Diamonds and books are New Zealand designer Jessica McCormack’s best friends.
With her ready laugh, laid-back manner and Kiwi accent, Jessica McCormack could be the girl next door. But Christchurch-born McCormack is as far away from home as she can be, presiding over her eponymous London jewellery business. As addresses go, they don’t come more exclusive than Carlos Place, Mayfair.
Situated between Grosvenor Square and Berkeley Square, the street is a relatively short but expensive stretch of real estate, home to only a few residents and businesses, the best known being the Connaught Hotel. Directly opposite the hotel, a favourite haunt of wealthy Americans, is the five-storey, 460sq m 19th-century townhouse that bears McCormack’s name.
It’s a shop, a workshop, a gallery and a library, all elements designed by her. It’s also the only place in the world where her collections can be viewed (although some of McCormack’s pieces are also available from Simon James Concept stores in Auckland). Clients often make special trips from as far away as Los Angeles and New York to see what’s new. In addition to her collections, she makes bespoke pieces. Personalised jewellery boxes, which include several diamond pieces, start at £20,000 ($39,000), and there’s a six-month waiting list for them.
McCormack grew up as one of three girls, surrounded by art and antiques. Her father was art dealer and auctioneer John McCormack. Her mother, Christina, and one sister still live in Christchurch; her other sister lives in Auckland.
McCormack and husband Dougie have children aged four, three and one. She jokingly calls this stage of parenting “the hurt locker”. If it weren’t for the challenge of getting pushchairs up the stairs, McCormack says, the family might have chosen to live in the flat above the shop. Instead, she commutes on the Tube, using the time for reading – “the only thing I have just for me”.
The jewellery stores of Bond St, with long-established names, are only a stone’s throw from McCormack’s atelier, but in look and feel they are miles apart. She has carefully cultivated an exclusive business with an open-door policy.
How are you different from high-end jewellery stores?
We are a shop and we have standard opening hours, but if you walk into other jewellery stores, they feel soulless. I remember going into some places and having a Pretty Woman moment when they look at you as if to say, “Can you afford to be here?” I love that people come in here and don’t even need to be very interested in jewellery to enjoy themselves. We have the art, the library, the books, the music and the interior design. We have all five floors and two are open to the public.
How did you end up here?
I came to London in 2005 to do an internship in the jewellery department at Sotheby’s. There was a lot of getting coffees, but I also got the chance to spend time in the safes, handling the jewellery and looking at archives and catalogues. Sometimes, a little old lady would come in with a bag of jewels to be valued. I was exposed to the most incredible jewellery in the world, such as Russian crown jewels, 1920s Cartier and Lalique. I was taking it all in and got an understanding of it. I was 25, and thought, “I want to do this.” Initially, I was in Clerkenwell [central London], but then I thought, if I was going to put my head above the parapet, I might as well do it properly, so moved to Carlos Place.
What’s your niche?
The four Cs of diamonds are cut, clarity, carat and colour, but we have four Cs of our own: craft, which is about the making; curating, which is about building your collection – people don’t have jewellery from the same jeweller throughout their life, so we look at what they have, and see what might be reworked or added to, to make it a workable collection; collect, which is about building a collection; then cult – once people come in here, they can’t help but come back. Even though we have been here five years, people still have a real sense of discovery when they come in. When you’re spending money, it’s important that it’s an amazing experience.
Who are your customers?
We have a wall of fame with some of our high-profile clients: Madonna, Rihanna, Julianne Moore. But whether they are famous or not, people are clients first and foremost, and they have the same experience whether it is buying a £450 ring like the one I am wearing, or a £450,000 ring. It is the same process throughout.
The Duchess of Sussex wore one of your necklaces while in New Zealand last year. What inspired that piece?
The necklace was from my first New Zealand-inspired collection, Tattoo. I really wanted to be known as a London designer, not necessarily pigeonholed as a New Zealander in London or an international designer. I just wanted to be a London designer. This is where I design, this is where we make everything, and it is important to know where the jewellery comes from, with its British hallmarks. But after a few years, I did the Tattoo collection. In 2020, I am looking to build more New Zealand elements, including pounamu, into my collection, introducing new things that people are not used to seeing with fine diamond jewellery.
You have some beautiful pounamu and other New Zealand pieces here.
Yes, I used to collect beautiful New Zealand pieces, but they are harder to get now. I have a greenstone tiki upstairs, and a mere; the patination and the craft are incredible. Now, I want something made in which to display my pounamu, so it is not locked away, but then I think about the children putting sticky hands all over it.
What have been your main influences?
Something I got from my father is putting unlikely and different things together and making something interesting, surprising and delightful. I don’t want things that are beige and matching. I want a visual feast. That juxtaposition of how you curate your space doesn’t mean spending a lot of money. There is stuff in our library that I bought at the Spitalfields Market for £10, such as an old gas mask.
I find it easy to draw inspiration from my surroundings or what is in my head, and I was brought up with books, architecture and antiques. There is a lot to think about in this business, so I have to snatch creative moments, which might be in the shower or on the Tube. They are about the only times I don’t have people needing me.
“I wish I could just focus on being creative. I could do it until the cows come home. But we have 25 people working here, and that is a big responsibility. “
The workshop downstairs is the jewel in the crown: to have six benches in the heart of Mayfair is unheard of these days. I am trying to revive old crafts, so I use Victorian and Georgian techniques, white gold and yellow gold. I draw by hand – there is no computer design – and I take the drawings down to the workshop. Some people find that hard to deal with, but I tell them they just have to trust me. They either have to go for it or walk away. Engagement rings can be difficult, because people say, “I am going to have to wear it forever”, but they can always get a “party jacket” [rings that can be worn surrounding an existing smaller ring, for greater impact] for the ring later on. They should go with their gut feeling.
Where did you get the idea for the party jackets?
My husband gave me a three-stone Victorian ring. It was lovely, but I didn’t think I would wear it, and I considered making it into earrings. But then I saw it was engraved 1910, the year his great-grandparents got married. I decided to keep it in its original form as a family piece to be passed down. My way of making it wearable for me was adding rubies and black gold in a jacket that it sits in. That adds another layer of family history.
What do you love about diamonds?
It is forever jewellery. I want these diamond pieces to be going through auction houses in 300 years’ time. I have converted some women from not liking diamonds to liking them, and I can do that by the way the stones are worked and set. There’s something magical about them.
Your Mayfair house has some amazing art.
My business partner, Michael Rosenfeld, has been collecting [Guyanese-born British artist] Frank Bowling for years, and Tate Britain is about to open an exhibition of his work. There are four pieces here by Bowling, and all have gone to that exhibition. We also have works by US photographer Sally Mann, a favourite of mine, who did a series called Immediate Family [made into a book of the same name]. She photographed her children, some of them naked, and it was controversial because of the nakedness, but I loved the innocence of it.
You say reading is the one thing you have just for you. What are you reading?
I don’t sleep a lot and I will read anything I can get my hands on. The Kindle is easy for me on the Tube. I have two books on the go: one is The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize. I love reading detective novels, too, and always have one on the go along with my more interesting book. There’s The Devil’s Dice, by Roz Watkins, and I’ve just finished Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, a fun book set in 1979, the year I was born, about the music industry. Other recent reads were History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund, and A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara.
You’ve lived in the UK for more than a decade. In what ways do you identify as a Kiwi?
For one thing, I haven’t picked up an iota of the British accent, and I think it’s because I haven’t got an ear for music. I have girlfriends who have been here for less time and they sound very English. My husband is from Glasgow and I’m from New Zealand, so you can imagine the children sound like the Queen to us. In the end, I am a New Zealander and that is that. I don’t ever think of this as home.