Meet the Designer: an interview with Estelle Dévé

by Becky Dow on

Let’s start at the very beginning. How and why did you come to jewellery design?

By mistake, really. I went to Business School to study Marketing. I had briefly toyed with the idea of studying design at university but being my confident self, I didn’t think I’d be good enough. When it came to applying to universities, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I had studied literature, languages and fine arts in high school, and the French education system being what it is, I’d been told that I probably wouldn’t get accepted into Business School with my background. I took the entrance exam just to prove my teachers wrong, and when I got accepted, I thought “why the hell not?”.  I probably would have enjoyed art school more, but I did learn a lot of practical, valuable information that I was then able to apply to my career.

As part of my course, I did a year’s work placement in a Fashion Sales Agency in London, followed by a second degree in an Australian university. Once in Australia I didn’t want to leave and ended up getting a job in Sydney working in a PR agency. There I met a local jewellery designer called Matt Weston, with whom I became a close friend. He needed someone to help him with the business and production side of his brand and I volunteered to help on the side. Being surrounded by so many designers, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the job I really wanted to do was theirs. It took a lot of encouragement from my friends to have the strength to start, but once I did, I never looked back.

I had no formal jewellery training when I started, which meant that I had to come up with my own techniques and experiment a lot. I think most of my suppliers thought I was completely insane. At the end of the day, the number of mistakes I made really shaped my thought process and creativity. I’ve never felt like I was limited by design rules because I had no idea what the rules were.

You’ve grown up in France but have been living overseas for 17 years, both in Australia in the UK. How has geography influenced your design (has it?)

It’s very difficult for me to say. At this stage, I have moved and been around so many different cultures, that I’m not sure where I stand as a person. I don’t know which part is French, which is Australian and which is British. I’m living in a strange nomadic space where I don’t really belong anywhere but feel comfortable everywhere. I feel like I’ve picked and chosen what I enjoyed and what didn’t from each place I lived in and created my own world.  Whether that has influenced my designs, most certainly, but it would be really hard to pinpoint exactly in what way.

Unlike many designers, you have two Business degrees. Business and arts are often thought of separately. Are they so separate? Should they be?

In my mind, and within the confine of my work, they’re not separate. I personally work well in a very structured environment and thinking about the end goal helps me calibrate my thought process. I think if you’re an artist and creating purely for the love of creating, then you might not need to think in those terms, but if you’re running a business and your end goal is to sell a product, you have to be business-minded. You always have to keep in mind what the essence of your brand is, what you’re selling and to whom, how you’re going to distribute and market your product, etc. I find that in my case, having that structure enhances my creativity rather than stifles it. I have a tendency to have fifty ideas a minute and go in all different directions, so having a structure in place is really helpful. 

You ran an international label stocked in some of the biggest stores. What was the best bit of running your brand?

Waking up every morning and really, really looking forward to going to work. That business was my whole life and I poured my heart and soul into it. At the time, nothing mattered to me as much my brand did. Choosing to give it up after 7 years was the most difficult decision I ever had to take, but it has led me to interesting experiences and I have learnt so much both whilst running it and afterwards.

What was the worst?

How much of a lonely endeavour it was. No one is ever going to care about your business as much as you do and I think you naturally end up putting a lot of pressure on yourself. If I ever were to restart my own label, I would do it with an associate, because what I lacked the most was a sounding board: someone to bounce ideas with, and someone who was “in it” as much as I was.

Let’s talk about your Motley collection. Where does art start and jewellery end? 

I wouldn’t have the pretence to call myself an artist. I just design things that are close to my heart. Whether you want to call that art is up to you. For me to consider something “art”, it has to generate a very strong reaction. Be it good or bad. It could be a painting, a sculpture, a plate, or jewellery. I don’t think there’s a limit where design starts and art ends. As far as I’m concerned, it is all in the eye of the beholder.

That said, this Motley range is heavily influenced by artists whose work I love, especially Jean Arp and George Braque. My work, in general, is heavily influenced by modernist sculpture, ceramics and furniture. I find that looking at objects that are not jewellery at the inspiration stage, gives my brain more freedom to create. 

The Birds, Georges Braque, 1953

What do you think is the most common misunderstanding about the jewellery industry?

That it’s a bunch of little girls playing with shiny things. Being taken seriously as a female entrepreneur is already hard enough, when it comes to jewellery it is even harder. People tend to view jewellery as a hobby, forgetting all about its business potential. In reality, it has become one of the fastest-growing categories within the fashion industry. If you’re looking at the companies that the big fashion conglomerates are currently targeting or have recently acquired, a lot of them are jewellery brands. That’s because it can be a really lucrative industry if done well. Contrarily to what people think, it is also a very male-dominated industry, especially on the supplier side of things. Gaining their respect was probably the biggest hurdle I had to face when starting out. If anything, I think that probably toughened me up, and pushed me to work harder and better. 

What topics do you rant about?

I probably should be asking you that? Intolerance makes me very angry. We live in a world where everyone is constantly pointing the finger at everyone else when kindness could go a long way. I’m constantly baffled by people’s lack of empathy and how defensive we’ve all become. I have daily conversations about this with the people who surround me and they’re probably getting a bit sick of it, but discussion and open-mindedness is the only way forward.  I’m the first to admit that there’s a lot I know nothing about. Learning from others is the greatest opportunity we have in this world, and if we all took advantage of this rather than trying to convince that our opinion matters most, the world would be a better place. There you go, I ranted :)

Where’s your favourite place in London?

Hampstead Heath in the Summertime. It feels like being back in the countryside without having left London. I’m a pretty outdoorsy person to start with and I miss being in nature.

In the Winter -or every time I need inspiration- the V&A jewellery room. The V&A is one of my favourite buildings in London and even though I have been there a million times, I always find something new to look at and get inspiration from.

You only have time to save one object in a fire: what do you save?

I used to have a precise answer to this question until I had a fire scare in my house a few years back. All I did was put clothes on, wake up my flatmates and walk out. There was nothing that mattered more in that instant than just making sure everyone was ok and out of the house.  Material things are all just things in the end... Though let’s be honest, I probably would be in big trouble without my laptop, no matter how sad that sounds.

Is there a book, picture or play that changed your life?

I decided to design my first jewellery range after reading “For Esme, with love and squalor” by J.D Salinger. I somehow got in my head that it would be a great idea to design a piece of jewellery representing each of the stories, and that’s how my jewellery career began. I wouldn’t say that the book itself changed my life, but it definitely changed the course of it.

For Esmé with Love & Squalor, J. D. Salinger

Best advice you’ve ever had?

“Work hard and treat everyone the way you’d like to be treated”. Working hard has just been ingrained in me for so long that I couldn’t possibly live my life any other way. It has its downfalls, and I’m definitely on the workaholic end of the spectrum but that’s just the way it is I guess… And at the end of the day, it’s just nicer to be nice. Every time I lose sight of that, I lose sight of the person I most want to be.

Who would you most like to see wearing your jewellery, who hasn’t yet?

I get so caught up in designing things that I forget it eventually goes out into the world. I love the idea of strong independent women wearing my designs, people whom I get inspired by. I have a massive girl crush on both Zadie Smith and Yrsa Dailey-Ward, whose respective books have had a huge impact on me at different times of my life. I think I’d die a little bit inside if either of them wore any of my pieces.

Where do you go to get inspiration?

As generic as that sounds, I get inspired by everything that surrounds me. I’m most definitely “an observer” and a very visual person, and my brain is constantly storing images and ideas that might come in handy later. I can get as much inspiration from a well-designed lamp as I can from a movie or a book. When designing for myself, I can find it quite hard to get into the initial design headspace and I’ve learnt along the years to not try and force it. Sometimes “not thinking”, watching a movie or taking a nap, is exactly what my brain needs to create the space required for the ideas to come.

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