British avant-garde jewelry designer Shaun Leane is out with a limited-edition tome that will celebrate his 20-year-long career and coincides with the launch of an online selling exhibition with Phillips auction house that features 12 pieces of high and fine jewelry from the designer.
The sale, entitled Flawless, also includes pieces from Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Marina B, Maubossin, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Chaumet, to name a few. Leane’s eponymously titled book, published by ACC Art Books ($75), was originally supposed to coincide with an in-person selling exhibition, but Covid-19 put a wrench in those plans. But for fans of Leane’s work, the sale will still be a unique opportunity to purchase pieces like a pair of feather fan earrings ($17,100) or a gold quill collar necklace ($17,400).
Shaun Leane’s jewelry designs are unmistakeable—the kinds that are so out-of-the-box they leave a lasting impression on the memory. If you aren’t already familiar, you may recall hearing his name most recently tied to the wedding of Princess Beatrice to property developer Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi in July. “I hadn’t worked with Beatrice before, but I was familiar to the House as my work has been worn by Meghan and Kate,” says Leane. “It was a real honor, and working with Edoardo was a complete pleasure as he understood design and materials, and knew exactly the aesthetic Princess Beatrice would like.” Leane designed the ring in a blend of Victorian and Art Deco aesthetics.
But for those already in-the-know about Leane’s 20-year-long legacy, the ring is incredibly subdued compared to the wild creations he’s dreamed up, from a pair of porcupine cuff earrings with enormous quills surrounding the ear or, say, an aluminum spine corset highlighting the vertebrae that he created for the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen to use on the runway. His ongoing collaboration with McQueen during the height of his success would prove career-defining for Leane.
The two designers first met early in their careers when Leane had just finished an apprenticeship as a goldsmith in Hatton Garden in London, under masters Brian Joslin and Richard Bullock, learning the art of traditional jewelry making. McQueen was doing his masters at the prestigious Central St. Martins design school and the two were introduced by a friend. “Lee [as McQueen was known by those close to him] often visited my atelier where I would be crafting pieces from diamond solitaires to diamond tiaras,” says Leane. “He was fascinated by my skill and attention to detail. It was here where he asked if I would create jewels for his catwalk shows. Lee was a huge influence to me.”
In a departure from diamond tiaras, Leane soon found himself creating a headdress fashioned like a bird’s nest, ear cuffs with a silver skeleton mandible that wrapped around the chin, or a diamond collar necklace with threatening spikes meant to mimic tusks. McQueen’s taste for the macabre transformed Leane’s jewelry-making into wearable artworks.
“Back in the ’90s, Lee had given me a platform where there were no boundaries, where I could experiment and explore, and push my design and craft skill to the ultimate,” says Leane. “He taught me to be fearless, push boundaries and that nothing is impossible. He was a great influence and still is today, because when I design and create, I always think of where he would have taken it to.”
But his McQueen pieces aren’t his only influential designs. One of his earliest jewelry creations—the White Light Brooch, which includes 40.68 carats of D Color Flawless diamonds, made with Diacore for the Forevermark Precious Collection—took in $1 million when it sold at Christie’s in 2010. “It felt like my two worlds, one of classical training and one of my avant-garde fashion experience, had come to fruition,” says Leane. “It filled me with great pride to sell a piece of such substantial worth and appreciation in one of the world’s most recognized auction houses.”
His jewelry was also made famous by the women who dared to wear some of his more extravagant pieces. Daphne Guinness and the late fashion icon Isabella Blow, also close friends of McQueen, are among the most memorable. However, he’s still making bespoke pieces for incredible women today, like a Tusk Anklet set with black and white diamonds created for a private client. “When I custom-make jewelry, I want the piece to be completely in-tune with the person,” says Leane. “When creating the anklet for this very beautiful, elegant and fearless woman, it filled me with joy to know she was going to wear this effortlessly on one of the sexiest beaches in Brazil.”
If you can’t get your hands on one of the dozen pieces up for sale at Phillips, the new book offers a chance to dream about his work, or plot in hopes of future sales of his past work. The retrospective tome took Leane two years to conceive and features photography by Anne Ray and Rob Rusling, as well as writing by Joanna Hardy, Vivienne Becker and Claire Wilcox, who Leane has known his entire career. “I feel the book really demonstrates the fearlessness and confidence of the 1990s, not only of my work, but of that time,” says Leane. “There I created a style and identity throughout the years which I am proud to say I have carried through to this day, which has adapted to the times we are in. It was a very cathartic process for me to look back on my career to date.”
A Deluxe version of the book ($500), limited to 250 copies, will come in a luxury slipcase printed with his unforgettable Porcupine Quill Fan earrings created for Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2003 collection “Irere.” Each copy has been signed and dated by Leane.
Below, Leane shares the pieces he considers the highlights of his career:
Joan of Arc Headdress
“This headdress was one of my earliest pieces and was important for me, as this marked the transition of my work moving into a larger scale. Before this, the largest piece of jewelry I had ever made was a diamond tiara. I love that it is a fusion of organic vines with silver roses embedded with drapes of semi-precious garnets. The piece is delicate, but it portrays the armor of Joan of Arc referencing the fragility and strength found within nature.”
“This is one of my favorite pieces. The Coiled Corset was so completely formed to the model’s body in an elegant and feminine way, but its armor-like structure portrayed strength and protection.”
“This piece was very important because it was the gateway to all of the larger metal corsets I made for McQueen. It was my first exploration into working with Aluminium and working scale into Lee’s concepts. Even though it was one of the hardest pieces to make, it is one that has been the most celebrated worldwide and exhibited in museums from the MET to the V&A. The concept of this piece was taking the beautiful formation and strength of vertebrae and bringing them to the surface. The strength and beauty of this structure also inspired me to go on the create one of our most iconic collections, Serpent’s Trace.”
“I am so proud that the original Yashmak is on display at the V&A Museum and the MET Museum commissioned a second piece to be made, which is in their permanent display. To have this piece in two of the most important museums in the world is a tribute to the visions Lee and I had.”
Contra Mundum Diamond Glove for Daphne Guinness
“This piece allowed me to push the boundaries in fine jewelry and bridge couture fashion with high-end diamond jewelry. It was received world-wide with acclaim which made me feel confident in my approach to continue pushing boundaries in jewelry design.”