SOPHIE HARLEY : Jewellery Designer
What brought you to the area?
I was born in the original Queen Charlotte's Hospital (by Ravenscourt Park). My daughter was born there too, the last baby to be born there on the last night before they shut the maternity wing. And she was born in the same room as me. Her father was a director at the BBC so we moved to Wendell Road and our daughter went to Wendell Park School. I live round the corner now.
What inspired you to become a jewellery designer?
From a really young age I loved sparkly things. My great-grandmother eloped from Victorian England, which was considered very saucy. They ran away to Turkey and helped build the Ottoman-Aidin railway. My grandmother was brought up in Turkey and when she came back to London, she had this beautiful gold charm bracelet, a miniature Noah's ark and I was fascinated by all the little pieces.
Do you come from an artistic family?
They were all medical, doctors and nurses, but they were incredibly supportive. I had my little easel at home and I was the class artist, the one who knocked up a roman mosaic out of sweet wrappers.
Where did you train?
I did a BA at West Surrey College of Art and Design, and an MA in goldsmithing in the Royal College of Art in South Ken. I used to draw a lot in the museums. I've always been interested in the Roman era and the Egyptians, and I've travelled around Egypt extensively.
If I wanted to learn more about jewellery, where would you point me in London?
The V&A has an amazing collection from the Etruscan era all the way to contemporary work. The Cheapside Hoard is stunning, a collection of jewellery from the sixteen hundreds that was hidden in a cellar near St Paul's before the Civil War and wasn't discovered until a hundred years ago. Most of the hoard is now in the Museum of London.
What's your house style?
All my designs are hand-drawn, nothing on CAD. All the commissions are one-offs. They're a mixture of ancient and modern. My work is quite symbolic. I don't adhere to any particular religion but the symbols I use are universal. Wings are a universal symbol for hope. The heart is universal. I like to use secret symbols. Renaissance paintings were like that, full of hidden meaning. I include secrets in my bespoke designs that are private to each client. To make something personal I have to get to know my clients very well and I have to ask them a lot of questions to get the jewellery right. The symbols I use are very positive, life affirming, such as the dragonfly symbolising transformation. Jewellery's such an intimate object and carries such personal significance and symbolism and weight. In this digitalised world, emotions can get lost but I'm dealing with emotion and meaning.
Do you ever feel that you're just making baubles for the elite?
No, because there are two sides to my business, the bespoke commissions and the online shopping where you can buy a beautiful charm for £25 or some affordable silver and that can mean as much to someone. I've got a brilliant team around me now and the girls run all the online shopping of the more affordable range, which is international now. I do all the bespoke work.
Is your bespoke jewellery expensive?
It depends on the commission. I do make very expensive bespoke pieces using diamonds and gold, but I also help people with up-cycling their jewellery. A lot of people have inherited old pieces with beautiful stones that are stuck in drawers because the settings are boring or broken. But, these are family heirlooms. It might be a tiny diamond in granny's ring that I can reset in something contemporary and people will wear it again and pass it on. It doesn't have to be massively expensive. Some people come to me because they've reached an important birthday in their life. Life's full of happy and sad events and we should mark them all, even the bad ones if you got through it. Last week a woman came to me who'd just got divorced and she wanted to take her engagement ring apart and remake it into a beautiful necklace to mark the transition in her life.
Do you have favourite metals and stones?
I love aquamarines. My family gave me an aquamarine ring for my 50th and it was amazing because it was a total surprise. It made me realise what some of my clients feel like, which was interesting. I couldn't see it for half an hour because I was crying so much.
How did your commission to make Bond girl Eva Green's necklace, the 'Algerian Loveknot', for 'Casino Royale' come about? Was it a phone call from Daniel Craig wearing a wet dress shirt?
No, but I did make some rings for Colin Firth's sister-in-law last summer. I was at the wedding in Italy and Colin did a speech so I nearly had Darcy, but not the wet shirt. No, Daniel didn't call, but Eva visited the studio for the fittings. It all came about because I'd met the film's Oscar-winning costume designer, Lindy Hemming. I'd designed some wedding jewellery for her daughter who got married in a red dress with a huge dragon on the back and I made these silver and gold cuffs with dragons on them with diamond eyes. The Bond script required Vesper Lynd's jewellery to have a mysterious look and that's my style so Lindy suggested me. I had no idea till I saw the film how much my necklace would be in the movie. It's even in the last shot of 'Quantum of Solace'. It's really put the business on an international footing.
Discretion permitting, which other more famous people have commissioned you?
I just made a piece for Kate Winslet, a gift for her husband. And Dame Judi has bought from me. And Dame Maggie Smith. And Anna Chancellor. All the best actresses, actually.
What advice would you give someone choosing an engagement ring?
There's a ten-point guide on our website which my husband wrote, but these days, women get much more involved with the design. But, if a man wants to surprise, I rarely go wrong. If he's come to me in the first place it's probably because he knows his partner likes my stuff.
Who made your engagement ring?
I did. I don't have a vast amount of jewellery, just my rings and my necklace, but I made it all. There are other designers I admire, but I only wear my own work because I stand by the quality of my own work. People always ask me what I do and then look at what I'm wearing so it would be odd to be wearing someone else's work.
Are blood diamonds a problem and how do you avoid them?
I've been working with my dealers in Hatton Garden for over twenty years and they adhere to the Kimberley Process, so I can trust that from source to me it's safe.
What are you working on now?
It's my 25th business anniversary this year. Over the last eighteen month, every three weeks our photographer comes in to photograph all my bespoke work. We have some really gorgeous high-end photos now, so that people will soon be able to see the whole process online, from design sketches through to the finished item. It's pretty amazing that I've lasted 25 years. I started with nothing. In fact, I came out of college five thousand in debt, which was a lot of money back then and it took five years to get back to zero. I'm incredibly lucky to earn a living from what I love. It's been a lot of hard work, but I'll never stop. What am I going to do instead? Play golf? No way.
Thank you, Sophie. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
You can see more of Sophie's jewellery on www.sophieharley.com
This interview first appeared in ASKEW magazine, March 2015. Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
Photo by Jo de Banzie