Jewellery brand VANLELES was created by the model turned designer Vania Leles to take her passion for gemstones and jewellery design to the next level. Having acquired a keen eye for unique jewels during her catwalk days, she went on to study at the Gemmological Institute of America before moving to London to hone her newly acquired skills by working for some of the biggest names on Bond Street, including Graff. Now, she designs remarkable jewellery with an ultra-feminine feel, which sells from her chic New Bond Street store.
As a model, you were paid to wear beautiful things; now you design beautiful things. What did you learn from your time as a model that has helped you as a jewellery designer?
Modelling helped train my eyes to appreciate beauty as well as shaping my aesthetic sensibility. It also refined my tastes, making them more cosmopolitan and international.
You are the only African woman in the fine jewellery industry. Does this surprise you?
It saddens me that I am the only African woman in the industry with my own company, given that most gemstones and diamonds come from Africa. My aim is to inspire more African women to join me.
You were so determined to get a job at Graff that you sent your CV in more than 15 times. What important lessons did you learn working under Francois and Laurence Graff?
I saw my time at Graff as going back to school to do a second degree… I was surrounded by the most beautiful gemstones in the world, but the most valuable lesson I learned was the importance of a strong work ethic and the ingenuity to create something great out of something so small.
After Graff you worked in Sotheby’s jewellery department. Did you learn anything about antique jewellery that influences your designs today?
I have always loved the jewellery of the Edwardian period. The use of platinum and the very romantic and feminine motifs such as bows, ribbons, tassels and laces all influence my work. When I had the opportunity to work at Sotheby’s, I kept an eye on every auction to see how many - if any - Edwardian jewels came up for sale. It turned into my own secret treasure hunt.
You have a very prestigious address on Bond Street. Why did you choose to launch your jewellery brand VANLELES in London, and Bond Street in particular?
My formative years in the jewellery industry were spent on Bond Street - I worked there for more than 10 years. It shaped me as a gemologist and as a designer. So it was important to launch my first atelier alongside the houses that honed my professional life and creative mind.
Your designs show a very distinctive use of colour. What qualities do you look for in a gemstone?
You said it! As a gemologist I look for COLOUR. I pay attention to the intensity and vibrancy - the more intense, the better. I am drawn in by the play of colours dancing in a gemstone, and certain stones just shout “pick me”.
What comes first, the design or the gemstone?
In most cases the stones have to come first because they are Mother Nature’s most precious rarities. There is no point in designing something and then not being able to find the right gemstone to realise your vision. My Timeless Wonders collection is designed solely around the most rare and extraordinary stones. They are all one-of-a-kind pieces.
You place a great deal of importance on craftsmanship. How do you ensure that each jewel is exactly as you envisaged?
Although I work with the world’s best team of craftsmen, I still spend a huge amount of time with them explaining exactly how I would like a jewel to be finished, and also to learn. Each minute spent next to these “magicians” is a lesson learnt. It’s fascinating to see gold being melted… I basically don’t leave the workshop until the last claw/touch is perfect.
How important is it for your clients to know the story behind each jewel, the fact that you are involved at every stage and are willing to share this with them?
I’ve always believed that the journey of a jewel shouldn't start at the shop floor, but where it all begins: the mine and the communities around the mines. Then the journey continues with the team of craftsmen who create the mount, and set and polish each jewel.
A woman’s jewellery box, or safe - depending on how large her collection is! – tells a story. It is a sparkling map of her life. So why not buy responsibly, kindly and ethically. It’s no longer OK to have an “I don’t care” attitude. It’s a moral duty.
Having grown up in Africa and knowing first-hand the brutality of the diamond trade, I have a moral duty and social responsibility to my community to procure and work with ethically mined gems, diamonds and metals. It's very personal to me and I sleep better at night knowing that I pass this on to my clients and add that extra special human touch to their collection and life story.
Which is your favourite VANLELES jewel?
Oh please, you cannot ask me that! I love all of them but if I had to choose it would be my Lyla’s Bow earrings and Legends of Africa Diamond wide ring.
Are women braver in their jewellery choices than they were a decade ago?
Absolutely - without a doubt! There are more women buying jewellery than ever before, now that more and more of us have the independent means to buy it for ourselves. So for me, designing for other women is a given. It’s so easy as we connect with each other and I understand from the beginning what a woman wants. I design jewels that other women want to wear and feel beautiful in.
Which jewellery designers do you most admire?
I love Verdura, Tony Duquette and Lorenz Baumer.
Which are your top five gemstones?
Pearls, sapphires, diamonds, Paraiba tourmalines, emeralds and rubies - that’s six!
Will you be making any New Year’s resolutions?
Of course. Always. And I can tell you what it is: to spend more time - quality time - with my son.