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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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”
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.
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”
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.
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.”
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.