IWD: A Celebration | An exclusive interview with award-winning Jewellery designer Sophie Harley
This month, the U.S. marks Women’s History Month while the globe celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8. The past year has been a challenge for everyone, professionally, mentally, emotionally - however, it’s been reported that one out of four women who became unemployed during the pandemic said it was because of a lack of child care - twice the rate among men1. It’s a huge blow to the advancement of women in the workplace, a generation of progress potentially, undone. In contrast to this rather gloomy news, the year 2020/21 has also been a pivotal year for new entrepreneurs to take their leap of faith into purposeful journeys, diving into their passions deeply with glimmering success.
In light of the positive movement of entrepreneurs, collectively striving for a better future, we want to take this opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements - and who better than our very own Sophie Harley.
Sophie began to develop her jewellery collections and launched her bespoke design service following her training at The Royal College of Art where she studied for an MA in jewellery design over 25 years ago. Today, she produces a range of unique and contemporary pieces, handmade in West London, that have created a cult following. How did Sophie become the successful designer that she is? What challenges did she have to overcome in the industry? And what tips does she have for budding jewellery designers, hoping to follow her in her footsteps? Read our interview to find out.
Your collections are amazingly unique and feature incredible storytelling elements. Where do your design concepts come from?
I have always been drawn to ancient objects and the stories that they tell, even as a very small child, I was always drawing and painting. It was natural to me to express myself artistically, and although I came from a family of medics, my parents were always very encouraging and displayed my artworks all over the house!
I was given an easel and paints for my 7th birthday, so they clearly saw my early passion to be creative. We also had a lot of art books in the house and my mum often took me to visit galleries, museums and historic houses. I distinctly remember waiting outside the British museum for hours in a queue to get into the Tutankhamun exhibition in London in 1972. I was only 7 years old but I was just absolutely entranced by this exhibition and to this day remain mesmerised by the Ancient Egyptians. I was captivated by their exquisite paintings and symbolism, the mysterious hieroglyphics, the mummies and of course the beautiful treasures buried within the sarcophagi. In a sense it was my first real brush with the existential, realising that we are all here for a period of time and then we die, but the people from these magnificent ancient cultures left beautiful lasting works of art behind them as gifts into the future and beyond their temporal existence, these concepts still fascinate me.
My love of visiting museums and the hours which I have spent drawing ancient objects, sometimes tools, jewellery, or other kinds of personal artefacts has been a huge & constant inspiration to me, and my work has very cross-cultural influences and multi-layered symbolic design elements because of this. I am a magpie for aesthetic detail!
Sophie’s sketchbook and vintage designs
How has the jewellery industry evolved since you began your journey as an MA graduate?
I can hardly believe it’s now 30 years since I graduated from the Royal College of Art …and in many ways, my method of creating jewellery hasn’t really changed that much, I still buy in sheet metal, wire etc and source stones directly from my stone dealers, saw & solder at the bench, use other skilled craftspeople to cast and gold plate the work, mount and set stones etc for me and still love the process of enamelling using my own little kiln in the studio, but how I connect to my clients has moved on enormously due to the hyper digitalisation of our world and of course the ability to sell and market work on the internet.
I used to sell my work through shows and exhibitions, had exposure in publications, magazines and even did a bit of TV, but I was primarily dealing face to face with clients, building up my clientele in that way over many years (and for 10 years, I was lucky enough to be chosen to sell & exhibit my work at the original, fantastic Chelsea Craft Fair on the Kings Road), where I built up an extensive private client list, right at the very start of my career, and many of those same clients still buy from me today.
Now, times have changed and Facebook, Instagram & social media channels have radically altered the ability to sell my work, reaching clients worldwide at the press of a button, though having said that it still takes a huge amount of work to remain competitive in such an enormous, ever-growing marketplace! For nearly half of my career, there was no such thing as the internet, so since we now have a website-based business, it has hugely increased our worldwide sales and reach, something that I could never have imagined happening when I first started!
As a woman in this industry, having been in charge of my own business from the minute I left college I can’t say the I have personally come up against much inequality but recently the jewellery industry has a whole has been made to sit up and take note, particularly by one young woman, Kassandra Gordon, who has highlighted the need for much greater inclusivity for young Black jewellers within the industry. Kassandra came to see me a few years ago at my studio to ask for my business advice and myself and many other jewellers have now contributed to “The Kassandra Gordon Fund” hosted by the Goldsmiths’ Company Charity which awards grants to young Black jewellers, which is an important and much-needed step forward for the jewellery community.
With an overwhelming abundance of choice in the fashion and jewellery market, how do you differentiate yourself from your competitors and become recognised and awarded the UK Jewellery Designer of the Year?
Yes, there is just SO much to choose from isn’t there? I’m so lucky to have such a loyal client base, and regardless of how the business has grown, I always remain very accessible to my clients, and have built close relationships with many of them over the years… I am so fortunate to have the most wonderful & committed studio team around me who ensure that our customer service is second to none.
Real human contact seems to be ever diminishing in business these days, which as we all know can be extremely frustrating. I believe that the importance of that personal connection with clients is increasingly important for a successful creative business. I head up a small but highly reactive team of brilliant women and I know from our many reviews just how much people appreciate this personal contact, it’s one of our defining features and reasons for repeat customers - apart from the fact that people love the work of course!
As I have always designed (and originally) made every single element of my work myself, it has a very distinctive and individual look, my particular aesthetic has evolved over decades, so my signature style is very unique. I do think the symbolic elements speak to people, it comes from an emotional place that connects to universal human feelings, so if someone falls in love with my creations, they tend to become clients for life, which is wonderful and humbling … I love being the family jeweller for clients of mine who’ve been buying from me for maybe twenty or even thirty years, and now I find myself making their children’s wedding rings etc, having known their parents from even before they were born … which is astonishing!
I must say that my bespoke commission work is at the heart of all I do and I just love the intimate process and the creative journey that I'm able to take my clients on. They often entrust me with their most precious pieces of jewellery, out of which I create new, future heirlooms… it’s a very special thing to be able to do and it's magical to see someone's reaction when they unwrap their new jewel for the very first time… there are often tears of joy! It’s always an exciting moment.
Sophie and her team celebrating their 25th Anniversary, 2016
Winning Jewellery Designer of the Year in 2013 was a great accolade and also a great boost for the business, as far as I’m concerned, it was not only me that won this award, but my whole team, and it was my husband John, who pushed me to enter for it, as I always told him I was much too busy to do so! So imagine how I felt to win - it was just fantastic… It’s a night I’ll never forget, held in the glorious Natural History Museum, whilst enjoying a candlelit dinner in the company of so many other talented people in the jewellery industry, as well, of course, some epic dinosaurs….It was so wonderful to be there with my whole studio team and was just the most thrilling surprise to win the coveted title of Jewellery designer of the Year, and so apt for me that the event took place in one of London’s most beautiful museums!
Tell us what your greatest successes have been?
Well, I suppose it all depends on how you measure success… but ultimately to go to art college, achieve a BA (HONS) degree and then win a place at the Royal College of Art to do my Master’s degree, then immediately set up my own business and for that business to still be thriving 30 years on, really is quite an achievement - though I say so myself!
I’ve also had some fantastic assistants over the years (all women by the way) and I’ve passed on a lot of knowledge on to the younger women who have assisted me over the years and who have wanted to start their own businesses too. So although it’s always sad to see someone leave the team, it’s great to know I’ve helped them on their way to becoming business owners themselves, some of them are very talented jewellers in their own right, who are forging ahead to make names for themselves. So I’m very proud of that, and incredibly proud of my current studio team who have risen to the challenges (both business and personal) presented to all and every one of us over this last year during the ongoing dreadful global pandemic. We as a business have also donated over £20,000 to date to help the NHS and Médecins Sans Frontiers in the fight against COVID-19.
The team at Sophie Harley hand crafting jewellery in the London studio
Over the last 10-15 years I’ve put so much time, energy and money into creating our website sophieharley.com that it has stood us in good stead over the last troubling year, it would have been very difficult to survive without it and it really has become the backbone of the business alongside my bespoke commission work and I have the most brilliant digital marketing strategy angel based out in Hong Kong who works with us closely to promote the business on the web & keep us abreast of the ever-changing technical challenges involved with running a business and selling on the internet … and I must confess it’s been a steep learning curve for me at times!
To create a business that can financially support other people as well as myself is incredibly satisfying I must say. Aside from that, every time I make a piece of jewellery for someone, that I know they will love and enjoy for the rest of their lives and that will possibly be passed down through the generations, it’s such a great feeling! Knowing that there are so many items of Sophie Harley jewellery out there being worn and enjoyed every day all over the world is fantastic too.
In terms of my most famous piece of jewellery, well it has to be my commission to design the Algerian Loveknot® necklace for gorgeous Eva Green to wear in the Bond film 'Casino Royale'. This particular creative journey has been amazing, we still sell this special necklace all over the world, it’s become a collector’s item and it really put the business on the map internationally. Daniel Craig as James Bond and Eva Green as Vesper, created one the most memorable love stories ever told in a Bond film (in my opinion!) and my Algerian Loveknot® necklace was central to the plot and is worn by Vesper on screen for most of the movie - it’s absolutely wonderful to see such a well-loved piece of my jewellery on TV every Christmas! So I think you could count that particular commission as a great success story. A little known fact is that this necklace has also independently raised a huge amount for charity over the years, which is really good to know and to have been part of.
What have been the toughest challenges since you began Sophie Harley London?
Probably the toughest challenges have been financial over the years… the business has been through at least three recessions and now a worldwide pandemic, all since 1990 when I first set it up! I left the RCA with a £5,000 overdraft (which was quite a lot of money 30 years ago for a student!) and it took me five years just to get back to zero in the bank - quite an achievement in itself as my work was my only income, apart from a small Crafts Council setting up grant which I was grateful to receive early on in my career.
I’ve always had a very positive response to my work and a bold youthful outlook, in the beginning, took me a long way, I’m not the shy retiring type so I think my personality has helped me to overcome any obstacles and I’ve never been shy to ask for help when I needed it. I was always very honest with my studio team too, if we hit rough patches or problems along the way, (as there always are in the running of any business), I think being transparent if you need support is very important, I’m naturally compassionate towards other people and I really enjoy working in a team, it takes strength of character and great tenacity to keep going when things get tough, but I knew I was never going to give up on my dream!
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned from your creative entrepreneurial journey?
To hang on in there, tenacity, as well as talent, really is key. I think if you want to make a business out of your creativity then you need to be disciplined with yourself and your time, it takes a lot of hard work, especially in the initial stages (by that I mean the first 10 years!) and also courage to keep being creative and to put something that is uniquely yours, out there into the world.
I think you know if you’ve got it in you or not to create and run your own business and I think I was born to be self-employed … it takes a certain type of person but essentially you must believe in what you do and stay true to your own creative vision.
Most of my close friends are in creative or artistic fields too and think that really helps, but so too is seeking out financial help and advice when needed. Reinvesting in your own business to move it forward is key, even if you feel really stretched at the time… (which I often did and do still sometimes!) I believe in that old saying 'speculate to accumulate’….and that can mean it’s often about investing in people as much as anything else.
What advice would you give to young jewellery designers?
Be sure that you want to give it your all, it’s a long journey ahead so you need to love what you do, but passion is only half of it! A basic skill set is key but within that, you need to find out where your greatest strength lies, be it as a designer, designer-maker, or more specifically as a maker with specialist skills (i.e. stone setting mounting, engraving, making masters for casting, enamelling etc.)
Jewellery is a multi-skilled industry and niche skills are always in demand, especially these days when some of the more ancient goldsmithing and silversmithing techniques appear to be dying out …a degree might not always be necessary, but enrolling on a jewellery course, an apprenticeship or spending some time working for an established jewellery business will be an invaluable experience.
The Crafts Council, The Goldsmiths' Company, The National Association of Jewellers, The Association for Contemporary Jewellery, The Women’s Jewellery Network, and Holts Academy in Hatton Garden are all great sources of information and help for somebody wishing to start their journey in the jewellery world. Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask! Above all, be unique to yourself and your own creativity.
What can we expect from Sophie Harley in the future upcoming collections?
I’m currently working on my new collection ‘Totem ‘, which is really exciting. I’m still in the process of designing it right now but will start working on the metal prototypes for casting soon as well as some very special one-off pieces which will be part of the collection too.
I wanted to create a collection specifically to celebrate my 30th business anniversary, so it will incorporate some of my favourite symbolic & narrative elements from the last 30 years as well as a broad combination of different techniques which I’ve learned from a lifetime of making jewellery. I want to create layered illustrative pieces, poetic, expressive creations, which are both protective and symbolic, having the feel of an ancient amulet but with a contemporary twist, combining beautiful textures & engraving, different coloured precious metals, gorgeous coloured vitreous enamels and sparkling precious gemstones.
A sneek peak at Sophie’s sketches for ‘Totem’
‘Totem’ will be a world of re-imagined mythology and miniature magical dreams. Expressive and joyful, colourful, and meaningful, these jewels will be like little wearable time travelling machines, embodying stories of love and hope, ready to carry us into the future!
1Alicia Sasser Modestino, “Coronavirus child-care crisis will set women back a generation,” The Washington Post, July 29, 2020.