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Solange Azagury-Partridge: “You can’t appeal to everybody”

Ming Liu
April 22, 2024
8 min

To understand the work of Solange Azagury-Partridge is to understand, perhaps more than any other jew­eller working today, the woman herself. “I have always been my first muse,” says the British jew­eller. “I design things that I would enjoy wearing and am proud to have made.” Most representative of this is her signature creation, Hotlips: first created in 1995, the ring is an icon of modern jewellery design, with pieces held by the V&A museum. Hotlips does exactly what it says on the tin: a beautiful, pouty and kissable mouth in a perfect lip­stick colour.

“Before emails and texts, I used to write letters to people,” says Azagury-Partridge of the jewel’s original inspiration. “I had lots of penfriends, and always kissed my letters with a lipstick kiss.” Twenty-eight years on and a plethora of new iterations – from chic gold and sil­ver to Union Jack, rainbow, smi­ley-faced and leopard-print versions – Hotlips continues to be highly-de­sired. “There’s something visceral that appeals to people, plus it’s more light-hearted than my fine jewellery,” says Azagury-Partridge of the fanbase, which ranges in age from seven to 90. “And the shape – I’ve cracked the shape.”

A self-taught designer, Azagury-Partridge fell into the industry by chance. In the 1980s, while working as a translator after her degree in French, Spanish and Linguistics, she also worked at an antique and cos­tume jewellery shop to earn extra cash. She designed her first piece of jewellery when she got engaged. “I was good at art in school but stopped very young,” the designer recalls. “Art was not something that my parents thought was important or viable…But in the end, my love of creativity just kind of popped out.”

Azagury-Partridge is telling me this from the ground floor recep­tion room of her studio in west London; a wildly arresting space that’s painted wall-to-wall in water­melon pink, and where elaborate corniced door frames and walls meet an emerald green velvet sofa and zingy yellow armchair. Across the road, framed in the room’s bay win­dows, is the Hotlips shop, its interi­ors styled like a funfair circus with the entire Hotlips range displayed in a large Perspex box.

The iconic Hotlips ring with other pieces from Solange's collections © Solange Azagury-Partridge

Opened last year, the shop has the same kind of verve and flair that marked Azagury-Partridge’s first ever store on nearby Westbourne Grove, which coincided with the arrival of Hotlips in the mid-Nine­ties. With its velvet-linings and plush interiors, it was sometimes mistaken for a brothel – which says more about the conservative norms of the area than the designer’s pen­chant for displaying jewellery in the most trailblazing fashion.

“It’s about excluding the out­side world,” Azagury-Partridge says now. “When you walk into a whole world of someone‘s creation, the room has to somehow have an oth­erworldly quality to it, so you can be put at your ease yet made to feel excited at the same time.”

In 2001, attention on the young Azagury-Partridge reached its zenith when she was appointed cre­ative director at Boucheron. There she was most inspired by founder Frédéric Boucheron’s work, which she described as “exuberant, dec­orative and elaborate” as well as “a bit Gothic.” In addition to seeing her pieces being exhibited at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs – and now held as part of the Louvre’s permanent collection – Azagury-Partridge also notably created the Quatre ring, a jewellery icon today and by far Boucheron’s bread and butter.

She describes her three years at the oldest house on Place Vendôme as “so amazing and special – I feel privileged to have been able to go through their archives.” It was also an invaluable education. “Place Vendôme and Boucheron felt like a finishing school – the Oxford or Cambridge of jewellery. It was a three-year degree course on how to run a jewellery business cor­rectly, and at that level.” She cred­its the experience with giving her the confidence to have her own business – and ultimately, become independent.

Solange models her myriad ring designs © Solange Azagury-Partridge

In addition to lips, Azagury-Partridge has given us eyes. Channelling her love of figurative art (“There‘s nothing more attrac­tive than the human face,” she says, a statement backed up by her many portraits at home), are pieces like her cubist-style Cosmic Eye Ring: made with lapis lazuli, black onyx, turquoise, mother-of-pearl and chrysoprase, together set in a frame of ruby and diamonds. Its plaque-like form also finds expres­sion in the delightful Nature Ring – which has been replicated into an actual plaque marking her appoint­ment-only salon – that depicts a glo­rious day with a turquoise sky, fluffy mother-of-pearl cloud, yellow sap­phire sun and emerald grass.

Azagury-Partridge may be inspired by nature, but don’t expect any literal interpretations or twee romanticism here. Case in point: the designer may describe her coun­try retreat in Somerset, which she’s had for 13 years, as “in the mid­dle of nowhere with fields, sheep and cows” but she loves the loca­tion precisely because it maintains a social scene. She cites The Newt, Number One Bruton, Osip and The Three Horseshoes as among her favourite haunts. “It’s the most incredible area for foodies and cul­ture,” she says.

Nature, she adds “is very hard to replicate and always a chal­lenge” – and so she turns to drama and irreverence, such as a Purple ring with golden lavender sprigs, holding a 10ct amethyst and green pave stones symbolising grass. Elsewhere, her Supernature collec­tion examines the five elements – fire, air, water, earth and the Aether – in highly imaginative, original gems. Consider the Storm necklace, in which jagged diamond light­ning bolts are crafted from black­ened gold, and diamonds emanate from a large and moody labrador­ite stone.

It’s just one of many punchy and provocative designs that radi­ate from Azagury-Partridge’s mind, and which possess an empow­ering spirit that’s especially wel­come in the jewellery world today. Her Written rings, for example, fea­ture words scripted from gold, and which wrap around the finger like a secret known only to the wearer. Some channel romantic themes – think love, sweetheart or marry me – but there’s also bitch, or fuck off. “It can feel quite powerful to have a rude word on your hand,” she says.

Ideas and concepts, rather than items or even other artists, are Azagury-Partridge’s muses. She’s been on a fiction binge lately, but scientific subjects have long fasci­nated her. “They really do some­thing to my brain and spark ideas,” she says. “Concepts that are impos sible to understand – like string theory or quantum mechanics, or how flames work or a bud unfurls into a flower – anything with inter­esting facts. The less I understand something, the more ideas I have, weirdly.”

That makes Azagury-Partridge a great designer, which is what she calls herself, rather than a jewel­ler. “It‘s a very different mindset. To be a craftsman at that level, you have to be a Zen master who is so concentrated on getting that thing right. Whereas I love seeing my ideas come to life, but there are so many elements that need to come together.” That focus on execution, together with her various collabora­tors, makes her stand out – as well as her deeply-felt respect for her materials. “Often, the not knowing is what helps you propel things for­ward, and to try to make things hap­pen. A lot of jewellery you see is so basic, unimaginative, and tragic, really, that it’s a waste of these amazing materials. It‘s important to respect what you‘re using and to give it purpose. I don‘t want to just make something that is pretty.”

The dramatic all-diamond Fringe ring © Solange Azagury-Partridge

There is a quiet confidence to Azagury-Partridge and her work. “My pieces are either for you or aren’t, which is fine by me,” she says. “You can't appeal to every­body”; and clearly her work res­onates with those who matter. In 2003 she was nominated for the Design Museum’s Designer of the Year alongside Apple’s Jonathan Ive, Tord Boontje and Rockstar Games. Her clients today are nota­bly other creatives – musicians, actors, directors, artists. “That makes me super happy,” she says. “Nothing is better than if your peers admire you.”

Our interview is wrapping up, and tomorrow Azagury-Partridge is off to Venice, a place that “just gives me goosebumps” and where she now visits every year (“we just walk and walk and walk and eat”). It’s her anniversary but she mentions a new collaboration (a “visit to Murano,” she hints), for which the Solange fanbase can only eagerly await.