Wylde loves a designer who straddles the worlds of cult and commercial, and Solange Azagury-Partridge fits the bill perfectly: her high-impact, colour-drenched jewellery adorns the necks, ears and hands of the ultra-rich and the cutting-edge cool. Pippa Brooks meets her in her London boutique and gets the lowdown on shredding Tom Ford, staying small… and being non-naff!
Solange Azagury-Partridge has been creating outrageously unique, highly covetable jewellery since the early Nineties and there is no-one quite like her working in her chosen field.
The fearlessness with which she approaches a piece, whether in terms of concept, size or the teaming of gems means that an Azagury-Partridge item is utterly unmistakable. What sets her idiosyncratic designs apart is her irreverence towards the precious metals and gems she fashions into such surprising creations. She doesn’t obey the tired rules of subtlety and “good taste”; she goes instead with her instincts, boasting that she can turn anything into a piece of jewellery, from a doodle by her daughter to the subject of an interesting conversation.
Her world is best experienced via her colour-drenched, opulent salons in West London and E68th Street in New York. Red and green dominate – again, Azagury-Partridge rejecting tired traditions of colours that should “never be seen” together. These boutiques are like temples where one worships at the altar of colour and excess. Despite a distinguished, illustrious client list, and the exclusivity of her limited output, there is nothing snobbish about Azagury-Partridge’s approach. Gold is often blackened to make the colours of the gemstones pop, and opals, sapphires, rubies and emeralds are crammed together beautifully in a single, knuckle-dusting power piece. Though many pieces might look like sweets or, in her words: “a party on your hand”, all her jewellery is made from 18ct gold and precious stones.
I met Solange in her salon on London’s Chilworth Street on a searingly hot day. The interior could not have been more of an oasis of peace; the walls of green velvet, the frieze of painted tropical leaves and the cool green glass reflecting the cabinets of treasures. Azagury-Partridge has a serene demeanour, describing herself as happiest “dozing and reading”; she has the almost lazy air of someone who does not need to impress. Perched on a green velvet sofa, wearing fabulous wedges and a seemingly effortless ensemble, she looks the picture of calm.
Wylde: Do you have the same passion for clothing that you do for jewellery?
Solange: I’m not very “new clothes”. This skirt is 15 years old and very knackered... it’s shredded to bits. It’s from Tom Ford’s last collection for Yves Saint Laurent. I can only wear it for one day every now and again and then it develops another rip.
Are you covetous of jewellery that you have not made, or is there perhaps a historical or antique piece you would love to own?
There aren’t many pieces of jewellery that I covet, but there was a piece of Lalique in Christie’s New York recently that would have been my ultimate. They had a reserve price of $15K on it and I was like: “God, I might be able to own it!” Anyway, for some reason I missed the sale, but I found out it went for half a million dollars or something. It was not much – gold and glass and a bit of enamel, so intrinsically not that valuable – but the design, by René Lalique, was just breathtaking. The best in the world, I think.
Your influences range from theBook of Exodus to disco. Would you say you have a signature something that you come back to time and time again?
I suppose it’s my love of intense colour.
You famously started designing your eponymous jewellery line “on the side” while your son was a baby, your own engagement ring being the first piece of jewellery you ever designed. What was your journey before that?
I worked at Butler & Wilson for a few months, which kind of opened my eyes to the power of jewellery.
And it’s so brash, Butler & Wilson, isn’t it?!
So brash, exactly! Then I worked for Gordon Watson, who dealt in the decorative arts as well as antique jewellery. I saw all the beautiful 20th-century jewellery, from the Twenties to the Seventies, and it was the real thing, which was another eye-opener. I did five years with him, which felt like a real apprenticeship. He was a very good teacher.
Do you look to a mentor or anyone else for approval?
There are some people whose opinions I value very highly... family and friends. If they like it, I feel like I’ve made it. Also to have some pieces in the V&A and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris has given me the confidence to carry on.
At one point you had five shops and also did a high-powered stint as the designer at haute joaillerie house Boucheron in Paris. Yet you have scaled down your business to two shops now and I wonder if you felt the pressure to grow, in the past?
There is a pressure. What I don’t understand in business is why does it always have to expand? Why is not just enough to have a good business, year in and year out? Enough to live off and employ people. Why does it have to get bigger and bigger and bigger? I don’t understand that philosophy. When money is your sole aim, I think that’s when things go wrong. When values get lost.
So you’ve managed to live the dream on your own terms; to balance life and work?
It’s a hard thing to achieve, but I’m nearly there. My staff is really tight and neat and I try to get it right down to the bare necessities... and it works. It works in the same way it did when I had 50 staff, and it’s kind of strange.
By not advertising, but instead presenting your collections with short films by noted directors, starring your famous friends, you are not following the traditional route. Jewellery advertising has a certain look, and it’s definitely not your look!
There’s a lot of naffness associated with jewellery. And it’s ironic because all the magazines are bankrolled by the jewellery advertising and yet it’s not really valued in the same way as the fashion. I’m involved in organising an event called Leopards in October this year, which will hopefully redress that balance. It’s basically an event to celebrate jewellery, in a glamorous way. In London, that’s never been done. There are always fabulous film, fashion, even antiques events... but never jewellery.
The leopard is the London hallmark. We will be holding the event in Goldsmiths’ Hall. There are four main designers involved and we will be sponsoring young craftspeople. I just want to make this event glamorous – a non-naff affair!
If anyone can achieve that, Solange Azagury-Partridge can. And I hankered for that glamorous, green velvet “womb” for days after our meeting...