F or Vania Leles, establishing her own fine jewellery brand meant dedicating over ten years to studying and understanding the industry before she was ready to launch Vanleles in 2011, the world's first female-founded African high jewellery house. Last year she was featured alongside 20 leading Black jewellery designers as part of the inaugural Brilliant & Black selling exhibition and now, Sotheby's Monaco is delighted to be hosting the first solo Vanleles show from 12 July to 12 August at the Summer Edit selling exhibition, which celebrates the best of luxury designers.
Here, Vania describes her journey to fine jewellery, her design process and the pieces that mean the most to her.
What’s your earliest jewellery related memory? Do you recall a moment when you realised jewellery was going to be a big part of your life?
My earliest memories about jewellery were playing with my mother’s gold jewellery and a pair of pearl drops she has had for many years. Although I came from a humble family, small gold pieces were such a treasure and really well kept. But the fine jewellery world – I never even imagined such a world existed, not until my early twenties, when I was living in New York. It’s a fascinating world.
How did your journey start – did you always design jewellery, in your modelling days? How did you transition from modelling to designing?
I was modelling when I stumbled upon the world of fine jewellery. It was on a photo shoot when someone on the set told me that all diamonds, precious and many semi-precious stones can be found in Africa. Intrigued, having been born and raised in Guinea-Bissau, I did some research and discovered that at that time, there were no African haute-joaillerie designers working with these materials mined in Africa. This was enough for me to want to establish VANLELES, the world’s first female-founded African high jewelry house. But it took me more than ten years…
When I told my mother about my plans, she suggested I get ten years of experience before launching my own company. At the time this seemed like a long time, but I agreed – quitting modelling and enrolling in classes on gems, design and business at the Gemological Institute of America. When I took the design classes using gouache paint, it came naturally. I felt like my creativity could run wild and that I had really found my calling in life.
Before graduating with a gemology degree from GIA in London, I started planning a career path as I only wanted to work at Graff. I sent them my résumé, like, fifteen times before I finally got a phone call and interview. I was hired as a in house gemologist, landing at the absolute top of the high-jewellery world in London. After two years and a couple of promotions, I left my dream job for a new role at De Beers as a brand ambassador, to gain experience in a corporate environment and with the retail and sourcing sides of the business. From there, I went to Sotheby’s, as a jewellery specialist and client relationship manager. After Sotheby's, I had gained enough industry knowledge and know-how, so decided to launch my own company.
How did your modelling career shape your appreciation and knowledge of gems?
I would mainly say that it shaped my appreciation and help improve my design aesthetics, I have a modern and timeless style and am unafraid of using bold colours. My appreciation and knowledge for gems and diamonds were shaped at GIA and while working at Graff Diamonds, which was the best job I could ever had before creating my own company.
You are someone who has always challenged themselves and moved forward and this must have required focus and dedication. What life lessons did you gain from working within these institutions?
Being very focused and dedicated! Working for these very three different institutions; Graff – family owned; DeBeers – a corporation and part of a conglomerate like LVMH and finally Sotheby’s, an auction house – gave me the tools I needed to build and achieve what I have so far. But still there is hard work ahead. Always!
What is a typical day for you?
My day starts with getting my children ready for school, before I head to the showroom. Once there I have a quick meeting with my team and then get on with my work. The days are always different, depending on which issues have risen such as updating our compliance, dealing with insurance, security, sourcing. Towards the end of the day, I get on to my clients. I have different roles, as one can expect from a small brand - I am also head of partnerships - but I design when I am at home, or in the evenings when my kids are in bed.
Talk us through your design process when you work on a bespoke piece. When a client briefs you, how do you typically balance their wants with your own creativity and materials?
Creating a bespoke piece of jewellery is very emotional and personal. Before I design, I collect all the information about my client, the way they live, move, talk and care for the things they love. All these elements in turn create a symphony in my imagination of what best embodies them.
My clients trust me. A year ago, a long-standing client sent me sketches of haute couture dresses she had ordered and wanted jewellery to match each dress. She gave me carte blanche so I designed and sourced gems and diamonds accordingly to suit each dress. But when clients want to be more involved with the design process, which also excites me – we tend to reach a balance by letting recluse myself and then present them with one to three options and they pick one. But regarding the sourcing I normally have the complete freedom. When the client already has a special stone and they want me to design and create something for them, the gem inspires the design.
Are there any examples of pieces of which you are especially proud or carry a special significance for you?
My designs are bold and contemporary, infused with intense color and employing motifs that are inspired by my heritage and my world travels. For example, the creation that I am most proud of, which became one of my best-known designs is the statement Enchanted Garden earrings, inspired by a floral pattern found in an African batik. It was a piece of cloth that I found in a market in Dakar and now I have created these earrings in an array of different gemstones and sold to royals and to celebrities. Here at Sotheby’s we launched the second edition of the Enchanted Garden inspired by the Acacia tree branches – stiletto earrings in a variety of gemstones.
What’s your favourite piece you own – how does it make you feel when you wear it?
I always create bespoke jewelry for me. My husband gave me some sapphires for the births of our two sons and I created a beautiful pair of earrings. And a Zambian cushion-cut emerald that I made into a ring. These creations remind me of my children of course. They are very special.