All that glitters: Theo Fennell

The renowned London jeweller talks to Brummell about the importance of traditional crafts, uplifting new talent and staying inquisitive

Style 28 Aug 2020

Jeweller Theo Fennell

Jeweller Theo Fennell

Theo Fennell sponsors the Central Saint Martins BA Jewellery Design show every year and holds the annual RCA Awards. Plus you have the Gilded Youth programme. Are you excited about the talent of new British jewellery designers coming through?


Truthfully, I wish there were more British students at all these colleges and universities, famous throughout the world as being the best but, as the government doesn’t seem to want to encourage home-grown talent by giving grants and scholarships, the majority of places are taken up by kids whose parents can afford to pay. There is so much exciting young talent in this country but not enough being given the help and encouragement they need. I am excited but fearful!

And why is it so important to Theo Fennell to support new talent? 


We produce wonderfully original and fertile designers in this country and we always have done but, for mysterious reasons, we don’t do nearly enough to back them nor do we take the creative sector – the second-biggest money earner for the country – seriously. So much talent goes abroad or, worse, goes unrecognised or supported. The jewellery and silver trades are areas in which this country has long been incredibly strong, despite the apathy of those who should support them, and we need to train up the next generation of craftspeople, designers and inventors to take it forward or it will perish.

Theo Fennell Beehive Opening Ring
Theo Fennell Beehive Opening Ring

Your jewellery and silverware combine a number of traditional crafts – is keeping the craft tradition alive in the UK important to you? 


It is absolutely vital. I think that the last few months and the enormous changes in attitude and priorities is going to see a huge shift away from the acquisitiveness of the last couple of decades and the pre-eminence of the big brands, and a return to beautifully crafted and unique work that involves the buyer in the process to make the work both personal and noble. This will require original design and craft skills for pieces to be made by hand in this country and not the use of faceless factories overseas. Having our own superb workshop and using the most skilled artisans in their field has been central to what we do.

Your work is also known for having a wry, British sense of humour – is humour important to you?


It is absolutely vital and life would be intolerable without it. One of the great secrets of any creative endeavour is to be passionately serious about what you do but never take yourself seriously. I hope my designs reflect that and though many have some quirk or irony to them, many are sentimental and some very classic; it is essential that a designer can adapt and not just trot through life doing the same thing. I hope each piece tells a story and becomes important to their owners, not just as decoration.

And how does that translate to your customers globally, or do you find it provokes different reactions around the world? 


We have been incredibly lucky with our clients in that many have grown with us and been our best ambassadors. Although they are a truly international group, they do share a love of original and interesting work that is beautifully made. They are usually creative themselves or, at least, have the self-confidence not to wear what everyone else is wearing, so they are very similar in that way. They like to become involved in the processes and to end up with something talismanic that they can show people and explain the details of both design and symbolism. There are very, very few of our customers I don’t enjoy spending time with.

Joshua Tree Opening Ring from Theo Fennell
Joshua Tree Opening Ring from Theo Fennell

Theo Fennell produces a lot of unique bespoke pieces and limited editions. Do you find it particularly satisfying to create beautiful objects only a few people will own? 


I genuinely love to work at any level that allows a beautiful piece of jewellery or silverware to be made and we have no snobbishness about price. One of the most satisfying things is to produce something that is not too expensive, really original and beautifully made for someone who really loves it but can’t afford something too expensive. It is also nice to make something where price is no object. As long as the piece is unique or of a small edition, I’d be happy for the whole world to have one.

And how do you maintain the inspiration and creativity to continue coming up with such original ideas? 


I think if you have an inquisitive mind and are truly interested in the world around you, there are so many new influences and new areas to explore that I believe any designer or creator with the kind of mind you need to be inventive should never run out of ideas. It is editing those ideas that is the problem.

Has Covid-19 been a challenge to your business and how have you adapted? 


Well, it has been hell for many people and worse than that for many but our team has been relatively untouched. We have adapted very well and most of the workshop and studio teams have been able to work from home. We have been inventive online and have, strangely, had more contact with our bespoke customers both here and overseas with face-to-face calls allowing us to talk and show work in progress. The bespoke business has burgeoned and allowed us to have an order book full for months to come. I think the future is going to see far fewer old-fashioned shops, with retail having to convert to having more theatre and more of an experience to offer to make it worthwhile for customers coming in.

What trends do you think we can look forward to in jewellery in the next year? 


Many more bespoke and one-off pieces and designs that are talismanic and have meaning. I am sure people will want to become much more interested in where and how their piece was made, and that it suits them rather than ‘is it in fashion?’. Many people will be looking to have pieces recycled and redesigned. I think we will look back on some of the jewellery of the past twenty years and wonder what induced so many people to buy the same, clichéd pieces for so long.

Who are your style icons? 


My father, Fred Astaire, Billy Connolly and Kay Kendall.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? 


Never sell your name until it is time to go!