A jewellery house evolved around diamonds, Jade Trau pays homage to her heritage while designing for the present
I think we should start with your background, because it’s quite interesting and different from most other people who work as jewellery designers.
Yes, I was a diamond buyer for many years. I started when I was very young. When I was 18 years old, I started working with my grandfather. Essentially, I just came in for a Friday job in order to make some extra cash. Within a year, because he was getting older, and the family business had skipped a generation, he sent me to Antwerp instead of going himself. He had two brothers there who ran a very large diamond manufacturing company where they would get huge amounts of rough diamonds from De Beers, and since his nephews had taken over after his brothers, he thought it was time for me to go. I was literally thrown in at the deep end, flying to London to accept these rough diamonds. I had no idea what I was doing, but from there, I became the de facto diamond buyer for my grandfather for many years. We worked across the desk from each other. In the beginning, we manufactured diamonds, and I would go to Antwerp and Israel to buy. But around the time, when I had my children, the world changed. Globalisation really hit the industry, and we stopped manufacturing and cutting diamonds in New York. I started to hate what I did. Essentially, I was just an importer/exporter. On the side, I was making a lot of classic diamond jewellery for my friends; diamond studs, engagement rings, wedding bands, and I kept thinking to myself that there had to be a way to use my diamond knowledge and expertise to create classic diamond jewellery pieces that had investment value and sensibility without it looking like it’s looked for the past 40 years. I wanted to infuse a bit of fashion and a sense of personality into the pieces.
And when did you start your line?
About 8 or 9 years ago, I started Jade Trau. It is not really my name, but my grandfather’s last name is Trau, it is my mother’s maiden name, and my name is Jade. It was a way of taking a bit of myself, and a bit of my family, the business and the five generations that came before me. It has really evolved over the years. In the beginning I questioned whether to do a line that was only diamonds, gold and platinum, thinking you needed to work with different coloured stones to really make a splash. But I realised that I had to do what I am good at, and today, I really feel like there’s something value-added, and I underestimated what it means to be in the position that I am in with my intrinsic knowledge of diamonds. Now, I am just continuing to go down that road and work with different shapes. I am really honouring the shape, the sensibility and the artistry around diamond cutting and what that brings to the mix.
Maybe you can tell me a bit about your approach to your designs?
Absolutely. I am basically using the piece itself and the diamond itself and the functionality of each piece as the design. I love Victorian jewellery and I love that old collet setting look. I wanted to make that my own. My idea was to take just the prongs of the story, change the orientation of the prongs, take the bezel and make the bezel the story itself. That is my whole Alchemy collection. I literally just think of it as a core diamond jewellery wardrobe. Honestly, it is what I want to wear. If I want a pair of diamond hoops, I don’t want inside-out diamond hoops. I worked on 47th street for almost twenty years, and when you walk up and down that street, everything looks the same and it almost doesn’t look special anymore. That’s why I am constantly thinking about how I can make something that is just left of centre, something that is a derivative of something classic, and which won’t make you regret buying it when you look at it in twenty years. People should look at it and have enjoyed wearing it for all these years, and still be excited to put it on. When I think about my closest friends, I feel like, when I close one eye, I can see the pieces of jewellery they always wear. That is what I want my pieces to be. Then people can layer it with more funky pieces and seasonal items, or coloured stones.
What I hear is that you have this huge knowledge of not only diamonds, but also diamond jewellery, and then you create something distinct from what everyone else does?
It is not because I am looking in the market at what else is there. It is more a process of taking what I already know and work with it from a category standpoint. We know every girl wants a diamond tennis bracelet, right? You want a string of diamonds around your wrist. I take that diamond lined bracelet and reinvent it in a way that feels special. I might use different shaped diamonds, or I use a different setting. Another thing that I experiment with is my love for Georgian and Victorian jewellery. I used to collect vintage lockets, and I would also look for other little trinkets, and that’s how the whole Forget Me Not collection started; they all come from vintage pieces like little locks, mechanisms, keys. A lot of it is oriented towards males too. It gives the line a more androgenous and male/female appeal, which I think appeals to everyone. That’s why I started my Tatum collection, which is my all-gold collection. I don’t want to say that I am putting together a men’s collection, because I don’t really believe in that. I just want guys to look at my line and feel like they want to wear it too.
I like that idea of both men and women being able to wear it and maybe also women who are looking for something a little bit less feminine. And as I read on your website, it is very much about self-expression, right?
Exactly. It comes back to the idea of doing something different. I don’t want to make another pair of diamond studs in a three prong 18k white gold setting. Now, when people compliment my jewellery, I have to touch it to remind myself what I have on. It should be a part of who you are and how you express yourself. For me, I wear only solid colours, I essentially wear jeans and a T-shirt every day, so my jewellery is everything to me.
And you style it a lot together. Your pieces are so distinct separately, but they also work so well together, so you can really play with different expressions.
Exactly, and different scales. I am always playing around with the idea of different scales but really also making everything stand out. So as much as I like the idea of the neck mass, the way that people are layering tons and tons of chunky pieces on top of each other, I also want every piece to stand out and feel unique. I don’t want it to be like you are wearing all this jewellery and you barely see what’s on, it still should feel distinct, and you have to honour every piece that you are wearing. And also, you have to treat your jewellery nicely. It is special. It is meaningful. It is fine.
Maybe we can talk a little bit about your diamonds? I think that is important to cover.
I learned the trade from our gemologist who was on our staff. I would sit with him in the darkroom and do everything on graph paper. There was a shift after I started, and now it gets intricate and nuanced, because when I came into the business, everything was done with a microscope. Two years into it, they started with all this technology. You put your diamond in a machine and it measures every single measurement from every angle. It was a weird time, because my factory had to move over to that, and it was a huge transition. But for the first two or three years, while I was doing all of that grading by hand, I was also learning all of it by eye. I learned how diamonds were cut and how important the make is. My grandfather would always repeat this silly line of “the magic of the make.” But it really is true. Looking at a diamond from across the room, you are going to want the beautifully cut diamond, even if it’s very imperfect, over the D flawless with a terrible cut. It is not going to matter that the other one is 10 colour grades higher. I employ that into every diamond that goes into my jewellery. I am extremely specific about it and I only work with a very select number of vendors. I also like to work with various sizes of diamonds in each piece, because I think the refraction and the scintillation of a diamond that’s 3.5 mms versus 1 mm sparkles differently, so when you look at them together, it sparkles even more. Because I am not only using this calibrated one size of diamonds across each piece. It sounds really basic, but it is part of my design philosophy.
That makes perfect sense. What is your experience of the role of jewellery today? I feel like it has changed within just the last decade or so. Is your experience that women buy more for themselves now?
So much so! I feel like the core of my client base are self-purchasers. First of all, women are a much bigger part of the workforce and they are not ashamed of it anymore. Myself included. I am not ashamed to say that I love my children, but that my business is my third baby. I give it as much attention as I give each one of my kids. Probably more right now, because they are not babies anymore. They are thirteen. I think women see it as a personal accomplishment and they know how meaningful it is. Maybe because I am getting older, and I have more access to it, I notice it more, but I feel like the prices of luxury goods have gone up so much that at the end of the day, if it costs 8000 dollars to buy yourself a Chanel bag that’s going to be beat up, you might as well buy yourself a piece of jewellery. So, I think women have found a way to justify it more.
And it is much more of an investment than buying a bag?
Exactly. And now especially, in the world of this pandemic, the sentimentality behind it has also come into play. People will say to me, “I am buying this piece and I know my kids are going to wear it one day.” I have a lot of people who want to buy two of something, who’d rather buy two of something less expensive because they want to give it to both their girls.
One last thing, do you have a favourite piece of jewellery or is that impossible to say?
It’s nearly impossible for me to say. I mean, I’ll say this; I have a necklace that I wear every day. It’s a key and it has my kids’ initials on it. I find that it’s a piece I can wear casually, on a long chain, on a loop necklace, and no matter how I wear it, I love it. I touch it if I’m nervous. It’s like my little talisman. At the same time, my diamond heart is the only piece that never comes off. My grandfather gave all the women in our family diamond heart necklaces, so I love it. I take my jewellery off every night except that’s the one piece that I will leave on. Because it makes me think of him and I just love the beauty of it. I love that it’s a diamond, but it’s cut like a heart, and I love that it has this sort of sweetness to it, but that’s not me at all. I am so not a heart person. But I like that I’ve been able to take this heart shaped diamond concept and make it feel not cutesy.
Do you have anything to add?
The only other thing that I would add is about longevity, and how diamonds last forever. The diamond that I am wearing on my neck, I’ve worn for 25 years. I try to employ that same sentiment in my jewellery. In addition to the longevity of the diamond, I really work on the longevity of the jewellery and the wearability of it. And I test drive everything. All my earrings, I wear them myself. If they feel super heavy, I go back to the drawing board.