LONDON — Tough Love and Black Rainbows are two of many Solange Azagury-Partridge’s jewelry collections, but their names speak volumes about the British designer’s rocky road through the business.
Having started as a high-end independent jeweler in Notting Hill with a super-cool client list that still stretches from London and Paris to New York and Hollywood, she made her way through the dark tunnel of two large-scale luxury giants before eventually emerging once again at the opposite end of the spectrum with a bijou business, this time in Bayswater, a few minutes walk from her home.
Having lived through darkness and light, she’s come to the following conclusions: “Focus on exactly what it is you want to do, then just do it, and forget about your ego and the money, basically. That’s when it all goes wrong. Jewelry is a vocation, if you really love it.”
Another piece of advice would be that size and scale don’t necessarily matter. “‘Does it give me job satisfaction?’ ‘Does it make me happy and proud?’ That’s how I approach my work. Obviously the money I’ve earned is a very nice byproduct, but it hasn’t made me a multimillionaire. It’s a choice.”
Those lessons were hard-earned: Azagury-Partridge admits she let her ego run away with her when she was still a Notting Hill jeweler, selling her business to the company formerly known as Labelux. It has since changed its name to JAB Luxury and is exiting fashion and luxury altogether. She did manage to buy her business back, but she paid a financial and emotional price.
Before Labelux, she had worked as creative director of Boucheron when Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole were in charge of Gucci Group under PPR, now known as Kering. Once they’d left, a new corporate culture arrived and the thrills were gone, along with her autonomy as a creative.
“In a big company, nobody ends up valuing what the creative person does. They always want to shove the creative person out of the way. What I’ve learnt is, ultimately, to be in control of your creativity you have to be in control of your money, the finance.”
Big companies do this because, generally speaking, they see dollar signs, she said. “There is an obsession with scale, Tiffany is the template that all the big brands and people who want to be a big brand talk about. They say that Tiffany’s got low end and the high end, the $100 key ring and the $10 million diamond. It’s the holy grail of the jewelry business.
“I remember when I started, I never wanted to go into the business of mass manufacturing because that’s a whole other game, and then it becomes about distribution, and marketing, about something other than the jewelry, and my focus has always been the jewelry.”
In the digital age — and with so many jewelers of every price range popping up — size no longer matters, according to Azagury-Partridge.
Last year, she swapped her 5,000-square-foot Mayfair flagship — an historic town house filled with the designer’s signature rainbow colors — for a cozy, 700-square-foot shop done in velvet jewel tones, stained glass and neon lights. In New York, she also has a new address at 32 East 68th Street.
Despite downsizing, she said revenues have more or less stayed the same, profits are higher and overheads lower. Having the right real estate can be overrated, she said.
“All these best-location scenarios for a shop no longer really exist unless you’re at a different level of shopping where people just wander down the street and see what catches their eye. But when you’re more of a destination, the shop can be anywhere, within reason because the first step generally is either an e-mail, phone call or Instagram message. We still get people knocking on the door, but they’ve done their research.”
She’s resizing the business in other ways, too. Azagury-Partridge has exited wholesale altogether because it’s not worth the effort, she said. “It’s very hard to do because most people want consignment, sale or return, and if they buy something, especially when things are handmade and not mass-produced, the margins are not good enough.”
She also points out that jewelry design is a once-a-year business, and operates on a whole different cycle from fashion. In addition, she won’t be repeating her experiment with Amazon, where she sold silver-and-colored enamel versions of her Hotlips rings and other pieces of jewelry.
Amazon, she said, priced too low and undersold. “Obviously, I was implicated and involved so it’s my fault as well — another mistake. I was thinking about the money! I made the wrong decision,” she said.
Despite all the financial and commercial drama, she’s still pushing ahead on many fronts: She’s a founding member of the London Leopards, a group of jewelers and industry experts who are putting on their first gala fund-raiser later this month to celebrate creativity and craftsmanship and raise funds for the Prince’s Trust and for a new mentorship scheme aimed at young jewelers.
Azagury-Partridge’s creativity has also continued to flow: She’s just unveiled Supernature, a collection based around fire, air, water earth and ether, and earlier this year launched Poptails, a collection of rings like psychedelic earth formations or Spirograph designs.
“I’ve been able to do my collections through thick and thin, design jewelry through no matter what situation. Thankfully,” she said. “It’s a completely separate part of my life.”