We were both in reflective moods when I dropped into Shaun Leane’s off-Bond Street atelier at the end of last year. I was there for a sneak preview of a lavish and compelling book, due to be published this month, charting his 36 years as a designer-jeweller and his work with Alexander McQueen, and a new collection that revisits his seminal designs. Leafing through the proofs – a retrospective that provides an exciting new insight into the heady days of his collaborations with McQueen through a trove of never-before-seen backstage photography by Ann Ray – I recalled an evening, 20 years ago, when I’d climbed the narrow, winding staircase in a Dickensian building on Hatton Garden to reach an attic crammed with workbenches. Leane, an elfin figure, introduced himself and his latest after-hours creation, a work in progress that seemed peculiarly at odds with the antiquated surrounds. The piece, a futuristic aluminium-coil corset, later appeared in McQueen’s autumn/winter 1999 show The Overlook. At the time, it was still taking shape on a cast‑concrete torso.
As we sat huddled in a corner on a cracked Chesterfield, Leane explained how – having spent 13 years training and then working as a diamond mounter for a manufacturer of very fine traditional jewels for leading Bond Street jewellers – he had decided to venture out on his own. He told me how he was spending his evenings making catwalk jewels for his friend “Lee”, and described their shared love of fine craftsmanship and their joint mission to use traditional skills to subvert conventions of both fashion and jewels, to push the boundaries of body adornment and bring new relevance to the jewel’s most ancient and ritualistic roles.
The rest is written. Together, they challenged preconceptions of what a jewel could or should be, and delved into its potential as an expression of changing femininity, and its connection to armour and protection – both physical and spiritual. Using McQueen’s shows as theatre, the two friends shone a light on one of the least-known aspects of couture: the catwalk jewel.
Looking back to that embryonic corset, Leane tells me that he could never have imagined his jewels would one day take their place in both museum and private collections, from the Costume Institute of the Met in New York to the V&A in London; much less that he would be planning for a selling exhibition dedicated to him at Phillips in London and New York, showcasing catwalk creations from the McQueen archive, a cache of fine-jewellery commissions, new high-jewellery creations and photography from Ann Ray and Nick Knight, among others.
Today, sitting in his sleek, contemporary studio, he’s tracing the stepping stones that got him here. “I see contemporary woman as a warrior: romantic, strong, yet also vulnerable,” he explains. “I wanted my jewels to capture these dualities, and provoke different, even conflicting emotions – confidence, fragility, seduction and protection – and most of all deliver a sense of inner strength and identity.”
He still speaks of the jewel in terms of armour, harking back to its earliest talismanic role, and one captured so powerfully in Contra Mundum, the chainmail and diamond gauntlet he painstakingly handcrafted for and with Daphne Guinness – and which is now in a private collection.
It was in 1999 that Leane launched his own collection with the Tusk earring, inspired by the single-ear adornment made for McQueen’s spring/summer 1996 show, The Hunger. The shape and form – long and slender, fierce yet fluid and sensual – created a silhouette for the 21st century, and the template for a modern classic. It was adapted, for example, to the bestselling Hook and Talon earring that appears to pierce the earlobe, provocatively punk in style and attitude.
Stimulated by McQueen’s genius for using the emotive push and pull of opposing forces, Leane juxtaposed allure and menace; low-key elegance and animal magnetism; the ancient and the avant-garde. This elegant balance of extremes still characterises Shaun Leane jewels: the sharp rose-thorn ear-studs, both fairytale and fearsome, that recreated the real thorns that the fashion designer used to stick on his face; or the deep openwork cuff – a forbidding tangle of thorny rose branches, suggesting both attraction and protection.
Leane still loves the idea of a jewel that both beckons and repels. He talks of romance in his work, of storytelling, and how he is inspired by poetry or paintings – the brutal beauty of nature or the sentimentality of the Victorians. This comes, he explains, from his experience restoring antique jewellery: “I have always felt an intense connection to the past, and held a deep fascination for how human emotion – be it awe, joy, desire, sadness – can be encapsulated in objects.” This sense of history adds intriguing depth to his designs.
We take it for granted now, but Leane was one of the first, if not the first, to fuse fashion and jewellery. After his work with McQueen, it was the most natural thing in the world for him – yet in bringing the two worlds together, he anticipated not only the massive early-21st-century influence of fashion and fashion houses on jewellery but the growing phenomenon of women buying precious jewellery for themselves. He was also one of the first of his era to explore social, cultural and historical references, bringing a new dynamism of romance and meaning to the minimalism that had dominated the ’90s. Looking back, Leane says he can now also appreciate the huge influence of the ’90s cultural and art scene on his work. “I was hanging out with Björk and Jarvis Cocker, and with Damien Hirst, Sam Taylor-Wood, Jay Jopling, with Hussein Chalayan and the Chapman Brothers. It was an amazing time. A revolution in the arts.”
For those who wish they had got their hands on an early Shaun Leane, this is an exciting moment. He’s revisiting his iconic works to create 21 new, one-off jewels that represent an evolution of the McQueen catwalk pieces. These include a supple, slinky Serpent’s Trace choker – the articulated skeletal serpent originally inspired by the skeleton corset made for McQueen’s spring/summer 1998 Untitled show – now in white gold smothered in diamonds; a matching pair of linear, diamond-set Armis bangles; the crossover Aurora cocktail ring, its diamonds flicking around a sapphire and an emerald; two versions of the prickly Quill choker – with terrifyingly deep spikes pushing up against the chin; and the Tusk bangle, made modern with an inlay of black ceramic, its blunt end paved in emeralds.
Leane tells me that today he is more and more preoccupied with capturing the beauty of decay and rebirth in the natural world – skeletal autumn leaves or dead tree bark – and more awakened to the possibilities and promise of rejuvenation. In his jewels, he explains, he’s more open-minded to new materials, such as anodised aluminium, ceramics and carved stones. And he’s experimenting with new techniques and technologies, such as mixing 3D printing with traditional craft skills.
Most excitingly – following his foray a few years ago into architecture, when he was commissioned to design ironwork, gates, railings and balconies for the Young Street development, a residential project in Kensington – new opportunities for collaborations are coming his way: the chance to explore design disciplines such as furniture and lighting that take him outside his comfort zone.
Leane feels the same thrilling challenge to create the impossible that fuelled him in the ’90s and sees a parallel to those heady days in today’s desire to shake the status quo. He says that his dreams are ever more ambitious since rediscovering the “utter fearlessness” of his collaboration with McQueen. “I’m determined to carry that energy into the future,” he says. “That passion to push boundaries burns even brighter than before.”
Shaun Leane (£55; special edition £399; Acc Art Books) is published on 20 April.