Jewellery

Jeweller Shaun Leane on working with Alexander McQueen

Jeweller Shaun Leane talks legacy, his relationship with the great fashion maestro Alexander McQueen and the future of his brand

Words by Vivienne Becker, photography by Geray Mena, styling by Daliah Spiege

Shaun Leane, designer-goldsmith, jeweller and sculptor, founded his own company, and his own brand in 1999, encouraged by the time he spent in a now celebrated creative collaboration with his close friend, the late Alexander McQueen. Working alongside the couturier, Leane learnt how to fuse fashion and jewellery, becoming one of the first creators of fine jewellery to do so, to explore the relationship of the jewel to the body, and with McQueen, too, he tapped into his own sense of romanticism, an enduring theme in his work ever since. 

Together they created a series of unforgettable, strikingly provocative body ornaments – a coiled metal corset, a shimmering body halo, nose pieces, jaw pieces, head ornaments – challenging our preconceptions of what a jewel can be, what it means, how it interacts with the body. Through these barrier-breaking creations, Leane developed a distinctive style, with subtle references – from tribal jewels through Victorian to Art Deco – bringing a contemporary dynamism to romance and a deep meaning to modern minimalism. 

Shaun Leane silver magpie feather earrings and platinum Prowess ring, set with sapphires; Figura Services clothing

In 2024 the designer celebrates 25 years of the house of Shaun Leane, and, he says, 40 years of hand-crafting jewellery. Today, he’s in the mood to look back, especially on the formative years of his collaboration with McQueen, but also to look ahead, to the future of fine jewellery. 

“Creatively I’m on fire right now. I have bought a 250-year-old cottage in Ireland, on the top of a mountain, and I spend a great deal of time there, surrounded by nature, mountains, and animals. I have time to think and to realise that I have a really bright future ahead of me. Recently, too, I redecorated my home in London, and taking the art down from the walls, I laid out all the photographs, images by top photographers, including Nick Knight and Chris Moore, that recorded moments of my life with McQueen. It seemed like an homage to that time, my 18 years with McQueen, but then I also realised that it was the happiest time in my life, the most innovative and passion-driven — although I have to say I’m just as passion-driven today.

Those years were so important; they completely rounded me as a craftsman. Previously, working for a traditional company in Hatton Garden, handling and repairing antique jewellery, I had learnt about the emotional, sentimental element of jewellery. With McQueen I learnt how to both respect and break through those traditions, I learnt how to explore the body, work with new space, scale, new forms, and to find an entirely new voice. That experience still runs through my veins every day.” 

Shaun Leane yellow gold Sabre bangle, set with enamel and emeralds and yellow gold Sabre Deco earrings, set with enamel, diamonds and emeralds; Cultnaked dress; Rui leggings (worn on arms)

“We had such creative freedom, there were no boundaries when we were creating for the runway, no rules. It was a freedom and a training that allowed me to push boundaries in my work today. It was a time of transition for me too from being a classically-trained goldsmith to sculpting artworks to adorn the body. It gave me a particular ethos, a belief that nothing is impossible. It taught me to constantly embrace opportunities to create something I’ve never made before.

For example, recently I created a headstone, a sculpture in granite, copper and brass, for a client who had lost his 21-year-old son. Because the son had been a keen diver, I gave the stone an under-the-sea theme.” 

“Perhaps most of all, the glory days at McQueen allowed me to understand that I have a skill in my hands, that I understood metal. It was an awakening, a realisation that I could forge, shape, sculpt metal into anything I wanted, and that has shaped my work ever since, taking me from small-scale, intimate jewellery to large-scale ornamentation — gates, railings and balconies — of buildings in Kensington. It was the gift that McQueen gave me, to acknowledge and appreciate that the skill I had could be applied to any medium.

Looking back, I feel very grateful for that moment of serendipity. We were two young boys, both the same age, 22, both with the same upbringing, and similar training in craftsmanship: Lee in Savile Row tailoring, me in Hatton Garden goldsmithing. We were at the same place in our lives, both emotionally and professionally, both fuelled by London energy. The stars were aligned.“

Shaun Leane silver pheasant claw earrings, set with Tahitian pearls and taxidermy pheasant claws, What A Merry-Go-Round, AW01; Asai jacket; Hermes top; Figura Services shorts; Rui shoes

“Thankfully, the creativity unleashed at that time continues to flow. I have a concept folder in my phone, full of so many ideas, too many ideas. Too many to make in my lifetime. What’s interesting and exciting for me today, for the house of Shaun Leane, is that while everyone sees in me those iconic fashion moments, fundamentally, I am a fine jewellery goldsmith who still creates high jewellery. I’m able, easily, to fuse the two elements, the avant-garde, the provocative and visionary with my classical roots.

I love the fact that I’ve retained my integrity and my roots and that I’m a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde! I allow myself to imagine, to go into visionary mode and then I come back to my roots. Craft is the vehicle for both. My signature style is classic with an edge that makes it contemporary.”

Shaun Leane aluminum jawbone, Untitled, SS98; Figura Services dress

“2024 is a big anniversary year for Shaun Leane, the company, and I’ve been revisiting the iconic codes of our style — do you remember the big resin bangles I used to make? Now I’m making them in metal, gold or silver, with enamel. I’m launching new collections, beautiful modern classics, the first, called Signum, which is inspired by my pagan roots, and the pagan affinity with nature and animals.

Over the past few years, I’ve really reconnected to my Celtic Irish ancestry, and I’ve felt a deep emotional connection to Ireland. I draw huge inspiration from my time in my cottage and when I recently befriended a family of foxes in my garden, I understood that animals live in the present and can teach us so much.

The connection to animals, to nature, provides an important emotional compass. Signum, which I see as a call to consciousness, revolves around the legends of Celtic kindred spirits, while the shield-shaped silhouette represents protection. I drew on traditional craft skills, on goldsmithing, engraving, enamelling, pavé-setting. I know it’s been a little while since I launched an entirely new collection, so it’s very exciting, and we have so much more that’s new and thrilling coming up this year. I’m working on a concept for a whole new jewellery experience.” 

“Meanwhile, the bespoke side of my business is thriving, it’s on fire. At the moment, I’m making an important diamond suite for Middle Eastern royalty; many of my bespoke clients know and appreciate the fact that I’ve made jewellery for the royal family: I made Princess Beatrice’s engagement ring, and I’ve created jewels for the late Queen Elizabeth II and for Catherine, Princess of Wales. This all links back to the modern classicism of my style and also to traditional craftsmanship.” 

Shaun Leane silver hoop earrings, Eshu, AW00; J E Cai clothing

“How do I think the business has changed? In my experience of late I’ve noticed a shift towards sentimentality. We’ve come through a very dark period, and I feel there’s a yearning for connection, for messages, emotion and expressions of sentiment. If we think about the Victorians, the emphasis in jewellery was all on sentimentality, messages and meanings.

Every bespoke piece I make has a strong sentimental thread running through it, as through all of my collections. Jewellery today needs to have a purpose and a meaning, it should reawaken consciousness. I think this shift is also connected to the current general sense of accountability and awareness, being responsible, for ourselves, our feelings, the natural world and our planet.”

Makeup by Machiko Yano, photography assistant Alex Bibby, styling assistant Jannelle Williams, model Grace Quaye at Next Management, production Malcolm Mafara, set design Sara Miguel

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