Tessa Packard: Where Fantastic Meets Nostalgic
British Designer, Tessa Packard, showcases whimsy and creativity in each piece. With storytelling and empowerment at the forefront of every design, Packard creates unique collections that separate her from the pack. Here, we had a chat, tapping into her creative process.
How did you find your way, pursuing your own jewelry?
I have always been drawn to the world of colour and composition and its ability to stir the soul, but my journey into jewellery was a touch circuitous! I didn’t have any grand aspirations as a teenager to work directly with jewellery, although I did hope to be able to engage with design professionally, either as an artist or a player in the commercial creative space. However, when I left school I ended up studying Art History at university. In retrospect I should have really continued my studies in fine art or the suchlike, but twenty years ago schools didn’t wholly support careers in the art or design world quite like they do now. If you expressed an interest in becoming an artist, most would point you in the direction of Sotheby’s or Christie’s, or a further education degree in the history of art.
And that’s more-or-less how I found myself working at a wonderful gallery called Dickinson in Mayfair, London, sitting on the Impressionist and Modern desk under a wonderful boss called Emma Ward. She taught me everything I needed to know about operating in the luxury space. However, after four happy years there my yearning to ‘create’ was not being satiated by the commercial art world and so I decided to make the big leap into the unknown and forge a career as a designer.
Jewellery felt like the right discipline. It afforded me the chance to be experimental and use a mix of hi-lo materials, which is something fundamental to my language as a creative. I like to mix the predictable and the unpredictable in what I do. I also felt jewellery was somewhat exempt from many of the pressures of the fashion or art world. In short, there was no intense requirement to ‘present’ at specific times of the year; nor was there such a pressure to be on trend. Lastly, there was something familiar to me about the construction of jewellery. Having played around with 3D art I could understand it as sculpture in miniature, and that was exciting. In April 2013 I launched my first collection and the great adventure into the unknown begun!
When you first started out in the industry, was there someone that mentored you as you came into your own as a designer?
The short answer is no. Of course, there were wonderful and patient people who took the time to offer me advice and collected insights, but I never relied on one person to show me the way. In truth, I think it can be a bit dangerous to rely on a single mentor. There’s too much risk that your designs or business model starts to mold or morph in a direction that isn’t 100% your own. Building a brand in the 21st Century is very hard work, and authenticity is key if you want to get somewhere. I’ve tried, to the best of my ability, not to be too influenced by the well-meaning words of others – sometimes to my detriment – but mostly it has been the right choice for me.
When did you discover your talent and passion for designing?
I think you only truly discover if you are a talented jewellery designer after a good few years in business. It takes time to get yourself off the ground, make press contacts, build up your client base etc, so initial judgement is probably best reserved for a year or two after launch when you can honestly ask yourself if progress has been made in the right direction. I’m still asking myself on a daily basis “am I as good as I can be?”. Yes, my collections and pieces have received some humbling reviews and I’ve had some great sales, but I definitely don’t feel like I’ve made it yet. Jewellery is an unbelievably competitive sector, even more so now than when I first started, so it’s crucial I keep pushing myself to be better and better.
Your “Plastic Fantastic” collection combines plastic with fine gems—two materials not often set together. Can you tell us about this collection what inspired you to create it?
Plastic Fantastic is a collection about sunshine, pool parties and the glamourous 1950s. Set in steamy Florida, it brings together some of the most notable trends of mid-Century America: polka dots, cabana culture, sweetheart necklines, jell-o, candy colours….and plastic. The middle decades of the 20th Century saw a boom in plastic production. Plastic became one of the most popular materials to work with in all sectors as it was innovative and free from pre-conceptions regarding its use. This in turn gave rise to an enormous fashion for lucite jewellery, or costume jewellery as we more commonly call it. What’s interesting about costume jewellery in the 1950s is that it wasn’t seen as an inferior choice – it was seen as cool because it was so new.
My aim with Plastic Fantastic is to make plastic jewellery cool again, but this time in a more sustainable, timeless, elegant way. Most of the lucite / perspex / acrylic jewellery of Mid Century America is not recyclable in the traditional sense. You can’t really melt it down and start again. No one could have predicted the disaster that plastic would come to be at that moment in time, so no provision was made to make it sustainable. However, it is still possible to up-cycle vintage lucite and that’s what I’ve achieved with the pieces in this collection. I’ve essentially breathed new life into old, unloved ring mounts, beads, bangles and chain to create fun fine jewellery that is both beautiful and environmentally aware.
What has been your favorite commissioned piece to make? Can you tell us the story behind it?
I really love turning old, unworn pieces of Victorian or Edwardian jewellery into new, modern heirlooms. I’ve been lucky enough to work on several projects of this ilk, but perhaps one of my favourites was a pair of his-and-his engagement rings that used resin to complete the job. The client came to us with a whole pile of antique carved jade jewels (most of it in disrepair). He wanted to incorporate the jade into a pair of wedding bands for him and his partner, but hand-carving the jade into new bands would have been physically impossible due to the nature of the hoard. To work around the problem, we came up with the idea of literally smashing the jade into fragments – some big, some small – and setting these fragments in resin (along with some cubed diamonds for good measure) to create the bands. These were then finished off with silver to create extremely innovate but stylish rings. There was a lot of process involved and I certainly had to up my game as a designer. But what was nice was that we did all the smashing and setting of the stone in resin in-house, so I got to physically create the rings myself (when normally we would have our workshop make traditional gold or platinum wedding bands).
Tell us about “Tessa Talks To.” What inspired it, and what impact have you seen from these interviews
I love hearing what makes people tick, especially those who are very well regarded in their own sectors or industries. Britain is littered with truly brilliant people, most of whom are not household names. I wanted Tessa Talks To to be a platform where I could showcase this talent and give these hidden-heros a voice so that others could enjoy what they have to say as much as I have. I find I am a much better designer (and a better person) when I take the time to speak / listen to people who are at the top of their game, and crucially from different sectors. They always see the world in a slightly different way, but one that always helps me better my business or relationships in new, fruitful lights.
You strictly only produce in the UK, in-house or with workshops. Why did you choose to operate in that way, and why is that important to you?
There is such a lack of transparency in the jewellery sector about where jewellery is made. Many British fine jewellery houses claim to be ‘heritage’ but only make a tiny fraction of their stock in the UK. I think that’s pretty crap to be honest. Yes, it’s more expensive to manufacture in this country, and yes it can be slower, but I believe that it is extremely important to support local industry and pay a fair wage to those who work for you. There are some things that are just impossible to source in the UK, such as skilled stone cutting or carving, and for those jobs our hand can be forced to look overseas, but where we can we always make our jewellery on home soil. I’m a British brand and I want to keep it that way.
Your company creates signature events, and has an active blog. How has this influenced your business, and how has it helped you stay in touch with customers?
It’s been a very difficult fifteen months for us in terms of business development. I built my business on word of mouth and face-to-face sales, but the pandemic has forced us (with little mercy) to re-evaluate how we communicate with our clients going forwards. Right now, it isn’t possible to host in-person events, and that was what we were really becoming known for in the industry. We were organizing some seriously cool, immersive workshops, dynamic supper clubs and behind the scenes tours. That all ended abruptly last March, and since then – to be honest – I think we are still trying to understand (and ultimately harness) how best to interact digitally and online with our customers, many of which don’t ‘do’ mail-outs or Instagram and can’t contemplate the idea of buying jewellery without seeing it first. I’m pleased to say that we are making progress, but we have a long way to go.
What is the pipeline one of your pieces go through? From designing and manufacturing to selling, how is jewelry created and what role does your team play in this?
I think we spend as much time researching a collection as we do designing it and then making it. I can dwell over an idea for months, only to file it for years if I don’t feel it’s the right time to put it out there, or I can’t find the right angle for the theme. Narrative integrity is important to me because I despise the idea that jewellery should be judged on material substance or carat weight alone. Good jewellery has a story behind it. It takes you by the hand and transports you to a different time or place. And that can only really happen if you take the time to imbue a piece of jewellery with an authentic story.
After a theme is decided I’ll then start drawing out ideas for the jewellery. The designs go through many iterations – from doodles to perfect scaled gouaches. When you are designing a collection, you don’t just design one piece at a time. You design all of them simultaneously to make sure that what you are creating is harmonious and of the same language. I want each piece in a collection to be understood on its own and as part of a bigger whole. Most of the editing takes place at this stage. It can be costly to make changes once the manufacturing is underway.
Once a collection is made and ready for market we’ll then take time to advertise it to the press. This is a part of the puzzle that I love the most and yet find the most frustrating at the same time. It’s increasingly easy and paradoxically difficult to get airtime, so we find ourselves revising our marketing strategy for every new collection.
Jewelry offers a chance to show off one’s personal style. What is your favorite piece of jewelry, and why?
My ‘favourite’ changes all the time. Depending on my mood or occasion I’ll gravitate organically to a certain design or gemstone. Right now, I’m obsessed with a version of the Jell-Oh! Necklace I made for myself, a pair of mother-of-pearl and diamond flower earrings and the Miss Daykota Earrings from my new collection.
For your customers, is there a specific message that you want to convey through your pieces? How do you want them to feel after wearing one?
I want people to love wearing fun fine jewellery as much as I do. I’d like to challenge what materials and techniques can be ‘accepted’ as fine jewellery so that we as an industry encourage a greater level of expression and innovation in this sector. If I can make just one client feel cool and creative by wearing one of my whimsical pieces then I’m a happy designer.
What is your personal mantra? What is your business mantra?
Personal: Always eat breakfast
Business: It takes 10 years to build a reputation and 10 minutes to loose it. Don’t fuck it up.
Can you share any details about what is next for Tessa Packard? Are you working on any new designs or collaborations that we can watch out for?
I have a 2D project I’m working on. It will be the first of its kind for me and I think it’s an exciting idea which will allow our followers to see a side to our brand we don’t normally formally present. However, the idea only really works if it can be seen in the flesh, so I think will need to wait until next year for it to take place.
To join Tessa Packard’s journey, follow her on Instagram @tessapackardlondon and/or visit her website www.tessapackard.com.