"Hi, welcome to Norfolk!" beams Monica Vinader as we hop out of the car and into the Holkam Studios courtyard; a tidy garden bordered by four rectangular buildings shadowed by a clock tower. 12.16pm. We've been on the road for three and half hours since leaving London's King Cross station at 8.44am earlier that morning. "You must be hungry," says Vinader, wearing a black leather biker jacket paired with pink glitter Gucci heels. Heck yes, I'm starving. "Come in and have some lunch. Everything is homemade by our chef and we try to use organic where possible." Say what? Organic? And just like that, I'm sold. Warm, fashionable and health-conscious — I think we're going to be best friends Monica.
Located on Holkam Estate in Norfolk — presided over by Lord and Lady Leicester who still live in Holkham Hall just a few miles down the road (think: Downton Abbey and you're not far off the mark) — Monica Vinader's design studio is east of London, minutes from the sea, and surrounded by acres of finely manicured green lawn (home to animals great and small including herds of wild deer). For a jewellery brand that's now stocked in 14 countries globally, from Europe to UAE and North America to Singapore, surely a central city location is more logical? Who would have thought that the designer of the famous Monica Vinader Fiji Friendship Bracelet would be based 3 hours from London? As we sit in her office, peppered with sketches and moodboards of upcoming collections, Vinader licking her fingers as she eats a gluten-free brownie (me, trying to stop myself from eating a third), we chat candidly about the evolution of her namesake brand, the allure of Norfolk, and the importance of leading well and "sticking to your guns."
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When you started this business, did you ever envisage it to be as global and successful as it is today? Monica Vinader: I wanted it to be global and successful. That's why I did it. When my sister Gabriela (who oversees operations) and I wrote our first business plan — and actually, it still stands true to what we're doing today — the word 'global' was always in there. We wanted to grow our business into a global brand that would still be able to deliver design and integrity. It's about creating a brand that people could wear everyday without compromising on quality.
For a brand like yours that values design and craft, was it difficult to find the right partners to make it scalable whilst preserving quality? To get our partners to understand, believe and stick by our quality everyday, and in every delivery, is one our biggest challenges. In fact, one of our team members who used to work in our quality control room here in Norfolk has just relocated to Mumbai, India to oversee production. Regardless of how good your partners are, you still have to police it everyday. Because without quality — both in design and in materials — you are nothing. We have some amazing partners, probably some of the best in the industry, and we have nurtured those relationships. They tell us we have the highest standards in the industry and we have actually helped them improve their quality.
I know you are also very conscientious to ensure that your diamonds and gemstones are ethically sourced. Can you tell us more about that process? Sourcing of ethical diamonds is definitely a big deal for us. We are quite strict with our suppliers and we audit them exhaustively through professional third parties. Those audits look out for things like child labour as well as the quality of water that people are drinking, to the condition of factories and how many hours they work. We also visit our factories at least once a month. We mainly work with Far Eastern factories in Thailand and India. Also, it's important to highlight that we don't buy cut stones. We buy raw stones and have them cut to our specifications in India. And that guarantees us the quality of the rough and the integrity of the design, which is super important to us and one of our unique selling points.
What else do customers buy when they purchase jewellery from Monica Vinader? I think integrity. I don't know if people who buy into our brand know it, but people do perceive it. Because there is an integrity to everything that we do. I often talk to our design team about details as little as 0.5mm, because I believe in proportion and balance. I believe in detail to a really big degree. And that integrity to our design, meticulous attention paid to detail, and general thought process that has gone into our pieces, makes them that little bit different and a little bit more special.
What is the most rewarding thing about running your own business? Two things: First, that I could choose to work in this industry that I am passionate about is a huge privilege; and second, I love the autonomy and independence of running my own business; being able to put into practice what I really believe in and set a culture based on values that I really embrace. As a company, our core values are very important.
Tell us about your core values. Kindness. The integrity in which we do everything. Definitely a lot of hard work and dedication to achieving excellence. We want to be exceptional, not in a conceited way, but to do things well and that being our own personal journey.
For a global brand like yours that continues to grow year-on-year, it's a luxury for you and your design team to be based out here in Norfolk; a three-hour commute via train and car from London. How does your Norfolk location add or benefit your design process and to the final product? I think it adds everything to what we do. Going back to our culture and values. This space encourages team work and a sense of family. It is quite an unusual flat structure that promotes empowerment of individuals. Gabriela and I are both very hands-on in the business — for better or for worse, some might say — but I feel that I have to pull my weight as much as anybody else. And I think, that culture is emphasised by the way our office is set up. From a design point of view, our surroundings have such an impact. It is a massive privilege to come to work in such a beautiful place like this — with big skies and beaches — the natural form is such an inspiration to our collections. If we were in an industrial space with artificial light, I'm not sure if I could work, full stop.
Which collection are you most proud of? Of late, I would say the Signature bangle which was very engineered and different to what we had done previously. And this upcoming season it comes in rings and earrings. Signature is amazing. We have lived, loved and breathed Signature for two years before it was launched. And for it to now sell very well, it's such a validation. We really believed in it and we worked so hard, and we almost thought we weren't going to make it, because it was fraught with lots of problems due to the difficulty of construction. I mean, it takes one person an entire day to make one bangle, because everything is hand-polished and hand-assembled. It really is a work of art. It's one of our proudest moments.
When you get dressed in the morning, do you think of accessories first or last? I sometimes don't even take my jewellery off. I often sleep with all of my jewellery. For example, I never take off my Nura gold necklace unless I'm getting a massage. If I'm dressing for an event in the evening, I would probably put on jewellery at the end, and often, on top of what I already have on. Sometimes I take everything off and just wear a statement pair of earrings. It just depends on my mood.
Do you feel naked when you don't have jewellery on? Yes definitely. I wear my jewellery on the beach. I go swimming with my jewellery on. I don't sunbake that much, but when I do, I end up with some tan lines. That's how much I'm attached to my pieces. I have a journey with my jewellery. They've been with me everywhere.
In today's digital age, there is a lot of noise. What is your strategy to make sure your brand cuts through all that clutter? For me, I believe that sticking to what you believe in and doing things really well makes you stand out. When you start a business and when you grow a business, people are always giving you advice — and you should always listen because people can give you good ideas — but always focus on what you believe in and what you've always wanted to do. Focus on your vision. If you look at our mood boards for our collections they are not trend driven. They reflect what we like and what interests us artistically and aesthetically.
In terms of digital and social media marketing, is that something that is at the forefront of your mind? Yes, for sure. I think that digital medium is everything. It's how people are communicating and it's how we are selling to our customers. Facebook is huge for us and mobile transactions are definitely over 50% of our transactions online, so our e-commerce is designed for mobile before it is for desktop. The digital world is the focus for us, and it is changing all the time, and it's exciting. I think we are well attuned to digital because we are quite an unorthodox company anyway, so it kind of suits us.
Looking back, what has been the greatest lesson that you've learnt so far? I've made quite a lot of mistakes. I think my greatest lesson is learning to always stick to my guns. I've found opposition in lots of areas throughout the years, but always sticking to my instincts and my beliefs has always been my greatest lesson. When I've deviated from that, that's when I've encountered problems. Sometimes it's hard to articulate what you stand for, but you have to find a way to do that, and the minute you compromise, that's when things go wrong. You have to be incredibly self-aware and ask yourself a lot of questions. You have to be honest with yourself and be willing to grow personally and learn new things. To challenge yourself daily.
"One of the key things for me is that there's no right way or a wrong way, there's just your way and what you believe in."
As your brand grows, and the number of partners and employees grow, how do you lead well as the CEO and founder of Monica Vinader? Is this something you think about? All the time. People are the biggest challenge as well as the biggest reward. Because as you grow, you have a lot of people representing your brand — some based a million miles away; for example, we just opened up in America — who are handling the product and in contact with your customers. So communicating to them who we are, and what your brand stands for is really important. Leading well in a way that is respectful and efficient is an everyday challenge. We work quite hard at it, to hone in on our values and competencies, to really develop our teams. It's something that takes up a lot of time and conscious effort. It is the single most challenging thing that I do.
Having a strong vision is so important isn't it? Because without a vision, a people perish. If you flip flop between ideas then no one is going to follow you. Because one of the key things for me is that there's no right way or a wrong way, there's just your way and what you believe in. You have to believe in something — and I'm not saying my way is the best way, it's just the way that I believe — and whoever wants to come with me, can come with me. But if I start changing my mind and not being consistent, no one is going to be inspired and want to come along on the journey. I also think that it's really important to be respectful of other people's ways, but you have to do what you believe in as well as you can.
Finally, what do you think are the main drivers for growth moving forward? Whether that be a product category or incorporating new materials or technology. Honestly, I think diamonds. Our diamond collections are growing so fast.
Do you find some areas of the world loving diamonds more than others? It is universal. Everyone just loves diamonds. In fact, if you look at how products perform across the globe, there isn't a huge difference. There are some subtleties, but not major. However diamonds are the common love. So look forward to seeing more diamonds in our collections in the future.
Talking about diamonds, scroll through the gallery below to see some of our favourite pieces from the newly launched Monica Vinader Nura Diamond collection for spring/summer 2017.
Monica Vinader is retailed in Singapore at ION Orchard and the Takashimaya Ladies Accessories Department.
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