Ethical jewellery with Vanleles Diamonds: African jewellery designer Vania Leles on her creations about Africa, and for Africa
From Africa with love
On an early morning in London, the usual nip in the air is giving me goosebumps. But soon a Junonesque figure meets my eyes with a large smile illuminating a fine ebony face and open arms waiting to embrace me. In the warm hug of jewellery designer Vania Leles, I am suddenly taken into a corner of Africa, otherwise known as the elegant showroom-cum-atelier on New Bond Street in London, where her collection is displayed.
The mood boards on the wall next to her little white wooden designing desk show desert dunes, maps of Africa, and patterns of deep grass green, lemon yellow and carmine tones. "Africa is the starting point of the creation process," Leles says of her Vanleles Diamaonds label. I follow the flutter of her white cotton shirt to the window displays along the walls. She talks through the inspiration behind the 'Legends of Africa' collection, and places on the palm of my hand a pink sapphire and diamonds pendant earring in the conic shape of the African continent. She explains how the conic dunes of the desert inform the design of the Sahara collection, featuring yellow gold diamonds, and I also notice a dramatically curved large cuff in blue sapphire and diamonds, which seems to depict the agitated waves of the ocean crashing against the Cape of Good Hope.
We sink on a plush white fabric couch, and Leles takes a breath from her marathon talking and closes her eyes. "Africa is not only about the visual part," she confides. The creative director of Vanleles Diamonds creates jewellery for the benefit of Africa, making sure that all the stones she used are ethically sourced. "I personally and regularly visit the mines from which I source my stones," she points out, specifying that she visits the mines of her partner Gemfields, the leader in sustainably sourced coloured stones, as well as other independent mines scattered around the continent. Her smile contracts into a disapproving and alarmed look while she recounts the time when she quarrelled with the Mozambican officers who could not grasp why she insisted on filling in the paper work in order to duly and fully pay the taxes on the rubies she just purchased.
"It takes more than one person to change things in Africa, but I want to do my part," she explains. A native of Guinea Bissau, a tropical country along West Africa's Atlantic coast, Leles has witnessed the effects of inconsiderate mining on African societies torn apart by civil wars and is convinced that jewellery can offer the continent the opportunity to prosper. When I ask her about diamonds grown in laboratories, which aim to avoid ethical and environmental issues, she fervently objects, "Lab grown diamonds are a nonsense," and continues: "Africa is rich in many beautiful stones and diamonds; they are already there." In her view, it is only a matter of using these resources for the benefit of the community.
After modelling in the US, she studied as a gemologist at the Gemological Institute of America, and then worked with Graff and Sotheby's with the aim of starting her own jewellery business one day. And that's how Vanleles launched in 2011, and is today stocked not only in the United States, but also online through 1stdibs.com and swoonery.com, as well as in her London showroom, attracting international clients from all around.
In combining the commitment to her African heritage with her passion for jewellery, Leles' almost indelible, beautiful smile shows the endearing glow of a child holding a long-awaited present on Christmas day. Yet she is well aware of her challenges: Being a small brand dealing with ethically-sourced stones means that she has to charge high prices and sometimes lose sales. "But if someone is only after a good price and is not interested in the ethical value of my jewellery, I prefer to wait for the right client."
Discover Vanleles Diamonds here.