Imagine having 007 himself amongst your list of celebrity clients. When it comes to the UK jewellery scene one name stands out above the rest – Sophie Harley, the 2013 Jewellery Designer of the Year and the brains behind the Algerian Love Knot necklace, integral to the plot in the Bond film Casino Royale. After twenty years in the industry, I was more than a little excited when Sophie agreed to share her jewellery secrets with Hotcourses. She quickly became one of my easiest interviewees as I caught up with her at the studio on a rainy Monday afternoon; Sophie was more than happy to chat about her amazing career and go through my list of questions. Graduating from The Royal College of Art and starting up ‘in a squat in Russell Square’, Sophie now runs a team, designs individual pieces for high profile clients and collaborates with the likes of DeBeers and Boodles – James Bond who?
To go back to the beginning, how did you get into jewellery design?
Well I was always really artistic as a child and it just followed on from there really. I did all my A Levels and GCSEs but wanted to go to Art College, so went to Farnham Art College (which is now called The University for Creative Arts) to do my first degree. I then went on to complete a master’sin Goldsmithing at The Royal College of Art.
How did your career progress from there?
As soon as I left The Royal College I had loads of exhibitions booked, so I had to get a studio really quickly. My first studio was with a very arty group of people in a squat in Russell Square in central London. There were some amazing people there like Simon Costin who is now a famous avant garde jeweller. It was all very bohemian; a big old Georgian house full of artists, we were all doing our own thing and working hard. I then went to Cockpit studio in Holborn, an amazing studio set up for crafts people.
I know you must get asked this in every interview, but where do you get your inspiration from for your amazing pieces?
Basically from years and years of drawing in galleries and museums – I love ancient objects and artefacts. I’m a very visual person so anything and everything can inspire me! I love the art of storytelling and try to tell stories through the symbolism in my work.
As someone who has never made jewellery, how hard is it to take a drawing from a piece of paper and turn it into a piece?
Really difficult! Jewellery skills take years to acquire, so I’d say you probably need between four to five years of training before you can make something that is any good. It’s not impossible to go to an evening class and make something basic but if you want to do really expert soldering and finishing, it takes years to learn these skills. In fact these skills are really dying out in this country; some people are just diamond mounters or diamond setters for example. The jewellery industry is broken up into many different fractions, so experts in their field are people who tend to do the same thing for years.
Which would you say was the hardest part of your job, the physical making of the jewellery or creating someone else’s vision?
No I think the hardest part of becoming a jewellery designer is actually having your own vision and creating something that’s different to somebody else – so much is copied it’s hard to find a designer that has an individual look these days. The making part is hard, but what’s harder is creating original work.
That’s a really good answer! You often create individual pieces for clients – for me, jewellery is something that’s very personal – how do you ensure your clients love what you create for them?
Well usually somebody will come to me because they know my work and like what I do, so it’s not too difficult. We go through a process of drawing and designing – there are several levels to it, so it’s very unusual that I end up making something that somebody didn’t like. By the time we get to the making part, the client has had a really good look at the designs. Also we can slightly change something afterwards, but generally this is the part I enjoy most and the element of my job I don’t actually find that difficult.
Do you have a team of people working with you now?
Yes I do thank goodness! We’ve got a core team in the studio of five and obviously there are people outside the business as well.
My next question is another one you must have answered before – the James Bond necklace, how did that come about?
I got asked to design it which was great – I knew the costume designer Lindsey Hemming very well and designed her daughter’s wedding jewellery so she knew my work. She thought the piece of jewellery in the script suited my work, which is a fusion of ancient and modern. They wanted the love knot to be something that wasn’t instantly recognisable, so it was quite a mysterious and symbolic piece which fit the criteria of my work perfectly. So I did the drawings and created the piece – it all went ahead very quickly!
What has been the highlight of your career?
That’s a difficult one! Obvious winning Jewellery Designer of the Year in 2013 was lovely and was a really great thing for my team and myself – I don’t really consider it to be something I won entirely alone as I’ve had a great team of people for the last five or ten years. Obviously getting the Bond job was brilliant and has continued to be a financial highlight for business and has raised a lot of worldwide interest for us. Designing special things for particular people has been really fantastic, getting into The Royal College and moving to the studio I have now was really exciting. I honestly can’t say there has been one thing that’s a highlight!
What’s coming next for yourself and the brand?
We’ve started doing Christmas orders and have just finished the IJL which is the International Jewellery Show at Olympia. I never really know what’s around the corner, I plan up to a point but I don’t plan too far ahead because every week I get an interesting or exciting job. We’ll continue to build our website and obviously I’ll continue to make new work and new collections. We may have a possible studio move to new premises on the horizon – I think we’ve slightly outgrown this one! So just taking the business forward – I’ve got a great team so it’s a pleasure to come to work!
What advice would you give to those hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Well for me, drawing is an absolutely essential tool for my work, I think if you are going to create really different and original work it’s really important to have good drawing skills. So many people just work on a computer these days and I think it creates very similar looking work. One option is to go down the apprentice route, working on the bench with a goldsmith for a while. I would say you definitely need to do some sort of jewellery course, there’s so much to learn technically and it’s so complex that you need to learn those skills. The design side is incredibly important as well and that’s really something you need to go to college for; I think it’s very difficult to create your own vision in isolation, without spending years finding the language you want to visually speak in.
That’s really great advice. My final question is, what is your favourite piece of jewellery you have made?
Oh god, I’ve made so many pieces over the years! I’ve made things that are really meaningful for people and that’s what I love – the meaning not just the materials I’ve used. There are so many different pieces with different stories, it’s almost impossible for me to say. I would probably have to choose my engagement or wedding ring (I only got married three years ago!) or my necklace that I wear every day. It’s got a collection of symbolic jewels and charms on it, so it’s obviously a favourite piece because it’s mine and I don’t take it off. But that’s a really hard question and I’m not sure I can answer it!
It’s ok, you don’t have to!
And with that Sophie was gone, back to her busy schedule of designing and creating her beautiful pieces. It became obvious half way through my interview that for Sophie, jewellery making is far more than a career. If her passion and success has left you wanting to learn more, a jewellery course could be the inspiration you need - who knows where your work might end up.