If my father were practicing his profession today, he would probably get into all sorts of trouble. Whenever he saw a woman wearing his jewellery, he would go up to her and say: ‘Oh, you are wearing my ring or my bracelet…’ Once, I remember he approached this lady who was wearing one of his necklaces beautifully, with the line: ‘You’re wearing my sperm!’ You see, he had created a collection called Biosymbols and many of the pieces were in the shape of a sperm. Luckily, the lady in question had a great sense of humour and was totally charmed by him. I actually happen to be wearing a mini sperm ring from that same collection today and I really love it. It is timeless.
My father was actually never meant to be a jeweller. He was one of those brilliant young men who by the age of 21 had completed his studies and was set to be a lawyer or economist. However, it was the time of World War II and his plans had to change in order to help his family. There was a need for him to run his uncle’s jewellery business, which had been in the family for generations. And thus, began his 60-year jewellery career.
At the time, they were making jewellery that was quite generic, similar in design to what one could find in other European cities. While it was well made, very classic, using diamonds and precious stones, there was a lack of character and no Greek identity to it. This style continued until the late 1950s, when my father had a kind of an epiphany triggered by an encounter with two American ladies. It was a time when tourists, and especially American tourists, started visiting Greece in great numbers both because of the beauty of the country and the warm hospitality of the Greek people.
The American ladies had walked into the store looking to buy a piece of jewellery similar to what they had seen in the archaeological museum, something that would remind them of their trip to Greece. Having no such piece to present to the ladies triggered a light bulb moment for my father, prompting him to question what he was creating and ask himself: ‘What are we doing here? We are creating jewellery that is beautiful and well made, but with no story to tell, no meaning or symbolism. Nothing to remind one of Greece and its rich heritage.’ He was a great historian and classicist, who loved anything that had to do with Greek civilisation and art, so this encounter convinced him that he had to rethink the way he was creating jewellery. He decided it was time to start looking at his Greek heritage for inspiration and started to make pieces like the ones his ancestors used to make, like the jewellery the tourists saw in the museums.
First, he studied jewellery from the Classical and Hellenistic times. At the beginning, the pieces he created were essentially mostly copies. He set out with his jewellers to master age-old techniques such as hand weaving, hand hammering, filigree, granulation and repoussé. The pieces and collections that were born from this new direction were hugely successful. But by the mid 60s, it had become gradually apparent that this new course he had decided to take, this change in style, was too drastic for some family members. So, as is the case in many family businesses, there was a rift and he took the big step to leave his uncle’s company and branch out on his own. He started trading for the first time under his then relatively unknown family name, and thus his eponymous ‘Ilias Lalaounis ‘ brand was born.
His creations drew more and more attention, and by the late 60s both Greek and international clients were flocking to his shops in Athens and on the island of Mykonos. One of them was Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate, who commissioned him to create a piece commemorating the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon for his wife, Jackie, the former First Lady of the USA. My father decided to make a pair of earrings, and designed them so that you can actually see the moon with little ruby craters; the lunar capsule in a repeat motif and the orbit as part of the ear clip design. The creation was beautiful, unique and symbolic, all that Lalaounis creations stand for, and people took notice.
Suddenly my father attracted all this attention and people wanted to see what he would create next. He said: ‘This is all great. We have mastered the techniques that our ancestors used to do, we have proven that we can recreate ancient pieces expertly handcrafted, now let us start being creative in our own right. Let’s study in depth our rich Greek heritage and create collections that go beyond copying. Let’s interpret the past and reimagine it for today, giving it our own personal touch.’
Lalaounis looked to the Neolithic and Palaeolithic times, to Minoan and Mycenaean culture, and obviously to the great Classical and Hellenistic periods, as well as to the Byzantine era with its extraordinary mosaics, which inspired designs with a lot more colour. As the years progressed, my father also looked to nature, science and technology for inspiration, hence the Biosymbols collection. Yellow gold was always his main material, the purest of metals as he would call it. He loved the warmth and glow of 22ct gold. A creation was first and foremost conceived and created in yellow gold. Stones were then added depending on the style of the collection, but they were used to complement the design of the gold.
My father is sadly no longer with us, but his spirit still pervades everything we do. He always wanted to build a family business that would survive him, so from a very early age my three sisters and I – all born in the 1960s – were drafted in to learn the ropes and help out. As a child, you love playing around, so we were all at the workshop hammering away, destroying things mostly, rather than making them. I remember my favourite thing to do was enamelling because I always liked detailed work and colour; I would apply the enamel on a piece of jewellery and then place it in the oven and wait for it to ‘bake’. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process of creating a piece that I could then offer as a present to my parents and friends. From the workshop, we progressed to working at the retail shops, where we learned how to make little parcels, wrapped up nicely for the clients, and then later we were encouraged to help with sales and interact with the customers. Sometimes I am amazed when I think back at what we did at such a young age – like the time when at the age of 12 I had to cover for an employee and work on my own in a small boutique we had in the Hilton Hotel. I was panicking, never having used a credit card machine before and hoping that clients would only pay me by cheque or cash!
My father was quite old-fashioned and a religious man, but at the same time he was ahead of his time in many respects, as in the way he treated women in the work place and us girls. He gave us responsibilities early on and encouraged us to get degrees to be able to stand on our own two feet and be independent should something happen and we wouldn’t have the family business to count on. He was a Renaissance man and an intellectual who was not afraid to embrace change and technology. In 1990, he became a member of the French Academy, the only jeweller ever to be inducted into the Académie des Beaux Arts et des Lettres, and in 1994 he opened his museum – his fifth child as he called it – devoted to the art of jewellery. It is the first of its kind in Greece and the third in the world. It is a not-for-profit cultural organisation that highlights 50 of his collections dating from 1940-2002 and acts as an international centre for the study and promotion of decorative and traditional crafts with an emphasis on jewellery. My fourth sister, Ioanna is its director and he would be proud to see the great work she does.
Since 2000, my three sisters and I have taken over all aspects of the business and continue the long family tradition. In an ideal world, we would have loved to have gained work experience in other fields and companies and proven ourselves before joining our own family business. However, my father was advancing in years and quite impatient, so we had to prove our worth by working hard and learning on the job, being the first to arrive in the morning and the last out. Fortunately, in a family business like ours, there is so much to do besides creating – such as legal work, advertising and PR, management, merchandising and, of course, sales – that there was no chance of us not finding something each of us could be passionate about. And if you enjoy multitasking like myself, there is no better place to be.
I left Greece when I was 17 to study abroad like my sisters, but unlike them I never went back to live in my home country, although work takes me to our head office in Athens and to our workshop there on a monthly basis. My role is to take care of the business internationally while all our production and infrastructure remained in Greece, where it is to this day. My oldest sister Aikaterini takes care of the retail business and PR, my third sister Maria is our creative director and CEO, and Ioanna the fourth, as previously mentioned, is the director of our museum. And there is of course my mother Lila, who always supported my father every step of the way throughout his long creative journey and who still does the same for us today.
In the years since we took the reins of the company, our aim has been not only to continue in our father’s footsteps and keep the family tradition alive, but also to add our own vision, and make our individual mark while not losing that unique and special Lalaounis DNA – the essence of our brand. It is a challenge we are always happy to take on to keep our strong brand identity.
Throughout the years, we have expanded our sources of inspiration, experimented with new techniques, built up the vocabulary of our designs and started using more stones including diamonds, as well as precious and semi-precious stones, according to the tastes of the different markets we are now present in. Many of the pieces have become classics, like the Ilion earrings inspired by the treasures of Troy. My father used to say for his creations, ‘Every piece of jewellery has a story to tell. It is jewellery with a soul’. It is a saying very close to our hearts that still underlines every one of our pieces.
Back in the 1980s, my sisters and I were the faces of Lalaounis, appearing in the ad campaigns, as my father believed it would help people better identify with the brand. He was right. I still have people coming up to me and telling me how they remember the ads. Now we are doing the same with our own children – five boys and five girls between the four of us. Although all the girls have already appeared in our ads, the boys’ turn has yet to come. But it won’t be long!
Growing up in a family jewellery business, jewellery inevitably becomes an essential part of your life. We live it and breathe it. We conceive it, create it, play with it and wear it. And of course, we wish to share it with as many people as possible. Social media and especially Instagram are great platforms to share our creations with an ever-increasing number of people, and e-shops are definitely the only way forward, but it would be a shame if everything ends up happening purely online. I encourage both friends and people I meet not to miss out on the personal experience of touching and feeling the jewellery. One has to try on the different styles and shapes and see how they complement their features. Does 22ct gold or 18ct better suit your complexion, add glow to your face? Long or short earrings, flexible or rigid necklaces? A lot of the pieces we create are for the woman who puts on a piece in the morning when she leaves the house and doesn’t have time to go home to change before going out in the evening. However, whether you are choosing something really special for the evening or to wear all day long with a suit or jeans, it all comes down to how the jewellery makes you feel. I would like to think that it has a good feel factor for you; it makes you feel confident and brings a smile to your face.
Treasure your favourite pieces, but also make sure you wear them and don’t leave them tucked away in a box. Experiment with them and try wearing them in different ways, on a gold chain or leather cord, on their own or stacked up. I have one piece that I particularly love, because it was a gift my father gave me for an early birthday. It is a design inspired by stone artefacts found in Troy, but executed in a Hellenistic style. It is a hand-carved rock crystal pendant surrounded by a hand-woven chain and engraved with my initials. Although the creation is based on the shape of an ancient stone, it is very contemporary-looking and every time I wear it, it reminds me of my father and of what he used to say about his creations. It is a conversation piece; it has a story to tell and for me it is definitely a piece of jewellery with a soul.
Lalaounis jewellery is available from the Samer Halimeh boutique, 161 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7PA, 020 3892 7692, from the Lalaounis store in New York, plus the four Lalaounis stores in Athens, and those on the Greek islands of Mykonos, Santorini and Corfu; for more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org