Ruth O’Connor meets Shaun Leane, the iconic designer with strong links to Ireland, whose work can be seen in museums around the world

Designer Shaun Leane received the highest honour at UK Jewellery Awards 2021 last night receiving an Outstanding Contribution to the Industry award. Retail Jeweller editor Ruth Faulkner said of the craftsman, who has strong links to Co Kerry and Ireland: “No conversation about leading UK jewellery designers is complete without the mention of the winner of this year’s prestigious Outstanding Contribution to the Industry Award. He is described by those who know him as someone who is always willing to share his knowledge and experience with aspiring jewellers.

“He is a true advocate for apprenticeships in the sector and is probably this country’s best advert for just how successful you can be as a jewellery designer if you manage, as he has done, to combine forward-thinking design and exemplary craftsmanship with commerciality.”

During his acceptance speech, Leane said: “I feel blessed that I was born with creativity, but it is the people I met along the way that nurtured me, with courage and conviction, that allowed me to flourish and evolve to be the designer and craftsman that I am today. For all of those who have joined me along this beautiful journey, I’m truly grateful you gave me the encouragement to create, provoke and inspire.

“This is for all of us. And not forgetting you my dearest McQueen. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart, this means so much to me.”

Leane In: Shaun Leane in conversation with Ruth O’Connor, an excerpt from the September 2018 issue of Irish Country Magazine

Goldsmith Shaun Leane is most famous, perhaps, for the extraordinary, exquisite and often controversial work he created in collaboration with fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Leane’s work is on permanent display in museums globally and is worn by some of the world’s most discerning collectors, yet it doesn’t stop there. 

With McQueen he created iconic pieces such as unsettling tusk mouthpieces, silver jawbones worn hooked over the ears, a tribal-inspired coiled corset for McQueen’s The Overlook show in 1999 and his animalistic spinal corset with tailbone for the 2008 McQueen show Untitled. 

Since McQueen’s tragic death in 2010, Shaun Leane has continued to design and create his own eponymous line of jewellery as well as working on bespoke commissions for private clients and collaborators such as Daphne Guinness and has also begun to explore still other outlets for his exceptional design talent.  

They say you should never meet your heroes and, truth be told, as a long-time admirer of Leane’s work, I was apprehensive about speaking to him. My fears were unfounded, however, as, speaking on the phone from his London studio, Leane is warm, utterly engaging and generous with his time. 

When we speak, he’s just returned to London from Killarney where he’s spent his 49th birthday – hiking and boating on the lakes. With family around Ireland, he visits here once a month, and, charmingly, calls this country “home” throughout our conversation. 

“I have so many fond childhood memories of Ireland as I spent most of my holidays there with my grandparents, aunts and uncles,” says Leane who grew up in Finsbury Park in north London and went to school in Milltown, Co. Kerry between the ages of 10 and 12. “The welcome and connection that I have in Ireland can only be described as a feeling of being ‘at home’.” 

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Leane says that returning to Ireland provides him with balance: “I live a very fast life in London and when I go back to Kerry it’s a calming retreat for me and rejuvenates me for when I get back to London and dive back in.” 

Leane says that he was a perfect example of a rebellious child who was “creative but not academic”. He left school aged just 14 and was placed on a jewellery design and manufacturing foundation course where he took to jewellery like the proverbial duck to water. 

His tutor saw that he was a skilled student and suggested he undertake a seven year apprenticeship in London’s jewellery district and diamond centre, Hatton Garden – quite the commitment for a 15-year-old. 

He was placed between two masters – Brian Joslin and Richard Bullock – at the prestigious English Traditional Jewellery company, producing fine jewellery for Asprey and Garrard and for royals across the globe. 

“My earlier education wasn’t tapping into my creativity,” he says. “The moment I sat between those two masters and they began to teach me, I stayed with them for 13 years and took just two days off sick. I was absorbed by what I was learning and excelled really quickly.” By the age of 18, Leane was making diamond tiaras for Asprey.

He became head of the antique jewellery restoration part of the business, an experience which, he says, broadened his knowledge and appreciation for jewellery design. 

“I’d look at the innovation in craftsmanship in Art Deco or Victorian pieces and see how the design was so distinctive to the period in which it was produced. The romanticism of jewellery kicked in then – I developed a hunger to create jewellery that would represent the period in which I was living.” 

Leane says that some of the motifs in his current designs reference those early days as a jewellery restorer. The use of enamel, feminine lines and floral motifs are inspired by Art Nouveau, while his interlocking and changeable pieces of jewellery are inspired by Victorian innovation. 

McQueen X Shaun Leane. Image via British Vogue

Leane was working in Hatton Garden when he first met Alexander McQueen through a mutual friend. “We were worlds apart. I was in Hatton Garden creating high-end classical pieces for Bond Street stores and Lee (Alexander McQueen) was a fashion student,” Leane remembers.

“Career-wise we were miles apart but personality-wise we were very similar. We were the same age; I was from north London, he was from east London; we had similar upbringings… and what I didn’t know at the time was that he had trained in tailoring on Saville Row which is very similar to my traditional, strict training.”

Leane recalls McQueen coming to his atelier one day where he was making a diamond tiara. McQueen was stunned by the quality of the work he was producing. 

“Lee was always six months ahead of everyone else. He asked me to make jewellery for him when we were out drinking one night and I said ‘no’. I was used to working in diamonds and platinum. He said ‘We’ll work in silver and brass, feathers and aluminium,’- I was almost insulted!” he laughs. 

“He said ‘Shaun – I’ve seen what you make. Apply your skills to any medium and you can create anything. He took me out of my comfort zone and my life changed.

Working at weekends and at night alongside his day job, Leane went on to create iconic pieces of jewellery for McQueen. Their creations were often macabre and shocking – variously slated or applauded by critics. “What would be grotesque to one culture would be considered beautiful to another and we were fascinated by that,” he says.  

The two worked together for 19 years, both exhibiting a respect for craft and execution, yet a hunger to create something new and innovative – to push the boundaries. 

While McQueen’s time on Saville Row had taught him to respect tailoring and craftsmanship, Leane’s time at Hatton Garden had taught him the same attention to detail – something he recalls with some relief today. 

“I was taught that a piece of jewellery should look just as good on the back as it does on the front. When I made the things for Lee they were big but I still treated them like a tiara. Thank God I did because, at that time, I had no idea that the work would be on permanent display in museums worldwide and would be viewed up close by people all over the world.” 

The absence of his friend and collaborator can still be heard in Leane’s voice some eight years on from McQueen’s death by suicide. “I became known as “the fashion jeweller” because the pieces I was making on the runway with Lee were so iconic and so thought-provoking. But I didn’t work in fashion. I worked with Lee. We were in a kind of a beautiful bubble on our own. It became part of our friendship.” 

Leane says that personally and creatively McQueen’s death is a great loss.  “I will miss him till the day I die, but I am so grateful that I had him in my life for 25 years and everything I do now is a reflection of the relationship that we had.” 

There are echoes of Leane’s work with McQueen in his jewellery collection. “The Serpent’s Trace bracelets are a celebration of the spine, like the skeleton corsets I did for McQueen,” he explains.  “The Tusk earrings are based on the earrings I did for the McQueen show The Hunger. The collections are accessible pieces but still carry the energy of what I did on the runway.” 

Leane’s work is to be found in three different departments of the permanent collection at London’s V&A Museum, he has won many awards for jewellery design and craftsmanship and has even been made a Freeman of the City of London. 

He was recently commissioned to design his first piece of public realm art - 36 metal balconies and gates across the front of a luxury apartment building in Kensington in London – and is currently exploring the possibilities of large scale sculptural work. Creatively, it seems, Leane is in acceleration mode.  

Sotheby’s has described Leane’s jewellery as “collectible antiques of the future”: “That was a real moment for me because, as a young apprentice repairing antique jewellery, that’s all I wanted to achieve… One day, hopefully, someone may be restoring a piece of my work and may think that it really reflects the time in which it was made.” 

The  Shaun Leane collection is available exclusively in Ireland at Weir & Sons, Grafton Street and online at weirandsons.ie. Interview originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Irish Country Magazine