Five notable jewellers on the first piece they ever designed

Initiee design by jeweller Sylvie Corbelin

These jewellers make clear that the elements that distinguish their work have been in place since the first piece

Long before they were celebrated jewellers with clients clamouring for their work, the five designers quoted below—James de Givenchy of Taffin, Fernando Jorge, Mish Tworkowski of Mish Fine Jewelry, Sylvie Corbelin, and Emmanuel Tarpin—were students, auction house specialists, bench artisans, and antique dealers with a passion for jewellery, and the creativity and ambition to offer something new.

Robb Report caught up with all five recently to hear the stories behind their first designs, including what they were doing when they decided to establish their own labels. In some cases, they began at design school. In others, they maintained day jobs while working nights and weekends on their own secret projects.

In all cases, the jewellery they introduced made a splash—with clients, advisors and collectors—and launched them into high jewellery orbit, where they remain to this day.

James de Givenchy, Taffin in New York and Miami

starfish pin designed by jeweller James de Givenchy
Photo by Taffin

When I was working for Christie’s in Los Angeles in the 1990s, I decided I was going to make jewellery. I had met this guy who was a jeweller for Van Cleef and Arpels in Beverly Hills. His name was Jim. And I told him, “I want to learn to work on the bench.”

I would go to his workshop at night. I would drive from the hills, go to Venice, where he had his studio. I remember during the winters, it would get dark early. Venice was not safe. But I would go in there and you had three guys, and they were all at the bench working on pieces. And so I worked with them.

But I realised quickly that it wasn’t really for me. It was going to take way too long. And I didn’t have a passion for it, but I had the passion of making things happen. And I decided if I can draw, if I know how to buy the stones, and I have a good knowledge of jewellery history and manufacturing and how the pieces are made, I can ask those guys to do it.

My first piece was a starfish pin that I had modelled in clay. I was very inspired by Boivin. I was still working at Christie’s Los Angeles. And I went to the jewellery mart in downtown L.A. to buy melee stones. There were all those little citrines, tourmalines, round stones, and I did a pavé.
I did my wax, I put all my stones on, and it looked really awkward. And at that point, I went to another friend that I had met who was a jewellery maker in Orange County and he helped me. He did the wax with me. We placed all the stones. And I said I wanted an ajouré [a metalworking technique designed to leave open spaces in the metal]. It was between Boivin and Belperron because I wanted the pattern on the stones, on the cutting, so we cut around each stone. It took forever.

When we finished the piece, we were both so proud. I sold it to a big client of mine. When I left Christie’s, she was like, “Do you have something?,” and I said, “I have one piece.” So I sold it. And years later, I was kind of disappointed because she actually sold it to Fred Leighton. Fred Leighton put it at auction. And it sold around 1999, 2000 in a Sotheby’s sale. It was the beginning of a new century. And it was the up-and-coming jewellery artists. I didn’t put that piece in. It just was in there without me knowing, but it sold there for a lot more money than I sold it for, which was great.

Fernando Jorge, London

the first piece designed by jeweller Fernando Jorge
Photo by Fernando Jorge

I had a few firsts. The first contact I had with jewellery was when I was in university. I was 21 years old and had just changed careers drastically after trying a corporate career in logistics. I remembered that I loved drawing. I found an internship at a jewellery manufacturer and I started designing technical drawings.

After six months, I was given the green light by the owner to design my own piece. The first piece I designed was inspired by an orchid. The outline of the orchid was with a wire and then dangling from the middle of the orchid was a little Venetian chain with a drop at the end. Many years later, I define my work with those same lines. In Fluid, my first collection, those elements are there.

Then there was what I designed for my degree project at university. It was a ring and earrings inspired by capoeira, the Brazilian martial art. It had movement and unusual materials combined with Imperial topaz, a stone that’s only found in Brazil. This was a different first for me, a chance to express my desire to do something Brazilian.

The main first — the real arrival in my style — was the birth of my collection during my Central Saint Martins masters program in 2008-2009. It was 2009 when I really clicked and started designing jewellery that’s very sensual, that has a lot of movement and translates the idea of Brazil in a very elegant and evocative way. For my first piece, I placed carvings of milky quartz in between two 18k gold snake chains. And that became my Fluid necklace. I sold it during the degree presentation to one of my tutors.

Mish Tworkowski, Palm Beach

bracelet, the first piece designed by jeweller Mish Tworkowski
Photo by Mish Tworkowski

I designed jewellery as a boy as a hobby and it kind of grew into a business. So there are milestone points. Is stringing beads with your mom at the kitchen table your first piece? It is, but it’s not really.

I was always fascinated with charms as a child. I loved lots of little things and I also love to collect little things. I have a whole collection of gardening miniatures. Friends of my family had this really wonderful jewellery business that did every aspect of jewellery making and I’d work there when I was a kid during the summers. It became a hobby.

My first job out of college was at Sotheby’s and they put me into the collectibles department so I was looking at everything from couture to toys. The thing I’ve always thought of as my first piece—and thinking this through makes me want to remake it—was an 18k gold gardening charm bracelet. I made it in the late 1980s. It had a little seed pack, a watering can, and a shovel. And it was very charming—no pun intended.

And I always think that was the beginning of making special jewellery.

Sylvie Corbelin, Paris

first piece designed by jeweller Sylvie Corbelin
Photo by Sylvie Corbelin

I’ve never forgotten the first jewel I created as a brand. It was 2007. At this time, in addition to my store at Paul Bert, I had a shop at Le Bon Marché. This was the period I had to finish my job as an antique dealer and start my new career as a designer. It was a moment of great change in my life.

For my first creation, I naturally used the symbol of the snakes. Reptiles represent primitive fears, power, seduction and the sacred, but above all, I see them as symbols of metamorphosis and transformation. Like them, humans must shed their “old skin” to transform themselves and grow.

We have much to learn from snakes, from their complex behaviour and remarkable ability to thrive in hostile environments. Transformations and life changes are not easy. It is often a whirlwind adventure. So, I drew a snake with multiple curls. The challenge in the manufacturing process was to preserve the elegant shape of the volutes and the sweetness of their volume.

That’s how the silver snake ring “Initiée” was born. Because the success of this ring never waned, I made it my logo, and until now it remains my best seller.

Emmanuel Tarpin, Paris

first piece by jeweller Emmanuel tarpon
Photo by Emmanuel Tarpin

I’ve had a passion for jewellery since my childhood. And I’ve always been fascinated by gemstones. At my parents’ place I still have a big collection of rough gemstones: amethysts, tourmalines. At the same time, I practised sculpture for 14 years. I always had this need to create with my hands. And jewellery is like sculpture to wear.

I did general studies and then I studied at HEAD, the school of art and design in Geneva. I took workshops where I worked with plastic things, not jewelry in the classic aspect. It was not really about craftsmanship at the bench working with gold and platinum, but it was a nice way to open my creativity.

After my graduation in 2014, I knew that I wanted to know all the different steps and techniques of jewellery, from the inspiration to the final piece. I started to work in a jewellery workshop in Paris working on the high jewellery pieces for Van Cleef and Arpels. It was really high jewellery, mostly one-of-a-kind. It was an old-fashioned style of workshop. I was with very old jewellers, who did everything by hand. I was really young, and they took me on as kind of an apprentice. And I really enjoyed that. I understood that creation can go from hand to hand; it’s not always one jeweller working on a piece. There’s the setter and the polisher, so many steps, and I learned all of that. I stayed in this workshop for four years before I started my own brand in December 2017.

My first piece was a big pair of earrings. They are geranium leaves in coloured aluminium and yellow gold and diamonds. Quite bold pieces and they are really colourful in this green coloured aluminium. And they are very light.

At that time, when I started to think about building my own brand, I was still at the Van Cleef workshop. I knew I wanted to start on my own, but I didn’t know how. I had some inspiration but I’m not a businessman. I thought it might be interesting to work on my first piece and to show it to professionals in the market to see what they thought. At the time, I was going to New York as a tourist and I thought, why not ask people at Christie’s?

So I made an appointment. And I showed them the geranium leaves. They really loved it. And they loved it so much that they proposed to include this piece for the Magnificent Jewels sale in New York, the big jewellery sale in December 2017. This kind of sale is all about big brands, quite expensive pieces, and they were interested in bringing something new and fresh. And so the piece was exhibited in different countries. People were interested because they didn’t know me at all. Me, I was absolutely terrified. I was in the middle of big brands, and nobody knew me. So the sale arrived and a very good surprise: The piece sold for more than the high estimation and that’s how my name started to spread.

This story was first published on Robb Report USA