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Meet the Designer: An Interview with Sian Evans

by Ilana Lever on

I meet Sian Evans on a Friday evening, in her gloriously airy workshop near Broadway Market. With Radio 6 blaring in the background, Sian tells me her story.

When I was little, I wanted to be an artist like my dad.

I did a foundation course at art college, but the painters were all a bunch of wankers, so I disappeared into the 3D studio. I thought I was going to be a sculptor, but in a careers talk at the end of my foundation year, my tutor said “You’re really good at making tiny things. Have you ever thought about being a jeweller? I knew I really liked blacksmithing, so I applied for a course in Jewellery, Silversmithing and Allied Crafts. I didn’t even think I’d get in because it was in London and I’m a country girl – but when I did, I moved up to London post haste.

At university, I was the punk who didn’t fit in.

Everyone else really wanted to be jewellers, and I came at everything from a different angle. I was really interested in fashion, archaeology and I studied A-Level geology at school. I nearly failed my BA course several times because I didn’t have the right attitude. It was either famine or feast; “yes, Sian, you’ve got a first”; “no, Sian, you’ve failed that project”. I just wasn’t interested in a lot of what they were telling me about. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing, other than I really wanted to do my own thing. And this was in 1986, when you didn’t do that. So I found a way of setting up my own studio really cheaply - in Spitalfields, can you imagine? I took over two floors of this derelict building, turned it into jewellery studios and rented the space out to my friends.

I had an idea that I wanted to sell jewellery to the type of shops I wanted to buy clothes in.

I went to persuade the buyers that they needed jewellery with the Katherine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood clothes. That was the first iteration of what we now call designer jewellery (although I hate the term). It was very different from fine jewellery, or fashion jewellery, which tended to be imported bits of cheap plastic without much of a design input.

As a gang, we were trying to do something different and position our work alongside fashion greats

No one had seen anything like it before. It helped that lots of the buyers had connections to the press. I can remember walking into one store called A La Mode and they phoned Vogue on the spot, saying “We’re sending Sian to see you now. Her collection is just the thing you should be photographing." Back then when you got Vogue, you’d pretty much covered it. And I also won two awards to show at Paris Fashion Week for free. That opened the floodgates for me.

I was really young and successful, and I thought I could rule the world.

At one point, four agents were selling my work; one in America, two in Japan, one in Europe and one in the UK. I’d send them sets of samples. They would meet with buyers and fax through the order. Then we would make it, and it would sell in Barney’s, Stanley Korshaks, all sorts of wonderful places…that I never got to visit. The internationalness was my jewellery, not really me.

Early success essentially meant all business and no creativity – and I burned out.

The undoing was the amount of day to day running of the business as a percentage of being creative. I eventually ended up being really depressed, and couldn’t really cope. Then someone I really respected was leaving Central St Martin's to be creative director at De Beers. She invited me to lecture just at the right time.

Fourteen years later, academia had changed. When I started, there were 23 people in a year; the year that I left, it was 56, with the staffing not very different. Being a lecturer gives you intellectual rigour. You’re around bright people all the time, who are doing inspirational things. When I left, I was ready to go back to being creative for myself, not for my students.

I combine modern techniques with very old techniques.

My nichest technique is a kind of gold welding they used to do in Greece in the Bronze Age. I was an archaeologist from my early years. My mum tricked me into going to archaeology club when I was eleven, and I worked for Wessex Archaeology whilst I was studying in my twenties. I’m interested in evolution, the anthropology of fashion, the message that jewellery has implicit within it. If you wear a piece of jewellery, you are sending a message through the way you adorn yourself, consciously or unconsciously.

The enormity of the jewellery industry continues to surprise me

There are so many jewellers; so many shops selling jewellery; so much jewellery on the planet. Everybody has a piece of jewellery; however rich or poor we are, we adorn ourselves.

And there’s a lot of ugly jewellery out there. Great wealth is no replacement for great taste; some of the most expensive pieces of jewellery I’ve seen have also been the ugliest. The most expensive jewellery exists solely for the extraordinarily wealthy to show off their wealth.

People don’t really understand the amount of skill and time it takes to make something, or have any idea of how things are actually made, because very few people make anything these days.

Motley champions jewellery designers in a way no one else is doing

I met Cecily (our Motley co-founder) while she was doing wonderful things at Louisa Guiness Gallery. She’d been working with artists and could see flipping the idea to make designers the centre of the business; celebrating jewellery designers in the way that artists in other areas are celebrated. Jewellery designers often work for other people – in fashion, high jewellery, designer jewellery – it’s big business for companies, but they’re unnamed, unlike fashion designers who are named, architects who are named. I thought, what Motley’s trying to do just doesn’t exist anywhere. It couldn’t be more timely and it needs to happen.

See the Motley x Sian Evans collection here.

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