Bespoke jewellery is not only for the super-rich. Maria Doulton picks out four designers who help clients express themselves in gold, diamonds—and bone china

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010

A piece of jewellery that’s designed just for you. It’s a pleasant thought. Yet many people would no sooner think of asking a jeweller to make them a ring—or a necklace, or a pair of cufflinks—than asking a mechanic to build them a car. Perhaps lack of faith in our own taste puts us off, or they feel that commissioning is the preserve of the super-rich. In fact, paying a jeweller to make something, either from scratch or by reusing stones from an existing piece, doesn’t have to be expensive, or complicated—although it may take months rather than weeks before you see the finished object. If you’ve got an elastic budget, then the best big jewellery houses take commissions worth tens, or even hundreds, of thousands, but there are plenty of independent designers who’ll do the same for far less—Annie Banian, whose work is on the right, takes commissions for as little as £80.

Where should you start? Guilds and associations—such as ADOR in Italy, the Goldsmiths’ Company in Britain, and the Contemporary Jewelery Design Group in America—tend to have searchable databases of their members, many of whom take commissions across a variety of prices. Whoever you choose, it’s vital that you like their existing work: ask a designer to step too far outside their comfort zone and you risk a clash of wills and mediocre results that won’t hold their value.

Be prepared for an element of negotiation. Particularly at the higher end, jewellery-makers have a tendency to think of themselves as artists, with all the temperament issues that that implies: one of the world’s most sought-after and secretive designers, known by the acronym JAR, will only make pieces for the few punters he’s taken a shine to. Equally, though, many will expect you to provide the first spark of an idea. Hannah Martin advises her would-be commissioners to do some creative homework. “You need to bring an idea to the first meeting,” she says. “It could be a picture you particularly like, some clothes, or you could even bring a piece of music.”If you fancy a necklace that looks the way Purcell sounds, you now know where to go.

ANNIE BANIAN: New life for granny's china

From unpromising beginnings—shards of discarded tea-services—Annie Banian creates jewellery as delicate and refined as a cup of Darjeeling. “I have always been a tea-lover,” she says, tracing her interest in china back to her time at university in Buckinghamshire. For commissioned work, she relies on customers bringing ceramics for her to transform. “Almost everyone comes to me with a story,” she says. “They might ask me to turn their grandmother’s cherished willow tea cup into a memento they can wear all the time.” She is never sure, as she cuts into the porcelain with a handsaw, if she is breaking up a valuable piece. “But I feel I’m giving the china a new lease of life, so I’m happy to go along with my client if they’re willing to accept the risk.”

Because of the materials she uses, every piece Banian makes is by its nature a one-off—from a bangle made of a teapot handle to a china pendant hung on pearls. Commissioned or not, her work has a distinct theme running through it: a gentle, moonlit feel, accented by silver mountings and a palette that is largely white and pale blue. It wouldn’t suit those wanting to make a big, knockout statement, and its longevity seems uncertain—can jewellery made of china hope to last? Banian claims it will, arguing that, despite its frail look, porcelain is surprisingly robust: “After all, the original pieces were used for ages, and they survived fine.” 

Commissioned pieces from £80. Back-stamp china and silver necklace, on freshwater-pearl rope, £350

WENDY YUE: Partywear for triffids

Lined up on the glass shelves of Annoushka, an independent jewellery boutique in central London, is a series of extraordinary rings: pulsating with colour and complicated life, they look like something a triffid might wear to a party. They are the work of Wendy Yue, a Chinese designer who spent several years working behind the scenes at leading European jewellery houses—she is, she says a little coyly, unable to say which, “for legal reasons”—and now has her own workshops in Hong Kong. From here she produces small collections of wildly fantastical pieces such as the Annoushka rings shown here. These can be adapted, in a very minor way, to order; but for anyone willing or able to track her down in Hong Kong, Yue will also create one-off pieces from scratch.

You have to be ready for her, however: her elaborate and occasionally humorous aesthetic won’t suit wallflowers. It tends to the hothouse—a green garnet lizard peeps slyly over the edge of a lushly carved coral lotus, pavé diamond leaf forms bubble like lava over a centrally mounted tourmaline. “My inspiration could be an antique table, a Chinese house or a European church,” she says. “My designs are a little crazy, different from commercial jewellery.” For commercial, you could read classic. Her existing collections sell well everywhere except Asia, where, she says, tastes are “too conservative”.

The fecundity of Yue’s imagination makes her an interesting choice for a bespoke commission, but also a challenging one: she does like to lead the way. “I can’t really have clients tell me how to design,” she says, “unless we have a special sort of chemistry.” Chemistry permitting, her clients tend to bring her a stone of some kind: diamonds and pearls from an old brooch, a chunk of unusual-shaped coral, or even, in one case, a piece of rock blessed by a monk in Tibet. Then they stand back and let Yue’s imagination take off—though she does say she will let them see a colour sketch before she gets going.

The process takes up to three months and involves a lot of e-mailing, because Yue spends much of her time travelling. But it shouldn’t cost much more than a ubiquitous “commercial” solitaire ring—and the resulting piece will be far less predictable.
Commissioned pieces from around £7,000;, +852 214 28 188. Yue for Annoushka rings (pictured) Top: 18-carat gold and jade “Fantasie Swampland” ring, £9,900. Far right: 18-carat gold, aquamarine and tourmaline pearl “Fantasie Garden” ring, £7,900. Near right:  18-carat gold and pink tourmaline “Autumnal Orb” ring, £17,000, all from Annoushka

HANNAH MARTIN: Spiky personalities welcome

At the top of a steep flight of stairs in east London, Hannah Martin works at wax carvings, sketches and prototypes, creating edgy, urban pieces that she describes as “luxury for the villainous and elegant”. Marketed for men, but worn by more than a few women, her designs have a hint of erotic tension: spurs, thorns, leather thongs, manacles, lustrous black pearls and studs make you think of pirates, gangsters and fallen rock stars. Especially the latter—Martin designed her latest off-the-peg range with Pete Doherty, of the Libertines and Babyshambles, and stars don’t come much more fallen than him.

Martin graduated from art school in 2005, shortly after winning an industry award for cutting-edge design. From there she went straight to work as a consultant for the haute joaillerie ateliers at Cartier and Givenchy in Paris, where, she says, she learnt to pay extreme attention to detail. The clean-lined execution of her own collections, which she’s been making for the past five years, demonstrate that rigour alongside a cool modernity. “I want to create the beauty of high jewellery,” she says,  “but in pieces that are relevant to a new audience.”

Not everyone will find her work beautiful: it’s certainly not pretty-pretty. But her choice of materials—typically yellow gold given a macho edge with black diamonds, orange or blue-black sapphires, and curves of polished smoked topaz—has a deliberate, sophisticated sharpness that suits people with a bit of spike in their style, and their personality. So while engagement rings are Martin’s most common commissions, she has had plenty of unusual requests: she once made a tiara out of fossilised shark’s teeth for a client. “I’m fond of the creative challenge of commissioned work,” she says, “though if it’s going to be successful, the trick is never to make something you don’t like.”
Commissioned pieces from £1,000. 18-carat yellow gold “Shackle” bangle with orange sapphires, £7,500; leather wrist rope with 18-carat yellow gold detail, £1,465

SOTHEBY'S DIAMONDS: And melted-down bayonets

Should you ever find yourself in possession of a spare lottery win and an irresistible urge to buy a big rock, Sotheby’s Diamonds in New York would be delighted to help. Its bespoke service takes the few who can afford it right through the process of creating one-off pieces of jewellery, from selecting a milky-skinned chunk of rough diamond to finalising the design it’s set in. 

The stones will come courtesy of the Geneva-based, 70-year-old diamond house Steinmetz, which specialises in cutting and polishing large diamonds—in the past, it’s put both the Steinmetz Pink and the De Beers Millennium diamond to the wheel. The design will be the work of James de Givenchy, a 47-year-old Frenchman (and nephew of the couturier) who has lived and worked in New York since the 1980s.

He seems to have absorbed much of New York’s Gotham-does-Deco aesthetic. He likes to offset as-near-as-dammit perfect, high-value diamonds with grittier materials, such as gunmetal, rubber or wood. “I try to make the diamond stand out”, he says, “and give it an identity by making it into a piece of art.” Art? Well, maybe; but the results are different. In the past, he has set a huge diamond like a drop of syrup into the bowl of a steel teaspoon, or sculpted a tree of wood, then set pear-shaped diamonds, leaf-like, at the tip of each branch. More recently, he mounted two oval 6.04-carat diamonds in a pair of earrings made of steel from melted-down bayonets. “I mainly use first- and second-world-war guns,” he says. “But Japanese are the best. I find them on the internet.”

From this it should be obvious that de Givenchy is not the man should you want a simple pair of diamond cufflinks. Nonetheless, “sometimes my customers do attempt to go for a classic design. I try to re-educate them, and understand who they are and what they want to project.” How thoughtful. “Yes,” he says. “I should be awarded an honorary degree in psychology.”
Collection from $50,000; commissions, POA. 7.43-carat pear-shaped diamond and pearl necklace, mounted in platinum with freshwater pearl and a pavé of grey and white diamonds, on an ivory silk rope, $480,000

(Maria Doulton writes about jewellery and watches for the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph. Her latest project is

Hand Model: Liam Mcdonagh, Make-up artist: Haleigh Maskall, PIcture Credit: Diver Aguilar