Anabela Chan talks jewels over tea

Kim Parker has tiramisu with the Royal College of Art-trained jeweller known for vivid colours and fantastical shapes

By Kim Parker

With an eye for vivid colours and fantastical shapes inspired by the natural world, the award-winning jeweller Anabela Chan founded her eponymous business in 2014, after training at London’s Royal College of Art and the Gemmological Association of Great Britain. Today, her innovative, rainbow-hued pieces, which make use of recycled aluminium and lab-created jewels alongside gold and fair-mined gemstones, are worn by celebrities including Beyonce, Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez and Naomi Campbell. 

Anabela Chan Rainbow Acid Bloom earrings

Here, we talk creative family ties, transforming rubbish into rubies, and the one phone call that changed her life. 

Who: Anabela Chan

Where: Adam Handling at The Cadogan Hotel, Chelsea, London 

What we ordered: Tiramisu rooibos and Earl Grey tea; scones with cream and jam 

KP: It’s so lovely to see you Anabela. Tell me, do you have a bit of a sweet tooth? 

AC: I have a terrible sweet tooth. It’ my weakness. I love cakes, gelato…I could eat that at any time of the day. I adore macaroons, as well. 

KP: Do you think there’s a perhaps a relationship between being a jeweller and loving patisserie? All of those beautiful colours and the art and chemistry of baking. It seems quite relatable?

AC: Absolutely. My mother lived in Paris when I was little and at boarding school. During weekends and the holidays I would go to stay with her and we would always visit Ladurée, because there was one really close to where she lived. I loved seeing all the rows of colourful macaroons lined up together. The Ispahan cake was my favourite. It was a rose, raspberry and lychee cake with a real rose petal on top and droplets of syrup made to look like dew. That attention to detail has always stayed with me. Sadly, I’m a hopeless baker in real life.

KP: Surely not. I would have thought you would have come up with the most creative ideas?

AC: No, there have been some horrors. I once made a cheesecake for my husband and it never set properly. I had to serve it in glasses, it was so gloopy. Another time, I made a red velvet cake in the shape of a panda, which actually turned out beautifully, until we cut into it. It was all deep, dark red and it looked so wrong!

KP: That does sound a bit strange. I’m sure your children appreciate your efforts though. Are they aware of what you do for a living?

AC: My daughter’s just turned four, and yes, recently I have noticed she’s started picking up pretty stones, so perhaps she is aware of what I do for work. Whenever we go to the beach, she will sit for ages sifting through piles of pebbles until she finds the prettiest, most perfect one, without any speckles. It’s so interesting. We have her favourite ones at home in a jar now.

KP: Perhaps she’ll grow up to be a gem dealer and come and work with you. 

AC: Let’s see. When I try and help her, she’ll often veto the pebbles I choose! I suppose a part of me hopes that she will fall in love with what I do, but really, I’m okay with whatever she wants to grow up to be. I’m a firm believer in doing whatever makes you happy. 

KP: So, tell me again about your own career path. Did you always know you wanted to be a jeweller? 

AC: I grew up in Hong Kong and lived there until I was 10, when I came to the UK to go to boarding school. My dad is from a very business-oriented family, he works in shipping and logistics, but my mother’s side has always been very creative and visual. Three generations of her family worked in the film and cinematography business. My great-grandmother, Wu Lai Chu, was the first Chinese female action star. She made over 45 movies between the 1920s and the 1960s, and eventually directed and produced as well. My great grandfather worked with a Hollywood production firm to produce the first Chinese movie with sound. Then, my grandmother was a director and my grandfather was a cinematographer. He made documentaries. 

KP: What an astonishing history. Is that what influenced you to pursue a creative career path?

AC: I never actually met her, but I do feel very inspired by my great-grandmother. She was a real trailblazer, who rode a Harley Davidson. I also discovered that she kept exotic birds which lived in her garden, at her house in Shanghai. She had peacocks, flamingo –  a real menagerie. 

KP: Do you think you inherited your love of birds from her? There are several in your boutique and you reference their colourful plumage in your collections.

AC: Absolutely. I grew up with all of these creative stories about my family, which was really enriching. Then I was sent to boarding school in Brighton and I was surrounded by lots of space, nature, water, and fresh air. It’s no coincidence that I think people who grow up by the sea are generally happier people. 

KP: It’s very good for you.

AC: It is! Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying I think I was always drawn to doing something creative. Originally, I wanted to study fashion design, but my parents are quite traditional in their attitudes, so I opted to study architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, instead. It was the closest I could get to combining my love of art and science. 

Anabela Chan Citrus Ariel necklace

KP: Did you enjoy your time there?

AC: It blew me away. I still remember walking through the school and seeing other people’s work up on the walls…it was so much more than architecture. It was about the materials, innovation, having a social impact and creating great products. In my second year, I was living with some friends who attended Central Saint Martins who told me about a summer internship at Alexander McQueen. I loved his designs, so I plucked up the courage to call the design studio and asked to apply, even though I wasn’t a fashion student. 

KP: What happened? 

AC: The manager invited me in for an interview and I rushed to scrabble together a portfolio. I grabbed anything I could find that looked half-decent: my A-level art project, GCSE work, textiles I liked, sketches I’d drawn, literally anything. There were a lot of sketches of flowers and birds, elements that I loved drawing and that were quite similar to what McQueen referenced in their archives. She offered me the internship that day. I couldn’t believe it. That phone call changed my life. 

KP: How brilliant. So, you eventually found your way into fashion, after all. 

AC: Yes, I did. That was my foot in the door, right there. I spent my entire summer holiday working in the studio. I adored it. I spent hours sketching and designing by hand. As an architecture student, it seemed that everyone relied on CAD [computer aided design] but I preferred to do everything manually. When you draw by hand, every line is considered and deliberate. There’s an emotional connection to it. There’s no cutting and pasting. Eventually, the summer ended and I went back to architecture school. At my graduation show, one of the associates from Richard Rogers turned up and left his business card on top of one of my drawings. 

KP: Oh my goodness. 

AC: I know! It’s such a famous firm. It felt so serendipitous. That’s how I got my first job. I  kept freelancing for McQueen in my holidays, though. I would work at Richard Rogers every day and then spent my days off in the McQueen design studio, drawing prints and embroidery. After a year of doing that, I decided to make the leap and go into fashion full-time. I missed making and crafting things. My previous experience at McQueen meant I got offered a job as senior womenswear designer at All Saints, who were going through a big re-brand at the time. They wanted more of a focus on craft-based design, working in limited runs with lots of embroidery made in Portugal or India by local artisans. It was fantastic. 

KP: That’s quite a senior position, isn’t it? Did you relish your time there? 

AC: It was the best place to be in my twenties. There was energy and enthusiasm and I learned so much about how a brand functioned – everything from pricing and weekly sales meetings to finding a supply chain and what good customer service looked like. It was the best training. I also travelled all over the world to visit suppliers, which was great fun. But fashion is extremely fast paced and it can be very wasteful. Four years later, I started to miss making things by hand again. When I was 15 or 16, I did a school art project with Andrew Grima.

KP: Wait a minute. The Andrew Grima? That’s a quite a name to casually drop in there…

AC: I was so lucky! I studied him at school, about 20 years ago. My art teacher showed me a book of his designs and I just fell for them. I was so struck by how he cast pencil shavings in gold. So, my teacher suggested I write to him to see if I could interview him for my end of year project and he graciously accepted. We travelled to London, to the Burlington Arcade where he had a salon. He and his wife brought out sketches for me to look at and showed my pieces from the vitrines. I was over the moon. 

KP: What a day! 

AC: It really was. I’d never handled precious jewellery before. Andrew asked to see some of my work so I showed him my sketchbook, which I always kept with me and described an idea I’d had to cast some French lace my mother had given me in gold, to make a brooch or a precious pocket square. He liked the idea so much, he asked me to send him some lace and said he would try to cast it for me. I couldn’t believe it! 

KP: Did it work? Did you get it made?

AC: Sadly, after about the third attempt, we had to stop. The lace was just too fine. But his kindness never left me. And the whole experience definitely planted the seed in my mind about working with jewellery in the future. Andrew’s advice was invaluable. He told me, “Never say never. If you have an idea, just try it.” So of course, I did. I left my well-paid job at All Saints when I was 27 or 28 to go to the Royal College of Art and study goldsmithing, silversmithing, metalworking and jewellery. My friends thought I was mad, but I knew I wanted more. 

KP: What other advice did he give you?

AC: He also told me to enter as many competitions at art school as I could, because that’s how you get attention and raise your profile. So, I entered endless competitions, everything from jewellery making to cutlery design, it didn’t matter. I was in the workshop almost 24/7, getting to know the technicians who specialised in glassblowing or bronze casting or metal work. They had skills that were beyond anything I’d ever seen before, and I wanted to absorb as much as I could from them. 

Anabela Chan Serpent Vine ring

KP: And what about the competitions? Did they pay off? 

AC: Oh yes. I graduated in 2013, 2014 with five different international awards, which really helped get my business off the ground. One of the awards, with the Goldsmith Craft Design Council, I think, came with the prize of doing a diamond grading course for free. Another came with the prize of a starter studio, so I had my very first workspace, as well as my first trade show in Milan and Dubai, which put me in the path of editors, like you, and fashion stylists. I started my brand in the autumn of that same year with a collection of 20 cocktail rings all themed around nature, made with my own savings from my fashion job, and landed three retail accounts: Luisa Via Roma in Florence, Selfridges, and The Conran Shop in London. It was unbelievable. 

KP: What a journey!

AC: Did you ever watch Steve Jobs’ speech about connecting the dots? It’s only when you look back that you can connect the dots of your life and realise everything led to where you were meant to be. My career feels a bit like that. I still remember those rings, the ‘Dark Forest’ collection. I wanted really bold, joyous pieces. I had an aquamarine ring with vine leaves that curved around it and a little snake that wound into the formation. There was an Asscher-cut blue sapphire ring, too, with mini blackberries surrounding it. I used a lot of black rhodium with yellow or white gold. I still love mixing metals. 

KP: Tell me how you came to using recycled aluminium, then, and lab-grown gemstones. Were they always a priority for you? 

AC: My husband and I honeymooned in Sri Lanka, so whilst we were there, I wanted to visit some gemstone mines to see where the stones came from. Not all mines are created equal, of course, and I think the ones I visited weren’t great. I was just heartbroken at how the people who worked so hard to bring up the most precious commodities on earth were being treated. 

That’s when I investigated lab-grown gemstones, which are cultivated in a lab rather than brought up from the ground. The more I researched it, the more it appealed to me – it’s a celebration of art and science coming together to make something lovely. The stones are cut, facet, polished and set in the same way. I also liked the idea of precious jewellery, with gemstones that are chemically identical to their mined counterparts, but that is slightly more affordable. 

KP: What would you say to people who point out that lab-grown gems still require a lot of energy? 

AC: It’s a fair point. I think a lot of the comparison between mined stones and lab-created ones focuses on their carbon footprint and energy consumption. But when we think about the umbrella term of ‘sustainability’, it’s also worth remembering that there are other areas we need to consider as well: the ethical and human side of the business and the socio-economic sides of the business, as well as the environmental. Like I said, not all mines are created equal. Many do give back a lot to their local economies, creating employment. Not all lab-grown gems are created equal, either. There are some labs which run on renewable energy, to try and minimise their carbon footprint. There’s even a company, Aether, who create lab-grown diamonds using the carbon from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That kind of innovation is exciting. I don’t see the two industries in competition with each other – there’s merit in both and there’s room in both to do better. I just always remember that ethics really matter, especially with something like jewellery. It’s not essential to life; it’s an art, it’s something of desire, so no one should have to suffer for it. 

KP: Would you ever use mined gemstones, then?

AC: Yes, I would. They have to be the right ones, though. Last year I went to a GIA alumni talk in Bloomsbury given by Stuart Poole, who is one half of the team behind Moyo Gems, who sell responsibly sourced gemstones, supporting a group of female miners in Tanzania, who receive 95% of the export price of their stones. As a designer, you can buy directly from the miner herself. You can put a name and a face and a village to every single stone. They are showing how ethical mining can be done. At the end of the talk I grabbed Stuart and said, “that was really inspiring! How can we work together?” I’m working on a collection with their stones right now. In lockdown, I also got in touch with a family-run business called Kamoka Pearls, in French Polynesia, after I read about how they are setting a good example of how, done well, pearl harvests can actually lead to the regeneration of their local ecosystems. Kamoka create some of the most beautiful, colourful Tahitian pearls, so I’m working with them on something, too. As soon as we are allowed to travel again, I’d love to go and visit them and see what they’re doing. 

KP: That sounds so exciting. From your past collections, which have been your particular favourites? I know it’s like asking you to choose between your children, I’m sorry…

AC: [Laughs] I think one of my favourites has got to be my recycled aluminium collection from 2019. A few years ago, I was looking into using recycled gold from the technology industry, but I couldn’t find one source that came purely from recycled gadgets. It was always a mix of different sources. I had these San Pellegrino drinks cans on my desk, I love that stuff, and I realised that aluminium can be recycled indefinitely. It’s been used in jewellery before, I just needed to refine it enough to be able to cast like liquid gold. It took a couple of years to get it right, and I loved the idea of turning literal trash into treasure. That collection will be forever special to me because it opened so many creative doors. It led me to discover new ways of colouring the metal, too, such as a technique called physical vapour deposition, which is a combination of titanium, argon and oxygen which gets sprayed on to the metal and gives a rainbow of colours, like an oil slick. 

KP: Yes, it’s incredible. 

AC: I must mention my most recent collection, Mermaid’s Tale, because it’s really close to my heart, too. I designed it during the first lockdown in 2020. I turned to Instagram as an escape when we couldn’t travel and became hooked on images from under the sea. At the same time, I started having conversations with two girlfriends of mine, one who is an old school friend who gave up her job as a healthcare professional to pursue a career as a diver and underwater photographer. She shoots beautiful images during ‘black water’ dives around Okinawa in Japan, which take place late at night, so you see all the bioluminescent creatures, who are like aliens. She’s so fearless. You can see her images on her Instagram, @onebluedive. They sparked the beginning of a collection in my mind. 

KP: I must look her up!

Anabela Chan Rainbow Magnolia earrings

AC: My other friend, Valentine Thomas, is worth looking up, too. We met after I’d graduated from the RCA. I had just started my brand but was also temping at a shoe brand, coming up with detachable jewellery elements for them, and she was doing legal work for the company. She’s a trained lawyer, but now has a career as a world champion free diver and spear fisher, and she advocates for more sustainable seafood sourcing. I call her my real-life mermaid friend. My two friends inspired me so much, I wanted to design a collection based around ocean life. Some of the underwater photographers I ended up following on Instagram collaborated with me on my campaign, you can see their imagery alongside the jewellery. I loved that, despite being trapped in our homes, we could connect with each other and create something beautiful together. One of the photographers, Magnus Lundgren, photographs in the waters of West Papua, which has some of the richest biodiversity of marine life in the world. I found a charitable organisation there, Sea Trees, who work on oceanic ecosystem restoration and regeneration, so now for every piece of the Mermaid’s Tale collection sold, we plant 100 mangrove sea trees in that region. Apparently, mangroves and kelp and seagrass sequester 20 times more carbon dioxide than land-based trees, so they really are the key to helping with climate change. 

KP: That’s incredible. What are your favourite pieces from the collection?

AC:  I love Paraiba tourmalines, they just represent the ocean to me, so I would say the ‘Atlantis’ and the ‘Aerial’ earrings are what I wear the most. They are what I imagine the Little Mermaid would want to wear, perched on her rock. They’re bold and flamboyant, yet they’re so lightweight because they’re made with aluminium. 

Anabela Chan jewellery

KP: Your children helped you to collect the cans to make these earrings, didn’t they?

AC: Yes, they did. When we were allowed to drive short distances again last year, we spent every weekend driving to all the beaches within two hours of London. We did mini beach clean ups with the kids whilst we were there, and the drinks cans from those clean ups have gone into the aluminium in the collection. 

KP: So, what’s next for you? Aside from ethically mined gemstones and pearls?  

AC: Something occurred to me at the end of last year. I figured, until you can really do it all yourself, everything from the metal sourcing to the gem sourcing, you’ll never have full control over where your supplies come from. So, I’m writing a business proposal to build a material science laboratory. I want to be able to experiment and perhaps grow our own gemstones one day. I have this crazy thought: rubies and sapphires are corundums, right? They are made of aluminium oxide, which, when you break it down, is aluminium and oxygen. So, what if I could turn a drinks can into a ruby? Why not? 

KP: See, this is why I love having tea with you. I always come away feeling so upbeat and excited. 

AC: I don’t know how or when it’s going to happen, but I’m excited to get started. Like Andrew Grima said, never say never, right?  

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