INTERVIEW: bespoke jeweller Benjamin Hawkins talks exclusively to Tempus

By Michelle Johnson | 31 Aug 2021 | Style, Design, Art

The young jeweller is ripping up the rule book with his organic and artistic haute joaillerie – and it starts with a single gem

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Benjamin Hawkins is one of the London jewellery scene’s best kept secrets. His eponymous fine jewellery brand was quietly founded in 2016 when, after training in gold smithing and fine diamond ware in Hatton Garden, the jeweller was commissioned to make engagement rings for a few friends. From there word spread, until he was spotted by the Sarabande Foundation – the late designer Alexander McQueen’s foundation for promising artists and future tastemakers – and completed the organisation’s prestigious residency.

Now 26, Hawkins’ modestly sized, sun-lit atelier in The Goldsmiths’ Centre is the heart of his artistic operations, from where he produces one-of-a-kind pieces for his clients. The walls are covered with reference drawings and images that inspire, while precious stones are lined up on shelves just waiting to become something infinitely more daring. The centrepiece of the atelier is Hawkins’ specially made workbench, at which the 6ft 5in jeweller can comfortably spend the day.

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“Jewellery is a real obsession for me, but it’s also a constant learning process,” says Hawkins. “Everything we do now is made to order, starting with drawings before hand-selecting the stones and cuts. Engagement rings are certainly a driving force for us but, as we grow, we’ve been able to create more personalised pieces that are not so typical, blending different styles and techniques in unexpected ways.”

One of Hawkins’ recent pieces is a diamond engagement ring called “Nata’s Fans”, consisting of an Asscher-cut diamond surrounded by perfectly pave set fans, all in solid platinum. The statement shape looks art deco but, in fact, is inspired by the architectural lines of a skyscraper.

“My granddad was an architect, and he was the one to teach me how to draw,” says Hawkins, who has hung a portrait of his grandfather in the atelier for inspiration. “I’ve always had an interest in architecture and my approach to the design process definitely references this. Jewellery is a lot like engineering, actually. Anyone can draw a car, but you really have to know how to build the engine, for the design to become a reality.”

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Another diamond ring appears to be a simple three-star meeting when worn but inside the band an enamel decoration adds sentimental value. The detail is inspired by the work of an Israeli artist, who collaborated with Hawkins to recreate the first painting the client and his fiancée bought together as an enamel strip. The final enamelling took six attempts to perfect.

“There’s nothing in the world like it. It’s completely personal to them,” explains Hawkins. “And that’s the key to bespoke jewellery, really. When I’m designing a bespoke piece for a client, my inspiration comes from them – the person commissioning the jewellery as well as the one who will ultimately wear it. I just try to really get to know someone and try to create the best reflection of them. What you end up with can be so unexpected. That’s why our portfolio is so diverse.”

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THE GOLDEN TOUCH

Although Hawkins trained primarily as a gold smith and diamond mounter, specialist artistic techniques like enamelling and stained-glass decoration are a cornerstone of the art jeweller’s often-surprising style.

“Whether you value jewellery in terms of monetary or personal investment, the skill of the maker is key,” Hawkins says. “Enamelling has been used in jewellery-making since Egyptian times, and the level of difficulty involved creates add a real elegance and romance to a piece. It’s a matter of seconds too few or too long in the kiln between something being perfect or completely unsalvageable – and I’ve had many times I’ve just had to chuck everything over the wall and start again. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best enamellers in the industry.”

Hawkins’ family hails from Clerkenwell, on the doorstep of London’s diamond district. As a young teenager, his summer jobs would involve sweeping the floors of jewellers’ workshops in Hatton Garden. At 15, he was invited to get involved in small tasks.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls. “There were flames and chemicals and sparkly things everywhere. I didn’t have to do homework or paperwork: I could just sit and make things.”

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It was at The Goldsmiths’ Centre, where he trained in gold smithing, silver smithing and enamelling, that he met jewellery designer Shaun Leane – famed for producing Alexander McQueen’s metalwork – and ultimately found a job with Leane’s former master, Brian Joslin.

“Brian has this traditional workshop in Hatton Garden, built in the Victorian era, I think. I would have to bend down to get through the door and sometimes sit on my knees because the workbenches were so low. There was an old safe in one corner and the whole room tilted towards it,” Hawkins laughs.

“Brian has been my biggest inspiration. I would sit next to him for 12 hours a day, and he taught me everything – just seeing his skill to his approach to his work. I would panic whenever I got something wrong – he must have saved me a million times. He gave me the confidence to go forward.”

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WEARABLE WORKS OF ART

That confidence has seen Hawkins’ brand build quickly through word of mouth and a wishlist- worthy social media feed and, while bespoke pieces are still the order of the day, Hawkins is planning his first brand collection.

“My first collection will feature pieces designed around different stones. I’m not pre- planning an entire collection; it will be more organic than that. I am still learning, so plan to use recycled stones that we collect on the way, I have started creating artworks designed around the materials and practicing new techniques. I suppose this is less of a collection and more of an avenue to explore ideas with a purpose, or to bridge the gap of waiting for lovely, open-minded clients to experiment on.

“The stones are the inspiration for each piece, and paired with a different artistic technique, from stained glass to inlay and overlay,” he says. “Right now, we’re starting to produce some pieces that I’m really proud of, and beginning to define our own, recognisable style. There’s romanticism and a story behind every piece. I think that’s the thread that binds our eclectic portfolio together.”

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While bespoke commissions require getting to know the personalities of the buyers, an independent collection begins with discovering the character of the stone. And with more people open to coloured diamonds and other gemstones than ever, Hawkins has a lot to work with.

“Coloured diamonds are my favourite stones to work with,” says Hawkins. “They are some of the most amazing phenomena on Earth. You can get a blue-green tourmaline so vivid it blows you away, but you can see right through it. A blue diamond will give you the same depth of colour but sparkle more than a sapphire.

“I also love repurposing stones and jewellery, which has become a much bigger trend in recent years. There’s obviously a huge ethical issue with mining diamonds and precious stones and, the truth is, there’s no form of mining that’s sustainable. I support the theory behind lab- grown diamonds but you do lose the romance. There’s something special about saying, ‘I took this from the earth and made it into something beautiful for you’. The middle ground is repurposing diamonds. I also love the way old diamonds are hand-cut, as well. They’re less accurate, but so beautiful and full of character and history.”

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As for his future plans, Hawkins hopes to soon set up a studio in the haute joaillerie capital of Paris – though he says London will always be home.

“There is a difference between London and Paris,” he says. “In Paris, there’s a culture and tradition of avant garde design, and so the buyers are more willing to buy grander more outrageous jewellery. I’m keen to delve into that scene. Paris has always embraced colour and shape, enamelling and other decorative art.

“London is a bit more traditional. Jewellery here is about getting the best out of the stones and then showing that perfectly. There’s nowhere better for diamond ware, engagement rings and antique jewellery, in my opinion.”

In the tradition of British art jewellers such as Theo Fennell, Hawkins’ passion for unexpected colours, organic shapes and quirky elements that surprise and delight will ensure that this brand will not remain a secret for long.

“That’s why I work so hard to learn so much,” he says. “My obsession to create unique pieces and challenge myself is, admittedly, a bit ridiculous, but it’s totally authentic. My ultimate endeavour will always be to just make beautiful things.”

benjaminhawkins.co.uk