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An Interview With Lily Blanche Founder Gillian Crawford
When did you fall in love with jewellery?
I’ve always been a jewellery girl as has my sister – we both love great design and fabulous craftsmanship – but we both married men who have no idea about jewellery. We always joke that we started Lily Blanche together because it was the only way we were going to receive beautiful pieces for birthdays and Christmas! In reality we are designers and creatives with very similar tastes, drive and ideas.
How do childhood memories influence your work now?
I grew up in a small town in Scotland and I was surrounded by incredibly creative people. My mother made all of our clothes and I learned to use a sewing machine at a very young age. My father made wooden toys for our Christmases – dolls houses and wendy houses and furniture for the dolls. My grandmother, Lily Blanche Sheridan, lived on the Hebridean Island of Skye and holidays were spent with her. She was an incredibly creative person and a fantastic cook. She even made her daughters’ and daughters-in-law’s wedding dresses when rationing was still imposed after the Second World War and gorgeous gowns were difficult to come by.
She introduced me to a wide range of craft activities, from knitting and crocheting to embroidery and even tatting. I was the first girl to take woodwork and metalwork at school and all my weekends were spent making toys and crafts.
My grandmother’s house was a tiny whitewashed croft on a loch. I remember being around the age of seven and playing on the waters’ edge and finding freshwater pearls. Scottish pearls are now conserved but it was a real eureka moment finding such precious stones in their natural setting at such a young age.
My grandmother had lived in India in the last days of the Raj and remembered the rise of Gandhi. My grandfather, whom I never knew, had been stationed in China in the 1920s and brought wonderful treasures back. My grandmother’s house was full of beautiful things – from big brass Buddhas to old photographs and lovely trinkets. In many ways, my grandmother was a sort of everywoman – so many people have someone like her in their family, coping during the War, learning to make do and mend, being inventive. She is the inspiration behind the brand and I often refer back to these childhood memories when designing new collections.
How did you start out?
I had wanted to do something creative after leaving school but there was pressure to pursue an academic course and so I studied prehistoric archaeology at Edinburgh University, keeping up my creative side fulfilled in my spare time. I was able to specialise in metallurgical techniques in the Central and Mediterranean regions during the Iron Age. This was when many beautiful items were made and I took a special interest in antique jewellery. It wasn’t long before the academic side of my nature and the creative side came together and I was trying out traditional techniques and materials.
I cannot begin to describe the thrill of finding a piece of jewellery on an archaeological excavation, of being the first to look at something for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. There is something incredibly tactile and sensory about learning about the past from the artefacts and structures left behind by our ancestors. Everything has evolved but what has always struck me is how incredibly contemporary and beautiful much ancient jewellery seems.
The business was started with my sister, who is also a designer and who had already established her own Edinburgh design company. We developed and grew the business together, staying true to our family roots. However, 18 months ago, I bought my sister out and moved the business to my beautiful arts and crafts studio in Stirling. My sister’s design business had grown very rapidly and in a direction which meant she had less and less time for Lily Blanche so we came to a mutual decision which has allowed the business to flourish. She remains a great support and sounding board.
What are your values and how do they relate to your jewellery?
Family values are very important to me along with the sense of being true to yourself and your creative roots. I was given a very good piece of advice when I first started out and I pass it on to my daughters. It is this: Do what you love. Don’t worry about trying to make money. Concentrate on quality, design and great customer service and you will be successful. Get to know your customers – they are lovely people. Our business has grown exponentially because of this philosophy.
This may sound slightly cheesy but every customer is very important to us and they are parting with money which is hard earned. I always try to put myself in their shoes. What would I like in terms of service and communication? We go the extra mile for people. I try to answer emails and messages as soon as I get them even if it is late at night. If there is a special requirement we will try to meet it or find somebody else who can. Their lasting impression of the brand – whether they buy from us or not –is very important to us. It is the main thing we can do which big companies cannot and it is what distinguishes us in a busy market place.
Memory Keeper Lockets
What inspires your work and where is your jewellery made?
My understanding of history and prehistory is really important. I love visiting museums such as the V&A in London and the Met in New York. I always head straight for the jewellery section. I have a very keen sense of heritage and continuity, which imbues my work.
Here, at the Lily Blanche studio, there is rarely a single inspiration for a piece of jewellery. Ideas come together. But running through all of the Lily Blanche collections are the themes of sentiment and meaning, of celebrating life and expressing love. We love designing and creating pieces with hidden secrets.
Jewellery connects us with the past in such an individual and intimate way. Inheriting jewellery, even if it is not particularly to your taste or if it has gone out of fashion, is such a humbling thing. A piece can be worn every day by women of different generations. It can take on the patina of the life of the wearer. It will be smoothed and worn to fit them. When it comes down the generations to you, it is already pre-loaded with sentiment and meaning.
There is a reason that we mark important life events with jewellery and this is because of its endurance and durability. We want the occasions and people who matter to us to be represented, not by something ephemeral, but by something precious and permanent. This is the essence of our philosophy.
Our jewellery is made in our studio in Stirling and we also collaborate with small teams of artisans both in the UK and abroad for specialist techniques. These are all people we know personally and the collaborations have often developed from personal friendships.
Where do you source your materials and stones?
We use tried and tested suppliers for our raw materials, mostly UK based, who are, like us, members of accredited trade bodies. The Edinburgh Assay Office hallmarks our larger pieces using a hallmark they have designed especially for us. We also love collaborating with other artisan studios. For example, the glass we use in our Midnight and Dusk Pearl Heart Collections is made in Venice and shot through with silver and gold. It comes from a family of traditional glassblowers in Venice whom we visit whenever we can. If we see something beautiful and technically skilled and can incorporate it into our work, we will. It’s important to us that these skilled craftspeople survive.
What is your most treasured piece of jewellery?
It is a ring that my daughter now wears. It’s not particularly beautiful or especially well made. It’s not from a desirable or famous brand. It’s not particularly on trend but for my daughter and me it is our most precious piece because it belonged to my other grandmother –Agnes - who died before my daughter was born. Not many photographs of her exist. She wasn’t wealthy and the ring would not have cost much. The story of how she came by the ring has been forgotten but for my daughter, who studies history, the ring is a link with the past – her past, a very personal and precious symbol of life, love and continuity. In a funny way, it is why we do what we do at Lily Blanche.
Who are your clients?
All our customers are important to us and we have built up some lovely relationships with them over the years. We often hear the most wonderful stories – grooms who have presented their brides with one of our lockets full of pictures on their wedding day or older people who have been inspired to find a treasured charm bracelet.
We were absolutely delighted when Judy Murray chose to wear the Lily Blanche Memory Keeper Locket to a number of Andy’s main matches, including Wimbledon. Judy has bought a number of Lily Blanche pieces from our stockists and online, including the Lily Blanche Birkin Locket, she has tweeted to say Lily Blanche pieces are her favourite pieces. We met her recently and she told us she gets lots of compliments about the Memory Keeper Locket.
We feel our jewellery is special and we want people to feel special when they wear it. Much of our jewellery opens up and has a special secret inside, such as our Magical Charm Pendants. They are designed to surprise and delight and they do!
What have been the high points of your career?
We were delighted to be nominated in the highly prestigious Scottish Fashion Awards a couple of years ago and rubbed shoulders with Christopher Kane and Jonathan Saunders. Bringing on board some of our prominent stockists has also been great and being asked to pitch to Liberty London during their Open Call this year was such fun. We were delighted to get through. We’ve had a lot of support from Scottish Enterprise, the government agency, and knowing that they are backing us as a company with big potential has been incredible. But every day running your own business is pretty good, actually. It’s very fulfilling – even when the days are long and we are burning the midnight oil.
What drives you and what do you want to achieve with your work in the future? Do you feel like you have already ‘arrived’?
We want to keep fulfilling our customers’ expectations, designing great collections and growing the brands. I have lots of little milestones and goals for the company and it is great when we achieve these. I don’t think we’ll ever “arrive” – I hope not. We are enjoying the journey too much!
As many of you know Social Bite is our charity of the year. Those of you who have left a review of Lily Blanche on Trustpilot may know that we donate to Social Bite as a thank you for every review we receive. But we also support the charity in other ways too and donate throughout the year.
We all love a bargain. There is nothing nicer than finding something you've been hankering after on sale. I'm the same, but increasingly I've become sceptical about the endless discounting the big retailers engage in. It doesn't feel fair when brands boost the price by 25% just to be able to offer a 20% markdown to unsuspecting customers. The two for one offers in supermarkets are fuelling waste and endangering the health of our children. We've become so conditioned to gravitate towards the sale item, we don't always appreciate the psychological manipulation involved.
When I first established Lily Blanche I made a resolution. We would treat our customers the way I would want to be treated in an ideal world - with respect, with honesty and with integrity. I knew we wouldn't always get it right - and we haven't - but we would always strive to delight and surprise our customers and when we got something wrong, we would act as quickly as possible to make things better.
When it comes to pricing our jewellery, I have tried to keep our prices as low as possible for as long as possible. It is important to me that the price you see when you click on an item is the price you will pay at the check out. Everything is transparent. No hidden costs. I'd rather give all customers free chains, lovely packaging and free UK shipping than give random customers occasional discounts. I feel confident that our prices are lower than our competitors and our quality and craftsmanship is higher - often much higher. If we don't offer what a customer is looking for, we will point them to a competitor who does.
Having said that, I know that every pound or dollar or euro spent on a Lily Blanche product is hard earned and we are always grateful when customers choose to shop with us.
All VIP customers (those who sign up for the newsletter) receive a special discount code in the run up to Christmas and at another time of year. We also look to add value in other ways for VIP customers. They hear first if a highly popular, out of stock item is back and they hear about new collections and collaborations. If you would like to sign up to the newsletter, we promise not to bombard you with emails but we will try to make it worthwhile.
To become a Lily Blanche VIP, sign up here.
It's already mid-way through January 2017 but it has been so busy in the Lily Blanche studio that I haven't had time until now to reflect on the year that has just been. One thing is certain, however. It has been our most amazing and busiest year to date.
When we haven't been swooning over Rufus Sewell's world-weary Lord Melbourne or declaring "I am beyond peaches" with the back of our hand pressed melodramatically to our brow a la the wronged and dying Lady Flora, we've been star struck by the costumes and jewellery in the ITV mini-series Victoria. The imperious Jenna Coleman carries off tiara after tiara, Star of Empire brooches and gobstopper diamond necklaces with aplomb, not to mention the Imperial State Crown - all 7lbs, 6oz of it.