“A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” a famous lyric sang by the late Marilyn Monroe and a mantra for many. But then 2006 brought ‘Blood Diamonds’ to our cinemas and for some, it was a turning point. A reminder that the diamond business, even in this day and age, isn’t as clean cut as the diamonds we covet. That as consumers, we are just as responsible for fueling the conflict through a ‘simple purchase’ when we don’t do our due diligence. Thankfully, there are brands out there that are doing their level best to take the ugliness out of these beauties. One such brand is VANLELES.
Founder Vania Leles was born in Guinea-Bissau, raised in Portugal and eventually moved to London to study English. It’s there that she was approached by a Select Model Management scout and led to her move to New York where her passion for fine jewellery began to flourish. After modelling lost its spark, Vania decided to explore her interest in coloured gemstones by studying gemology at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). She then went back to England where she worked for Sotheby’s, De Beers and Graff Diamonds before she launched her own jewellery business, VANLELES Diamonds, in 2011. But this former model is more than just a modern jeweller with a brand that makes high-quality, ultra-feminine fine jewellery. In an interview with Tory Burch, Vania Leles describes the brand as, “Jewels with soul and a story to tell. Ethically sourced in Africa. Passionately crated in Italy. Our mission is SSSS” What does the SSS stand for? Glad you asked:
Thanks to her experience at some of the world’s most prestigious design houses, she has invaluable acumen into the diamond and fine jewellery industry. She has managed to blend this vast knowledge with her distinctive style to create the luxurious VanLeles brand we know today. Tapping into her vast connections, she works with the world’s best cutters, gemstones and goldsmiths to create her stunning designs. As Vania further elaborates that, “Our mission is to source the most unique diamonds and gemstones from across the globe and craft them into tomorrow’s heirlooms. We take the time to truly connect with our clients, creating memorable timepieces that transcend decades, with a deep rooted emotional connection”.
As that statement suggests, consultations are a pillar of this business; especially for the custom-work designs. Through a series of in-depth consultations they are able to take a client’s unique vision and random it into a treasure that can be passed down generations. But that’s not the only way she stays involved in the process. In fact, in her pursuit of perfection, Vania is involved with the artistry of each piece, to the finishing touches and personally visiting some of the mines where she sources from.
According to the VANLELES website, all their diamonds are certified by ‘the most respected laboratories in the diamond industry, known for their consistency and unbiased grading systems’. These certificates are issued after in-depth analysis by a team of trained gemmologists that grade, measure and scrutinize the diamonds. Whatever diamonds a client chooses, they are privy to viewing the certification to prove it poses the appropriate quality dimensions such as symmetry, polish, colour and clarity. The team are also available to explain how to select diamonds and understand coloured gemstones; be it an order from the contemporary, bridal and timeless High Jewellery collections or for a bespoke creation.
Since the launch in 2011, she has purposefully continued to design remarkably crafted fine jewellery, using rare and unique stones; specifically, the highest quality conflict-free diamonds. Having witnessed first-hand the harsh effects of illegal diamond trade in Africa, Vania remains personally involved in sourcing all diamonds and gemstones. Constantly travelling the world, Vania strives to source the most beautiful stones always from ethical and sustainable sources, collaborating with renowned artisans and delivering the most exceptional product and service. Additionally, she exclusively uses diamonds that adhere to the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), a monitoring scheme which guarantees that diamonds are not procured from conflict areas or illegitimate sources.
Her dedication to ethical practices made the collaboration with Gemfields, the world’s pioneer of responsibly sourced coloured gemstones, inevitable. Their partnership created the ‘Legends of Africa’ collection, which was a “unique high jewellery collection that pays homage to her homeland and its heritage.” The five-piece high jewellery collection – which features ethically sourced Zambian emeralds and diamonds – is an ode to Dido Belle and Sarah Bonetta. In an interview with Upscale living magazine, Vania explains that these two African women, the former being born into slavery and the latter who was ‘gifted’ to Queen Victoria, were able to become part of British aristocracy in the 19th century.
Coming from the continent, she derives more that just design inspiration from it. She has a unique understanding about the impact gold and precious stone mining industry, thus, the need to give back. For instance, VANLELES is a sponsor of Women for Women International; a charity that has supporting women in Western Africa through their year-long programme. For over 17 years, the initiative has helped serve more than 56,000 women in Nigeria alone. According to Brita Fernandez Schmidt, the Executive Director of Women for Women International, the VANLELES Sahara collection raised the much needed awareness and money that goes towards supporting these women.
The Sahara collection was her first ethical gold and diamond collection. Using Africa as her muse, she used the cone-shaped roofs of huts as the centrepiece of all the designs. Feminine and elegant, it’s a contemporary collection that celebrates the home as the centre of family life. She also created the Lyla’s Bow collection in memory of her close friend’s daughter, Lyla Nsouli. Sadly, Lyla died battling DIPG, a brutal brain cancer that only affects children. The collection incorporates bows as Lyla adored them; always having one clipped in her hair. Proceeds go towards research to help find a cure for DIPG
The brand is all about African Heritage and authenticity. Letting the diamonds and vibrant coloured gemstones guide her design process, she’s been able to craft collections inspired by nature and her travels. Each of the pieces created are done so with the aim of producing a future heirloom for a client’s family.
While we’ve already mentioned Lydia’s Bow, Sahara and the Legends of Africa collections, she also has the Makeda Collection: This is a limited edition collection that was inspired by the powerful Queen of Sheba. Her reign has captured audiences imagination since Ethiopia, which was a small kingdom ruled by a woman, was the second greatest power after Egypt. It incorporates thin gold bars tumbled in diamonds, yet the finished piece has fluidity in movement and is surprisingly lightweight. While the collection is still in production, Robbreport.com explains that it will include, ‘one choker, two bracelets, a pair of kite chandelier earrings, two bib necklaces, studs, earring climbers, and a dramatic headband’.
You can’t deny the empowering effect jewellery can have on women. However this shouldn’t come at the expense of others. VanLeles believes that these beautiful stones and diamonds should be used for the benefit of the community. As she constantly asserts, “Africa is the starting point of the creation process” and it is possible to work with the continent adhering to strong ethical and moral codes. This, in collaboration with her winning combination of the latest trends and traditional jewellery design elements has made this a luxury band to watch.