Guidance from industry leaders and famous jewellery designers
Whether you want to design in-house or run your own brand, the first step is to get educated. And while you can expect to be in school for up to six years, the good news is there’s a lot of flexibility to jewellery design courses. London’s British Academy of Jewellery (BAJ), for example, offers programmes that last from six months to three years, including paid apprenticeships. Depending on the level students apply for, the interview process can include a bench test – in which you’ll show off your measuring, cutting, forming and soldering skills – and a portfolio review. So how do you get that portfolio to the top of the pile? “I would certainly want to see what’s behind a finished piece,” says Sofie Boons, BAJ’s head of academy. Students should always include moodboards and prototypes in their presentations – “so that I can see their thinking, their problem solving, [and] how they have come to a certain solution,” adds Boons.
Alternatively, you could hone in on your preferred craft. Bille Brahe trained as a goldsmith for almost five years at the Copenhagen Technical School of Design & Technology before enrolling on an MA course at London’s Royal College of Art. “Without having the craft, [the design process] becomes quite hollow,” she explains. Or how about gemology? Among Silvestri’s team at Bulgari are graduates of the European Institute of Design (IED), the Academy of Costume and Fashion in Rome, and the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). Other designers place less emphasis on technical expertise. “I don’t think it’s useful to go deeper if you [want to] create your own brand,” says French designer Anissa Kermiche, who advocates a short technical course to provide the necessary introduction to 3D printing, sketching and stone-setting. It suited her perfectly, combining two technical courses at the BAJ – CAD for jewellery production and Level 2 jewellery manufacturing – with a creative BA in jewellery design at Central Saint Martins.
Lucia Silvestri’s Rome studio.
How do you go from a student to a working jewellery designer?
Silvestri’s advice on getting that first break? “Shadow expert leaders, maybe abroad, even as an office assistant,” she says. And once you’ve got your foot in the door for an interview, you’ll need a strong portfolio of existing work showing competency at technical sketching and CAD. The BAJ advertises jobs through its social channels, but Boons advises students to keep an eye on trade publications and websites such as Benchpeg, Retail Jeweller, The Artists Information Company and The National Association of Jewellers. In some cases, it’s worth reaching out to companies directly, and important to bear in mind that the jewellery trade still relies on word of mouth. Applying for competitions such as HRD Antwerp or Talente in Munich – which in turn can lead to exhibitions – is essential to let yourself be known to as many industry professionals as possible.
The job interview process varies widely. Small businesses might require only one stage, but established companies can involve up to five, including bench tests, interview panels and, in some cases, a written exam. “Research is key,” says Boons. “Students should look into why their skills can contribute to the company, read their strategic plan and see how they could complement it. [Ask yourself] what job could get me the experience that they are looking for? It’s about planning and being resilient.”
Practice makes perfect
If you’ve been hired by a big brand, expect to keep training for the first two years of your career. “School is good, but practice is essential,” sums up Silvestri. “Even if our new recruits have commendable degrees, they always start by copying jewellery sketches from the Bulgari archives.” It’s the same at the Japanese heritage jeweller Mikimoto, where trainees spend 18 months learning Japanese traditional ink and fine-point brush techniques while sketching the entire Mikimoto design archive. The goal is to better understand how to manage your artistic goals with the mechanics of making jewellery. “Pearls are spherical and it’s quite difficult to incorporate round objects into jewellery,” explains Akira Haga, Mikimoto’s general manager of merchandise development. “It’s not something that you can learn in a day or two; you need a lot of experience.”
Learn how to communicate
At Mikimoto, designers compete to have their sketches chosen among dozens of other drafts, so it’s important to learn how to sell your design internally. “We line up all the rough designs on a table, followed by each designer’s presentation,” explains Haga, adding that communication skills are also essential between designer and craftsman. It’s this latter relationship that’s essential for a designer to master, as it’s the artisans who will interpret your design. This is easier in smaller houses; Bille Brahe, for example, manages a team of seven in her Copenhagen workshop. For bigger houses, it can be more complicated: at Cartier, the designers and craftsmen work under the same roof to ensure smooth communication, with Pierre Rainero, the brand’s director of image, style and heritage, describing “an endless discussion between the designers and the jewellers.”
When launching your own business, start small
When launching her brand, Kermiche transformed her house into a jewellery lab, crafting her first prototypes with small, relatively inexpensive stones. “I managed to save money because I spent [the previous] years learning how to make my own prototypes, so I didn’t have to spend on manufacturing,” explains the designer. “I don’t recommend mass producing right away,” adds American designer Jennifer Fisher, who was a wardrobe stylist before launching her own label. “You have to start small, grow from there and see what is successful.” Fisher made personalised dog tag charms for clients on set before setting up a customer-facing website, while Bille Brahe began making bespoke pieces while sourcing the financing for her brand. For the investments you do make, be strategic. “[It was important] getting a team that had the experience I didn’t have,” says Bille Brahe, while Fisher adds the simple but all-important advice to “make sure that the infrastructure of the business is sound.”
Learn to tell stories
“Journalists love telling a story,” says Kermiche. Designing personalised pieces with a narrative can help you create an identity for your work in the international marketplace. Fisher, for example, created her dog tag design to celebrate the birth of her first son, while Bille Brahe started incorporating pearls in her jewels after her mother gave her a pearl necklace to celebrate her pregnancy. “You cannot offer anything as amazing as some of the big jewellery houses do,” she explains. “The only thing you can do is offer something that is very different and personal.”
If you’re launching your own brand, social media can be your friend in getting the word out. Kermiche used her Instagram account as a lookbook, creating a fully-fledged visual identity for her new-born brand at a minimal cost. She then used the app to find journalists. “It won’t be long before they notice if your product is right,” explains the designer. Hiring a PR agency is another option, but for Kermiche the decision boils down to the designer’s personality. “If your friends are influencers, just do it yourself,” she explains. “But if you’re more of a creative mind, then of course a PR is vital.” However, thinking carefully about commercial partnerships you make and being aware of legal implications, including avoiding long contracts, is paramount. “I would have loved to have had a background in law,” she adds. “It would have saved my life on a daily basis.”
Sophie Bille Brahe.
Value your relationships with retailers
“I think it’s very important to respect relationships in this business, stay true to your word and respect the people who have respected you,” says Fisher. Barneys was the first US brick-and-mortar department store to approach her and she has maintained that relationship exclusively ever since. Similarly, Kermiche manages up to 20 face-to-face monthly meetings with retailers and mines these relationships for consumer insights she can feed back into her design work. “I ask them what sells in [their] shop, what’s the price point they like the most, what’s the colour of gold [they prefer],” she says. “It really helps me target my designs in a way that will sell.”
A step-by-step guide to becoming a jewellery designer
If you want to work for an established company:
Choose a degree in fields like Design, Gemology or Fine Arts.
Scan trade publications for job offers. Applying for competitions, exhibiting your work and networking are the easiest ways to get noticed by future employers.
Get in touch with established brands, even if they are not publicly advertising for a role.
When applying for a job, your portfolio should showcase your technical, manual and creative skills as well as your thought process. Include sketches, prototypes and moodboards.
Do your research and keep up-to-date with industry news. Showing a good knowledge of a company’s history and commercial strategy can give you the upper hand over other candidates.
Communication is key: as a designer you will be required to work with artisans, so practise explaining your thought process and concepts in a clear and concise manner.
Sketches at Akira Haga’s studio.
If your goal is to launch your own business:
Combine a short technical course with a creative degree.
Be financially aware: start with a small production, support yourself with bespoke orders, make your own prototypes and find people with the experience you don’t have.
Self-promotion is essential: learn how to use social media to your advantage by creating a strong visual identity and connect with journalists, clients and retailers. Be mindful of your relationship with retailers: nurture them with personal meetings and use them to better target your designs.