special thanks to Shaun Leane and Nancy Wong

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