Whilst working together on the Vanleles showroom, we took the time to learn more about the founder and figurehead of the brand, Vania Leles.
Let’s start from the beginning… where did your love for gems and jewellery manifest from?
My love for gems didn’t actually come into play until later on in my life, however, my love for jewellery started from a young age when watching my mother get ready for the day; laying on her gold necklaces and earrings. I loved playing with her jewellery box too and going through all the pieces.
What is your first memory of jewellery?
I was given a pair of pearl earrings by my mother for my first holy communion - aged around about 9 years old. This was my first proper item of jewellery and left an impression on me during my teenage years. On leaving for university I was given a Cartier watch; another very important item in my jewellery box and something that I still treasure today.
You have a very cosmopolitan background and have lived all over the globe; has this international experience influenced your work today?
Definitely. I was born in Guinea-Bissau - and grew up there - but I actually went to school in Portugal. So between my early school years I split my time between the city of Bissau and my school in Lisbon before moving to Portugal permanently at the age of 16 to finish HS and started university. In 1998 I moved to Paris and lived there for a couple of years before moving to London in 2000 to start my modelling career. By then, I had already lived in four different countries and had been exposed to different cultures and ways of living by a relatively young age. Working in the modelling industry provided me with many opportunities to travel and experience the world from a different perspective. I lived in New York for three years and travelled to cities all over the world. As a result of this, I speak a number of languages and have a very global way of thinking.
Whilst I travelled lots, I found myself always coming back to Guinea-Bissau and exploring the continent of Africa more widely. Looking back at this, I can see how my work today has been inspired by these family holidays and adventures.
Where did you study gemology? For those looking to start a career in jewellery how important is this course?
It was whilst living and working in New York that I was exposed to fine jewellery and so whilst living in the city I decided to study gemology at The GIA - The Gemological Institute of America. Fitting the course into my travels and life story, I actually ended up finishing my course in London where the institute had a campus in London. On graduating, I was very lucky to receive a job offer with Graff where I stayed for a number of years before moving to De Beers and finally to Sotheby’s. Between these three brands, I learnt a huge amount about business however my course in gemology really gave me a solid grounding in understanding technical details and processes involved in creating jewellery.
Jewellery is also a very generational business - many of the big brands are run by family members who may not necessarily have done a course in gemology but just started working the business on graduating or finishing school. However, I would recommend doing the course, especially if you have no prior ties to the industry because it will help set you apart; for me, it was the best thing I did in my journey into having my own business.
What sets VanLeles jewellery apart from competitors?
75% of fine jewellery - the stones and metals - originate from Africa and yet there is very little African representation in the fine jewellery market. I saw this as an opportunity to establish my own brand and so on a basic level, this is what largely sets me apart from my competitors. However, it goes deeper than that. My pieces embody African culture, the landscape and its people and are therefore wholly unique. I wanted to start a brand that not only had a very strong African heritage, but also honours the countries where the materials come from. For example, we did a collection using Zambian emeralds, which honoured the country and celebrated its most precious stone and this is something that has never really been done before, even though the story behind jewellery can be just as rich and exciting as the physical pieces.
Aesthetically, I am very brave in my use of colours and shapes. Sometimes I am more conservative in my designs as the market can dictate this however, when this is not the case I like to be bold and very creative. Whilst a lot of the time I am inspired by my travels through Africa - the colours and shapes I discover - my designs are contemporary and fresh and I design with the global woman in mind.
Ethics and sustainability are important elements to modern-day jewellery brands - how does VanLeles approach this?
I believe the ethics of gemstones comes with a moral obligation - and I am especially aware of this with VanLeles as I am directly sourcing gemstones mined by my peers; it’s an aspect of the business that is very close to my heart and forms the foundation blocks of the brand. Traceability and transparency are key aspects for modern day jewellery brands and is something Vanleles is especially conscious of. We want every item of jewellery to have a traceable story; not only does this enrich the piece’s narrative it also ensures we are operating in an ethical manner. It holds us accountable, which is something that is so important in the industry today.
Sustainability is another area of the business which is being focused on at the moment. We are looking to incorporate repurposed gold into our designs but on the bigger end of the scale, we focus on creating collections that are small and therefore not wasted. By working on a small scale we are able to sustainably create fine jewellery with very little wastage, all whilst maintaining high levels of ethics.
What jewellery trends will we see going into 2021?
The global pandemic has had a big impact on the way people consume - not just everyday products and brands but also items on the luxury scale. People are shopping less but shopping more mindfully. I believe we will see the rise of less mass production of items and the rise of clients investing in timeless pieces that can be passed down generations; pieces that are lasting and have real heritage, provenance and quality to them. More specifically with fine jewellery, I think we will see an increase in the creation of one-of-a-kind pieces that are made bespoke for the client.
What key pieces of jewellery should everyone have in their jewellery box?
I always say, if you open a woman’s jewellery box, you can precisely tell her life story. So in my case, if you open my jewellery box you will see my pearl earrings that my mother gave my for my first holy communion, my Cartier watch and pen that I was given when I started university. Then, to mark the start of my career in the industry, there are two diamond stud earrings that I bought for myself. They are real markers in my life as that represent a milestone for my professional career. Many people told me I would never make it in the fine jewellery business and so when I did, I decided diamonds would be the best personal reward and way of celebrating my success. Then I met my husband and so there is my engagement ring and wedding band and for each child, my husband gave me a present. So, if I am to look in my jewellery box then I can trace my whole life; whilst my items are very personal I believe the contents of a woman’s jewellery box is universal with each piece elaborating and detailing the individual lives.
How do you see the jewellery industry landscape changing in 10 years time?
My greatest hope is that the industry can become more authentic, honest and transparent and more giving towards the communities where those gemstones and precious metals are being mined. These are the communities that I believe need to be compensated fairly - and need
s to be brought to the forefront of the consumers’ minds. Consumers should know where their fine jewellery originates from. This is something that VanLeles has always done. With each piece we provide the provenance of the gemstones.
What is your greatest hope for the future of jewellery design and sourcing of gemstones?
Traceability and transparency is my greatest hope for this industry and why I created my own brand. so that I can help lead the way to a more sustainable and ethical fine jewellery world.
What’s in store for the future of VanLeles Diamonds?
We are changing a few things in our business model and focusing on creating smaller collections and specific one-of-a-kind pieces. This is a job I want to have for the rest of my life and so I would love to produce unique items that cannot be replicated or bought elsewhere. I love the idea that they are the only pieces in the world and have a unique story and heritage that cannot be matched elsewhere.
How did you find the experience of working with Clive Christian on the display cabinetry for your client suite?
It was a really wonderful process which was executed to perfection. I felt very supported and I love that the cabinetry is very well designed to securely house the jewellery. The craftsmanship is exquisite but most of all, it was really important for me to work with a brand that was waste free. Everything within the design process is considered to such a high level, meaning there is no waste and it is this aspect to Clive Christian that I enjoyed the most. Its ethos mirrors VanLeles’ own ethos and so it seemed like a perfect fit to work together.
What was the most important part of the cabinetry for you when working on the design with Clive Christian and which is your favourite feature now?
I love that no one else in the world has a jewellery cabinet like ours however from a practical point of view, the integrated security feature is most important. Rather than using the old style of locks and keys we now employ an electronic keycard that is unique to the cabinet, meaning our customer service can be seamless and slick. It’s a very elegant and discreet way to access your jewellery and adds to the customer experience.
If you have a project you would like to discuss with us, our team is at your disposal, and look forward to answering your questions. Get in touch.
For further information about Vanleles click here.