The alchemist's tale: Theo Fennell, jewellery designer

Theo Fennell is almost as dazzling as the exotic and flamboyant jewellery twinkling in the glass cabinets of his Chelsea store. Sporting a natty bright V-neck, the floppy-haired jeweller is positively fizzing with good humour and English charm. Coloured decanters with solid silver skull stoppers rest on counters filled with diamond necklaces, ruby-encrusted skull rings, huge emerald drop earrings and gold cuffs. A massive chessboard with white and yellow gold birds of prey stands majestically at one end of the showroom. It’s no wonder this larger-than-life character’s playful designs have a loyal following of clients including Elton John, Ronnie Wood and the Delevingne sisters. 

At least half of his business is bespoke and, of course, much of his irreverent yet classical silverware ends up on board his patrons’ yachts. “We’ve just made a four-foot-long silver model of a motor yacht that comes apart so you could see each cabin,” he says. The world of superyachts is a familiar one and he’s spent many a holiday as a guest cruising the South of France, Caribbean and Corsica. “At the moment we’re creating ship decanters that don’t roll. The days of yachts rolling are largely gone but they’re nice things to have and they’ve been made especially.”

Sea-inspired jewels pervade his work, from jellyfish pendants to large, dazzling ocean-coloured stones such as Brazilian paraibas and aquamarines. Then there are cufflinks galore for the male superyacht owner, featuring everything from periscopes to J Class yachts, Chinese junks, crabs and sea turtles. Sitting in front of Fennell is a stunning silver model of a J Class sailing over a choppy sea, the sails as smooth as could be and the sea rough and rousing.

As well as creating beautiful jewellery, Fennell is famous for his silverware, whether it’s the popular silver Marmite lids and bottle sleeves or larger creations, like an impressive hot-air balloon bowl on a plinth. 

His love of silver comes from his traditional training at Edward Barnard & Sons in the 1970s. After art school and putting aside a desire to be a portrait painter, Fennell landed a job at the famous silversmiths in Hatton Garden. “They were one of the great silversmiths in the world and had been going for 300 or 400 years. You could have filmed a Dickens series in there without changing anything, almost including the pens and clothes. My daughters laugh when I say ‘when I was first in London we had horses delivering coal and milk’.

“The workshop was this amazing place where they were making things that one had never really stopped to think how it was made. Being the company it was they were doing things that were steeped in the 17th century, reproductions of things for the military and then trophies for everybody. They made the FA Cup. It was such fun seeing all this.”

This taught Fennell you could make anything. It also instilled in him a huge respect for craftsmen. His own have been with him for years. “It was terribly old-fashioned in many ways and full of funny characters. The interesting thing was that nobody was more important than anybody else. The man who designed the silver sat with Fred the polisher and Harry the setter.”

Fennell came out of art school in the 1970s, a fertile time: Peter Blake had designed The Beatles’ album, pop art was the rage, and there were a host of creative people in industries such as advertising, magazines and television. “The areas in which you could use traditional skills just expanded out of all recognition from what it had been in the old days.” And Fennell was well equipped to take advantage of this.

When he set up shop 34 years ago he was the first jeweller in London to sell only his own creations and he used, shock horror, semi-precious stones. As he explains: “People really wanted bright stones then because it was fun. Suddenly there were pink tourmalines, tanzanite and tsavorite, bright pinks and bright purples, and the trade was desperate to stamp them out and the truth is some of them are rarer than precious stones.”

Fennell’s keys, crosses, skulls and large, brightly coloured stones were a breath of fresh air. He continues to give a modern twist to traditional items – apostles spoons are reimagined to feature James Dean and Elvis. One unique creation is an 18kt yellow gold and rock crystal Colosseum ring, a collaboration with the micro artist Willard Wigan, who has made a slain 18kt gold gladiator clad in a loincloth, measuring an awe-inspiring 1mm high. The ring comes with a diamond-studded gold pendant magnifying glass through which all the exquisite detail can be seen.

Fennell is working on a ring in which you see a boat on the surface and when you look through the sides you can see that underwater it’s a submarine with a couple of sharks circling.

He clearly relishes making these wonderful treasures. “On a sailing yacht or a motor yacht the finish is the thing. I’ve never been on a yacht where the owner hasn’t at some stage said: ‘You’ve got to see this mechanism or gizmo.’ It doesn’t come cheap making a 1mm high perfect rendition of a gladiator inside a ring that took someone three months to make, inside a box that took someone six months and it keeps 12 craftsmen doing what they do. It’s the same in the yacht industry; it’s keeping great skills alive. And it’s ever been thus; the patronage of people who can afford to indulge in those archaic skills.”

For Fennell the skills may be archaic but the designs are very much rock’n’roll.

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