Motley Co-Founder Cecily sat down with Marguerite, a members’ club for women in the visual arts, for their Mover & Shaker series to talk all things Motley, functional art, and where her profound respect for the skill of jewellery makers began.
Take it away…
Cecily and her business partner met at Oxford University, though their joint foray into the jewellery business did not come about until almost a decade later. After pursuing very different career paths, redundancy and ultimately, perfect timing, brought the two together to create Motley; a jewellery brand that creates unique pieces of high quality jewellery for an affordable price. Cecily spoke with Marguerite about the opacity of the jewellery world and why collaboration between jewellery designers is so important to Motley’s success and survival.
Prior to Motley, you worked at Christie’s and in the arts, can you tell us a bit about your transition from the art world to establishing a jewellery business?
Well, I worked in an esoteric corner of the art world so it was less of a transition than you might think. From Christie’s I went to Louisa Guinness Gallery which specialises in artist-made jewellery. Little known fact, but many artists have made jewellery; Picasso, Man Ray, Fontana, Calder. We used to deal in modernist pieces and collaborate with contemporary artists on new editions – including Anish Kapoor and Ed Ruscha. For the most part we sold to art collectors. It was at the gallery that I developed a profound respect for jewellery makers – to make a beautiful object is one thing. To make an object that functions on the body is quite another. To make outstanding jewellery you need to be an artist, engineer and sculptor all in one.
At the gallery, I also realised that jewellery designers weren’t being represented as they should be (we often used to get jewellery designers coming to us, despite our art jewellery focus) and that good design was too expensive for most people to afford. What’s more, knowing how much it costs to make things, I realised big brands were taking absurd margins. I passionately believe good design should be for the many and not the few – I didn’t see why you couldn’t have tip-top design, properly made, for a reasonable price.
In short, Jewellery and collaboration are familiar territory and wanting to create jewellery I could afford was the driver for Motley.
You met Ilana Lever, your business partner and friend, at University – where did you both study and was it always part of the plan to work together?
Yes – we studied history together at Balliol College, Oxford. We were tutorial partners for the first term. We share a very deep love of history (we are unashamed history geeks to the core) but took different career paths – Ilana went into management consultancy and from there worked in consumer (she worked for Innocent, Itsu and Heist) specialising in loyalty. We used to joke about starting a business – there was talk at one point about starting a bakery. As with all good things – timing was half the battle. It actually all started when Ilana asked me where she could find good quality, affordable jewellery (she has always been a big jewellery nut). She had been made redundant at just the moment I decided to start full time on Motley. She started consulting on the project – building the business plan and looking at the market. She was appalled by how old fashioned so much jewellery market messaging was, how difficult it was to buy jewellery online and acutely aware of the need for a jewellery brand that spoke to the wearer. Within 6 months we were fundraising together and working together full time. The rest, as they say, is history.
You believe that the best-designed jewellery should be available to everyone – how do you ensure that your products are accessible to the masses?
It is tough. The model is built to enable exactly that – being online allows us to side-step retailer mark-up which keeps the price accessible. We don’t use solid gold for heavy pieces, opting for vermeil (the highest class of plating – solid silver-plated to 2-3 micron thickness of gold). We get economies of scale. Crucially, we spend more on production and do not take as much margin as traditional jewellery brands to keep the price achievable. We are also very mindful of range, and it is something we have learnt about as we have grown. We have the show-stopping press pieces for each collection, but we are also very mindful of having pieces at an entry-level price point to allow everyone to be part of the conversation.
You work with an atelier in Turkey – is there a particular reason why you chose Turkey?
There is a long history of jewellery manufacture in Turkey. Many fashion brands will buy directly from the manufacturers, editing ranges slightly to their “house style”. We work the other way around, finding the right manufacturers for the design we want to re-produce, so key to what we do is development. There are many stages in the design process. The final stage – the interpretation of the design by the makers needs real experience and expertise – we trialled with manufacturers all over and found the best quality ateliers there.
You pride yourselves on working with internationally renowned jewellery designers – how do you find and build relationships with those that you work with at Motley?
Like the art world, jewellery designers are a very networked community. The first two designers to join the Motley mission were Sian Evans and Christopher Thompson Royds who I worked with for years at Louisa Guinness Gallery. Nearly all of our designers have been introduced to us through our existing network of designers and industry experts. I think there is a feeling that what we are doing is needed. Our designers are highly respected and best in class at the work they do; if they believe in you, you’re cooking on gas!
Attention to detail appears to be one of your core values at Motley – from the highest quality of design to the highest quality of materials – is the relationship between Motley and the jewellers you work with collaborative in order to ensure you get the best of both?
Yes and No. Yes – quality is absolutely a core value. I think the market is moving away from fast fashion towards things that last.
And No – I would say collaboration is really more about getting the quality of design. With only a couple of exceptions, our designers are fine jewellery designers. Their pieces start from upwards of £2,000. Our designers are excited by the Bauhausian idea of making their design accessible, but their businesses are not set up to create pieces for a lower price – for most, it is not worth making small scale in silver (it is the same amount of work as gold – the same moulds etc etc and is harder to work in) but they do not have the time or capital to spend finding quality manufacturers who can do this more efficiently.
For most, they simply would not make pieces for this market without collaboration. For them, Motley is about creating in a new way – often toying with ideas they have had for a long time but which do not fit exactly into their fine jewellery practice. Working in silver allows them to play with chunky pieces that would be prohibitively heavy in gold (ref – Hannah Martin Amazon cuff!).
We are not competitive with our designers – we are able to work with them because we try and make collaboration as attractive for them as possible – they get to do the bit they love most – designing and seeing projects made. They also get their name out to a generation of people who are able to access their work for the first time, giving them a starting point to graduate into their more expensive pieces in time.
You source diamonds that have been classified as ethical – can you tell me where it is best in the world to source diamonds ethically and how easy it is to source these?
Manufacturers are aware of the market’s demand for transparency on diamonds so they are easier to source certified than you might think. We source from the Netherlands – in Europe, the Kimberley process acts as a block to the import and sale of conflict diamonds, preventing them entering the market. There is however, less awareness and legislation about ethically sourcing metals – for example, there is no international standard on silver. The jewellery world is famously opaque – accountability is something we are passionate about and it is a constant struggle. First and foremost is getting buy-in from your suppliers and choosing to work with suppliers who believe in ethical standards.
Would you say there is a particular jewellery design you sell on Motley that is most popular?
Since different designers appeal to different people we have bestsellers across designers. If I would have to say a style, I would say hoops of any description are always a favourite.
Can you tell me about Women of Motley?
It all came about when we were talking about what women at work actually looks like. If you search ‘women at work’ and click on “images”, there is a mass of glossy hair, boxy grey suits, even glossier meeting rooms and lanyards. It just didn’t ring true. (seriously – try it). We wanted to reclaim the image of women at work. We spoke to women across industries and got a fascinating insight into style, success and self-expression.
How did you hear about Marguerite and when did you join?
I heard about it from lots of different people – in the end it was the wonderful Zeena Shah, a Motley brand ambassador and Marguerite member who set me up with Joanna. I have long thought that a Marguerite needed to exist – when I met Jo I was super impressed and joined shortly after.
If you could own one piece of art what would it be?
Love this question. I have spent many hours thinking about this. I am always torn between something I could look at a million times and always see something different – a Dutch still life or a Rembrandt portrait say – and something that brings me a quick and immediate joy colour-fix – a 1906 Fauve – a Matisse or Derain, or a 1930s Picasso of Marie Therese, maybe a Gerhard Richter clouds triptych. If I had to choose one, just one? I’d probably take the Fauve – Charing Cross Bridge by Derain (1906) or One of Matisse’s Boats at Collioure.
If you could invite four artists to dinner, dead or alive, who would you choose?
Love this question. I have often thought about this one too. I would ask Niki de Saint Phalle because she is an inspiration and I want to ask her about the Tarot Garden in Tuscany, Jean Cocteau because he would get the party going, Man Ray, because well – it’s Man Ray and then, though strictly not an artist I would try and get Peggy Guggenheim in there. I’m looking for a wild dinner party! I would, however, have to learn French first.