Armed with the vision of a jewelry industry ethically sourcing their precious stones and honoring the majority’s origins in Africa, Vanleles is on a mission to bring the gemstone-rich continent to the forefront of the industry and become the first African fine jewelry house among the top international brands. Since 2011, Vanleles founder and creative director Vania Leles has tirelessly worked to achieve this through a series of elegant collections championing vibrant colors and intricate designs passionately inspired by her African heritage. Vogue Arabia spoke with Leles about her journey in becoming a household name in the Middle East, the importance of empowering women in every industry, and the need to encourage transparency from jewelers if sustainability is to become the norm.
As a brand based in London, what do you think it is about your designs that attract the Middle Eastern market?
Vanleles is based in London and the DNA of the brand is drawn from my deeply rooted African heritage. Nonetheless, Vanleles is a brand for the global woman. The Middle Eastern market is captivated by my designs because they are bold, unique, and where silhouettes and shapes burst into a spectacular display of colorful gemstones and feminine splendor. Middle Eastern women aren’t afraid of using daring and grand pieces of jewelry. My Middle Eastern clients use my pieces from a simple trip to a cupcake café with a girlfriend to a wedding or a gala.
When/where was your last show in the Middle East and how has it changed since the first time your collection was presented in the region?
My last show was Jewellery Arabia in Bahrain. My dear friend Azza was my host and it was incredibly successful. Although we were a new brand, we had finished two online trunk shows with Moda Operandi and most ladies recognized our logo from the trunk shows and stopped and said where they had seen us; they ended up buying a few pieces each. Last January, I hosted a private sale in Dubai for five days, which I want to continue to do a few times a year.
What does it mean to you to be the “first female-founded, fine jewelry brand with a deeply rooted African heritage”?
It means pride to be the first, but also very sad given the fact that more than 75% of what is used—precious stones and metals—in fine jewelry are mined in Africa and there is not a single African fine jewelry brand among the top ten fine jewelry brands, let alone one founded by a female African entrepreneur. I am on a mission to make Vanleles a top 10 fine jewelry brand—the brand is already listed side-by-side with top ten brands in magazines—and also to make it the brand of choice for successful women worldwide, women who value authenticity, and women who believe in ethical sourcing and supporting women talents. My vision is also to inspire more women in the continent to become jewelry designers and/or develop an interest in fine jewelry creation; the fine jewelry industry is extremely male-dominated.
What is the biggest motivator in your career?
I have quite a few, but the first and closest to my heart is that the jewelry industry is highly male-dominated. For me, it means that it is and was always integral to my determination to see more of us women, and especially African and Middle Eastern women, succeed in this industry. After all, we are the ones wearing them so we should be the creators—from women to women. Secondly, jewelry-making is my lifelong passion and I hope that I will keep on making jewelry for the rest of my life. My biggest motivator remains my homeland, Guiné-Bissau, West Africa, where my passion for ethical sourcing was first born. I want to bring Africa and its gemstones to the forefront of the jewelry-making industry.
Why did you decide to open your own atelier after a successful career with many of the world’s leading fine jewelry houses, including Graff and De Beers?
I think after my last post at Sotheby’s my heart was broken. I wanted more freedom and power to make decisions on how to buy and source. You can only have that if you own your own business. Also, because I saw so many gemstones and diamonds coming from Africa and no one was mentioning the stones’ origins, I wanted to change that and honor the places where the gemstones came from. Honoring the provenance, only then we will be obliged to source ethically and with sustainability at the forefront of minds.
How do you hope a woman feels when wearing your jewelry? Who is the Vanleles woman?
I have a saying: “The true beauty and highest value of jewelry shouldn’t start at the shop floor. It should start where it all began, and for me, that’s at the community level. My intention has always been to bring the voice of these communities to fine jewelry, and part of this is ensuring that, where possible, I source gems from mines that adhere to environmental and human rights, as well as pay local taxes and treat miners decently with fair wages.” So, I hope the Vanleles woman feels empowered and with a clear conscience of doing something good for the world. And she prioritizes choosing brands from companies founded and led by female entrepreneurs as she identifies strongly with women’s rights and wears brands proudly that tells a story of female entrepreneurs. The Vanleles woman is conscious about the provenance of the luxury that she consumes and demands full transparency whether it’s in fine jewelry, fashion, beauty, or other aspects of her world. She is her own woman, defined by her principles, and in charge of her life and destiny.
What are the main principles upon which Vanleles is founded?
Our mission statement is SSSS: Soul is about giving back. Style is, of course, about our exquisite design and craftsmanship; I saw so much of the generic jewelry, I set up with the intention of creating supremely feminine, elegant, and versatile jewelry for modern women. Sustainability is our focus on the ethical sourcing of all our gemstones and our work with ethically mined precious metals. Substance is about our African heritage and authenticity; I was born and raised in West Africa and draw almost all of my inspiration from Africa (North, East, West, and South).
How would you describe Vanleles in one word or one sentence?
Empowering. Jewels with soul and a story to tell, ethically sourced in Africa, and passionately crafted in Italy.
What do you hope is the future of your brand; what’s next for Vanleles?
It is for Vanleles to become among the top 10 global fine jewelry brands.
You mentioned 75% of all precious stones used in fine jewelry are mined in Africa. Why do you think it’s important to support the local economy and what role does your brand play in ethical sourcing and supporting African talent and culture?
We all have to give back to our community and to the world at large. As Vanleles grows, the aim is to give back and, finally, share industry knowledge with the local communities and countries. I am committed to ethical sourcing and conflict-free stones, traveling to distinguished sources, and selecting only the finest materials. My collections use exclusively Kimberly Certified diamonds, ensuring that the gems are not procured from conflict areas or illegitimate sources. The AED 30.8 billion generated by the legal trading of African diamonds now helps to pay for the education, healthcare, clean water, and food for millions of people in these regions. Diamonds can change the lives of more than just the wearer if sourced ethically and Vanleles Diamonds is committed to ensuring that all diamonds are 100% conflict-free. I have also collaborated with Gemfields, the world’s pioneer of responsibly sourced colored gemstones, creating ‘Legends of Africa’– unique high jewelry collections that pay homage to my continent and heritage.
In the future, I would like to help establish a gemology school in diamond-producing countries and help set up more diamond bourses. The world has 32 diamond bourses but only one is located in Africa. I am also very active in my charity work and giving back. Last year, Vanleles was one of the main sponsors for Women to Women International and I am one of the sponsors of the Malaika Foundation, an all-girls school in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
How does African culture influence your work? Which aspects of the culture do you draw upon?
I conceived the brand with a profound vision and desire to share the beauty and splendor of Africa’s precious gemstones artfully translated into magnificent fine jewelry; and the deep cultures, landscapes, and histories that inspire the creations from North Africa, East to West, and South. Each piece is passionately crafted from a unique and inspiring story of Africa’s past and present and interpreted through forms, shapes, and colors that are both delightful and surprising.
Briefly tell us a little bit more about your collaboration with Tory Burch. Which designer is on your radar to collaborate with next?
I met Tory in London at an event and we started talking and sharing our experiences being an entrepreneur, mother, and building a company; we connected on womanhood. She immediately put me in touch with her team and they sent a photographer to do a piece on me for her blog Tory Daily. I would love to collaborate with Ashi Studio; I just love his designs.
Which collection of yours resonates the most with you? Which upcoming collection are you most excited about?
I love all of my collections and I only design and create what I truly love, so they all resonate with me. I can’t pick one versus another; they are all my babies. The Nile collection truly excites me; It reminds me of North African empires. There are a lot of Arabic influences.
As a gemologist and designer for many bespoke pieces, what’s your favorite type of piece to design or gem to work with?
Bridal bespoke pieces are my favorite, and mainly diamonds and some pearls, but mainly combining diamonds with blue sapphires.
You are involved in a lot of philanthropy work supporting women and children. Why did you decide to begin contributing to charities and focus on these two groups in particular?
I focus on these two groups mainly because, in the world’s poorest communities, girls and women are the most vulnerable. For example, when a family struggles to earn enough money to send all their kids to school, it’s often the girl who is asked to stay home from school. I truly believe that women and girls are often the most impacted in the face of poverty, but that they are also the key to overcoming it: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation. When girls are educated, their countries become stronger and more prosperous.”