Rabun The Radiant: A Career Observed, Part 1

“I started designing jewellery that spoke to me, because there wasn’t much jewellery I wanted to wear…I wasn’t really sure where it was going of course, but I knew it would find its place” reflects Jacqueline Rabun in the first of two Zoom calls in which we discuss her three decades and counting career in jewellery design. Immediately evident in her opening answer is the power of intent married with application. The impetus for designing began with her, she was neither creating with an ideal client in mind or at the mercies of a ‘market’ to court or appease. This unapologetic approach has brought dividends although not without challenges along the way. Rabun is motivated by a passion and desire to actualise an alternative design offering, one that is rooted in her own experiences and values. It is this distinct point of view that has seen her contribution to the jewellery world not only unequivocal, but also a catalyst for opening the doors to wider participation in the industry as a whole.

Mercy Ring, Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Mercy Ring in White Gold , Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Of course, it is easy to eulogise from the vantage point of a career of her length and breadth which contains within it the ‘holy grail’ of commercial success, critical acclaim and continued resonance in the here and now from peers and design aficionados alike. But Rabun’s is a story that is first and foremost anchored by jewellery that found it’s way onto the bodies of many and intriguingly varied clients; from rock stars and supermodels to business leaders and members of royal families all over the world. Coupled with this is her prodigious work ethic and a tenacity that hasn’t let setbacks, curveballs or racism, derail her from her goals. Rabun is softly spoken, with an accent that sits squarely in the mid-Atlantic but without any of the international-jet-set affectations that many have come to associate with such. Dressed in a deceptively simple yet perfectly cut white tunic, her hair pulled back, skin clear and eyes animated, she appears the embodiment of a woman seated confidently and elegantly in her power, who hasn’t been discombobulated by the uncertain, pandemic ridden times we are all living in. When I note this she laughs: “I carry on as I always have” which for her is working largely from home as she straddles her work for her eponymous brand and her long term collaboration with Scandinavian heritage jewellery house, Georg Jensen.

An Autodidact Finds Her Voice and Place

Rabun surprisingly did not train as a jeweller: “I studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute in San Francisco, that was the world I always thought that I would be a part of… My mother taught me to sew, and I actually knew how to cut a pattern and make my own clothes from a really early age. But as I was studying fashion design something came over me and I felt as though this wasn’t my world anymore… the fashion industry is amazing but I guess I was quite sensitive at the time…so I stopped and by pure accident I started working at a jewellery gallery, a very beautiful one in Los Angeles , called the M Gallery and it was like no other space I had ever been to.” In many ways the M Gallery was the perfect training ground for Rabun’s own as yet conceived design practice. Proprietor Michael Dawkins had a curatorial approach, with collections by jewellery-artists, architects and other interdisciplinary practitioners that didn’t fit the classic high jewellery mould, finding a home in his destination space that attracted an eclectic clientele who were drawn to contemporary and directional pieces. At home, inspired by what she saw, Rabun started experimenting: “I started teaching myself: first how to design and then how to actually make. I am a better designer than maker, but I can do it if I have to” she adds laughing.

Portrait of Jacqueline Rabun. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Portrait of Jacqueline Rabun. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Romance precipitated a move to London in 1989 and it was here that her processes and her ideas solidified. Her first collection, Raw Elegance, launched in 1990 was a commercial triumph with Barney’s New York an immediate stockist – unheard of for a new designer, never mind a female black one. Rabun herself is uncomfortable with using the term ‘collection’, with its undertones of ‘in today, out tomorrow’, and prefers the term ‘series’ which hints to a continuum of states and a revisiting and exploration of themes, a notion that ties in with both her first and all her consequent bodies of work. Speaking of what it was that drew in a retail behemoth like Barney’s and the slew of luxury stores around the world to stock her immediately she expands: “I think it was because it was unlike any other jewellery they were stocking at the time. It was quite masculine but there were feminine undertones. It was very organic and natural using shapes and forms that follow the lines of the body and it was just very different for that moment.” Crucially, Raw Elegance coincided with the genesis of reimagining gender boundaries in fashion and beauty and that was to be a hallmark of the 90s: Calvin Klein’s unisex fragrance CKOne, was the scent of the decade, Jean-Paul Gaultier had a mixed gender fashion show in Paris for his Spring/Summer 1994 collections and indie bands with effete lead singers such as Blur with their anthem to blurred gender role boundaries Girls & Boys ruled the airwaves. For the jewellery world Raw Elegance was an early presentation of similar ideas – themes that many jewellery brands have since explored and developed.

A Selection of Pieces from Raw Elegance Series. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
A Selection of Pieces from Raw Elegance Series. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

London in the 90s was arguably the coolest city on earth, with a creative renaissance not seen since the swinging 60s. It was the decade that saw the dominance of British fashion designers with John Galliano at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy and Stella McCartney at Chloe dictating how the world dressed. The Young British Artists or YBAs as they were collectively known, all featured in Sensation, an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in 1997 that placed fine art at the heart of pop-culture. In the jewellery world, Rabun alongside Shaun Leane designed pieces that were in diametric opposition to the ostentatious 80’s aesthetic and resonated with subcultures in what was then an edgy East London and bourgeois West London bohemians alike. Looking back at the cross-pollinating and dynamic energy of the city then Rabun remarks “when I first moved to London in about a week I met Judy Blame through a friend and he loved my work, so he immediately used a couple of my pieces for Neneh Cherry.” The fortuitous meeting with the legendary uber=stylist brought her into contact with others luminaries. “It all happened very organically, I have to be honest. It was all very word of mouth because of course we didn’t have social media, but pretty quickly I was connected with a few people at I-D Magazine and I had some articles in I-D, The Face, Dazed, thinking back I had a lot of publicity” The coup de grace was landing the cover of British Vogue’s September 1992 issue with Linda Evangelista adorned in pieces from the now extended Raw Elegance Series. “I guess that was one of the little signs that were a cosmic okay, you’re moving in the right direction. Because actually when you start off in a career where you haven’t actually studied and trained and you have taught yourself, you always question whether you are doing the right thing.” From there, her star was fully in ascendant, with musicians particularly drawn to her work. Madonna, Whitney Houston, U2 and Lenny Kravitz were just some of her many A List clients. Living in London, which at the time was the de facto laboratory of new ideas across multiple creative disciplines had an undoubtedly positive effect on Rabun’s own practise.

September 1992  British Vogue Cover. Image by Peter Lindbergh
September 1992 British Vogue Cover. Image by Peter Lindbergh

Distilling Her Design Language

Rabun is unabashed in her love for design and it seeps into every aspect of her life. The slither of her home visible on the screen, is dotted with beautiful artwork and artefacts picked up from her travels. She relates that her passion for mid-century furniture has resulted in a considerable collection, some of which is in storage. It is illustrative of a woman for whom aesthetics across all touch points are of profound importance. But for Rabun it is more than surface level prettiness informing her. “When I speak about design language it is about the shape and form of a particular object but it is also the story behind that body of work. For me, my whole design language is about the human experience…each one of my bodies of work is definitely inspired by what I am going through in my life which is probably what everyone else goes through as well,”.In many ways the clues are there in the names of the series of work: Love Distance  for instance features two rings with corresponding curves that unite when together but look equally beautiful on their own speak to a long distance relationship. And her first collaboration with Georg Jensen, Offspring, was inspired by the birth of her son: “Offspring is about the unbreakable bond between mother and child and a lot of women go through this…[and] the actual shapes of the pieces are taken from an egg form and eggs are the beginning of life, so it is symbolic of new beginnings. When you have a child your life begins anew and there are challenges but even when it is difficult you’re still in it. It is unbreakable.”

 Love Distance Rings in Yellow and White Gold. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
Love Distance Rings in Yellow and White Gold. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

 

Love Distance Rings in Sterling Silver. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Love Distance Rings in Sterling Silver. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

Offspring Bracelet in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image courtesy of J Rabun
Offspring Bracelet in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image courtesy of J Rabun

 

Offspring Bangle in Sterling  Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image courtesy of J Rabun
Offspring Bangle in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image courtesy of J Rabun

 

Offspring Earring in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Offspring Earring in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Her collaboration with Georg Jensen is how Rabun is perhaps best known. Indeed many wonder how an American based in London came on the radar of the Danish heritage house that has been seen as the custodian of Scandinavian design. As with much of Rabun’s story serendipity met with an impressive body of work, she relates “I have a friend who is in fashion and I went out to dinner with her and her partner and they invited Mark Olm who is a Danish photographer and he mentioned that Georg Jensen were looking for designers and he thought my work would be perfect and he happened to know someone there, So he basically spoke to them the next day, gave them my telephone number and we emailed but it wasn’t a thing. I got a telephone call the next day the design director from the jewellery came to see me and then gave me a brief and we were working together.” The whole process from dinner to commencing work took ten days. Astonishing by any measure. But when I gasp in exclamation Rabun adds that she views it as manifestation for both parties as Jensen were looking for someone and she too was seeking to expand her horizons after by that point, nine commercially successful years in business. Most critical to the speed of engagement was her design language which she notes “has an equal dose of Scandinavian and African influences and interestingly there is a lot of Scandinavian jewellery where you can see the designer is very knowledgeable about African jewellery.” Certainly the collaboration which commenced in 1999 with Offspring launched in 2001 and then rebooted for 2018 has been beneficial for both parties. Offspring, is as time of publication, Georg Jensen’s bestselling jewellery collection.

Mercy Bangle in Yellow Gold. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Mercy Bangle in Yellow Gold. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

Mercy Rings. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Mercy Rings. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Rabun continued to plough the myriad of human experiences and emotions for other series with the heritage house. Cave launched in 2002, a series celebrated amongst jewellery connoisseurs globally who are clamouring for its re=issue, featured concave circular forms occasionally with pave diamonds in a hollowed form. It was a comment at the need to sometimes retreat and find a place for quiet contemplation and reflection. Mercy was launched in 2019 but Rabun notes “I started developing it fifteen years ago and then Georg Jensen asked kindly if they could launch it under their brand. Originally, it was designed for them but we were working on so many projects that it just never happened…but if you think about the time we are living through now it really resonates…we need a lot of mercy. There is a big need for compassion and empathy for others and to walk in somebody else’s shoes for five minutes. It is about not being selfish. It is not that moment now.” To encompass those sentiments, the sculptural forms look different from each vantage point, for both the wearer and those viewing the pieces on the wearer’s body, resulting in an exquisite metaphor for Rabun’s intention. As ever with Rabun, diamonds when utilised are done so discretely, something that some assume given her African-American heritage is unusual as African-Americans and their biggest cultural export, hip=hop are intrinsically linked with the maximalist ‘bling-bling’ aesthetic. She laughs in recognition at what is ultimately a lazy assumption: “My design language is minimalist, but actually there is a lot of African design that in itself is quite minimalist. From art, to furniture, to jewellery. As with me, there is a lot of use of organic forms and that is my link. I draw more from my African heritage, rather than the popular media stereotypes of what black glamour is. I draw more from African jewellery and African art.” It is a reflection of what for many years have been the silos of expectations creative people of colour have oftentimes had to work in. The assumption that one voice, one style, one set of experiences fits all, when in actuality, things are more nuanced and varied.

Cave Ring in Sterling Silver, Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Cave Ring in Sterling Silver, Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

Cave Ring,  Yellow Gold and Pave Diamonds. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Cave Ring, Yellow Gold and Pave Diamonds. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Rabun’s eponymous line has continued to expand on her thesis of jewellery that reflects, documents and harnesses the human experience. A recent special series A Beautiful Life for the PAD Fairs in London and Paris in 2018 included a re-imagined Beautiful ring in aventurine and yellow gold as well as one featuring rutilated quartz crystal and yellow gold. There was also a pendant with a yellow gold vessel form in which a removable aventurine sits, giving the wearer the choice of removing it and holding it in their hand for on-the-go meditative purposes. The choice of gemstones for these pieces was deliberate “my work always has to be honest, I have to like the stone, I have to feel an affinity with it otherwise I cannot work with it”. In the instance of aventurine Rabun was drawn to its historical healing properties which is said to aid the nervous system. Green aventurine in particular is known in the Hindu Chakra system as a heart healer that dissolves negative thoughts for the wearer. Rabun adds “jewellery can give you a sense of security [and] If you walk out of the front door without it you feel like something is missing, I think everyone has had that experience who wears jewellery, and so it is a form of armour and I think if we take that into a spiritual realm it calms you and it gives you comfort.” When we speak of her attraction to rutilated quartz, whose beauty lies in the visible inclusions that sometimes have the appearance of spun gold thread left to form a messy  yet captivating pattern, she adds “When you look at these stones you think wow, how did that happen? How did all that imperfection arrive in that stone? I like those imperfections. Because I think that is what we are inside we are not perfect.” It is in many ways a radical proposition, especially as there is a whole sector of jewellery that is dependent on gemstones of almost supernatural perfection that will imbue their wearer with similarly polished, beguiling powers. Rabun is offering wearers to feel comforted and empowered but also vulnerable and open enough to show and share their authentic self rather than a carefully crafted facade. If the gemstones can be honest so can we.

A Beautiful Life Ring, Yellow Gold and Aventurine. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
A Beautiful Life Ring, Yellow Gold and Aventurine. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

A Beautiful Life Pendant, Yellow Gold and Rutilated Quartz Crystal. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
A Beautiful Life Pendant, Yellow Gold and Rutilated Quartz Crystal. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

Present Realities and Future Series

Whilst many creatives have been emotionally buffeted by the ‘new normal’ that Covid19 has heralded, Rabun true to form has observed the peculiar needs the season has brought with it and created solutions. “I have been quietly working on some objects for the home and some furniture.. because the home has obviously become so much more important to everyone in the world.” Expanding her canvas from the human body to a room is a natural progression. She has also used the time to reflect on how she wishes to present herself and her work moving forward. She states “I definitely prefer to be known as an artist because whilst of course my speciality is jewellery, I have designed objects furniture and sculpture.” She pauses, before adding “This word designer, I think when you have worked for a long time and you have a specific recognisable look and feel to your work it takes you in to the space of being an artist.” Her oeuvre is ever evolving, but as with many artists, it is doing so on her own terms

A Beautiful Life Ring, Yellow Gold and Rutilated Quartz Crystal. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
A Beautiful Life Ring, Yellow Gold and Rutilated Quartz Crystal. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

A Beautiful Life Pendant, Yellow Gold and Aventurine. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
A Beautiful Life Pendant, Yellow Gold and Aventurine. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

.
We close our conversation with a question that Rabun is initially a little hesitant to answer, “you answer it” she challenges me jokingly, and that is how would she describe the Jacqueline Rabun aesthetic. She expands “A lot might say or think that my jewellery is organic and minimal. But it is important for me that those shapes and forms have meaning. I don’t design for design’s sake. I really need to have something to say when I am designing because there is an awful lot of jewellery in the world.” Suffusing jewellery with her own spiritual practises and beliefs is of paramount importance to her, far more than sales figures or public acclaim. “I really hope my work will have some sort of a positive impact on someone’s life, whether they feel empowered or inspired or comforted or cured. Recently, a woman who had cancer wrote to me and said she used one of my pieces as a talisman to get her through her cancer treatment. To me that is why I do what I do.” None of us fully knows how we will be remembered, but for the fortunate few such as Rabun, a body of work that speaks to her truth and resonates in such visceral and powerful way with her clients, provides a validating clue.

The Lustre of Melanie Georgacopoulos

In her 2007 Royal College of Art MA Degree show Melanie Georgacopoulos made modern jewellery history when she reimagined a string of pearls by doing something that at the time was sublimely subversive – slicing them. Reflecting back on it she notes:”It was a very instinctive thing. I wasn’t thinking conceptually what am I doing ? Why am I doing this now and what does it mean?” Her understated comment is typical of the London based Greek native who has been credited with reviving pearls as an option for the contemporary jewellery wearer; a gemstone that had hitherto felt preserved in the visual aspic of portraits of aristocrats and maharajahs, suddenly feels incredibly modern and appealing in her hands. With an eponymous line launched in 2010 and a successful and groundbreaking long term collaboration with heritage pearl house Tasaki now in its eighth year, her contribution to the 21st century jewellery canon seems secure, but like all great living artists, she continues to push boundaries and ask questions of her work, the material she has chosen to work with and the emotional energy and fiscal value we place on pieces made from these treasures from the sea.

Sliced Necklace M/G Tasaki (image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Sliced Necklace M/G Tasaki (image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Craft Mastery and Pearl Discovery

Georgacopoulos’ love of jewellery has been life-long. Growing up in Greece she reminisces: “I remember a lot of school trips we would always go to museums and in Greece all of the museums are filled with gold jewellery and artefacts.” Home was a creative one, with a French Interior Designer mother encouraging artistic endeavours although jewellery was at her brother’s suggestion: “I was always making things and leaving them around the house. We had a big desktop computer that had fallen apart and I found all those microchips that were inside and I started making smaller pieces with it and my brother said Why don’t you turn it into jewellery at least you can wear it and not leave it lying around. And this is how it started really.

Formal training began at the Mokume Institute in Athens and was in her words  “three years of intense and traditional jewellery technique learning. Not only were we hand-making pieces but we also [learnt about] production so we did casting, diamond setting, granulation, mokume-gane, all these jewellery techniques that we don’t really use  these days but it is very important to know..I  am very grateful for those years, although I didn’t enjoy all of it at the time” she adds candidly. Sadly, the Mokume Institute has closed, a victim of the Greek Sovereign Debt crisis of 2009 that ravaged the economy. However, the comprehensive training equipped Georgacopoulos for launching her own line in 2010, as unlike many of her contemporaries, she was able to do much of the  practical work herself, outsourcing for specific technical purposes only.

Tiles MOP Loop Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Tiles MOP Loop Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Although now associated with pearls, Georgacopoulos’ gravitation towards working them was gradual. Post Mokume, she took a step away from jewellery design, embarking on a BA in Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art. However, sculpture expanded her curiosity regarding materials providing a wider remit for exploration, “[with] sculpture you are, just working with the material and figuring out what the material gives back or tells you or what you can do with your hands… You don’t start with a design in the same way that one might start in jewellery. You might have a design but you cannot force it, instead you treat the material in a certain way so that it translates into your design.”  Her methodology,  one that is simultaneously respectful of the materials involved yet at its heart is untethered to established norms and rules allowed her to be boundless in her ideation processes. Alighting on pearls was serendipitous, once enrolled on the Royal College of Art’s prestigious MA in Jewellery Design, one of her tutors noticed that many of her designs featured rounded forms that would lend themselves well to pearls and suggested she explore it. Critically Georgacopoulos adds “sculpture gave me the hands on approach and a certain degree of fearlessness”. And if she had thought too deeply about the act that precipitated the Sliced Collection?  “I would have been too scared to cut a pearl, because you’re not supposed to do that with gems in general, you are supposed to enhance their beauty and cutting something in half can feel like you are destroying it.” Or indeed rebirthing it as she did.

Sliced Bracelet, M/G Tasaki (Image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Sliced Bracelet, M/G Tasaki (Image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

From that much talked about Degree Show, Georgacopoulos settled into a dual professional life, one that she admits as a recent graduate in super-competitive London she was fortunate to find herself in: doubling up as a design assistant for Antoine Sandoz where work included designing for companies as varied as Boucheron and Tom Ford and continuing to fulfil orders from her steady stream of private clients. By 2010, a mere three years since graduating she was already stocked in Dover Street Market and met the renowned jewellery curator and agency owner Valery Demure, who immediately suggested they work together. The meeting proved to be a career turning point “I thought okay, I have to decide. I am either going to carry on designing for other people or I am going to jump in, create my brand and focus on pearls….redesigning them and reinventing them.” The three years between graduation and launch allowed Georgacopoulos to refine her initial thesis, dream of new possibilities for the gemstone and critically do market research, “people had just forgotten about pearls. They just didn’t want to touch them and they didn’t know what to do with them,” This perfect storm of early critical acclaim, prestige  retail stockists and a unique niche were all she needed to proceed.

Stretched Stud Earrings M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Stretched Stud Earrings M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Georgacopoulos’ methodology and ethos is reminiscent of the jewellery-artists of old, figures such as Rene Lalique, who she cites as an influence and other interdisciplinary practitioners such as Margaret De Patta, who like her had ambitions of dismantling the elitism found in jewellery design because it limited wider participation. When we speak about nomenclature and whether she perceives herself as an artist, jeweller or something else she expands “It is only in the last year or two that I have allowed myself to see myself [as a jewellery-artist]. I think before I was really keen to prove that I was a good designer” Influences on her own design journey are varied; “Of course all the big houses but also Greek jewellers like Lalaounis, Zolotas and Fanourakis.”  She also has  high regard for another female pioneer at a heritage jewellery house, who also worked extensively with Mother of Pearl during her tenure at Tiffany and Co., Angela Cummings; “I think she did everything before anyone did anything. And she has not really been credited, I am not quite sure why, but I absolutely adore her work.”  Going back further to the first female creative director during the Art Nouveau movement in Paris she references the House of Boivin which was at the forefront of it adding “Yes, I am a fan of Suzanne Belperron like everyone else but at the same time I think I gravitate towards jewellery that is not obviously expensive.” 

Tiles MOP Bracelet (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Tiles MOP Bracelet (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Given the trajectory her own work has taken, it is craft jewellery she returns to for inspiration: “Munich Jewellery Week or Schmuck for example, I find them much more stimulating.” The craft jewellery scene, particularly now, is where one often sees the most experimental work, with creators unburdened by the history, commercial demands and the sales and marketing expectations of large jewellery houses. For Georgacopoulos stimuli comes in many forms, “I tend to be drawn to work where I am not quite sure how it was made… For example David Bielander, his collection called Cardboard…it looked exactly like cardboard but it was actually made with silver and gold…I  also like pieces from certain people…like Taffin and Caroline Broadhead who was the head of department at Central Saint Martins for many years. I guess it is more about specific pieces rather than one designer’s repertoire for me.” What consistently appeals to Georgacopoulos and is echoed in her own work is a certain intellectual vigour either in concept or execution and crucially a singular point of view that translates in the pieces.

MOP Cube Stud Earrings (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
MOP Cube Stud Earrings (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Democratising Jewellery and Celebrating Materials

Whoever thought that jewellery collections cannot involve an intellectualism or speak to deeper questions would find a riposte in many of Georgacopoulos’ collections for her eponymous brand. For someone working with pearls, hitherto considered one of the most conservative of luxury gemstones there are streaks of bold commentary and rebellion in her work. There is also an outright challenging of aesthetics and notions of value particularly in her work with Mother of Pearl as seen in the collections, Nacre, Tiles, Gemstones and Cube. Explaining the genesis of her ideas she relates: “It started as a very spontaneous response to the jewellery auctions that I was observing at the time, very big gemstones, coloured diamonds, the Blue Moon of Josephine ( a rare blue diamond that fetched $48,468,158 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2015) , I don’t know the other ones names,  but all these massive diamonds were fetching a ridiculous amount of money.” The auctions were happening around the same time Georgacopoulos was exploring ways that she could utilise Mother Of Pearl, hitherto a waste product of the pearling industry in her designs. “I feel about Mother Of Pearl the same way I felt about pearls ten years ago, which was what is going on and why was no one doing something interesting?” Unlike pearls, which have always held a high monetary and aesthetic value to collectors, Mother of Pearl has not. She adds laughing “Philip Sajet who is another jeweller says everyone always talks about the pearl but no one talks about the mother…[But] once I realised that I wanted to make a comment about all those crazy jewellery auctions I thought what is the simplest design I can create that people will immediately recognise and identify with, and that was the most common jewellery cuts. Which were the brilliant, the cushion and  seven other different cuts and I decided to make a mosaic of all in Mother of Pearl. The resulting Gemstones collection completed in 2016 challenged conventional thinking. What makes a faceted ‘stone’ covetable and desirable, is it provenance, cost, colour, rarity? And for those concerned with the environment, something that even the most reluctant have to concede some awareness of, isn’t using both the Pearl and Mother of Pearl a responsible and preferred way to consume jewellery? And surely in this age of inclusivity shouldn’t democratisation of participation in jewellery, as Mother of Pearl pieces carry less hefty price-tags, also be up for discussion? Georgacopoulos adds “There should be a cap in my mind on how much things can cost [as when prices get this high] … it almost doesn’t feel like jewellery anymore it becomes something else”

Gemstones MOP Emerald Cufflinks (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Gemstones MOP Emerald Cufflinks (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

Gemstones MOP Cushion Cut Ring (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Gemstones MOP Cushion Cut Ring (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

With Nacre, designed in 2019, Georgacopoulos has given the clearest indication of where she is heading both as a jeweller and an artist, with this deep meditation on the soul of the pearl resulting in a bold and uncompromising collection that hint at her  time at Edinburgh studying Sculpture. “I always joke I am trying to return the pearl to its oyster” she explains of the pieces that see pearls set in correspondingly coloured Mother of Pearl seemingly disappearing back into their shell. The collection represents Georgacopoulos granting herself the permission to surrender fully to where her artistry will take her: “I accept what the piece comes out as without putting restrictions; whether they are monetary restrictions, or thinking Oh, who is going to wear this? Or it needs to be a bit smaller or it needs to do this or it needs to do that. The Nacre pieces…can stand as small sculptures in a space. So it is that line between jewellery looking like jewellery, having jewellery elements but also being an object. And I think that is why it ends up being more expensive because one needs for example a thicker piece of gold as you need that balance for the piece.” The collection alongside Cube (designed in 2018) which also features a pearl juxtaposed with a cube of Mother Of Pearl have not only opened discourses around a material which was hitherto disregarded but also allowed Georgacopoulos to play more with proportions and task herself with a new challenge. “What people consider a beautiful and valuable pearl is usually perfectly round, no blemishes, perfect lustre to the point that it looks fake especially if it is a really large one . I thought it was a good idea to reunite the pearl to the oyster to show that this is actually quite amazing even if it is a cultured pearl, as it is still a little animal creating this.” In her able hands she fashions that reality into adornments that are evocative of this particular truth.

Nacre Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Nacre Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

Nacre Double Ring (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Nacre Double Ring (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

This is not to say that Georgacopoulos is satisfied with her pieces being worn by habitués of PAD Fair, Frieze Art Fair and the Front Row at major global fashion weeks, although her work has an obvious appeal to people working in the creative industries and those who already have strong aesthetic sensibilities. She expands “I want to keep the jewellery open enough design wise that it appeals to a wider range of women and not just have one specific art or design lady who earns a lot of money and has eclectic taste as my client. I think women, people, are more diverse.” Furthermore, Georgacopoulos is determined to take  pearl jewellery out of the for-special-occasions-only silo adding “I intentionally want to have very wearable everyday pieces that people can buy without having to save up money for them ” To this end the Essence collection designed in 2014 and aforementioned Cube fit the rubric as they have an informal feel without compromising on Georgacopoulos’ design language. She adds “I don’t want to lose that connection with people who like the pieces I design but are not able to spend five figures on them” 

Essence Rings, (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Essence Rings, (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Co-Creating with an Innovative Heritage Brand

Recounting how her long-term collaboration with Japanese pearl heritage house Tasaki came into being, the predestined qualities of the story shine through. “The director of Tasaki was in London and saw my pieces in Dover Street Market…And I think they tried to locate me through my agent and I got an email saying that they wanted to invite me to Japan to meet with them over a week but  they didn’t really say what it was about.” What ensued was a creative courtship, with Georgacopoulos recalling  “They took me to Nagasaki to their pearl farm where I opened some oysters, I found some pearls inside and then they took me to Kobe where their production facility is and I was completely blown away. I remember thinking I am in Japan, I am talking to a Japanese pearl jewellery company, they are interested in my work, how crazy is this? I am basically a Greek girl, designing pearl jewellery and I have a giant of the pearl industry contacting me.” What the comprehensive tour indicated, was that the team at Tasaki had identified the talent that would assist them in creating collections that clearly positioned them as the avant-garde alternative to their main competitor  Mikimoto. Furthermore, they were willing, in spite of their history as an established heritage house, to humbly court her until she acquiesced. For her part, Georgacopoulos, on signing her contract in 2012  handed her breakthrough  degree collections: Sliced, Drilled and Arlequin to be extended and produced under the new marque they created  for the collaboration M/G Tasaki, in 2013.

Drilled Earrings M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Drilled Earrings M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

Arlequin Bangle, M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Arlequin Bangle, M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Georgacopoulos is remarkably calm about what many might perceive as giving away her trademark work, she adds: “I was thinking, well, through my agent, and through me wholesaling I can probably sell five or ten of these [pieces] , but Tasaki can sell hundreds of these. Which means that for hundreds of customers, maybe thousands over time, they will have embraced something that is to a certain extent quite radical.” Additionally, from a creative perspective “it forced me to say okay, I have done this but now I move on. I want to test myself, challenge myself. I don’t want to repeat, just because it works. I don’t want to do this for the x amount of years I am going to work as a jeweller.”

Wedge Ring M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Wedge Ring M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Subsequent collections have followed the same commercial success and the collaboration has availed Georgacopoulos with the opportunity to have two parallel careers in the same industry.  Tasaki provides production and development facilities that a smaller brand can only dream of, whilst Georgacopoulos continues expanding on her mandate of reimagining pearl jewellery, but keeping a keen eye on commercial considerations, such as using diamonds and other gemstones. Collections of note have included to name a few Segment (2016), Grain and Woven (2018)

Segment Ring M/G Tasaki (Image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Segment Ring M/G Tasaki (Image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

For a company steeped in history she reports that neither her gender or her not being Japanese have impeded her progress or created logjams.“It is by far the best professional experience I have had in my life. Not because it has been easy but because it has been very straightforward from the beginning. They chose me because they liked my jewellery voice, so they never imposed anything. Whenever I am supposed to do a new collection…I receive a plan with certain price points and a list of what has sold well in the past. But they never give me any directions in terms of design, so I come up with the design directions, I send a huge amount of drawings and they tell me okay we feel this is right for us this season and we will develop that.” It speaks positive volumes of Tasaki’s corporate culture and in many ways future-proofs them for the 21st century. With call-out and cancel culture catching many a jewellery and fashion behemoth in the crosshairs, the arrangement between Georgacopoulos and Tasaki is one where mutual respect is forefront, exploitation and discrimination is entirely absent and she is availed the technical support and expertise to deliver products that customers will love. It is a collaboration template that many will no doubt seek to emulate as increasingly discerning customers seek out jewellery that is  both beautiful and made by brands that share their values.

Woven Necklace M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Woven Necklace M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Authenticity and the future of Jewellery

“I am very excited to see students working with pearls.” Georgacopolous says. As a Visiting Lecturer in the BA Jewellery Design course at Central Saint Martin’s, she works  principally with final year students. She is also quick to encourage them to be as audacious as she was adding “We should always try to imagine something different. There is no point in repeating the past… fine, it is not easy for anyone but what will make you stand out ultimately is your individual expression.” Authenticity, has become something of a buzzword in the worlds of jewellery and fashion with brands large and small, devising multifarious plans to engage and attract customers in an ever crowded marketplace. By teaching students to chart their own course early, Georgacopoulos hopes to provide them with a blueprint for a successful existence that stretches beyond the jewellery bench. And generous to a fault, she uses her own Instagram handle as a means of amplification, posting graduate and recent graduates’ work to followers.

Grain Double Ring M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Grain Double Ring M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

We close our conversation considering the luxury space in light of the Covid19 pandemic, which in addition to claiming lives, has laid waste to businesses globally. What does she feel this time means for the future of luxury and jewellery in particular? Georgacopoulos’ response is emphatic. “Whether it is fashion, jewellery, or objects , I really hope we are going to embrace more craftsmanship, handmade things and not just buying something that is made five thousand times and paying a premium because it has a nice big logo on. I just cannot identify with that for my own life.” `Conscious consumption aside, lockdown has also been  a season where Georgacopoulos has not only embraced the juggle of parenting, homeschooling and designing, but also questioned the way jewellery is currently marketed and the myth-making that goes hand in hand with it. She notes “I feel this moment is generally translating into people showing a bit more of themselves and not the image they think they have to project.” Discussing her forthcoming campaign imagery she expands “I really don’t want the beautiful woman with the perfect nails looking absolutely stunning and wearing matching jewellery pieces which is the typical stereotype…. I think as women we are relaxing a little bit more [in regard to] how we show ourselves and this idea of perfection that essentially men have imposed on us.” Pearls as the ornamental armour for the woman who is in control of her own destiny, rather than a debutante or grand dame whose identity is contingent on her provenance or who she married? It doesn’t get more modern than that.

Nacre Bangle, (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Nacre Bangle, (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

Georgacopoulos’ trajectory is a masterclass in the power of focus and determined application. Each creative chapter on her journey so far seamlessly feeds into the next: from childhood experimental maker to student silversmith, sculptor, jewellery designer and now jewellery artist. Whilst her ascent may appear speedy, having courage in her convictions has also played its part. Few would dare to present a degree show with such a fundamental rule broken  or indeed continue to challenge pre=conceived notions in high jewellery. Her design explorations and collaborations also indicate a creator who although fortunate to find her niche early, has still remained open to widening its locus and the modus operandi of execution, as seen in her work for her eponymous brand, M/G Tasaki and special commissions, exhibitions and shows such as ‘Le Cabinet de Curiosites de Thomas Erber,’ held in Paris in 2015. Her humility in light of her successes is indicative of a creator who still believes there is much more to explore as hubris is normally borne out of complacency which Georgacopoulos is the very opposite of. Before we part company she leaves me pondering a profound statement that incapsulates the emotional connection people form with their jewellery and by extension the jewellery creatives they admire: “People buy energy…You buy the energy of a piece, the energy that you take from it, the energy that it gives you, the energy that you feel when you wear it or when you own it.” Groundbreaking designs aside it is her enduring optimism and candour that guides her work: “I try to be as honest as I can and I like the idea of opening things up instead of saying ah, this is a secret and exclusive.” In this modern age of inclusiveness, collaboration and widening the remit of participation, her career feels built to last.

Thomas Erber Rectangle Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Thomas Erber Rectangle Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Melanie Eddy’s Many Facets

“Any maker wants their work to speak first” says Melanie Eddy, but when the work ranges from jeweller, to academic, to international development expert and now educational change agent, it doesn’t just speak, it shouts from the rooftops. Amongst the jewellery cognoscenti Eddy is a noted voice: her atelier situated in the heart of Clerkenwell, London’s traditional jewellery district is a destination for collectors of her arresting pieces in gold and silver that are informed by her love of architecture and geometry. As a lecturer on the MA Ceramics, Furniture and Jewellery programme at the world renowned Central Saint Martin’s, she is stewarding the next generation of creative visionaries. Furthermore, her work in the development sector has seen her spearhead programmes that use jewellery as a socio-economic catalyst and cultural anchor in post-conflict territories. A Director for the Association for Contemporary Jewellery, Eddy is to some extent part of the jewellery establishment, although her Bermudan-New Zealander heritage have oftentimes made her the only person of colour with a seat at the proverbial table and brought with it attendant challenges. Our wide ranging conversation, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the resulting global protests against racism and white supremacy, inevitably turns to the lack of diversity in the jewellery world and debates around inclusivity, something that Eddy is seamlessly addressing with a practical and professional approach.

Melanie Eddy image: Nicola Muirhead
Melanie Eddy in her studio. Image by Nicola Muirhead

Tackling Diversity, Challenging Perceptions
“I have been teaching for six years at Central Saint Martins…and since I have been on the course I have not seen a jeweller come on the course who is of black heritage.” Eddy relates, in soft spoken tones that convey razor sharp analyses and somewhat uncomfortable truths, sweetened by their delicate delivery. Considering the situation from the perspective of potential students she notes “if you don’t see many exemplars from your community…people don’t visualise themselves in that space because it is removed from their reality.” Rather than merely lament the situation, Eddy has put her relationships within the industry to powerful effect. As a co=founder of the Jewellery Futures Fund,  Eddy together with Rachel Garrahan, Jewellery and Watch Director of British Vogue and Annabel Davidson, Vanity Fair’s  On Jewellery editor are responding to the issues head-on: from providing bursaries for black students, to paid internships for graduates  across the jewellery sector and grants for emerging designers and makers of colour.  It is an audacious plan of action that is a continuum of conversations she has initiated throughout her career, but which came to a head in recent weeks. “When all of this stuff was coming out people were like oh my God, this is horrible, what can we do? And I kind of was like well, actually..” She says wryly laughing at the memory: “The jewellery industry is so frigging white….There are some of us here and there needs to be more of us.”  Eddy recognises her luck in being able to complete her studies via a combination of grants, bursaries and assistance from her family and is passionate that the fund expands the participation pool so that the jewellery industry truly evolves. Significantly, the fund takes the tripartite approach of education, work experience and investing in black students and thus has the potential to address the issue in a holistic and measurable manner long after the marches hashtags and comment pieces have ceased flooding our collective feeds and timelines.

Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy
Geometric Gold Rings: Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy

Eddy’s love affair with jewellery is lifelong; “my connection to jewellery definitely came from my Mum and my grandmother because they were very stylish and they had jewellery boxes full of all kinds of treasures” It was not long before Eddy became something of an autodidact: “I was reading about gems in the school library and stuff like that and then I made a bit of jewellery at high school but with bits of glass as I didn’t have gems” However, her route into the industry wasn’t linear, initially studying for a joint honours  in English and International and Comparative Studies at the University of Western Ontario, Huron University College, as in her words “I had the grades” rather than opting for the more precarious path of full-time creative. Yet, she found her way back to jewellery although not without experiencing first hand numerous micro-aggressions as a woman of colour: “I applied to the Royal College of Art and I didn’t get accepted but not only did I not get accepted in my interview I was talked to and treated in not a very nice way to the extent that another tutor apologised and helped me apply to other institutions…I was really ripped to shreds at the interview and it really impacted me.” Neither was this an isolated incident, Eddy adds: “As the years passed jewellery [making] had started to become smaller and my other work [in the industry] became bigger because I found it easier in terms of being heard…I didn’t feel the same kind of reception in the jewellery sector. I have been turned down for exhibitions, I have been turned down for things that I have applied for and people looking at my stuff would be like how is that possible?” But whilst she leaves the question open, it is clear that the unconscious bias and overt prejudice had resulted in many decision makers within the industry either unwilling or lacking in imagination to posit her among the vanguard of jewellery designers paving the way in the early 21st century.

Topaz Engagement Ring and Wedding Band. Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy
Topaz Engagement Ring and Wedding Band. Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy

For Eddy, a clear design language has always been at the heart of her practice and has resulted in pieces that are immediately recognisable as her own. She elaborates: “For me it was really important to keep the message clear in my jewellery but it was also a contested space..people would say you are not making work about your experience or it doesn’t look like the kind of work they would expect from a black person or one from the Caribbean.” Further upending external expectations are her architectural forms and references, which for the lazy reviewer belonged to a male practitioner: “In terms of architecture two elements resonate for me: sacred architecture of all faiths and doctrines and the sparseness of Tadao Ando’s designs and how deliberate he was in terms of interaction and creating these very experiential spaces” In addition to Ando, she cites Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid as having influenced her work, as well as the avant-garde artist and pioneer of the Suprematist movement Kazimir Malevich. Indeed her jewellery, often includes geometric shapes and gemstones cut and set in such a way that they are evocative of abstract art. When worn, the pieces create new silhouettes on the wearer’s body, reminiscent of the way a new building transforms both the existing landscape it is situated in and people’s relationship to it. For those seeking pieces with intellectual depth of meaning Eddy’s work is consistent in its messaging and intriguing in equal measure. Not to say this has not gone without resistance or comment: “Why should I have to adapt to  perceptions of blackness?” She rightly asks. It is an important question, inclusion is only one part of the diversity equation, of equal import are expectations and narrow suppositions. Tribal references, bright colours and heavy ornamentation should not become the only aesthetic and design silo for the female jeweller of colour to operate from.

Blue Topaz and Palladium Ring. Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy
Blue Topaz and Palladium Ring. Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy

Eddy is emphatic in recognising the pioneer women and black jewellers who are important standard bearers and touchstones for herself and future generations: “Top of the list has to be Jacqueline Rabun. I spoke to her for the first time yesterday and I was starstruck and surprised that I was even able to have a proper chat with her as I was grinning so hard.” she says of the African-American designer who in addition to her own private atelier has spearheaded a commercial and creative revival at heritage Danish jewellery house Georg Jensen.  Suzanne Belperron, a designer from back in the day [and] of course Elsa Perretti for Tiffany are also big inspirations.” Of arguably the first great black designer of the contemporary era she notes: “I didn’t know much about Art Smith until much later.” That Smith still remains relatively unknown is something Eddy is seeking to rectify via the lens of education and increased visibility for designers of colour: “It is important for us to come to the fore because it means younger people will feel validated and that the space is for them.” 

 

Jewellery as a Catalyst for Change

It is perhaps in Eddy’s roles in the third sector that has seen her work overtly cross over into the political realm, and curiously take her back to her first discipline of international development: “All of the projects that I have been involved in…have had a collaborative nature to them, a local component and the agency is there from the country side as supposed to a drop-in kind of situation because I feel uncomfortable {with that] and have actually interrogated that process.” Consultancies have taken her extensively across Central and South Asia where she sought means for jewellery makers, miners and artisans to create further value. She expands: “looking at real solutions to income generation in countries ravaged by war, debating the course of sustainable business practices for the creative sector, how we continue to provide opportunities to all spectrums of society to engage in that process for keeping art and design colleges diverse culturally and economically….that is when I see the value of my voice at those tables.” For countries such as Afghanistan with rich mineral deposits but limited capacity building mechanisms and where Eddy worked at Turquoise Mountain’s Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, practitioners who were conversant in the political and economic challenges, but committed to creating scenarios that glean the greatest good were a welcome boon, she notes: “Turquoise Mountain was different …they don’t operate that standard model..they wind things up and it becomes run by nationals which is the best way.”

Aquamarine and Gold Ring: Image Courtesy of Melanie Eddy
Aquamarine and Gold Engagement Ring and Wedding Band: Image Courtesy of Melanie Eddy

However, even in these fora, western-centric thinking often proved problematic. “These cultures have a history of excellence and expertise we were just facilitating growth on existing legacies and craftsmanship… [For instance} they have a history of gold craftsmanship in parts of East and West Africa.. In Afghanistan there is a history of gem cutting…what is sometimes frustrating about some of these projects is not acknowledging what is happening in the communities. The [projects] that are done really well acknowledge the history, that it is not about bringing European techniques” She is equally scathing about models that see global marketshare increasing as the only true measure of success: “It is as if the only viable consumer is the international consumer, the western global consumer which is ridiculous. If you look at the demographics in regard to what is happening with the growing middle and higher economic classes  in Africa for instance, the market is there. The market is not abroad. Within 40 or 50 years people will wake up to this reality but right now they are still in a bit of a daze…Any strategy has to be cognisant of fostering a community, fostering growth and fostering engagement with local markets and growing local markets.” Perhaps black jewellery designers be they on the continent or in the diaspora would do well to explore emerging economies and territories rather than fix their gaze firmly on the west? What is most significant is how this body of work clearly illustrates how jewellery, an item deemed as a luxury and to some a frippery can be at the forefront of  enabling economic prosperity, political stability and cultural exchange.

 

Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy
Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy

Looking to the future of jewellery, particularly via the lens of black jewellery designers, Eddy is optimistic even though creating jewellery collections, campaigning for better terms of engagement within the industry, teaching her students and consulting in the development sector has resulted in fatigue and occasional disillusionment “ it is lonely and it is isolating” she says and it is in instances such as this that old friends such as the writer Afua Hirsch come into play: “she is really super busy but we will still connect and talk occasionally and she has given me the fortitude to stay the course.” Because Eddy’s work goes far beyond herself and personal and professional plaudits. It is about correcting historical injustices where opportunities to participate and recognition of the quality of work produced by black jewellery designers were limited at best and obstructed and ignored at worst. It is about expanding the locus of taste to incorporate aesthetic values from other parts of the world and halt the western gaze that sees difference as intrinsically inferior. It is about those working in the industry, especially in countries with considerable mineral wealth finally seeing equitable working conditions and pay. And finally it is about using her considerable talent as a designer and maker to create pieces that speak to her clients and transform their mood, ensembles and life from the moment they wear them. With her prodigious talent, crystal clear values and  tenacious spirit, the best from her for her collectors, students and the industry is yet to come.