London-based Akansha Sethi launched her eponymous global jewellery brand three years ago, to considerable buzz and success - she currently has stockists in the US and UK, and was named one of India’s 50 Most Influential Global Women by Vogue India in 2019. In a recent interview with the Goldsmiths’ Centre, she credits being chosen for Shine 2019, our annual talent showcase, as one of the catalysts for her sustained career growth.
Since Shine 2019, it has been quite the whirlwind year of firsts. What have been the highlights, and how is your business progressing at the moment?
So, since doing Shine, I've launched another three collections, one being my first fine jewellery collection which debuted earlier this month. I’ve also gained two new stockists, which was lovely, and have had really good support from editors and clients through Shine, who’ve helped push my brand internationally as well as in the UK.
Having that support consistently throughout Covid has been great, because as a designer, you can sometimes feel a bit lost within yourself just because you’re literally by yourself, working alone. Usually, the one exception to that is when you go to meetings and interact with clients in person. Showing them pieces and seeing their excitement as they try something on makes jewellery a more tangible thing, I think you enjoy it more when you can feel it.
This is especially true of my pieces because of of the most important aspects of them are the carved stones, so you really need to touch them to actually feel the carving, the smoothness of the stones, the juxtaposition of the carving against the enamel, one smooth, and the other one soft but textured. All of those things add to the experience of buying a piece of jewellery.
So I think that’s one of the most difficult things about the pandemic, you’re limited to showing clients pieces through Zoom or sending them out and trying to explain them without actually being present. Having those two new stockists has really helped though. My work is in Wolf and Badger and in Paul Smith in LA and Mayfair. My pieces have also been in Kabiri London since January.
One of the things that I think I really took from Shine was what I learned during the one-day selling course. We were taught how to narrate the story behind a piece, based on customer’s questions, and it was lovely. To some extent I do that with my pieces anyway, as they all have a story, and I’m connected to each piece that I design, but it was interesting the way they taught you to tailor the narrative.
This year and the next, I imagine Shine will be more focused on how to apply that to the online world, as after this year we’re all realising the importance of selling online. One positive note I feel about doing things digitally is that getting something in the post is almost like getting a present, and each time you get the experience of unwrapping it like a gift.
Do you feel that being selected for Shine has played a key role in your recent success?
Yes, for two reasons. One is the customer base that I built through Shine, which has been lovely because they've even purchased the pieces that are still on the Shine website. That customer base has actually stayed connected to me through placing Christmas orders for gifting this year, so that’s been great. People who’ve purchased from me through Shine have also recommended me to other people, that’s not something I’ve had from other places where I’ve exhibited previously.
The other thing was the selling techniques and storytelling course that I mentioned previously, that really, really helped me because I had two events after that, so I was able to put my new skills to the test right away. Myself and the other makers from Shine 2019 occasionally message or check up on each other through Instagram, which has been nice. Sometimes you feel like it’s only you who’s going through something, so it’s good to have other designers who can support you and be like, well, actually, I’m going through the same thing - so don’t worry about it, it’s normal.
You recently launched a new collection of Button Covers for men. Can you tell us more about this collection and how your approach to designing and making has evolved in the past year?
So the button covers were actually designed for a specific client who was more keen on single cuff shirts because of the fit of them, but obviously, with single cuff shirts you’ve got fixed buttons, rather than a slot for cufflinks, so he needed something where he could still dress the shirts up when required for certain events. So we looked into a couple of techniques of making that work, which was when I designed the button covers. We designed them as a set of fives so that there was one for every day of the week. They were made in sterling silver, with precious stones and different enamel work, and they work by just sliding onto the button and enclosing it in place.
After the client received them, he was very happy with them, and I posted one picture on Instagram saying just how happy he was, just as part of normal client diaries, and that garnered a few enquiries from women as well. There are actually no cufflinks in the market for women. Obviously we can buy the ones that are available for men, but they’re always addressed as cufflinks for men. Women’s formal shirts don’t actually have the slots for cufflinks, so the button covers are a good alternative.
You can style the button covers in different ways. So women have styled them on the cuff of the shirt, or done a mix and match of colours - so you can have the red and green ones mixed with the green and black ones. Even men have used them just as a formal button. It’s been quite interesting how it initially started with an alternative to cufflinks, but has now been styled in so many ways. That’s why the button covers are designed with a hook on the side, so that they have extra height, you can wear them on a cardigan or on dresses where the buttons are slightly more rounded, the design takes all of these things into consideration, and is flexible to all different types of clothing.
They’re really playful, really fun to wear, you can dress up a simple black cardigan by just adding the button covers. I think they’re better to wear on a slightly thicker, firmer material, but the clip prevents the button from flopping or weighing down the fabric, for example if you’re wearing a silk shirt. There have been plenty of occasions where I’ve worn them on a silk shirt, and they actually sit really comfortably. So these are something that we used for gifting at Christmas last year, and are again pushing through for Christmas this year. You can also buy matching sets of necklaces.
So are you currently working on a new collection, and if so, what can you tell us about it?
The new collection that I was working on is called Cloud Collection. It's my first fine jewellery collection, and I started designing it during lockdown. At the start of lockdown, I was actually stuck in India at my grandparent’s house, which was quite tricky because lockdown there was incredibly strict, and we weren't allowed out at all. So the only thing we could do was go upstairs onto the territorial garden. My little break was walking along the terrace, and when I was a kid and we’d go on long drives, I used to stare up at the clouds and make characters and little stories out of them, just to make time go by more quickly. As an adult, instead of making characters, I started to draw pieces in the clouds, whether it be ear cuffs or necklaces or pendants. In the evening, I’d sketch the designs out and see what I could do with them.
So the new collection actually uses labradorite and moonstones with diamonds and 14 karat gold. They’ve all been carved and set in a way that represents the shape and floppiness of dark clouds, and the reason I’ve used labrodites is to show the light shining through the clouds, and also the blue hues. The whole concept behind the Cloud Collection is the idea that every dark cloud has a gold lining - not a silver lining, since this is my first fine jewellery collection! There’s a selection of different pieces, some statement pieces, and some smaller pieces like the Mini Cloud Ring, which is very fun to fiddle with because you can rotate the front bead, and a lot of people have the habit of touching their jewellery, I know I do. That’s another aspect of quite a few of the designs, you have flexibility in regards to how to wear them as well as having that comfort of being able to move the piece around.
Another piece, the Cloud Necklace, has a labradorite on one side and a moon stone on the other, so it’s very soothing to just turn over. The more I looked into choosing the right stones for the collection, the more I realised that labradorite and moonstone actually have specific calming, relaxing and stress relieving properties. They are stones that are supposed to make you feel more creative and direct your energy in a positive way. With what everyone’s going through at this time, that could help people, at least the ones who believe in the effect of stones.
So, if it wasn’t for the Covid-19 pandemic, you might not have developed this collection?
Actually funnily enough, yes. I was looking into doing a collection with clouds in mind, just because of the way that I interpreted clouds previously as a child, but I hadn’t planned to go down the route that I have done, so maybe without the lockdown, it might not have happened this way. See - every cloud has a gold lining!
In June 2020 you donated all the profits from your collection to vulnerable communities as part of AiSPi’s Virtual Fashion Vacation. Tell us more about this project.
The trunk show I did with AiSPi was all about supporting wonderful communities, to whom we donated the profits, but also about helping new designers such as myself based in the UK and Europe to still be connected with the customers that AiSPi have. AiSPi ‘s clientele generally go abroad to shop and see new brands, and they do shows where clients can physically come and meet designers, usually around May or June, and then once before Christmas, but obviously, because of Covid, that cannot happen this year. So the virtual show has been lovely for us as designers, allowing us to still be connected to these people, and they’ve done a great job of promoting it. It was also lovely to be able to help different communities.
There were two charities that the event was connected to. The first was Jan Sahas in India, which is set up to help vulnerable women through education about domestic abuse, spreading understanding that it isn’t something that is supposed to happen, and it also looks at ways of increasing sanitation levels in India. The other charity was Get to Know Refuge, which looks at the LGBTQ community and how we can support younger generations of LGBTQ people. Helping others did help us as designers, too. In situations like Covid, we can lose sight of the bigger picture, and think that everything is about us. It’s true that we’re all going through a lot and I’m not belittling that, but it’s nice to know that you can think about both yourself and others, it’s about finding that balance.
So what's next for you and your business?
I’ve got another two collections that I’m launching just before the Christmas period, which luckily, I have pre-orders on already just on the back of a few images and sketches, so that’s been really nice. This year, just like everyone else, I had lots of plans for different things, but of course they didn’t happen. So I’m now working on designing a set of six very exclusive fine jewellery pieces using carved stones which I have sourced over the past five, six years, even before I launched my brand. There will be a set of transformable pieces, which I plan to gradually keep launching throughout the next few years.
I will also continue to push my brand AS online and through editorials, getting the brand name out there and getting people to understand the message behind my jewellery. The two elements that are quite important in all the pieces are carved stones and enamel work, both things which I think are slowly getting lost as jewellery and fashion trends keep changing. They’re something that I’m trying to bring back, especially carved stones, as there’s a lot of art that goes into the process, and it would be a shame for that to be lost. There are so many makers who’ve built up the skills to carve stones, passing it down through generations, and I’m trying to revive that through my pieces and show how these things can be made contemporary. People associate classical pieces with enamel and carved stones, but they can be fun, enamel is not just something that should be associated with antiques. So I’m just consistently trying to get that message out there and show everything that goes into the making.
You can struggle as a designer because there are just so many brands out there, and they all tend to follow certain trends like ring stacking, necklace stacking or asymmetrical earrings. It’s very difficult as a designer to not follow those trends. There’s one thing that I always try to stay true to in all of my collections, and that’s the importance that each piece has to myself, so that when I’m talking about the pieces, I can get excited about them and the meaning behind them, and explain to people why they are the way they are. They’re easier for people to relate to and understand that way. It’s finding the balance between yourself and the trends and also realising that sometimes, you can set your own trends.
The one thing that people have consistently given me feedback about is the type of colour combinations and stones that I use, as it’s perhaps not very common or well represented by other brands, as it might be considered quite ‘out there’. You might think that a bright yellow ring is suited for a certain type of person, but then you see how people react to the jewellery and actually appreciate it, even people who are attracted to smaller and more delicate pieces. They are able to understand the pieces, to purchase them and wear them without feeling that they are only suited for a special occasion. I’ve seen them worn on a simple T-shirt, which is exactly how it should be: you should always buy pieces of jewellery to wear everyday and not to just be kept aside.