Pearly queens: Emilia Wickstead and Jessica McCormack’s fairy-story jewels
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Jewellery news every morning.
“Reality is bleak,” says Jessica McCormack, “so we all need some escapism, right?” The jewellery designer is huddled over a table laden with precious objects – elaborate earrings and necklaces of diamonds and pearls – alongside the fashion designer Emilia Wickstead. The pair are in the library of McCormack’s flagship store, which sits on Carlos Place in Mayfair, sharing foot traffic with The Row, Celine, Simone Rocha and Lanvin. The Georgian townhouse feels a world apart from the verdant hills, rugged coastlines and modest cities of New Zealand, where both designers spent their childhoods. McCormack, hailing from Christchurch, launched her jewellery business in London in 2008. Wickstead, who was born and raised in Auckland, and moved to Milan aged 14, established hers in the same year. Both have found favour in London society – in particular among the royals – which flocks towards their elegant designs.
By the same force that seems to draw expats together the world over, the pair are good friends. “We were introduced by another New Zealander,” says Wickstead. “And we just immediately had a rapport. Our businesses are a similar age, and having someone who is from where you’re from that you can talk about the positives and negatives with has been amazing over the years. I feel very lucky to have Jessica to bounce [ideas off].”
McCormack has been accessorising Wickstead’s runway shows with jewels for the past five seasons, but this year marks the first time the duo have designed a collection specifically between them. The 10-piece range, which focuses on pearls and diamonds, draws inspiration from a book called Faery Lands of the South Seas, written by two Americans – James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff – documenting their travels to the South Pacific in 1921. “It’s basically storytelling about travelling around the South Seas, and all their experiences and who they meet. But the way they talk about it is quite magical and mysterious, and everything is overly exaggerated,” says Wickstead. The book includes a passage about an old man diving for pearls: “He knew all the lagoons of this part of the Pacific, and could give the history of every large pearl discovered in these waters.” The collection moodboard also has images by Lucien Gauthier, a French photographer who documented the people of Tahiti in the early 1900s, and an image of a doe-eyed Charlotte Rampling, in The Damned (1964), with finger curls and layers of pearls.
Pearls are a new foray for McCormack, who maintains that diamonds are her “first true love”. Says the designer: “I just haven’t really used [pearls] much before. I used to think that they were a little bit naff – if you think about twinset pearls or a ‘Sloaney Pony’ vibe. I thought if we were going to do them, we need to show how they can be worn today.”
McCormack has sourced cultured South Sea pearls, Japanese Akoya pearls, Australian Keshi pearls and freshwater versions, and used them all in new, contemporary ways: the simplest pieces are in Gypset earrings – a McCormack signature – while more elaborate styles include a pair of chandelier earrings with pearls suspended from a diamond-studded setting. There’s also a rather spectacular necklace made with a string of diamonds and detachable, pear-shaped freshwater pearls. “All of the jewellery was made so it could still be worn with anything,” says McCormack. “You can even put it over the top of a woolly jumper.”
The collection debuted this month with Wickstead’s spring/summer 2021 presentation, which includes a playful blue‑and-white boat print, in reference to the South Seas theme, that is also used to line each jewellery box. “We made that print in-house – someone in my design team painted it by hand,” Wickstead says. “It’s the idea of sailing away, the storytelling of the South Seas, and there’s a bit of fairytale to it.”
Nostalgia and heritage are a big part of what the designers want to convey. The idea of celebrating one’s background has been a preoccupation lately for Wickstead, who is part Samoan through her father. Last year, she released a capsule collection with The Woolmark Company, enlisting a cast of New Zealand women on whom to shoot the campaign. This year also marks the first time her ready-to-wear collection is stocked in New Zealand, at Simon James Concept Store, owned by McCormack’s sister.
Wickstead recalls the contrast of growing up “in bare feet and with really short hair” in New Zealand, then moving to Europe, where people “polished their shoes”. “I started the brand in a very buttoned-up way, which was the complete opposite to how I grew up. It was very dressed-up, quite serious and quite traditional made-to-measure,” she says. “But over time, I’ve felt my New Zealand-ness coming out, where you feel courageous to do different things, because that’s how we were brought up.”
Both Wickstead and McCormack present a unique kind of New Zealand luxury to the world – one that combines down-to-earth practicality with a hint of glamour. This is epitomised by both designers’ personal style: McCormack wears jeans and a tank with layers of diamonds over the top, while Wickstead is wearing a roomy, long-sleeved minidress and flat sandals, her hair pulled back into a low, sleek ponytail. “Everything that we do – and I know that Jessica does this too – is a play on tradition. The idea of dressing up, dressing down, playing on the modern world and the traditional world and bringing the two together,” she says. “[Promoting] New Zealand on a global scale is at the heart of what we represent as designers, and what we’ve brought to London.”
Jessica McCormack, 7 Carlos Place, London W1; jessicamccormack.com
Get alerts on Jewellery when a new story is published