IN DEPTH: Jewellery’s creative collaborations

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The benefit of working with sports brands, charities and TV stars.

Building a brand is about more than just producing beautiful jewellery — a fact that jewellery designers such as Alex Monroe are more than familiar with. The British jeweller has worked with Coco de Mer, Kew Gardens, Burt’s Bees and, most recently, Nike, to tell a story, promote a message or to simply have fun. Here, Sarah Louise Jordan explores the creative world of jewellery design partnerships and the collaborations that have supported and expanded brand identities across the industry.

While speaking with jewellery designer Alex Monroe at his architectural gem of an office in central London, it’s easy to get lost in his Alice in Wonderland-style world of rustic potted plants and framed butterfly specimens.

But instead of perusing his iconic nature-inspired designs, we’re sipping tea and discussing a night time run, nipple clamps, bee-keeping and door handles. The night run in question is Nike’s We Own the Night — a women-only race that took over East London for one night in May this year. Despite gaining ground across the United States in a similar partnership with Tiffany & Co., the UK lagged behind the night-owning trend. Cue Alex Monroe, whose iconic British status was deemed one of the most effective ways of encouraging women to take part. How? By creating a keepsake necklace that every participant walked away with at the finish line.

“One of the things that bothers me about the way girls and women are sold things is that it’s often portrayed as not very feminine to be sporty or competitive,” Monroe explains, while discussing his motivations for teaming with Nike. What followed was a gold, silver and bronze medal-inspired necklace that symbolised a “positive message” for women in sport, according to Monroe.

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The Alex Monroe brand isn’t the only company to work with sporting institutions for a slice of the brand development pie. Links of London’s head of product management, Diane Smith, explains: “Wimbledon and Links of London have had a license partnership for over 20 consecutive years. Wimbledon perfectly brings our British heritage to the fore and we can explore the more quirky facets of the brand. Wimbledon pieces are a memory of that day for many, so it needs to feel more ‘of the moment’ with a lighter touch.”

For Alex Monroe, designing a memory-sparking memento for Nike is far from the most unusual collaboration he’s ever done. “I created jewellery for [erotic boutique] Coco de Mer,” he recalls while recounting a particularly racy anecdote. “People have a perception of the Alex Monroe brand as pretty and feminine, but I wanted to show pretty and feminine can also be erotic and have a different twist to it.”

In fact, many of Monroe’s collaborations centre on changing perceptions and sparking a conversation. His William Morris-inspired range for high street shop Evans “questioned the preconceptions about body shape and taste, which ruffled a lot of feathers”, says Monroe. He explains: “There’s a stereotype that people who are larger can’t be fashionable, or they only want big statement jewellery rather than delicate designs. It was nice for me to be able to say ‘let’s stop being snobby about this and start saying anyone who enjoys my signature can enjoy my jewellery’.”

What becomes clear over the course of our interview is that Monroe isn’t agreeing to collaborations (he accepts roughly one in 10 proposals that are sent his way) for financial gain. “When I’m approached to do a collaboration I consider whether it is going to take our brand in the right direction and whether the collaboration is doing something worthwhile. It’s is never about the money. Considering the amount of effort we put in we could get more money by doing our own thing designing and selling jewellery under the Alex Monroe name. They are generally all interesting projects that take jewellery in a new direction or they ask challenging questions and make a statement.”

Of those worthwhile partnerships, cosmetics brand Burt’s Bees proved particularly enjoyable for the designer, who created a special edition Honey Bee necklace to raise money for the British Beekeepers Association. Cosmetic brands have also proved alluring for other iconic British designers, including Monica Vinader who partnered with luxury skincare company Crème de la Mer in 2013. The resulting limited edition spatula-shaped cream applicator, which was made from hammered silver set with a pale green chrysoprase stone, was promoted as a ‘gift with purchase’ to Harrods shoppers – further enhancing the aspirational reputation of the Monica Vinader brand.

When gambling with something as essential as brand reputation in a saturated market, it is not surprising that jewellery companies are only agreeing to work with like-minded organisations that promote the same message. Lalique’s project with stationary company Caran d’Ache, for example, is centred on the two brands’ collective love of traditional craftsmanship. According to chief executive of Caran d’Ache, Jean-Francois de Saussure: “There was real agreement at the human level [with Lalique]: the two companies share many of the same values in carrying out their traditional artistic crafts.”~

Echoing this sentiment is British ethical jewellery company Oria, that worked with human rights charity The Helen Bamber Foundation for its Birds of Freedom collection. Oria co-founder Tania Kowalksi explains: “We had shared values as both of us have human rights at the heart of what we do. We are also both small organisations, so we felt that we shared a common work culture that would enable a very collaborative and open working relationship.”

The sterling silver and gold plated collection has also been supported by actress Emma Thompson, who is president of The Helen Bamber Foundation. Kowalksi continues: “Having Emma on board was a great opportunity to help promote and raise awareness of the collection and in turn [create] sales, which would raise funds to help support the work of the charity.”

From Children in Need to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, charities in the UK and internationally have partnered with jewellery designers to create bracelets, pins, pendants and brooches that help raise much-needed funds. Most recently, Tresor Paris created yellow-hued pieces for Marie Curie Cancer Care’s Daffodil Appeal, following in the footsteps of Kleshna and Clogau. From an objective business perspective, charity collaborations can push brand names into the consciousness of difficult-to-reach customer groups, especially as pieces are often prominently displayed at till points in high street shops to encourage sales.

For Oria founder Kowalksi, these kinds of charity collaborations have the potential to be pushed further for even more mutually beneficial ends. “We would definitely consider working with other charities where we felt there could be a creative opportunity for Oria. We would also like to see how these kinds of partnerships could be developed with media and retail support in order that the charity can benefit more,” she muses.

Despite reporting success with Emma Thompson as the face of the Birds of Freedom range, Kowalksi wouldn’t consider hiring a celebrity ambassador in the future. “When a celebrity’s values match ours then it’s fantastic to have the opportunity to work with them. Livia Firth, a well-known supporter of ethical fashion, has also worn our jewellery. Again this is an example of where shared values are at the heart of the partnership, as opposed to a commercially driven paid for endorsement by a famous face.”

In agreement is British jewellery designer Theo Fennell, who believes working with celebrities can be a “double-edged sword” that can actually reduce, rather than improve, the credibility of a brand. Luckily for Fennell, he had a positive experience with Made in Chelsea reality TV star Oliver Proudlock. Their joint Proudlock at Alias collection of sterling silver and yellow enamel designs with a signature wolf motif was designed to be both “fun and ageless”, according to Fennell. He explains: “Celebrity endorsement is a double-edged sword; when celebrities are just used as props, and often paid to be so, I believe it can be counter-productive. Having to pay someone to wear your jewels or, at least gifting them, doesn’t say much for your designs. There are iconic and persuasive famous people and, equally, some who might well reduce the credibility of a brand.” He believes approaching collaborations with “honesty and a sense of humour” is the trick to success, a thought that is echoed by fellow British designer Laura Gravestock, who also found her famous face from Made in Chelsea.

Her partnership with reality star and fashion blogger Rosie Fortescue stemmed from a mutual interest and respect for what the other was doing. However, Gravestock concedes that Fortescue’s connection to one of British television’s most watched shows did factor into her decision-making process. “I was aware that Rosie has a massive following from her time on MIC and this naturally meant working with her would introduce the jewellery to a completely new customer,” she explains. When the resulting gold-plated and black rhodium-plated silver Dreamy collection was featured on an episode of the Channel 4 series, Gravestock admits the response was “phenomenal” — the sort of fairytale ending that most brands working with celebrities would hope to achieve. Gravestock comments: “The collaboration has done great things for us — it’s massively increased our customer base and reinforced Laura Gravestock as a jewellery brand that remains current and on point.” But Gravestock also expresses caution when working with famous faces in the same way as Fennell. She explains: “It’s important that the celebrity is right for your brand, there is no point investing for the sake of it.”

But as Bobby White London shows, collaborations aren’t always centred on creating new products, but shining a light on existing ranges. Its partnership with artist Cassandra Yap resulted in a limited-edition screen print, designed in-line with the brand’s Race to the Moon collection. Founder Bobby White explains: “We thought it was a cool and different way for us to promote not only the Race to the Moon range but another craft and artist in the process. We wanted to offer Bobby White London fans another unique product.”

In a similar vein to Alex Monroe, White didn’t approach the collaboration with money in mind. “We didn’t produce this [screen print] to increase sales, but to be different,” he revels, “We will always look to collaborate with exciting people and products. We get approached a lot and feel honoured, but we make sure that the concept and end result is in-line with the quality we produce in our jewellery.”

Also venturing into the realm of jewellery-art collaborations is Gina Melosi who recently teamed with artist Christian Kerrigan to form an installation and window displays at an East London lifestyle store. “The installation is designed to enhance the jewellery by presenting it in an alternative environment. I intend for these partnerships to show layers and dimensions to my work, which as a result affects the perception and growth of the label,” she divulges.

Equally, using collaborations to showcase jewellery outside of its normal retail environment is exactly what brands like Azza Fahmy are doing on the catwalks. By creating pieces for British fashion designer Matthew Williamson’s AW14 collection, designer Azza Fahmy ensured her jewels were seen in-situ — a sort of live action advertisement for the company’s wares. Fahmy explains: “It is an interesting way of firing the imagination as it challenges any conventional design processes, especially as you also have to consider and reflect both parties’ artistic approach and personalities as well as bearing in mind their respective consumer audiences.”

Arguably collaborations and partnerships ensure brands remain relevant in a time when competition is at an all-time high. “I have been offered enough money to buy a new house from some of the big high street retailers who want me to get on board and design a collection, but I don’t know how this is going to help my brand,” Monroe admits.

“I think the issue comes when you start taking on collaborations for the money. You need to think about your own brand and whether a partnership will take you in the right direction.”

This In Depth feature was taken from the June 2014 issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.
 

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