Letters to a Young Designer

Stephen ­Webster, Anna Ruth ­Henriques, Daniel Gibbings, and Mimi So pen missives to their youthful selves ­musing on how they started, where they are today, and all the things they learned along the way

Dear Stephen Junior,

I realize you’re only 8, but it’s time we sat down for a chat about the birds and the bees and, in this case, diamonds and pearls. Trust me, son, this is harder for me than it will be for you. Take a seat. Can I offer you a cigar or a bourbon? I think I’ll have one.

It goes without saying that the birds, and to a certain extent the bees, will drive you crazy. As for diamonds and pearls, though you don’t know it yet, very soon you will develop an unhealthy interest in both. Like most things that are bad for you, the ­jewelry industry can be very seductive. Once you’re hooked, withdrawal can be so severe that very few are strong enough mentally or physically to unchain themselves. Many ex-jewel junkies have to remove themselves from future ­temptation simply by joining a witness protection scheme.

Are you sure you won’t reconsider that cigar?

Letter writer: Stephen Webster
Location: London
Years in business: 37

I started my life in jewels at art school at the tender age of 16 and was immediately easy prey for the visiting lecturers from the industry. It was only later that I discovered that these shady characters were part of a sophisticated global jewel cartel whose grubbiness ran so deep they had the power to control the price of a jeweler’s habit (i.e., diamonds and gold).

I realize you’ve made up your mind so rather than try to stop you, I’m going to offer you some pearls of wisdom. First, learn your craft. I’m not impressed by these types who think they can skip the bench work. You will get to work with some of the most amazing and precious materials known to man. Take the time to master the many traditional and more modern techniques. Try to train with some great established jewelers and be like a sponge: Soak up everything that comes your way.

Forget Me Knot Crystal Haze bow bracelet in 18k white gold with blue sapphire and black diamond pavé and black opal Crystal Haze bow; $21,500

The next thing is to broaden your horizons. I snapped up a job in the frozen wastes of Canada. I’m not saying you have to be that extreme, but a spell abroad can only add to your growth.

My next step was in the altogether more palatable Santa Barbara, Calif. There I was able to fine-tune a style that formed the basis of my work today. Gem explorer Mike (Indiana) ­Riding, whom I worked for, would pop off to the Khyber Pass or other equally inhospitable places, returning with big gems with even bigger names. As a dyslexic, this was a particularly harrowing time. What could one do with a big gem other than make a big jewel? So I did—loads of them. I picked up a few celeb clients, one being the great jewel herself, Liz Taylor. The lesson: Stick your neck out and you’ll get noticed.

Deco Haze Hexagonal 18k white gold rings with black and white diamonds and hematite Crystal Haze, $9,500, white diamonds and turquoise Crystal Haze, $3,800, and white diamonds and green agate Crystal Haze, $6,400

Back in London, I felt equipped to tackle anything. I had all the skills I needed, along with a nonconformist streak that dated back to my time as an art school punk. I wanted to break a few rules. After all, if you don’t have a point of view, you will become redundant. No matter what, if you believe in it, then stick to it. I did and that first JCK show my brother David and I participated in was a huge success. Some of the best retailers in America were scrambling to stock our tattoo-inspired, rock ’n’ roll pieces.

The next stage was building a business. It’s all well and good to sell up a storm but you’ve also got to make it, pay for it, and deliver it. You’ll need a team. The complications of a brooch are one thing, but fathoming SAP or other insanely dull stock-control systems are not for the likes of you and me. You’ll need bean counters, IT experts, and people who never break the rules.

Try to understand what people want from you. Don’t be afraid to surprise your clients. And try to maintain the passion that seduced you into wanting to be a jeweler in the first place.

Yours truly,


Dear Anna,

Letter writer: Anna Ruth Henriques
Location: New York City
Years in business: 6

The first thing I should tell you: Whatever you do, don’t pass up the opportunity to take that jewelry wax-carving class in New York. It will be the serendipitous beginning of your career. As an artist, you’ll be used to working with your hands, and at first, you’ll make interesting shapes and discover the world of seductive gemstones. Over time, however, you’ll find a way to make it more meaningful. You’ll see that jewelry can hold higher meaning than mere adornment. You’ll make work that enhances the wearer not just visually but also spiritually, through the meaning behind each of your pieces. You’ll see that your jewelry can be empowering, healing, and protective, and that as the stories behind each collection become known, you’ll see your intention has in fact reached your wearers.

Dragonfly earrings in oxidized silver with fluorite, ­hand-painted rock crystal, green sapphires, baroque freshwater pearls, and 0.08 ct. t.w. diamonds; $4,000

Your first collection will be comprised of rock crystal amulets with hand-painted insects set in 18k gold webs, a small spider hanging from each. The spider will become your symbol for creativity, independence, and self-sufficiency—attributes that you’ve always encouraged in yourself and your friends. The web will represent the threads of connection between all people to each other, to nature, to the Earth.

In that first collection, you’ll draw symbolic insects such as a hornet zooming to the sky, its wings spread wide in the shape of a cross. You’ll name that piece Resurrection for the person who is starting anew, to encourage transformation. You’ll paint a bee with tiny hearts named To Be or Not to Be, to remind its wearer that sometimes we are just not in control, and to allow space for any possibility. You’ll send images to the jewelry buyer at Barneys. Without hesitation, they’ll purchase your line.

At this point, you’ll wish for a mentor. You’ll think you don’t have enough experience to counter people with knowledge. Well, you don’t! But you can learn on the job as you have with everything else! Have confidence in yourself and follow your instincts as they never are wrong. You’ll paint an eye into your jewelry and name it the Eye of Intuition to remind yourself and others to trust your own intuition. Don’t second-guess yourself and stand firm on what you know is right for your line.

Ariadne choker in oxidized silver and 18k gold with citrine, blue topaz, moonstone, diamonds; $5,400 Triple Web Cuff in oxidized silver and 18k gold with 0.30 ct. t.w. diamonds; $3,300; Anna Ruth Henriques, NYC; 646-256-9996; annaruthhenriques.com

Last, don’t be afraid to do the trade shows. Without a doubt, they are the best way to expose your work, launch new lines, and figure things out. You might think to yourself, How in heaven’s name can I put a booth together? But the fact is that you just will. As so many will say to you until you do: You are the best person to represent yourself!

Love, Anna


Dear Daniel,

Montecito Photo Design
Letter writer:
Daniel Gibbings
Location: Montecito, Calif.
Years in business: 30+

First and foremost, embrace your adventurous soul. Growing up in Durban, South Africa, you’ll develop a profound love of travel that will lead you to explore museums across Europe, where you’ll discover new cultures and amazing artistic creations.

Your admiration of the intricate metalwork found in the jewelry sections of these museums will then guide you toward enrolling in a small jewelry school in Jaffa, Israel, which will turn out to be an important decision. There, you’ll learn the old ways of jewelry making used to make the pieces you admired so much.

Soon enough, you’ll come to understand the steps necessary to build your career, which I can only truly appreciate now as I look back all these years later: My thirst for adventure led me to the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture, and Design in London, where I studied advanced jewelry-making techniques and started creating my own designs. Making inspirational pieces, I learned, was a result of patience and determination. I’ve spent all night trying to perfect a single piece. When I have a clear vision, I now know that I need to let my soul and my hands do the rest.

20k gold ring with bezel-set rubellite center, ruby scallop detail, and white diamond accents, $4,850; 20k gold eternity ring with 2.57 cts. t.w. rose-cut white diamonds, $9,250; Delicate Florence 20k gold cigar band with 1.29 cts. t.w. diamonds, $7,850

My very first sign of success came when I opened a gallery in Safed, Israel, and I quickly sold out of all my pieces. Within a short time I was offered a job in a prestigious jewelry store in Boston, where I did commission work and executed other people’s designs. Creative freedom, however, was what I really wanted.

I opened my first store in Portland, Maine. The name was Fibula and it became successful after many sleepless nights and maxed-out credit cards. Things were good, but the weather was not. I craved the warmer climate and I needed to see the ocean, so I moved Fibula to Santa Barbara, Calif. It was the best decision I’d made in years. Before I knew it, we had a large following. It was in Santa Barbara that I first felt like I had arrived as a jeweler. 

20k gold small hoop earrings with 0.42 ct. t.w. white diamond–encrusted scallop edges; $2,900; Daniel Gibbings, Montecito, Calif.; 805-565-1284; danielgibbingsjewelry.com

But Fibula’s rapid growth created a lot of challenges. Clients wanted special pieces, retailers wanted impossible design adjustments and delivery dates, and I was working around-the-clock. I was at risk of burning out. Some of the challenges I was having with retailers stemmed from their lack of education. What saved me was helping them adjust their expectations.

Another lesson: Don’t balk at difficult projects—like the client with cancer who asked you to create an urn for her own ashes!

As a rule, always take pride in your creation process. To this day, everything is still sketched, carved, or made in silver before the mold is made, especially one-of-a-kind pieces.

Never give up on looking for unusual stones. In my early days, I could only buy a limited quantity and quality due to finances, but now I have the luxury to have stones custom-cut from rough. This process also has allowed me to create freely without any boundaries. But you have to live both stages to know when to choose what and where. And of course all that comes with experience.

20k carved and chiseled yellow gold Snake Ring with white diamond accents and ruby eyes; $6,000

I always followed the beat of my own drum when it came to design—or else you become just like everyone else. Therefore you need to adjust, change, and grow as you go. You have to be open to suggestions from those whose sense of style you respect.   

When Setenay Osman and I became business partners, she brought a dynamic business sense and an exotic style to my work. She’s from Istanbul, and the mix of my heritage and hers was a successful formula for our company, Daniel Gibbings Design Inc.

As a designer, you’re always chasing that exceptional piece. Every time you create it, you understand that the best is yet to come. It’s a game you play, I believe, till the day you die.

Regards, Daniel


Dear Mimi,

Letter writer: Mimi So
Location: New York City
Years in business: 15

When your parents bring you to their jewelry atelier in New York, pay attention! They did a lot of work behind the scenes for bigger houses, and you’ll learn how to sort and weigh stones almost as if you’re the Karate Kid, mastering the art of balance. The work will be laborious. But you’ll learn to take no shortcuts, as well as a crucial lesson about patience and perfection. When Dad pays you a penny for every casting you finish, you’ll think you’re going to be rich, and in a way, you will be, because all that work will teach you the value of a penny, and will kick off your lifelong love affair with jewelry.

ZoZo boulder opal and pavé diamond necklace in 18k yellow gold; $13,800; Mimi So, NYC; 212-300-8620; mimiso.com

In the hopes of sparing you some of the mistakes I made along the way, let me share with you the whole story: I studied at Parsons School of Design, where my love for fashion and creating lifestyle ­jewelry evolved. I wanted to create jewels that could be worn every day, from picking up the kids from school, to fancy evening affairs that call for a cocktail dress.

After Parsons, I still helped my family, but I decided to spread my wings (probably the most courageous thing I ever did). I opened up the company with two bucks in my pocket in 1998. My beginnings were delicate, feminine, and very sweet because my taste was still undeveloped. Because I grew up in New York City, with its edgy and energetic culture, my designs evolved into graphic geometric shapes with a modern, fluid sensibility.

My signature icon is the Piece collection. Its three concentric square shapes represent the past, present, and future. You’ll recognize it because it was derived from the shape of the window you now spend your days looking through, thirsting for discoveries.

Small Phoenix pavé diamond hoop earrings; $3,800

Working with celebrities was a great training camp, encouraging me to constantly push myself creatively to gain their interest. Those initial bold, clean silhouettes became my hallmark.

My jewelry came into play when celebrities didn’t want to look matronly; they wanted to look feminine and sexy, and my name was tossed around. Many pieces of my jewelry were worn on Sex and the City. A decade ago, my square signature designs were worn by all the A-list Hollywood stars—that year was AMAZING!

Phoenix pavé diamond stackable band in 18k yellow gold, $5,200; Phoenix stackable band in 18k rose gold; $2,700

But my life didn’t escape its share of challenges. Our industry is tough because we can’t control the economy, but we’re hugely affected by it. For us to have survived over these last five years, we had to be nimble, relevant, and work tremendously hard, with zero shortcuts. My advice to you is to stay true to your own identity and remain committed and connected with your retail partners and clients. Longevity, authenticity, and real partnerships are at the core of what we do.

It’s also important to pace yourself, as we did after the recession. It wasn’t so much about scaling back, but about what not to take on. We didn’t go to silver. We felt we were good at what we did and we wanted to maintain that—which is very hard when gold is triple the price it was in the good ol’ days! We made pieces that had a certain proportion, a certain look. Today, people say, “Your pieces have such a wonderful weight to them”—and that means a lot to me. We won’t cut corners on product. We might use fewer postcards or attend fewer shows, but product is our champion.

A designer’s dream is to have a loyal client base, and I am extremely proud of achieving this after many years of dedication.

All the best, Mimi