After teaching herself to design jewellery by making her own pieces without any formal training, SOLANGE AZAGURY-PARTRIDGE has defined an iconoclastic approach to jewellery design from her London studio.
The first piece of jewellery that Solange Azagury-Partridge ever made was her own engagement ring. Having tried – and failed – to find a ready-made ring that she liked, she made her own in 1987 as an uncut diamond embedded in a simple gold band. So many people admired it that, three years later, she set up in business and taught herself how to design jewellery.
She now regards the D-I-Y approach that introduced her to jewellery design as essential to her work. “The advantages of being self-taught are that I have no preconceptions or received opinions about the rules of jewellery,” observed Azagury-Partridge. “Being an outsider is my raison d’être.”
Born in London in 1961, Solange Azagury-Partridge studied French and Spanish at university and, after graduating, took a stopgap job at the London costume jewellers Butler & Wilson. A year later she went to work for the 20th century antique dealer Gordon Watson, where she discovered the vintage jewellery of Cartier, Van Cleef and Boucheron.
Even in her earliest pieces, Azagury-Partridge broke the rules by creating dramatic sculptural settings from unconventional combinations of stones including uncut precious and semi-precious gems. For her first collection as creative director of Boucheron, the venerable Parisian jeweller, in autumn 2002, she set the most precious gems – emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds – in black gold in a spectacular combination of Azagury-Partridge’s ingenuity and Boucheron’s heritage.
Q. How did you first become interested in jewellery?
A. I knew nothing about jewellery before I went to work at Butler & Wilson (a costume jewellery shop in London). A girlfriend of mine was working there. I needed a bit of money after leaving university and ended up working there for ten months.
Q. When did you start to design jewellery?
A. The first piece of jewellery I designed was my engagement ring in 1987. I didn’t like the traditional wedding ring and I didn’t like sparkling diamonds. I liked the idea of an uncut diamond. It had a subtler look. It was my first ever precious ring.
Q. How did jewellery design become a career, rather than a hobby?
A. When I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with my first child, I stopped working and decided to concentrate on one thing – jewellery. It became my obsession.
Q. Can you describe the style of jewellery you designed when you first began? And how that style has evolved over the years?
A. I worked with uncut diamonds at first, then uncut precious and semi-precious stones. I love the freshly-hewn-from-the-rock look, the beauty of natural, earthy and irregularly shaped materials and I love the indestructibility of jewellery – that gems and precious metals never decay. My style has evolved as an exploration of stones and ways in which to set them. Then I combined that with a concept, although that came later.
Q. What were the most important catalysts in your development as a designer? Did the availability of materials make a significant difference? Technical dexterity? Or aesthetic influences?
A. My development has been organic and gradual in tandem with my business. Financial constraints have been a major factor and still are today. Also the skills and techniques available to me have improved. My influences and obsessions are constantly changing. One of the great challenges of designing jewellery is that you are working at such a small scale. It is difficult to convey a lot of information and detail through something so tiny. This is still a challenge although it has become easier for me over the years as I have become more experienced, less afraid of experimenting and people have been readier to understand my work. It is very important to me that the pieces I design shouldn’t just look pretty but should also have meaning and my clients are receptive to that. I think that when gems and minerals have been brought out of the deep dark earth, it’s criminal to design a piece and then to lock it away in a deep dark safe.
Q. What are the advantages of being a self-taught designer without a formal training in jewellery design? And what are the disadvantages?
A. The advantages of being self-taught are that I have no preconceptions or received opinions about the rules of jewellery. I know that everything is possible, as it is in all fields. Being an outsider is my raison d’être. I don’t like being part of a secret society.
Q. Were you influenced by the work of other jewellers - historic and contemporary - in your work before Boucheron? And what are your wider influences?
A. At first I was very influenced by the work of other jewellers from ancient Greek and Roman jewellery to Madame Belperron, Cartier and Boucheron. I started with rough stones, then classics with a twist because I was so impressed and full of admiration for what I saw. As time progressed I developed the confidence to go my own way. As for my wider influences, they come from anything and everything: books, great artists, smells, words, the bible.
Q. Can you describe the design and development process for the Solange Azagury-Partridge line of jewellery?
A. These days my design and development process consists of developing a concept combined with a technique and a gem theme. I make a little scribbly sketch or a Blu Tack model and then chat with a jeweller. Then I’ll make a wax model or go straight to piece, buy the stones and Bob’s your uncle.
Q. How did you go about developing your collections for Boucheron as creative director there? Did the design and development process differ from that of your signature collection? Were different materials - and techniques - available to you?
A. I began with a major trawl through the Boucheron archives. The name sent me spinning off. Boucheron equals ‘bouche’, which equals ‘mouth’ and ‘ron’ which equals ‘round’. It’s all about voluptuousness and sensuality. The design process there was fundamentally the same as for my own line but it wasn't not all about me and my personal obsessions because Boucheron is a venerable old jewellery house with a 150 year-old history. The gems we used there were more important perhaps and there was a very large army of skilled artisans. I wanted the history of the house to be reflected in the collections I produced and even in the rebranding of Boucheron’s image so that, while it may be modern, elements of its past were reflected therein. Also I wanted to bring Boucheron to a wider audience, to young people of more modest means and the rich alike.
Q. Can you describe how individual pieces in your Boucheron collections were developed, specifically how they relate to your own aesthetic and to Boucheron’s?
A. The snake is a creature that has featured at different times in Boucheron’s history. I thought it would be perfect to resurrect as it is so rich in symbolism. The snake is a sensual creature – reflecting the new sensuality of the house, Bouche-ron – and a symbol of temptation. I wanted the jewels and the women who wear them to personify temptation. The snake is also a symbol of renewal. When a snake sheds its skin it renews itself. Its endless permutations of shape reflect the changing shape of Boucheron. Chains have been another recurring theme for Boucheron and in the collections I used them to reflect love and bondage. A slave to love. A slave to jewels. A slave to the person who gives them to you. In the first collection I used only the four most precious gems – emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds – to reflect the height of luxury, that’s what jewellery is. I set the gems monochromatically so people could appreciate their purity and vibrance of colour. Setting the coloured stones on black gold made them even more intense and gave them an already patinated vintage air. The emerald cup ring (my own dangerous beauty) gives the impression of a stone floating in a pool of emeralds and hits you in the eye with its intensity of colour.
Q. What are the advantages of designing for an established house like Boucheron with such an imposing history rather than for your own company? And the disadvantages?
A. Boucheron gave me a whole new range of elements to work with outside of myself. The techniques, styles and traditions of the house all gave me food for thought. My company is about today, about now and about me.
Q. What are you working on now? And what are your plans for the future?
A. I am now working on a new Solange Azagury-Partridge collection and am continuing to work on more accessible, affordable pieces so that everyone can have some.
Visit Solange Azagury Patrridge's website at solange.info
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain