Attaining the enviable position of head designer at De Beers at the age of 29, Hollie Bonneville Barden made great strides in one of the world’s best-known diamond houses before she left in 2016. We spoke to Hollie about her rapid rise to the top, her design vision for De Beers, and what makes diamonds the most precious gems in the world.
You graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2009 with a First Class Honours in jewellery design and are now in charge of the design department at De Beers. How does it feel to be one of the youngest heads of design in the business?
These have been really defining years for me as a designer. I was 24 when I started working with De Beers and 25 when I launched my first collection, Imaginary Nature. It’s certainly been an inspiring and challenging journey to become head designer and a unique environment in which to develop my own creative language. I can only be grateful that such a house as De Beers wants to invest in young talent and is able to recognise this beyond age and hierarchy. In that way I’ve been very lucky that my age has not prevented me from achieving this. If anything, it has been my unique difference.
When did you set your heart on becoming a jewellery designer?
I first realised I wanted to become a jewellery designer after completing my art foundation at Wimbledon School of Art. It was my first opportunity to explore and experiment with different mediums, and my curiosity led me to the workshop and metalwork. I soon realised that jewellery fulfilled all of my passions, so went on to specialise and further my studies at Central Saint Martins.
How much creative freedom are you given?
I find a sense of creative freedom in everything I do. As a brand, we have been really exploring our creative voice over the past four years, pushing the boundaries of jewellery design while nurturing the values of craftsmanship. However, there is a classic nature to De Beers, and I love the challenge in exploring classic signatures through new, contemporary interpretation.
The couture high jewellery collection provides a moment in the year to really express the creativity of the brand. I get a lot of energy from working on our high jewellery stories, and although I oversee all collections, this is where I get to focus a lot of my power and enjoyment.
Describe a normal working day.
Every day is different, and it’s the dynamic nature of my role that keeps me excited and inspired. The rhythm of my work runs on an annual cycle, so the environment and pace changes depending on the stage of the design development. At the initial briefing stage, and as I prepare for new collections and launches, I am working predominantly in my London studio, researching in galleries or sketching and developing ideas and new designs. I work through traditional techniques, which involves a lot of drawing and refining the renders, which the jeweller will translate into 3D. As we go into the prototyping phase, I spend a lot of time with our diamond experts and jewellers in the atelier. Finally, the designs are unveiled and so I then interact a lot with the press and clients, telling the story behind the designs.
How does it feel to be working with some of the most valuable diamonds in the world?
I feel honoured to work with some of the most rare and beautiful diamonds. This outstanding beauty inspires me to create designs that are as powerful and graceful as the diamonds themselves.
De Beers is known as the Jeweller of Light. How do you interpret this in your designs?
The diamond is the muse in everything I create, both physically and metaphorically. Diamonds are not static but powerful in their expression of life, light and drama. Their expressive nature inspired me to create a story around the mesmerising "dance of light" in a diamond, the result of which was the Aria collection, launched in 2014.
What have you learned during your time at De Beers?
No two diamonds are ever exactly the same. Each has an individual personality, character and charm, and they must be treated with this in mind. I have learned a lot technically while I have been here but, most importantly, I have come to understand that, symbolically, diamonds are as strong as they are physically.
The new Talisman jewels show diamonds in a completely different light. Is it harder working with rough rather than cut diamonds?
They are formed and faceted by nature and untouched by man. The shapes, colours, texture and lustre of light are all very individual and that’s what makes rough diamonds so precious and appealing to work with. However, this also comes with a new set of challenges. You really don’t know what beauties nature is going to reveal and so I had to design directly with the rough in mind, allowing the character and form to direct the designs. In that way it is harder to work with rough diamonds. However, in some ways it is more natural and intuitive, as Talisman is about creating harmony and balance with nature’s raw colour palettes.
De Beers’ recent Moments in Light initiative celebrates women who are masters of their craft. Who do you most look up to and why?
It has been amazing to collaborate and celebrate women who are masters of their craft. In fact, Cornelia Parker, who was one of our talented women in 2014, was a huge inspiration to me when I was in school studying fine art. I admire the scale of her work, both physically and philosophically. In a similar way I try to create a powerful narrative with the materials I am working with, in my case the diamond.
Another early inspiration when I was studying jewellery design - and still to this day - was British designer Naomi Filmer. She is a master of her own art and a true design innovator in a world set in tradition and preconceived ideals.
Beyond that, the peers around me, who are carving their careers in various creative industries, continue to provide me with invaluable inspiration every day. It’s not easy finding a path as a young designer, but with determination and vision you can change the landscape of design. I am not here to do what’s been done before.
Describe your studio
My design studio is located in the heart of the London jewellery quarter in Hatton Garden. I love the atmosphere around here and the heritage of goldsmithing that surrounds us. Having a creative yet tranquil environment is really important to me in reaching a place of focus. I like to surround myself with images and research of current inspiration, and I continually refresh my surroundings with the latest concepts we are working on. It is also a very dynamic space as we are a small team working on various projects at one time.
If you had to choose one favourite piece of De Beers jewellery, which would it be?
It would actually be the new Talisman Wondrous Sphere. Although not a wearable piece, this is an objet d’art designed for the pure enjoyment of diamonds. A celebration of wild and wondrous nature, I loved creating this piece and it is full of meaning and sentiment for me.
If you weren’t designing jewellery, what would you be doing?
I realised quite early on that I have an instinctive need to create and share my vision. I am inspired by art in my work, and jewellery is extremely sculptural in a way. If I was not designing jewellery I could see myself using my 3D design skills to create larger scale contemporary sculpture or possibly furniture design.
What piece of jewellery means the most to you?
I have some very special family heirlooms that were handed down to me from my great grandmother, who lived in Burma. A beautiful Art Deco-style yellow gold cuff is a true timeless design as it still looks so modern. These pieces hold so much sentimental value and connect me to my heritage. Everything I am as a designer is a result of my heritage, which has led me to where I am today.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
You can easily lose sight of what you are aiming for when there are lots of people around influencing designs. It’s easy to cloud your vision. The best advice I have been given was never to lose sight of your initial concept. You must remind yourself of this throughout the design journey to keep the "spirit" of a design.