At the age of 15, Shaun Leane stepped into the world of traditional goldsmithing in London’s Hatton Garden, the centre of the city’s jewellery trade.
Despite being a rebellious teenager, Leane dedicated seven years to an apprenticeship, during which time he showed a talent for antique jewellery restoration and diamond mounting.
But it was when he met fashion designer Alexander McQueen that he started seeing beyond traditional borders, adopting an avant-garde approach to creativity that stretched his work as a goldsmith to new heights.
Over two decades, McQueen and Leane collaborated on works including a corset crafted from 97 aluminium coils, a Moon headpiece encrusted with Swarovski crystals, and what is now recognised as Leane’s signature piece, the single ‘Tusk’ earring.
In 2017, Leane sold 46 of his iconic pieces at auction in partnership with Sotheby’s New York. His works now take pride of place within private collections and gallery spaces at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Beyond jewellery and fashion, the north Londoner continues to tread into unknown territory with his latest project, a work of public architecture. More than a jewellery creator, Shaun Leane knows no bounds.
Hi Shaun. How did you start in the goldsmith trade?
Shaun Leane: I was at a very academic school, and with my being so creative, I felt it didn’t meet my needs. When I was 14, I asked to leave and do my education somewhere else. Through some to-ing and froing, I did a year’s foundation course at Kingsway Princeton College in London. It was a Youth Training Scheme (YTS), an initiative set up by the government as a way of encouraging young people to undertake an apprenticeship.
Initially, I wanted to study fashion, but I was too young to go to fashion school and didn’t have any qualifications. My careers advisor suggested I do a year-long jewellery course, and I took to it like a duck to water. It wasn’t just about jewellery; it was sculpture, cutlery and making all sorts of things out of metal.
What captivated you when it came to jewellery?
I’d always liked it. I had some rings and I loved my mother’s jewellery, too. I particularly enjoyed the goldsmithing part of the course – so much so that I finished a year’s worth of coursework in six months.
You served a long apprenticeship. How exactly did you learn from it?
It was thanks to my tutor at college that I ended up doing an apprenticeship. He was the one who saw I had a talent for making jewellery. At the age of 15, a seven-year apprenticeship sounded daunting, but I was encouraged by my tutor to try it, at least for a year. He found me a placement at a company called English Traditional Jewellery in Hatton Garden. After the interview, they offered me the apprenticeship but said: “You start at 8am and finish at 6pm, and you don’t speak unless you’re spoken to.”
It was a very strict, traditional working environment. I worked on copper for a year, silver for two years and gold in my fourth year. It was very disciplined, which I needed because I was quite a rebellious child. In the atelier, we made high-end jewellery for members of the British royal family and other royals around the world.
And how useful was it?
During my apprenticeship, I sat between two masters, Richard and Bryan, from whom I learned so much: detail, antique restoration, patience and fine-tuning from Bryan, while Richard taught me efficiency and how to anticipate the next job. I was a good student, so in my third year, when I should’ve been working in silver, I was already making diamond tiaras for Asprey. After finishing my seven-year apprenticeship, I stayed on for another five years.
You mentioned becoming restless.
It was after my apprenticeship. I was still working at English Traditional Jewellery, and goldsmithing was my world, but I wasn’t getting the chance to design. I’d designed some of my own pieces earlier, when I was at college and I knew this was something that I wanted to go back to, but being in such a traditional working environment, I didn’t have the freedom to design.
Seeing the work of past masters through the antique pieces I was restoring instilled in me a deep respect for their craftsmanship. It was the innovation in the design, as well as the intricacy in each piece, which inspired me.
How did you meet Alexander (Lee) McQueen?
I was 22 when I met Lee in 1992 and it was one of those serendipitous moments. We met through a mutual friend who was on the same MA course at Central Saint Martins. At this point, fashion was so far removed from what I was doing, and I thought it was bizarre.
Lee and I became friends and there was a group of us who would all hang out and go drinking around Soho. He never really paid much attention to what I was doing in my work, but one day he came to the atelier at English Traditional Jewellery. He had to sneak in because I was finishing some work and while he was looking around the workshop, he remarked upon how much it reminded him of his traditional training on Savile Row. Lee hadn’t realised the level of work I’d been creating, and it was almost as if, at that moment, a seed had been sown.
How did your creative partnership come about?
It never crossed my mind that I’d work with Lee on his shows, but he was always fascinated by different materials. When he asked me to create some jewellery for a show, my initial reaction was to question why he would ask me.
We couldn’t afford it and I thought it would take months because I was so conditioned to working on high-end, fine jewellery as a classical goldsmith. Instead, he said we could work in things like aluminium and brass, but this idea baffled me. He was opening my mind to a whole world of creative exploration.
What was the first piece of work you made for him?
The first show I worked with Lee on was The Highland Rape for his A/W 1995 collection. He asked me to make all these different length Victorian fob chains and I was expecting him to put them in the usual place, coming out of pockets, but he attached them in the most abstract areas. It was so innovative!
For the next show we worked on, Lee asked me to create some earrings for the models to wear. He wanted something animal-inspired yet chic and with a bit of an edge. That’s when I started to get creative and designed the large elephant-tusk earring. Every girl wore one during the show and it’s through this piece that I carved out my own creative my identity.
Which cultures inspire you when it comes to jewellery design?
I love the Maasai and Burmese neck coils and Amazon tribal culture for their interpretations on self-adornment. I’ve always been fascinated with the way jewellery is regarded as a status symbol. Despite all the cultural and historical differences, jewellery is linked to beauty.
I particularly love the Amazonian people because they use raw elements like bones, quills, claws and feathers. It doesn’t have to be gold. All materials are equal when it comes to jewellery.
Can you tell us about some of your bespoke work?
A while back, I produced a brooch for a client that was made from aluminium and decorated with beetles in white gold, vitreous enamel and cabochon sapphires, with buds of tanzanite [a blue and violet gemstone]. My setter nearly had a nervous breakdown while he was working on it because you can’t solder onto aluminium - so if he had chipped one grain off the piece, dislodging any of the thousands of stones, he’d have been forced to start all over again.
Do you oversee every piece that your company produces?
Yes, from the drawing to the finished product. We’re unique in a sense because everything we work on, from the initial design to the very last touch, is done in-house. When I draw something, it goes straight to the workshop. We then make either a master or an original mould as a starting point. When working on a bigger scale, for our collection pieces we’ll make a master, a mould and a sample, which then go to the factories as a fool-proof starting ground for production.
Is there a piece of historical jewellery that you would like to own?
I’d really love the Chanel Verdura cuffs [a cross between a bangle and a bracelet]. Coco Chanel pioneered the double-cuff look and it’s iconic. There’s something beautiful about the cuff as a single piece, but a cuff on each arm makes you feel powerful. I’m currently working on a Shaun Leane cuff and I want that to be my take on the Chanel version.
What new projects are you working on?
We spent six years working on a sculpted façade for a new residential development in Kensington, and it was finally unveiled in 2018. This building artwork project has propelled us into another realm and shows we’re not limited to jewellery design. We’re also working on a big installation piece in China, which is really pushing our creative boundaries.
Which items of jewellery do you never leave home without?
I have my favourite Shaun Leane pieces, like the interlocking rings, which are the first rings I ever designed when I did my collection for Harvey Nichols. I took the tusk concept from when I worked with Lee and designed it as a ring. I also wear a rose thorn stud and a talon earring, which give a bit of an edge to whatever I’m wearing.
You also have something a bit more personal, don’t you?
Yeah, I don’t leave home without my Victorian mourning ring. I’d always wanted one and found one about two years ago in a vintage shop in Brighton. I love the idea that the memory of someone lives on in a piece of jewellery. My necklace is a collection of talismans: a little Buddha, a Maltese cross, a guard of the temple, and a diamond. These are my lucky charms.
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