For decades, Laura Lee has remained a quiet but resolute presence in the world of jewellery. Her bohemian and eclectic mix of luxury jewellery has been making waves in the London jewellery scene since her brand’s inception in 1985. An avid world traveller, Laura finds inspiration all corners of the world - from the slowly curving coasts of Mexico to the vivid colours of Jaipur. However, London still holds a special place in her creative core. It is in the heart of London where she has decided to lay her proverbial roots, with her Bloomsbury workshop just a stone’s throw away from her Covent Garden boutique.
It is in this small but truly charming space that we meet Laura Lee. Over a fantastic cup of tea and some generously offered pastries, we sit in conversation with Laura and discuss everything from her mother’s eccentric charm bracelet that ignited her passion for the craft - to the ever-growing challenges she faces as an independent brand in today’s world of fast fashion and even faster demands.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background, how did you fall in love with jewellery design?
I was born in North London – to my English Irish mother and my Australian father who has Chinese, Japanese, German and Australian Aboriginal heritage. We travelled around America when I was eight years old, before eventually settling in Australia. It was very funny, as I was living this English sub-urban life, and then to suddenly be thrust into America and Mexico, travelling from the coast of Mexico and up to Canada in a tent no less, really opened up my world.
My love of jewellery began as a child when I made my first necklace using sequins that were given to me by my father, who often brought me beads from his travels. My mother had this fantastic charm laden bracelet which had all these amazing charms - from a Mexican sombrero to an orange from Florida - it got me totally hooked into the world of jewellery.
How would you describe Laura Lee? What makes it different from other jewellery brands?
I’m not really interested in jewellery that is purely decorative or purely used as a status symbol. We all subconsciously express ourselves through our appearance; making signals to other people in our tribe to the outside world, even being anti-fashion is still a statement. I feel like I am making personal armour for people to express themselves with. I want people to use my pieces to tell their story rather than me shouting about Laura Lee being a brand. It is a way for them to use to find their way and be themselves.
You’ve lived quite a nomadic lifestyle, living in Europe, Asia, and Australia with your family. How do your travels influence your design aesthetic?
It is hard to see from the inside, but I think that my view is pretty eclectic and draws from a lot of different aspects from other cultures and their ancient artefacts, particularly those places that I saw as a child. Places like Greece, Mexico, and star gazing in the American desert, that have always been lurking in my subconscious and manifest themselves in the jewellery somehow.
After spending all those years travelling, you decided to settle down and open your boutique in Covent Garden; a stone’s throw away from your Bloomsbury workshop. How important is being in London to the ethos of your brand?
I am very at home when I go to Australia and in a lot of other places, but there is something about London that I can’t live without. London is the centre of my world – I don’t think I could live without the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, and the Tate Modern. The way you can be free to be whoever you want to be here, and the tolerance and creative force of London is so inspiring.
Talk us through your creative process. What goes into creating a signature Laura Lee piece?
I spend a lot of time looking at and buying stones which are inspiring in themselves. I could do this all day long if I had the time! The collections come from all sorts of starting points — say a trip to an exhibition, or a holiday, or even just daydreaming in the workshop. A lot of the things on my mind are always there, so I am now adding to collections like Oracle and Desert Aurora - which I expect will continue to evolve. Symbols, charms, and talismans; the search for meaning, and the beauty and mystery of the natural world are constant themes in any collection.
All your pieces are made in your workshop in London. What inspired you to make the decision to keep all production close to home?
Aside from our workshop, we also work with a lot of master craftspeople outside of London as well. They offer us something different to our range, but the bulk of the work is done here in our workshop. This way, I am able to generate ideas and see the process through to completion in-house, which is a very satisfying way to work. People need jobs wherever they are so I am fully in support of getting help with production to augment what we can do here. However I have always found it easier to keep it local when possible.
You launched Laura Lee in both London and Paris Fashion week in 1985. How has the jewellery industry changed since then? In your opinion, how has your brand adapted to these changed?
If you are running a business, particularly one that is design led you have to keep up with all these seismic changes like the rise of the internet and the super brands. You have to embrace the new market that you find yourself in — and I have been able to do that by being interested in this new world and by employing great people who help me to stay current and relevant.
When I started, I used to just sit and make jewellery. I used to have little cases and ring up buyers from Harvey Nichols and Liberty and come in and see them, sit in their offices and they write an order and I make the jewellery — it was so different! Today everything has sort of revved up so much more fashion houses like Chanel or Dior, have started to make jewellery as well and it’s becoming more and more difficult to compete with them at that level. The internet has become a massive global thing and along with it comes its own issues as well. I’ve always done my own thing and I’m not trying to be massive - I don’t want to have a great big company.
Laura Lee remains an independent brand to this day. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face through the years?
Never throwing in the towel when that would have been the easiest option! Resisting the urge to run away when it all gets too much — but then I always get over that. A gorgeous stone, a wonderful customer, and all my staff keep me coming back for more.
Tell us about your latest collection, the inspirations behind it and if you have a favourite piece?
My latest collection, Ornament, was sparked by a trip to Jaipur some time ago. A trip that I was reminded of, when visiting the Mughal treasures and textiles of India show at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I have distilled the rich and decorative embellishment in the artefacts I saw there into my very pared back style, to celebrate the gorgeous colour of gold itself with pearls and diamonds as the only added extras.
I have a new line coming out soon which is inspired by the Indian chakra system. Having practised yoga for many years, I am super excited to share this story with our friends and clients; and I hope it helps them to feel inspired and supported while wearing my pieces. We need all the help we can get in these strange times we are living in.
In what ways do you think your brand has impacted the jewellery scene in London?
Well, I definitely wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to say that I have had any such affect – I have always just done what I wanted to do and made things that I or my friends might want to wear. The most important thing is that we are here for people who are independent in they are thinking. People who don’t just believe the hype and get sucked into the market, that is the thing that has changed a lot in my opinion. We can all succumb to hype, but I guess if we offer a genuine experience, made with love, we offer people a thoughtful and genuine alternative.
Portraits by Curtis Gibson
Words by Hannah Tan