The London-based jeweler Shaun Leane fuses precious stones with feathers, Fabergé and fashion to create avant-garde pieces that question traditional notions of jewelry. We talk to the designer about his work and his celebrated celebrated collaborations with Alexander McQueen.
Alexander McQueen catwalk shows are highly anticipated by the fashion set, and not only for the “enfant terrible’s” latest sartorial creations. Dotted amongst McQueen’s romantic eveningwear and signature tailoring are spectacular necklaces, headdresses and masks created in collaboration with the London-based jeweler Shaun Leane. These extraordinary pieces – which range from exquisite “nests” complete with Fabergé eggs to controversial mouthpieces crafted from silver – draw gasps and sometimes even criticism for their references to yashmaks and the like.
“I make pieces that are like body sculptures that provoke the idea of where and how jewelry should be worn,” says Leane of his cutting-edge work. “For me, it’s about being innovative, avant-garde, and trying to create designs that are new.”
Classically trained in London’s Hatton Garden diamond district, Leane began his career in 1985 with an apprenticeship that saw him learn the traditional techniques of creating high jewelry. In 1997, he set up his costume jewelry business and in 2005 he returned “full circle” to his roots with the launch of his first diamond collection.
Valuable concoctions of precious stones coupled with everything from feathers to eagle skulls are his trademark. “It has enabled me to fuse what I learnt on the traditional side – which was all about craftsmanship and traditional manufacturing techniques – with fashion,” he says of his education.
Leane’s recent creations include a necklace for Boucheron with flowers that open and close mechanically, “which was quite a task to create but they engineered it perfectly.” He is a cult figure amongst the fashion crowd (he designed the engagement ring given to supermodel Anouk Lepere by Jefferson Hack) and the darling of socialites (Daphne Guinness, who he considers to be his muse, recently commissioned him to create a “piece of armor”).
But it his work with fashion houses including Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Givenchy, which has led to his work being described as the “antiques of the future” by Sotheby’s. Leane has won UK Jewellery Designer of the Year on many occasions, most recently this year.
As we showcase some of his most iconic creations alongside items from his latest collection, we talk to Shaun Leane about designing jewelry that is utterly contemporary but made with traditional techniques.
Your work is truly innovative and forward-looking. How would you characterize your design philosophy?
My background is that I trained at London’s Hatton Garden and worked on the traditional side of the industry for many years. I’ve been making jewelry for the last 25 years and I’ve been in fashion for the last 15 years, working with Alexander McQueen, Givenchy and haute couture [McQueen was creative director at Givenchy from 1996 to 2001]. It has been a really exciting journey because it has enabled me to fuse what I learnt on the traditional side - which was all about craftsmanship and traditional manufacturing techniques like old pavé – with fashion. For me, it’s about being innovative, avant-garde, and trying to create designs that are new. But you must always respect the craftsmanship of the past and, through doing that, you can create pieces that are contemporary but timeless at the same time.
You are renowned for the jewelry you have created for Alexander McQueen catwalk shows. Tell us about your favorite pieces from this collaboration and the creative process that’s involved.
With the catwalk, I’m given a platform by Alexander McQueen or any other designer I work with, to really break the boundaries of jewelry design. I use different materials and will make pieces that are like body sculptures that provoke the idea of where and how jewelry should be worn. I’ve worked with McQueen for about 15 years now. My favorite piece is definitely the coiled corset, which is like a Masai neckpiece that goes all the way down to the hip. I love this because for me it was a moment where I went from making jewelry as an accessory to jewelry as body sculpture. Once I made that piece, people began to realize that as a jeweler I was doing something really different. Some of my recent favorites are the eagle skull headdress and the nest with the Fabergé eggs inside. These pieces were set with gemstones, and made with silver and very expensive materials. Why I love them is because when I first started working with McQueen it was all about shapes, silhouettes and materials that were inexpensive. I always wanted to turn full circle and bring fine jewelry to the catwalk that would be innovative and different but also very valuable.
You have collaborated with many other people from the fashion world, including Daphne Guinness for whom you created a spectacular metal glove. What was the inspiration behind this work?
Isabella Blow introduced me to Daphne about nine years ago. Daphne always loved the pieces I made for McQueen but they would have been a bit too big for her. So we began to work on different pieces together. The glove came about because she wanted me to create a piece of armor, a jeweled piece that would be both strong and elegant. It was fun because we had to cast her arm in concrete and form everything around it. Lots of other pieces are developing from that which you will see in the future. Daphne is wonderful; she is kind of a muse to me now. She wears a lot of my work and has become a very good friend.
You have also created many pieces for leading jewelry houses such as Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron. What have you learned by working with these traditional houses?
I come from the traditional side of the industry and I know how to make all types of jewelry. At a craftsmanship level, there’s not much they can teach me. I think what they’ve taught me is that nothing is impossible. Working with Boucheron was amazing, such as wonderful experience. They gave me a brief of absolute freedom and asked me to think outside the box, which is what I did. I wanted to produce a necklace with flowers that open and close mechanically which was quite a task to create, but they engineered it perfectly. They also taught me that there are clients who want the most unique and desirable pieces from all our industries, whether it is fashion or jewelry. To me, it is refreshing to know that there are still people out there who want to have these beautiful pieces commissioned and that we’re not only living in a world of mass production.
Collaborations are clearly an inspiration of yours. Who is on your list to work with?
Fashion-wise, I’d like work with Viktor & Rolf. I think they’re so iconic and unique. Chanel would be a dream. I worked with Van Cleef & Arpels many years ago but I’d love to work with them again. I’d also like to make something for the Queen of England. It would be some kind of tiara with a whole story of her life, something so private and personal that only she would know. I wouldn’t bring a hard contemporary edge to the Queen; I’d bring my romantic side to her and my story telling.
Which are your favorite materials to work with?
Diamonds are my favorite because of their brilliance and vibrancy. I also love enamel because it’s so opulent, you can create such bold colors with it, and it’s an old technique of jewelry production. When I work in fashion, I love working with feathers. They’re so soft, delicate and beautiful and yet can create such a strong, bold array of colors, shapes and forms. I love that contrast. Feathers are one of nature’s finest produce.
Sotheby’s once described your work as “antiques of the future”. Do you design with the idea of your jewelry being timeless or maintaining its value?
When I was studying and doing my seven-year apprenticeship, my favorite period was when we were taught antique restoration. I used to restore Victorian jewelry, Art Deco and Art Nouveau pieces. I would look at these pieces that had been crafted nearly a hundred years ago and would think how much love had gone into them and how beautifully made they were. The pieces were so distinctive of their period that you could instantly recognize them. I thought that was very clever of the designers of those days. It was something I always wanted to do too, to create pieces that would last into the future that are a representation of my time. I want my pieces to be around a long time after I’m gone.
Tell us about your latest collection.
My collections are all very organic with references to nature but I’ve always wanted to do a sculptural collection, one that is quite large and tactile. In researching that, I looked at different landscapes and formations of rocks and mountains, and then the moon. There’s an element of romance to all my work so the moon was perfect. I studied the surfaces and craters of the moon and then I designed these formations that are kind of like craters, but with reflective surfaces that would bounce off each other. It’s quite playful because you imagine that the stones could have been found on the moon.
The Duchess of Windsor once remarked that before leaving your home, you should remove one piece of jewelry. How do you think jewelry should be worn?
With confidence and love!
Who do you think – both past, present, famous and non-famous – wears jewelry well?
The Duchess of Windsor is someone I’ve always admired. I think the romantic side of my work comes from her and Edward because their story is so romantic. The jewelry he made for her was so personal with hidden engravings. In the present, it has to be Daphne Guinness. I love Daphne because she wears couture with diamonds and the finest pieces, but she can also wear couture with costume jewelry and make it look amazing. Her ability to fuse all types of jewelry with the way she styles herself is a true art form.
What is your definition of luxury?
Beautiful surroundings with good company.
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar in India.
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If luxury were an object, what would it be?
An artwork by Sam Taylor-Wood named “self portrait as a tree”.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
When you realize you love someone.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
London City Guide
Why do you live in London?
It is my hometown and I remain in London because of its diversity and culture.
Which are your favorite restaurants?
Nobu – I have recently discovered my love for sushi, they do the best sushi and also Les Trois Garcons in E1.
Which are your favorite bars?
Soho House and Shoreditch House – they feel like home.
Where do you go to relax and rejuvenate?
Hampstead Heath – it is so quiet there, it almost feels like you are not in London.
What are your favorite cultural attractions?
The view of the heart of London from Waterloo Bridge at night; you can see so many landmarks from there.
Which are your favorite private galleries?
White Cube. It’s a real eye-opener, I always find something refreshing there.
Which are your favorite shops?
Alexander McQueen suits are great because of the sharp tailoring. For casual wear, I would go for Marc Jacobs on Mount Street. With Harrods and Selfridges, they are great destinations to get gifts for friends and family because you have everything under one roof.
Which hotels do you recommend to visiting friends?
Claridge’s Hotel – beautiful design, space, a mix of modern and tradition.
Which are your favorite weekend getaways from the city?
Bath in South West England because of the magnificent Roman architecture, baths and temple. It also has the only naturally occurring hot springs in the UK.
Do you have a favorite view of the city?
From Highgate, in North London – it is one of the highest points of Central London and on a clear day you can see the whole of the city.
Tell us a secret about London.
There is a tiny pub hidden away just off Hatton Garden, London’s jewelry quarter, called Olde Mitre Tavern. It is so hidden that many who work in the area don’t know it exists. I discovered a picture on the wall that stated the tavern and the lands surrounding it is owned by Diocese of Ely, Cambridgeshire. So although the pub is located in central London, technically speaking, it belongs to another county of England.