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An Interview with London’s Top Jeweller: Theo Fennell
August 23, 2017
“I would say you can tell more about a person by their jewellery than anything, even their shoes!”
On a surprisingly sunny, early morning in London, the Candid team makes its way to Theo Fennell’s South Kensington headquarters. The interview and photo shoot are the results of weeks of countless e-mails; Theo is a difficult man to lock down. The only thing more difficult than setting a date with the esteemed jeweller, is getting around the Theo Fennell HQ. Comprised of a flagship store, offices, workshop, studio and meeting rooms – each involving high-security key card access – it’s like Fort Knox if Fort Knox were home to skull-topped decanters and one-off cufflinks in the POA price range.
We are greeted by three members of his PR team and given a quick tour of the multi-level building. Once we have scoped out the compound (aided at all times by a member of Theo’s staff), we are left to wait for the man himself. When Theo arrives on set, his commanding presence immediately fills the studio where we’ve set up for his profile shot. On seeing the large crew assembled, he quips, “Are we filming a big action movie today?” Jokes aside Theo is all business; he’s a seasoned vet when it comes to being in front of cameras.
Between shots, he drops anecdotes on his many processes and checks in on the bespoke work being done by artisans around him. Amidst the commotion that is a fully-fledged photo shoot, they remain unfazed, focusing instead on the meticulous details of the eclectic and luxurious pieces. After all, this is a man who has designed and produced one-of-a-kind engagement rings in twenty-four hours, and whose barware range features everything from a silver Hendrick’s Gin sleeve to a Space Shuttle that comes apart to reveal six shot glasses.
Theo Fennell has built his brand on an unusual and ultra-lux approach to everyday objects. Post-shoot, we sit down to talk ‘luxury’ more in-depth.
What would you say is the most lux object you’ve created?
Anything that is designed to have little or no practical purpose and only has an aesthetic or emotional purpose is a luxury, but life would be intensely dull and two dimensional without them. If that piece is made by the finest craftsmen in the world using the very best materials with no thought of time or cost then you have a genuinely lux piece. I am lucky to be involved in designing and making such things all the time. When I was first in the trade, a 1928 solid gold champagne flute came into the silversmiths where I worked to be repaired. On its side, engraved in the donor’s hand, it said ‘Good morning Diana’! That takes some beating.
What is one luxury you can’t live without?
Luxury is something no one needs but everyone wants. The greatest luxuries are freedom and choice. To be able to have the very best of whatever you want, designed by the best and made by the best – as long as you truly appreciate the skill and work that has gone into it is a great luxury; but not if you don’t have the time, health and friends to enjoy it with. If I would have to choose an object, a cricket bat signed by Sir Jack Hobbs, who is one of my great heroes. It was given to me by my father, who was given it as a boy. It is beautifully made by hand and has a patina all its own.
From cufflinks to barware, your line is well suited to cover most modern gentleman’s needs. What are some Theo Fennell must-haves for the extraordinary Candid Man…
Well a Pig in a Trough silver truffle grater is hard to live without and having cufflinks and watches made for you so they reflect your own character, likes and tastes and that no one else owns is so much more stylish than spending too much on what everyone else can have. I also think that signet tags for the neck or wrist are much more relevant than signet rings.
As one of the UK’s top jewellers, you’ve built a legacy on both craftsmanship and innovation; how do you start your process?
Every piece starts its life in much the same way and shares much the same journey. I might doodle an idea on whatever surface is handy, perhaps make a more complete pen and ink sketch or sometimes do both, of whatever or wherever, sometimes even whoever, might catch my fancy. This artwork develops into a design and becomes a beautiful technical drawing in our studio. This, in turn, grows into a piece of jewellery or silverware made here, in our workshop, which is above our shop in Fulham Road, in the heart of London. The most important thing is that the clients are presented with something of unrivalled originality. Imagination is paramount, and we will go to any lengths to create something that is totally unique.
Much of what we do is essentially collaborative and the extraordinary skills of our multi-award winning studio and workshop mean we can make any piece of jewellery or silverware, however complex. The amazing variety of brilliance we have allow us to produce the most mind-boggling pieces.
What is the usual lead time between sketch and final product?
That is impossible to answer as it so depends on the complexity of the piece, but we react very quickly so our patrons aren’t left waiting for designs and quotes for any length of time. Some of what we do is essentially customising existing designs and this is much quicker. We have turned over an engagement ring from first to last in twenty-four hours because the proposal depended on it, and an extraordinary chess set we made took over three years to complete.
Previously you’ve been a title sponsor for Central Saint Martin’s jewellery BA exhibit; how important is it for you to invest in the future and its designers?
I am thrilled to be able to help in any way to get young people into this brilliant trade. Our Gilded Youth Project is our ongoing mission to support and nurture the master jewellers of the future. We sponsor prizes, awards and initiatives for both secondary and college students – including the Royal College of Art, Central Saint Martin’s and the Goldsmiths Centre amongst others – to help them prepare for the future and promote the extraordinary young talent we have in this country.
What does the future hold for jewellery and objet d’art?
I believe that the natural patrons of original and beautifully made jewellery are bored to tears with the same mindless products you see in every department store, airport and smart street. There is a new customer who has the self-confidence, whether Arab, Chinese, Indian, South American or Eastern European as well as [Western] European or American to buy what appeals to them without it having to be advertised and celebrity endorsed to death. This group knows its own mind and has the strength of style to experiment and look for interesting, individual and beautifully made work that will last and enchant forever. That is where the future lies; ironically in offering what the original founders of the big modern global companies offered: style, originality and craftsmanship. [It’s] wonderful work with no corporate cynicism.
You’re known for your impeccable personal style and a penchant for tailored pieces. How much of that do you think was inspired by your British upbringing and having the greats right here on Savile Row?
I was lucky enough to have a dandy for a father so I learned early on how to live way beyond my means and how to work with a tailor. He had different tailors for different sorts of clothes and loved detail so his respect for cutters and craftsmen was endless. The rules of men’s dressing in his day –and in my early life – whether uniform, formal dress or arseing around clothes were extraordinary and, especially in England, quite Byzantine. He could spot a rotter at a mile by the cut of his coat even though his own taste was often quite sudden. I have always loved eclectic and well-made things and don’t think my taste or whatever style I might have could exist anywhere else but this country.
For weekend and off-duty wear, which designers do you turn to?
I tend to buy weekend and holiday wear on the run and on a whim or in pro’s shops, but I have a lot of Ralph Lauren things, N. Peal jerseys and am fairly obsessed with Tommy Bahama’s incredibly comfortable silk shirts and trousers.
I wear a lot of slippers bought or made for me from all over the place and the great Bryan Staples makes summer coats and slightly comical lightweight suits for me.
Besides jewellery is there anything else you collect?
Books, drawings, and it appears that guitars proliferate despite the fact my playing hasn’t improved since 1976.
How would you describe the Theo Fennell man?
We design without an end-user in mind. However, I do believe there is a natural ‘TF client’ – someone who knows their own mind and obviously has impeccable taste.
So much jewellery and so many watches are now just brand statements that I find it more important than ever to design with a sense of individuality. Our clients tend to have the self-confidence to make their own choices and not confuse jewellery with passing fashion. I would say you can tell more about a person by their jewellery than anything, even their shoes!
All photographs by Rowben Lantion.
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