#CNILux: The Jeweller Putting Africa First

When Vania Leles walks across her second-floor New Bond Street studio in London, past her “Enchanted Garden” collection of jewels with colourful stones, she can look out of the window at the business that was the start of her career: Graff Diamonds, where she spent three years working with its founder, uber-jeweller Laurence Graff.

“It was my first job ever – I sent Mr Graff my CV 15 times before I got an interview; then I had a second interview, a third, and then I got the job,” the designer says. “I was very lucky to be in a family company like Graff Diamonds. You learn a lot and you see the dynamic and the movement. The knowledge is really passed on to you. My official title was ‘House Gemologist’. I would sort through the diamonds and the gemstones.”

Now Vania Leles has moved even further from her childhood in West Africa’s Guinea-Bissau. After her schooling in Lisbon, Portugal and working as a model, she studied at the Gemological Institute of America (the GIA) in New York, where she learned how to determine the colour and quality of stones.

The fruits of these years are literally in front of me as I look at bold and vivid earrings, some in three-dimensional flower shapes, made wearable by setting the ethically-sourced Mozambique ruby flowers with 70 per cent titanium and 30 per cent gold. There are also pieces designed as a subtle homage to Africa, in abstract map shapes divided by a slash representing the River Nile.

“When I first ventured into the world of jewellery, I was a model living in New York, but I wasn’t very happy just doing that and wanted to change careers,” Vania explains. “I would come across beautiful jewels, like Boucheron’s and Tiffany’s, and was overwhelmed by them, so I started enquiring about the jewellery industry, reading more about it and researching it.”

Vania describes the process of learning slowly about elegance and quality. “If you are born in a small country like Guinea-Bissau in West Africa and grow up in Lisbon, you’re not exposed to this luxury,” she says. “I remember moving to London when I was 23 and that was the first time I had a Gucci bag and saw some friends wearing Prada. In Lisbon, we wore Benetton and Zara – at that age that is what luxury is to you.”

Now Lisbon’s retail industry has become more sophisticated – and so has Vania. In London she holds small, private events for current and potential clients, especially around couture shows, when wealthy international women are on the move. And, in spite of having a son in 2014, she travels constantly from the Middle East to the USA.

Before she started her own business in 2011, she followed her time at Graff with De Beers, then co-owned by LVMH, and then Sotheby’s in Geneva where she worked as a client relationship manager.

As Vania began to contemplate starting her own business, she realised there were two issues she wanted to address: the lack of African jewellery houses and the need for ethical sourcing of stones. The first realisation was that all the famous, world-renowned houses had always sourced the majority of their gemstones from Africa. “Yet there wasn’t a single African person or dealer in front of a jewellery house,” Vania remembers. “I thought, ‘Wow! We have all these natural resources, 54 countries, hundreds of unique cultures – why aren’t we dealing and producing?”

The other issue is the dark side of the African gem industry – the treatment of workers in areas controlled by rebel forces, who use the stones to purchase arms in a deadly cycle described as “blood diamonds”.

Vania counteracted by working only with ethical suppliers, especially the Gemfields mining company. “We have a moral responsibility as human beings, especially in Europe, to advocate for and change the behaviour of people who mine: safe work, fair pay,” Vania says. “I believe that beautiful jewellery should not start on the shop floor but where it begins, in the mines. That is what I am passionate about.”

“I personally source ethical gemstones,” Vania explains. “I ask questions that make me comfortable and happy to buy. The essence is that the stone is very colourful, bold and different. But it doesn’t have to look African or ethnic – it has to appeal to the global modern woman, from Bahrain to New York to California to London to Paris. Yet the influence is always the shape or something I’ve seen from an African print or landscape. When I did a one-of-a- kind collection with Gemfields, I had a beautiful mood board: the jungle, the forest, and the river that runs through it. But it still looks very contemporary.”

When I tell Vania that after next week’s Condé Nast International Luxury Conference in Lisbon we will host a seminar in South Africa in 2019, I ask her whether she deliberately chooses between an African stone and one sourced from elsewhere.

“These beautiful, deep green emeralds that you see here are all Zambian stones – and they are just as beautiful as Colombian emeralds,” Vania says, proving that, for all her growing international status, she wants to put Africa first.

Vania Leles will be in conversation with Suzy Menkes at the annual Condé Nast International Luxury Conference in Lisbon, Portugal from 18-19 April 2018. To book your place, visit www.cniluxury.com/2018