Shaun Leane was just a teenager when he began studying jewelry making and technical design in London’s jewelry district, Hatton Garden, but it was the beginning of a lifelong passion. While working as a goldsmith in the early 90s, he met Alexander McQueen. The duo embarked on what became a 10-year collaboration that brought a new level of cinematic jewelry to the runway with iconic jewelry, body adornments, and tiaras.
Shaun’s work with McQueen quickly caught the eye of a London department store that was eager carry his designs. From there, a namesake collection was born. The House of Shaun Leane prides itself on an authentic blend of craftsmanship, goldsmithing, and exceptional design and materials. These uncompromising values have earned Shaun a glittering rise to the top of the luxury jewelry sphere.
In a charming building just a stone’s throw from Bond Street, Shaun gave us a tour of the atelier and shared resonant stories from his personal history as a jewelry designer and artist. -Jenna Fain for The Stone Set
“When I was 15, I wanted to study fashion but was too young to attend fashion school so my career officer at the time suggested that I do a foundation course in jewellery design, which was available to me at that age. He said that this would be a good way to enter the creative arenas. I began the course and my tutor recognized I had a talent in jewellery making so he encouraged me to take a traditional apprenticeship in Hatton Garden with a company who produced all the beautiful diamond pieces for the high-end jewellers on Bond Street.
Here is where I fell in love with jewellery; I remained with the English Traditional Jewellery for 13 years creating everything from diamond solitaries to tiaras. I also restored some of the most beautiful antique jewels during this period; from Art Deco to Art Nouveau, Victorian to Edwardian. I like the idea that jewellery will remain and be treasured long in the history. There is something very romantic about that, the stories and sentiment behind a piece; to know that it has been greatly treasured and loved through generations.
Whilst I was working as a goldsmith in 1992, I met Alexander McQueen who asked me to make jewellery for his catwalk show. After a series of collaborations with McQueen, a London department store called me and said they wanted to have my work in their Jewellery Room. They couldn’t believe it when I said I didn’t have a collection. In 1999, I created my first range named ‘Signature.’ The inspiration was based on the first catwalk piece I did for McQueen and has remained our signature since. In the same year, I founded the Shaun Leane jewellery house.
I began my career as a Goldsmith, so traditional jewellery making is something that l am naturally passionate about. I have restored some of the most beautiful antique jewels throughout my Goldsmithing days and am particularly inspired by the works of the Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Victorian period—they were so distinctive of their time. I like to take elements of those styles and bring it forward into today’s design. It was when I was working in antique restoration that my design ability awoke.
As a designer, your eyes are always searching for inspiration: it is all around us. Much of my creations are inspired by organic forms but I am also greatly inspired by art. I feel that art, fashion, architecture, and all elements of design feed each other. I am hugely inspired by the sentiment and romance in literature and poetry. These ideas are reflected in our collections; combining traditional jewellery craftsmanship with avant-garde ideas to create jewellery which symbolizes modern romance.
I started the House to create one-of-a kind designs that will inspire future generations of goldsmiths. Every jewellery house has their distinctive qualities. With Shaun Leane, it is about creating a new genre of jewellery that taps into the emotive meaning and history of jewellery, and breaking entrenched traditions to create designs that are relevant to today’s world. Our aspiration is to create something new, precious and eternal—we believe in designing beautiful objet d’art with longevity, at the same time, distinctive and with a sense of timeless elegance. Coming from a Goldsmithing background, we celebrate our heritage of using traditional jewellery techniques, while constantly pushing the boundaries of luxury jewellery design.
The Hook earrings are a trademark for Shaun Leane, as they retain the signature ethos from one of the very first pieces I created with McQueen in 1996 the silver Tusk earring. A piece that is crafted with delicate, fine and fluid lines to create a strong statement piece of jewellery, they are the perfect balance of feminine and powerful. Personally, I wear the diamond Interlocking rings as these were one of the first pieces we designed and they are a perfect demonstration of the handwriting we still have today.
Myself and Lee became friends through a mutual friend Simon Unglus who was on the same MA course at Central Saint Martins as Lee. I had just finished my apprenticeship as a fine goldsmith in Hatton Garden, at a workshop which created all the fine high-end pieces for some of the most prestigious stores on Bond Street. Lee often visited my atelier where I would be crafting pieces from diamond solitaries to diamond tiaras. He was fascinated by my skill and attention to detail not to mention the beautiful materials I was working with like fine gemstones and different coloured golds. It was here where Lee then asked if I would create jewels for his catwalk shows.
At first, this was a very daunting task as I was fine goldsmith and conditioned that way. I found it hard to imagine how I could create large pieces for the show in the material I was used to working in, but Lee said to me, “Shaun, you’re such a skilled craftsman. If you just apply your skills to other materials, you can create anything.” He helped me change my thought process and explore different materials and methods to create the pieces for the show.
This was a very exciting and challenging time. Lee had given me a creative platform where there were no boundaries, where I could experiment and explore and push my design and craft skill to the ultimate. The process to how we worked would vary from Lee knowing an actual piece he would like created for show, or we would both look at the mood boards to the concept of the show and we would discuss designs of several pieces for the show. One of the first shows I worked on was The Hunger S/S ’96. Lee ask me to create a large silver stag horn silhouette pieces to go across a skirt. This was the largest piece I had created at the time apart from tiaras. It was a beautiful organic form of from which came the Tusk earring each model wore.
This is where my signature was born and how our work continues using fine, refined lines to create powerful statements. For one of the shows, I created a silver choker which I had set with genuine pheasant claws with strings of luxurious Tahitian pearls. This was a great way to build contrast; the softness of pearls in combination with hard macabre forms created a wonderful balance of colour, texture and style. Through creating catwalk pieces, I have discovered the beauty in fusing traditional jewellery craftsmanship with new materials. The result of fusing the old with the new created my style of modern classics.
One of the most challenging pieces between our collaboration was the Coiled Corset (A/W 1999, The Overlook). Earlier that year I had worked with him on an African-inspired neckpiece for Björk’s album cover. It was a challenging project as I had only just began self-teaching silversmithing to meet the demands of the catwalk. When McQueen asked if I could create the same neckpiece but for the whole torso, I knew it would absolutely challenge my skills as a goldsmith. I remember him saying to me, “Nothing is impossible.” If I can make the neckpiece, I can also make the corset. After that, I spent 16 hours a day for 10 weeks creating the piece. Since then, we continue this mantra that “Nothing was impossible.”
When I was approached by the V&A Museum to present my archive of Alexander McQueen works, we went through a selection process to decide on which pieces to exhibit. I then proceeded to call all the pieces from our Archive to be reconditioned for the exhibition. Once all pieces were delivered to our atelier, to see all these wonderful works together was very emotional and yet gave me an energizing feeling as all of these unique pieces were landmarks in my friendship and working relationship with Lee. My team and I reminisced over each piece, show and the memories attached to them. Each piece connects with a selection of my personal favorite pieces from one of the very first pieces, such as the Tusk earring from the ‘Hunger’ S/S 1996 to the Star and Moon headdresses for ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Howe.’
It was a very emotional experience for me to see all these creations again in one space…it was like looking at the history of my career. The memories attached to each of these individual pieces are landmarks of my friendship with Lee and the different stages of my development as a designer and craftsman. There is an overwhelming feeling of pride and gratefulness to have been able to create this body of work and to have shared a creative platform with such a genius and kind man like Lee. To have my creations beside his at the V&A Savage Beauty exhibition is an honour. It portrays the strong and innovative collaboration we have.
The bespoke diamond glove which we created in collaboration with Daphne Guinness is the piece which represents the spirit of our jewellery house: a creation that crosses the boundaries between art, jewellery and fashion. The project began at a party six years ago when Daphne asked me to create a silver glove. She spoke of her fascination with armour, which began as a child through her reading of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur—a compilation of the legendary tales of the Knights of the Round Table. To Daphne, “Armour is like a mask; a protective layer that keeps you hidden from the world. There is something isolating, yet strangely reassuring when you put it on.” So when she was considering her choice of words in naming the glove, Daphne settled on Contra Mundum, meaning “against the world” in Latin.
A few weeks after the party, Daphne came to our atelier. I briefed her of the details and the concept of the birds I had in mind. With excitement, we both realized we were speaking the same language—the relationship was very organic, our vision just naturally came together. We began to produce the glove in silver but this was too softer metal to withstand the construction of amour so we both decided to create the glove in a harder material. We crafted the piece in 18ct white gold. As the piece began to grow, so did our ideas—we realized that this piece was pushing the traditional notions of fine jewellery and bringing decorative armour to the 21st century.
Seeing many creations hit the catwalk with Lee McQueen were always moments of pride and excitement. When we won our first award in 2004 for Jewellery Designer of the Year, this was a very proud moment for my team and I to feel our vision was appreciated and admired. From that day, we have won an award every year including International Jewellery Designer of the Year this year (2015) at the Andrea Palladio Awards, which still continues to fill me with pride. Every time we create a piece that fulfills our vision and evolves the house further with the aspiration to always create the new and the beautiful, is always a landmark in my career.” –Shaun Leane
Photography by Emerald Carroll for The Stone Set