December 16, 2011 10:09 pm

Gems of trade and aid

Pippa Small’s nomadic childhood is a far cry from her settled life in London, where she combines jewellery design with Afghan charity work
Pippa Small

Pippa Small at her shop in west London

It’s surprising that anyone can find Pippa Small’s jewellery shop at all: it’s an unassuming place, tucked away in a quiet, cobbled corner of Notting Hill Gate in west London. Once inside, however, it’s a different story and her designs sparkle with a quirky charm.

In one display case a great knuckle of glittering quartz set in a hammered gold ring is laid next to a necklace of Afghani turquoise and lapis lazuli. And Small’s own arms are covered in bracelets. “I have stones here that I picked up when I was 17 from Nepal,” she says, tracing over the different gems with her fingertips. “Or there’s this,” she adds, finding a little gold disk. “This was a keyring of my father’s.”

It was Small’s late father who was behind the family’s move to Britain from Montreal in the first place. “My father was much older than my mother,” she says. “Having grown up in Scotland, towards the end of his life he wanted to come back to Britain out of nostalgia, I think.”

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The family settled in Wiltshire in southern England when Small was eight years old, though her adventures were far from over. “After my father died, my mother decided it was time to travel and do what she wanted to do,” she says. “She was very keen on taking us three younger children on her adventures to Morocco and to her family in Tunisia and Tanzania. We were her escorts.”

Small’s interest in gem collecting and jewellery developed during these childhood travels. “I was interested in stones from a very early age,” she says. “I don’t know if Freud says anything about stones, but I think there’s something about the solidity of them that is quite appealing to a child because you know they are not going to change or dissolve.”

Small began making jewellery as a teenager but it wasn’t until studying at the University of London that she started to sell the odd piece to friends and local shops. “I had a hand-held drill and a bag of shells,” she says. “I used to get beautiful rocks and crystals, maybe topazes, quartzes or amethysts, and then I’d drill them by hand: it was a real labour of love.”

But Small wasn’t convinced she wanted to be a jeweller. After finishing her MA in medical anthropology at Goldsmiths, she travelled around the world working for a string of NGOs that helped indigenous tribal groups reclaim their land rights.

“I was in my mid-twenties, working in Borneo with tribal groups and I was completely obsessive and passionate about it,” she says. “I wanted to make documentaries, write books and make films. But I kept making jewellery, and it took a long time for me to commit and accept that I was a jeweller.”

Combining jewellery design with humanitarian work was difficult at first. “In the summer I was working with Burmese refugees in Thailand,” she says. “I heard horror stories about torture and their villages being bombed. And then I came back and did my first Paris Fashion Week. One moment I was hearing these refugees and then the next moment, ‘Does this go with my skin tone?’ ”

But Small soon realised that success in the fashion world could complement her anthropological pursuits. It was a meeting with Gucci that changed things: “I went to the interview and I was convinced they’d got the wrong person, but they took me on,” she says. “After that I went to Botswana and worked with the bushmen there and then I went to the Kalahari, and it was all paid for by revenue I earned from working with Gucci.”

Small opened her boutique five years ago, after deciding she could no longer run the business from her Notting Hill home. “It was getting unruly, working out of the kitchen,” she says. Small lives a few minutes’ walk from the shop, near Golborne Road, and enjoys the busy, multicultural feel to the neighbourhood. “Every morning I walk down Portobello Road and there is something different going on,” she says. “I pass the stalls being set up for bric-a-brac, old clothes, antiques and flowers and fruit.”

In recent years she has worked with different anthropological groups in India, Panama, Bolivia and Rwanda but it is her work in Afghanistan that is attracting most attention. Working for Turquoise Mountain, a charity set up by Rory Stewart MP that attempts to regenerate Afghanistan’s traditional arts industry, Small has designed a range of Afghan-inspired pieces for their workshops to make and sell on the international market.

When Small first started working in Afghanistan she stayed in an old timber and earthen fort where Turquoise Mountain was founded. “The rooms were small with low ceilings of woven straw,” she says. “We’d eat our meals either under the vines in the courtyard or in the cosy kitchen.”

The influence of Small’s anthropological work on her jewellery design is clear, with local materials characterising different collections. She explains the inspiration behind a delicate set of lovebirds and flowers. “One time I was in Afghanistan and the violence and the tension were particularly bad,” she says. “So we made this collection that was all about love.” Small says that while women in Afghanistan are generally not well-educated, it’s common for them to be able to recite great swathes of ancient Persian love poetry. With that in mind, Small designed a pendant with a Persian love poem engraved in it.

“We were trying to find a way through the horror,” she says. “After all, people there are still falling in love with one another and getting married and having children. People do it in spite of everything and I think this collection is a celebration of that.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● The mix of cultures

● The curious finds in Portobello Market from around the world

● A sense of community

● Independent cafés, bookshops and restaurants

Cons

● Crowds

● Growing gap between the rich and poor

● Constant temptations to buy

What you can buy for ...

£100,000 A garage or parking space on a long lease in central Notting Hill.

£1m In prime Notting Hill (W11) a spectacular one-bedroom or a two- or three-bedroom flat. In neighbouring W10 a three- or four-bedroom cottage.

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