Located in the heart of London’s famous Bond Street, the ultimate address of luxury jewellery brands, VanLeles, a fairly new entrant, is already making waves for its exclusive jewellery with a strong ethical message.
Founder and creative director VANIA LELES from West Africa has won acclaim for her nature-inspired creations that are colonised with hand-picked, fairmined gemstones that benefit the miners and the communities at large. She believes that the birth of a jewellery piece begins from the mines.
It was all about provenance, which proved to be a turning point for Vania. The realisation that more than half the resources for fine jewellery are produced in Africa, and yet the country had not produced enough fine jewellery designers niggled at Vania’s conscience. The need to preserve and uphold Africa’s cultural pride fuelled her ambition to start the best of the best fine jewellery brands that would talk of her country’s natural resources that benefited the workers who brought out these beauties from the ground.
Before striking out on her own, the GIA-trained designer and gemmologist further honed her skills at some of the exemplary jewellery houses such as Graff and De Beers. She even did a stint at Sotheby’s as a client manager that made her appreciate the historical value and artistry of pieces.
Today, Vania’s global brand VanLeles is known for quality and outstanding designs – and she is one of the few shining examples and an inspiration for African women in the field of jewellery.
You were a former international model. After being in the limelight, why did you choose to design jewellery?
My passion for jewellery really started when I lived in New York, and lived above the Bulgari store on Madison Avenue and 66th. I never wanted to model for a long time as I had always wanted to pursue a creative career, but it was then that the penny dropped!
When did you move into the world of jewellery? What were the trigger factors?
From the day I made the decision to move into fine jewellery, it has been a full-time vocation. The trigger factor was when I realised that more than 70% of the materials used in fine jewellery come from Africa and there isn’t one single fine jewellery company or brand owned by an African. That made me very sad and gave me the impetus to create a fine jewellery brand that reflects the quality, craftsmanship and the ethics that is VanLeles today.
We need to be part of the creations and not just consumers; we deserve to have a seat at the table and a store on every high street. So acquiring the best training and experience was of paramount importance for me.
So where did you get your training?
I took up a jewellery designing and gemmology course at GIA in New York, which gave me a wonderful foundation. Then I worked with Graff in the UK as their in-house gemmologist,
and later, at De Beers. My last position before setting up on my own was at Sotheby’s where I worked as a specialist and client relationship manager in their jewellery department – the most magical job, as I was involved in some very exciting sales and developed a real appreciation for jewellery both vintage and contemporary.
We would like to know more about your experience at these iconic houses of the jewellery industry.
Working for Graff, De Beers and Sotheby’s gave me invaluable experience and courage to set up my own company. Graff helped me to develop my expertise in analysing the rarest diamonds and precious stones. De Beers further helped me fine-tune my expertise in diamonds and client servicing. Sotheby’s exposed me to jewellery from many different eras, from great houses and independent designers. And as a client relationship manager it was also wonderful to work with clients and collectors from different cultures who come to Sotheby’s for unique pieces.
You are pained about the illegal diamond trade in Africa. What steps do you take to ensure that you source ethically mined gemstones? More importantly, do you educate your consumers about certification of diamonds, etc.?
My West African heritage, and growing up with first-hand knowledge of the gemstone trade, has imbued in me a sense of true beauty – not only in the jewels themselves, but in the
sourcing of them right from the moment they leave the ground. I try and educate my customers on diamond certification, and also about the importance of ethical sourcing and production. I believe that as a jeweller the beauty of a piece doesn’t begin when a jewel is finished and shown to the customer. It is my role to ensure this beauty and honesty is seen at all levels of production, from the moment the diamond or gemstone is discovered.
Part of this makes my job much more difficult as we have to ensure that sourcing of all natural materials happens from mines that adhere to being socially responsible, pay taxes and treat miners and their families fairly.
When did you launch your brand and tell us how has the journey been so far?
Before launching my brand in 2011, I had a private atelier in Eaton Square in London where I did bespoke commissions. While I absolutely love doing private commissions for my esteemed clients, I increasingly wanted to push myself creatively and as such decided to start my own brand that houses collections that reflect my aesthetic.
Tell us about your early years.
I grew up between West Africa (Guinea–Bissau) and Portugal, and am a very fortunate daughter of two amazing parents. My mother worked for the United Nations and the American embassy in Guinea, and my father is a veterinarian, so we travelled quite a lot and have a wonderfully diverse group of friends. Our family is huge – I recently celebrated my birthday and nine of my friends came to London to celebrate with me for three days, which was a really happy time but exhausting (especially for my husband!).
Most of your jewellery is suffused with colours. Do you handpick gemstones?
Yes, I hand-pick all my gemstones. The true beauty of a jewel can’t be seen on a computer screen. You have to hold it in the light to see character and charm.
To date, which are your favourite gemstones? Any special cuts that you prefer?
I have to say Zambian emeralds and Mozambican rubies have been the most fascinating gems that I have worked with. As for diamonds, I have always been drawn to their vibrancy
and play of light, but am increasingly attracted to the depth of colour and varied hues of sapphires, rubies and emeralds.
That said, pearls also have a very special place in my heart because when I got married I wore heirloom pearls from my husband’s family. So, they will always remind me of the
most happy time of my personal life. Recently, I have fallen in love with natural pearls from Bahrain and the Gulf region.
I am now planning a capsule collection using natural pearls from Bahrain and will be working with a local family of pearl merchants who have been trading for the last 170 years. I am so excited about this as it focuses on ethical farming of pearls.
Your pieces, in general, highlight nature in a variety of attractive forms. Do you get inspired by nature? What leads you to create such wonderful and visually attractive pieces? What is your design philosophy?
I am always inspired by nature and landscapes, and try and reflect the shapes and colours I see in what I create. I don’t really have a design philosophy. I just do as much as I can when I feel inspired. I don’t push myself when I am not sufficiently inspired because that only leads to frustration. I’m in a fortunate position where I design capsule collections at
my own pace as I don’t have to meet production targets. That allows total creative freedom. I design pieces that are true to myself and try not to take refuge in ‘commercial’ pieces.