THE RADICAL EVOLUTION OF JEWELLER SHAUN LEANE
BLINGIN’ IT IS TEN’S ONLINE SERIES WHERE WE SPOTLIGHT THE INNOVATORS AND CHANGE-MAKERS OF THE JEWELLERY WORLD.
Contemporary romance. Fierce provocation. Visceral drama. These are the attributes that delineate the superlative work of Shaun Leane. As a classically trained gold/silversmith, the eminent jeweller has created some of the most admired ornamental masterpieces of the 21st century.
For the fash pack, Leane – who saw his start at the bench in London’s jewellery quarter, Hatton Garden, where he cut his teeth restoring antique and Victorian jewellery – is best known, perhaps, for the indelible mark he left on the history of runway fashion. That’s because Leane worked alongside the late Lee Alexander McQueen for nearly two decades until McQueen’s death in 2010. There, he created the iconic Coil Corset, which saw Laura Morgan’s neck and torso sheathed in hand-forged aluminium rods for the AW99 show, The Overlook, and the head-to-torso-encasing Yashmak Armour for the Eye show in spring/summer 2000. He also made the iconic Rose Corset (Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Haute Couture 2000), the Jawbone and Spine Corset (Alexander McQueen SS’98, Untitled) and the Crown of Thorns (Alexander McQueen AW96, Dante). Many of the couture works he created for McQueen (or versions of them) now stand in the permanent collections of both London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA) in New York. Others sold in a 2017 Sotheby’s sale as collector’s items, racking up more than £2 million.
For the anglophiles, Leane has made his mark as the creator of Princess Beatrice’s engagement and wedding rings, as well as a number of diadems and other opulent pieces worn by Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Beatrice, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle.
Leane is well decorated himself. A four-time winner of Retail Jeweller’s esteemed UK Jewellery Awards’ ‘Jewellery Designer of the Year’ title (2004, 2005, 2009, 2010), as well as its ‘Outstanding Contribution to the Industry’ award, which he received in 2021, he has the receipts to prove his unsurpassed savoir faire.
Grounded in classical techniques and avant garde expression, his work breaks entrenched traditions. He uses silver (which he sees as a “noble metal” due to its use “for centuries by kings and queens to create the finest of jewels to breath-taking objets d’art”), as well as aluminium, bronze, gold and platinum, and the finest of stones in his works, manipulating them into radical works of art. The auctioneers at Sotheby’s described his creations as “collectible heirlooms of the future”.
At his namesake atelier (he was once also creative director of Asprey), the latest collection was unveiled on Thursday. He dubbed it Signum, and it features carefully crafted signet rings, necklaces, bracelets and scapulars inspired by his Celtic-Irish ancestry and the animal kingdom – or as Leane calls it, our, “Kindred Spirits” – as an emotional compass toward self-discovery. Here, we speak with Leane who recalls his time working alongside McQueen. He also discusses his relationship with the British royal family, his creative processes and the culmination of the deeply personal experiences that led to the creation of Signum.
ON THE SPIRIT OF SHAUN LEANE JEWELLERY
Leane: “The Shaun Leane spirit is…. to evoke an inner energy of confidence and empowerment, and to portray it with pride and grace. The silhouette is distinctive, clean, understated, with powerful lines which run through all that is created.”
ON HIS INSPIRATIONS
Leane: “As a designer, your eyes are always searching for inspiration; it is all around us. A huge influence for the house is nature – its fragility and strength, its organic forms and details which allow it to be beautifully portrayed and preserved in an array of metals and gemstones. The Macgillycuddy Reeks is a sandstone and siltstone mountain range in County Kerry, Ireland, and a huge inspiration for me. It’s special to me as it’s where my family lives and have lived for generations. I hike these mountains on a regular basis as it frees my mind and helps me reconnect with nature – where most of my inspiration comes from.
“There are countless pieces of jewellery from many different periods that I’m also inspired by, but I am particularly inspired by the innovation and fearlessness of [French jeweller] René Lalique; as well as the opulence of Cartier and Boucheron in the 1920s.”
ON WORKING ALONGSIDE LEE ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
Leane: “Lee and I became friends through a mutual friend, Simon Ungles, who was on the same MA course as Lee at Central Saint Martins. At that time, I had just completed my apprenticeship as a fine goldsmith in Hatton Garden [London’s jewellery quarter]. Lee frequently visited my atelier, where I crafted pieces ranging from diamond solitaires to diamond tiaras. He was fascinated by my skill and attention to detail. It was during these visits that Lee asked if I would create jewels for his catwalk shows, marking a significant influence on me.
“From him, I learned that with skill, vision and passion, one can break the restrictions of a traditional discipline to create something new. In the ‘90s, Lee provided me with a platform where there were no boundaries, allowing me to experiment, explore and push my design and craft skills to the ultimate. He taught me to be fearless, push boundaries and embrace the belief that nothing is impossible.
“The pieces I created for McQueen on the runway portrayed a new woman, a new energy in jewellery that reflected individual persona and confidence. I aimed to translate that same design and energy into pieces that could be worn beyond the runway. My goal was to create jewellery that captured the design aesthetic of the 21st century while being crafted with the traditional heritage of goldsmithing that I had been taught.
“One of my favourite (and most challenging!) pieces was the ‘Coiled Corset’ (AW 1999, The Overlook). Earlier that year, I had collaborated with Lee on an African-inspired neckpiece for Bjork’s album cover. This project was challenging as I had just begun self-teaching silversmithing to meet the demands of the catwalk. When Lee asked if I could create a similar neckpiece for the entire torso, I knew it would challenge my skills as a goldsmith. I remember him saying, “nothing is impossible,” and if I could make the neckpiece, I could also make the corset. After that, I dedicated 16 hours a day for 16 weeks to create the piece. Since then, I have always maintained the mantra that ‘nothing is impossible.’”
ON HIS MOST IMPRESSIVE PIECE
Leane: “[My most impressive piece would be] the bespoke diamond glove which we created in collaboration with Daphne Guinness. For me, this is the piece which represents the spirit of our jewellery house – a creation that crosses the boundaries between art, jewellery and fashion. The project began at a party 15 years ago when Daphne asked me to create a silver glove. She spoke of her fascination with armour, which began as a child through her reading of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – a compilation of the legendary tales of the Knights of the Round Table. To Daphne, “Armour is like a mask; a protective layer that keeps you hidden from the world. There is something isolating, yet strangely reassuring when you put it on.” So, when she was considering her choice of words in naming the glove, Daphne settled on ‘Contra Mundum’, meaning “against the world” in Latin.
“A few weeks after the party, Daphne came to our atelier. I briefed her of the details and the concept of the birds I had in mind, with excitement we both realised we were speaking the same language (the relationship was very organic, our vision just naturally came together). We began to produce the glove in silver, but this was too soft of a metal to withstand the construction of amour, so we both decided to create the glove in a harder material. In the end we crafted the piece in 18ct white gold. As the piece began to grow, so did our ideas. We realised that this piece was pushing the traditional notions of fine jewellery, bringing decorative armour to the 21st century.”
ON HIS APPROACH TO JEWELLERY DESIGN
Leane: “Having been taught as a classic goldsmith, part of my training was antique restoration. This is where I first fell in love with jewellery; I remained with English Traditional Jewellery for 13 years, creating everything from diamond solitaires to tiaras. I restored some of the most beautiful antique jewels during this period; from Art Deco to Art Nouveau, Victorian to Edwardian. I observed and learnt the skills and bravery in design from past masters of those periods. Their approach was to push boundaries, explore new techniques, materials and forever evolve. I adopted this ethos and constantly move forward in every aspect of my creative process so I too, one day will hopefully be an inspiration to future designers/makers, like my past masters are to me. I [also] like the idea that jewellery will remain and be treasured throughout history – there is something very romantic about that, the stories and sentiment behind a piece.
“When designing a collection piece, I imagine the person, their surroundings and the image and energy they wish to portray. I then imagine the adornment that will portray that feeling implicitly. Then I draw! Once the piece is illustrated the fun begins (seeing a 2D image turn it into a three-dimensional object). The energy in the workshop is always exciting, progressive and brave, you often hear me quote ‘why not’, ‘sharper’, ‘longer’, ‘chic’, finished with “that’s so fuck off”. When I’m in the zone of creating…day or night becomes irrelevant.
“Everything from the drawing, to the craft, to the finished piece is completed at our beautiful atelier off Bond Street. I pride myself on the fact that we can produce a piece from start to finish, all in house. This I believe passes the energy of care, precision and love from the goldsmith onto the creation. I work on the bench to show direction and ensure my handwriting is passed onto our goldsmiths so the ethos of our House is consistent and true.
“We have many stone suppliers from Germany to Brazil to Africa. I suppose diamonds are my favourite [though], just the pure romanticism of their age and strength being the hardest material on the planet as they were formed 1.2 billion years ago. When painting a design, one uses white to create depth and highlights, to me, these are the diamonds… they bring a piece to life.”
ON WORKING WITH THE BRITISH ROYAL FAMILY
Leane: “Throughout my career [and] in many different places, I have dressed different generations of the [British] royal family. From [my] early apprenticeship days at the atelier, I worked on crafting jewels for some of the most prestigious Bond Street houses [and the] pieces we crafted were worn by Queen Elizabeth II. Later in my career, whilst [I was] creative director of Asprey, I created a collection called “Woodland” [that was] worn by Kate [Middleton]. In later years, meeting Megan Markle, she became an ambassador for Shaun Leane collections and most recently, I designed and crafted the engagement and wedding rings for Princess Beatrice. To have my works as part of the royal collection is truly an honour and achievement for a working-class boy who left school without a qualification to his name.”
Leane: “Signum is the culmination of the deeply personal experiences I’ve had during these past few, enlightening years. Rediscovering my Celtic-Irish ancestry and the reverence Pagans had towards the animal kingdom has reinforced an emotional connection to the nation of my heart.
“Signum reflects a return to consciousness and self-discovery and is an ode to the relationships between animals and human beings. During the pandemic in London, inspiration walked into my back garden in the form of Mrs. Bennet, a fox, and her baby cubs. Over several patient weeks of gentle diligence, and [feeling] moved by their trust in me, I earned the trust of an entire family of urban foxes to be hand-fed by myself ([I’d feed them] brie and Kerrygold-buttered bread). I would call out “Mrs. Bennet,” and she would appear at my feet. The second stage of trust was presenting her cubs to me at my patio doors. I sat on the steps beside them as the cubs played and fed from my hands. It was a moment of ultimate connection. Animals exist only in the present…the foxes reminded me to live in the day.
“[For the collection] each “kindred spirit” and animal touches an innate capability within me and also reflects areas in my life where I feel I need a connection with these qualities. For example, my family has been through a very sad period, so Strength (The Bull) supported me through this time. I am now venturing into a new chapter in my life, so I crafted a scapular [an often religious pendant and chain] with Wisdom (The Fox) and Renewal (The Snake) for this period of renewal; the scapular reminds me that I must choose wisely. To finish, overall, through truth, I find Freedom (The Eagle).”
ON THE FUTURE OF SHAUN LEANE
Leane: “I seem to always naturally question and provoke, so the future of the brand is to always create modern designs crafted to perfection, jewellery that connects to past and new generations, to create intrigue and grace. In 2024, we have hit the ground running with two new collections to be realised, several innovative projects, of which again will question the old debate “is Jewellery Art?”. Watch this space.”
Top image: photography by Ann Ray, courtesy of Barrett Barrera Projects. ‘Signum’ photography courtesy of Shaun Leane. Discover ‘Signum’ here.