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In Conversation with Alex Monroe

Photo by Daria Slikker

Alex Monroe is a British jewellery designer and maker. His designs are beautiful expressions of nature that he found in both Suffolk and London. After attending the School of Art, Architecture and Design in London, he started creating his own jewellery and had his first collection by 1987. His business has continually grown, from being in London and Paris fashion week to being worn by famous actresses. He now has shops both in Covent Garden and London Bridge, where he spends his time running the business. 


Daria Slikker: How would you say growing up in Suffolk has affected your jewellery design and inspiration? 


Alex Monroe: It’s a strange old thing, actually. I grew up in the countryside when I was a small child and loved it. Looking back at it when I wrote my book, it paints quite a rosy picture of that, but analysing it a bit more, it was actually quite a lot of scariness and darkness as well. We were pretty much unsupervised by adults as children, so we kind of ran wild, which meant there was a lot of excitement, freedom, and creativity. However, there was also a lack of adult guidance. As soon as I could, I escaped from the countryside at the age of 17, but I realised I needed to get out at 14. 

Why did you feel this need to go to London?


I was interested in clothes and fashion, and I was looking for beauty in the harshness and cruelty of my situation. I quite liked feminine beauty, so I would like to wear clothes that were, I suppose, more feminine. This didn’t really fit in well with that time and its traditional setup. So I was 17 and went to London, finding a lot of the beauty that I missed in the countryside. London had tolerance, creativity, and room for self-expression, which led me to find a home here. It’s the beauty of the countryside that stayed with me, but when I left, I was interested in drawing from nature and finding out how nature could tell a story. Quite often, when I wanted to express myself, I would express it through my nature and my creativity. I remember that on a cold evening, two doves would be together on a branch, and they’d be puffed up and huddled against the rain. I saw that beauty, tenderness, and kindness and transformed it into my jewellery. 

Where did you see yourself and your future going after graduating from the School of Art, Architecture and Design in London?


I didn’t think about it. I went to art school because the people were my "tribe” and I had done a foundation course in Suffolk where I met a diverse bunch of people that didn’t fit just like me. I actually applied to Brighton, Middlesex, and CSM for fashion, but I didn’t get in. I was interested in how fashion and jewellery connected, so it was a good fit in the end. I did the course as a way to leave home, but I was truly engaged in it. We used to get in early in the morning and leave at about 11 o’clock at night. We wouldn’t stop for lunch and had long days with both the design and technical sides. I was learning skills while being in a workshop that I felt was my home. 

What were the next steps you took in your career? 


I immediately rented a workshop in a group of other workshops. It wasn’t a career or a job, but who I was. I had a part-time job and sold my own sculptural pieces as well as jewellery. I sold a small collection to some shops in Hampstead, got £60, and paid the rent for my workshop with it. I couldn’t keep up with making all the pieces, so I asked a friend to join me. It was only then that I realised it was a job, and there were sums of money flying around. I made the company into a limited company and named it “Alex Monroe." I never thought of it as a job or a company; there was no name for it—it was just me. As I kept expanding, I employed more people and bought a bit of land to build my own workshop. I still expected someone to knock on the door and tell me it’s all gone wrong.

What was one of the biggest and earliest challenges you faced in your career? 


Without doubt, the biggest challenge has been later on as the business has grown. We had Brexit, which was the biggest blow as we couldn’t sell to a massive portion of the world. Another difficulty was what comes with a growing business. If you’re doing well and making a nice profit, you have a big tax and national insurance bill. As you continue to grow, you can afford to fund that, but it keeps growing as you expand. I think of it like a speedboat and a backwash. The faster you go, the bigger the backwash. If, at some point, you slow down even a little bit, this backwash can engulf you. Quite a lot of businesses fall victim to the consequences of expanding and the backwash of it. I was lucky to be able to keep up with the backwash, leading the business to grow steadily every year. 

What’s the process of getting your jewellery from the fashion shows to the movies?


We’d always get editorials and have pieces in movies like Love Actually, Yesterday, and Doctor Who. It’s just about knowing and meeting costume designers and perhaps working with an actor. We sell the jewellery, but I retain the design rights for everything that I make. Generally, the actors are gifted the pieces at the end of the show. 

When would you say was a turning point in your career when you knew you had become successful?


To a certain degree, I don’t think that’s happened. I still feel like everything could fall apart tomorrow, and I still apologise to old school friends who ask me what I do and I say, “I make jewellery." They’ll often say, “No, what do you do for your job?” and I’ll tell them that’s what I do for my job. It’s not imposter syndrome, but I just don’t know how you know if you’ve made it in that sense. 

Do you ever face a jeweller’s block where you don’t seem to have any inspiration?


No, I keep sketchbooks and draw my way through life. Anything I see, think about, hear, or taste, I note down in my sketchbooks, and that is a thousand times more than I’ll ever have time to make. The problem is making the ideas rather than coming up with them. If you’re a visual person and you go through life digesting things and interpreting them, there’s more ideas than there is time to do them.

What would you say is the typical length of time from the idea to the jewellery actually being produced?


I might put something in my sketchbook, and 10 years later I might think, “that works in this situation." It’s also a progression. Having done my collection of jewellery, made it and sold it, and it being in shops, you always have a bunch of loose ends and unanswered questions and things you wanted to do but didn’t fit in. You just carry on with them, and the next collection comes, and the next one follows. It’s also partly just keeping up with the momentum of creativity.

What is the difference between working with silver and gold-plated jewellery?


I work with silver because it’s a beautiful material to use and is precious. It’s not so expensive when you’re not afraid of it. I do design in a sketchbook, but I also do an awful lot of the design at the bench in the metal. You can only see it if you’re making it, because it’s three dimensional. Silver lets you make mistakes in the creating process. I’ll make lots of things that don’t make the grade, but it doesn’t matter because it was just silver. If I were using gold, it would be so precious that it would slow down and stifle the creative process. Once we have it in silver, we transfer it to gold. Silver is also a great material because it’s affordable for the clientele. We use gold plate because some might prefer the colour of gold without having to pay the price of something purely made out of it. Something like an engagement ring or a wedding ring, you want to be solid gold because the gold plate can wear off after a while. 

Out of all your jewellery, do you have a favourite collection? 


It’s always the next one I’m working on. It’s what I’m most excited about and what I can’t wait to do. 


In previous interviews, you mentioned visiting your sister’s farm in Italy. Do you find travelling as another source of inspiration?


I’m not a huge traveller because I think that there’s so much under people’s noses in a London park—so much everywhere—that you don’t need to travel long distances. I’m British and live in London, so I want to deal with the things that are here. I love to visit my sister, and my grandmother was French, so I’m slightly French myself, but there’s no more in Europe than there is here. The rest of the world is relevant when talking about Britishness, but I still don’t feel the need to travel to find things that feed creativity.

What advice would you give now to your younger self or to someone who wishes to go into the jewellery business?


I wouldn’t give any advice to my younger self because I probably wouldn’t listen and because your route to personal success is littered with mistakes. If you didn’t make those mistakes, it wouldn’t have worked. I can be enthusiastic for young designers and tell them I love what they’re doing, reassuring them that they’re doing the right things, but I can’t tell them what to do. I can’t even advise them to do what I’ve done because what I’ve done has had a cost. For many years, I worked 7 days per week for more than 12 hours a day, and I wouldn’t wish that on any of my children. I was also very lucky because I have a broad skill set and enjoy looking at the accounts, selling my jewellery, and the creative process of it. I enjoy all of the parts of the process, which is just lucky. The best advice you can give anyone is just to be really lucky, but that’s not great advice, is it?

Could you suggest some courses that would be good for beginner jewellers?


There are so many different aspects of the jewellery industry. Selling jewellery and working in a shop is brilliant, but you can also write about jewellery or do a gemology course looking at the stone side of things. Generally, though, you could try a course at Morley College or City Lit. If you fancy something longer to gain more knowledge, I would recommend the British Academy of Jewellery (BAJ). 


What are your thoughts on jewellery-making being your main stream of income? 


During work experience and when I started making jewellery, people would say, “What do you want to be a jeweller for? It’s the hardest job in the world, with long hours and no money." I thought, then, why are they doing it? What I tend to do is to say that it’s been really good fun, and if you want to do it, do it. You should have a go at your dreams, and it’s true that not everyone is going to make it, but you have to try, or else you’re definitely not going to make it. It may be that you decide to do jewellery as a side job, selling to local sales and fares on the weekend, or have an Etsy shop. It can bring you so much creative satisfaction and enjoyment without having to be your main job. The trick is working out what you want out of it and how that will work for you. A lot of people set up a jewellery business with all of their savings and then really struggle to make it work. You realise that, actually, you are serving your business rather than it serving you. Our pastime, whether it’s a hobby, sole income, or part-time job, is there to give you what you want out of life and to serve you. 


What does your typical day in the workshop look like? 


I get fewer and fewer days in the workshop. We’ve just had a busy time because it’s our 'year end' so there’s been a lot of accounts, and then we also have the 'year start' where we set our budgets for the sales department. Essentially, it’s been spreadsheets and meetings. But that’s all finished now, and I’ll have a period where I’ll be in the workshop. Before I can get into the workshop, I need to do drawing and designing, so hopefully my days will be focused much more on exploratory drawing in nature and more days in the workshop. That will entail not looking at my emails or WhatsApp. I’ll be coming in, making a delicious cup of tea, sitting at the workbench, and creating.  


Do you have a favourite spot in London to gather inspiration from?


Definitely the Chelsea Physics Garden. It’s worth getting a membership as it’s calm, every time of year there’s something different, and you can find a little patch somewhere away from people. That’s my go-to place. 

You can keep up with Alex Monroe and his brand on Instagram or via the website.


Edited by Faye Elder, London and Beyond Editor


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