Inside the mind of Kiwi jewellery designer-to-the-stars Jessica McCormack

Article by Fashion Quarterly


In the exclusive world of fine jewellery, Jessica McCormack sticks out, and for all the right reasons.

Creating antique-inspired pieces with a modern twist, the Christchurch-born, London-based designer has a growing clientele of discerning fans — Madonna and Liv Tyler among them. The jeweller’s exquisite art-filled salon in the heart of Mayfair, The House, was the only place you could purchase her breathtaking jewels — until now.

With her handcrafted pieces now available locally, we stepped behind the velvet rope to find out more about her process. Because what’s good enough for Madonna…

FQ: Your designs are often described as having an antique appeal. What inspires them?
JM: So many things. Each collection has a different source of inspiration. But whether it’s my jewellery or my home, I like to mix eras and genres; when you put it all together, it makes something special and personal.


How has living in London influenced your designs?
When I arrived, I joined the jewellery department at Sotheby’s and was exposed to the most incredible array of historical jewels: Russian crown jewels, Lalique, Cartier, Suzanne Belperron… It was during this time that I became fascinated with jewellery design, so I learned as much as I could about it and it’s been an obsession ever since.

What are your favourite materials?
Diamonds are at the heart of everything I do; each has an individual character and personality. I also work with rubies, emeralds and sapphires. I recently created a beautiful sapphire engagement ring with blackened white gold on a yellow gold band, which has become one of my favourites. Most of my designs feature the Victorian doublet — a sleeve of yellow gold applied to the back of white gold. It’s a traditional technique that can only be done by hand that’s become an intrinsic part of my design process.

Wing of Desire

Which of your pieces do you love the most?
The Wing of Desire single earring (pictured above). It was inspired by the winged headpiece worn by the Greek god Hermes. It was the first piece of jewellery I designed and it was bought by Rihanna. I very nearly didn’t part with it because it was my first piece, but it looked so great on her — and who would say no to Rihanna?!

A selection of your jewellery is now available through Simon James Design. Why did you choose this particular edit?
Simon James Concept Store will feature pieces from my Tattoo, Messenger of the Gods, Perfect Storm and Signature collections. Tattoo is inspired by Maori skin markings and Perfect Storm by my love of the sea — both are synonymous with my New Zealand roots and it felt right that these collections should come home. There are also classic signature house designs, such as the Button Back earrings and Birdbone rings, which I’ve been creating since I started designing and represent my love for traditional jewellery techniques.

Jessica McCormack

Jewellery is often given to mark a special occasion — how do you view the relationship between jewellery and memories?
Giving jewellery has always had connotations of love and romance, but for me it’s also about starting a new story. A piece of jewellery can mark a significant event, and I also design each piece with the hope that it will become woven into the wearer’s most treasured memories. I love the idea that a jewel can signify a special moment in time and that these romantic stories of great love and life events will outlive us.


Which pieces evoke special memories for you?
I have a few treasured items that I’ve collected over the years. My father gave me a gold, heart-shaped pounamu pendant when I was in my twenties and I adore it because it reminds me of home and my family. I wear it on a diamond-set chain, layered with my other necklaces; I like the fact that it comes from the past yet sits happily with my more modern pieces.

Another favourite is a New Zealand hei-tiki with garnet eyes. They’re usually made from greenstone, but this one is made of gold, and I love wearing it alone or layered short or long. It was also handed down to me by my father — he was an antiques dealer, ran an auction house and had a great talent for finding beauty in the unusual.

My husband gave me a diamond ring that belonged to his great-grandfather, who we named one of our sons after. I’ll hand it down to my son, who will hopefully pass it down the line, too. It has quite a traditional design, so I created a ruby and black gold Diamond Party Jacket for it. It’s one of my most treasured possessions — I wear it all the time.


Your Diamond Party Jacket rings are intended to wrap around clients’ own rings. How did the idea come about?
The Diamond Party Jacket is about having fun, and being creative and playful with forgotten jewels. It all started with the ring I just mentioned, but I also had clients who had diamond rings sitting unworn, but not unloved, in their safes. The idea was to breathe new life into these pieces by creating a ring to surround the existing one, altering the look but preserving the essence of the original piece. Clients love the idea of dressing up their rings and it’s amazing how many women have a solitaire in their jewellery boxes that they don’t wear but would love to enhance.

When it comes to engagement rings, do you see trends come and go?
A few years ago, we noticed a rise in clients asking for asscher and marquise-cut diamond engagement rings, but a traditional brilliant-cut diamond ring will always remain the most popular. I’m in love with old mine-cut diamonds. They’re cut by hand, not machinery, and follow the rough diamond’s octahedral shape. There’s so much charisma, personality and history in them.


What would you be doing if you weren’t designing jewellery?
I’d probably be a florist; I adore flowers and the changing colour palette of each season. My store in London is always filled with flowers, including 19th century hand-painted didactic flowers that sit among the jewellery. For me, arranging flowers and creating beautiful compositions is much like piecing together diamonds and gemstones in a harmonious way.

Do you have any beginner’s tips for novice jewellery collectors?
My first would be never to buy with the sole goal of investment. Instead, buy with your heart. Wear your jewels all the time; nothing makes me sadder than the thought of them locked up in a safe, like prisoners. And a collection doesn’t need to mean a safe full of jewels. It could mean three pieces that the wearer can adapt, like a long necklace that can be wrapped around to make a choker or bracelet. I think it’s comforting to know that you can always change the use of your jewels. The idea of a jewel changing with a changing lifestyle makes sense and takes the pressure off.

Words: Tamsin Marshall
Photography: Supplied