Have you seen the medieval combat snails fighting knights?” I ask Annoushka Ducas, the serial jewellery entrepreneur. She’s as confused as you are – I’m talking about the mysterious (and obscure) warrior-mollusc marginalia found in thirteenth and fourteenth century manuscripts.
I mention it because I’ve just been shown Ducas’s Women’s Metallic Snail from her Hoopla collection – a creature whose shell is 18 carat yellow gold with a black rhodium body, and which reminds me of the aforementioned snails. “Oh no. He’s a friendly, playful snail. He’s not an aggressor,” she confirms.
The Hoopla collection mixes metals – “not something you’ll see most fine jewellers do,” says Ducas. “But this is about making jewellery less formal. How can I dress up my jeans? For me, mixing metals has always been a way of doing that. I’ve always wanted to approach jewellery like fashion – take the reverence out of it. I have very few rules now.”
Ducas launched the eponymous Annoushka business in 2009 with her husband John Ayton. You may well have come across them beforehand: the pair founded Links of London in 1990, before selling it in 2006 to Greek firm Folli Follie. Afterwards, Ducas and Ayton “weren’t looking to go back into jewellery or set up a new business, but an opportunity fell onto our desks, as it were.” They bought family firm Pascal which, in a reversal of when they set up Links, gave them the ability to kick off from an established real estate base, adding that to the renown they had established in their own right.
“It was too tempting. I’d been working since I was 19, had continued designing my own jewellery after we sold Links, and my husband is very involved in Walpole Brands of Tomorrow [he founded and chairs it]. I’d find it so frustrating when I came across businesses where the founders hadn’t done something that seemed very obvious – but these weren’t my businesses to make those decisions for. I suppose I just find it extremely frustrating not to be in charge of my own destiny – so Pascal was too good an opportunity to pass up.”
Ducas’s inability to say no stems from her mother. “My father worked and lived in New York so I was brought up by her. She was Russian, and she had this incredible can-do mentality. No was not a word I was allowed to use. I was brought up to think that anything is possible. That’s been really important.”
Look at Ducas’s first collection – Drusy, a striking collection of contrasting black and gold pieces – and you’ll begin to get a feel for what this means. “I wanted to use onyx. My design director said ‘absolutely not, it looks like black diamond’, but I knew it was just a case of approaching it differently. Right at the beginning with Links, I’d say I wanted something to look a certain way, and a sample would appear that looked fine from the front but hideous at the side and back. So often I’d get ‘oh we can’t do that because of x.’”
It’s not that Ducas thinks adamantine positivity is a prerequisite for being an entrepreneur: “it’s just that I know no other way.”
Building the best
Now, having taken the business from £3m turnover to £10m, Annoushka has two London stores (Cadogan Gardens, South Molton Street) and one in the Manadarin Oriental, Hong Kong.
“Have you been to Hong Kong? The Mandarin is where everyone convenes – it’s a real hub. I lived there for three years and I met John there (it’s very unfair that I get all the press because I couldn’t have done any of this without him), so it has a really special place in my heart. We had seven or eight Links shops there, and I designed my engagement ring next to the Mandarin.”
Annoushka also has concessions in Harrods, Liberty London, Harvey Nicks and Selfridges. “We control all our distribution. There’s no wholesale, franchise, corporate, duty free... that makes life an awful lot simpler. I don’t have people saying ‘oh, you can’t launch that now’ or find myself having to wait for approval. That was a very conscious decision. Besides, the world has changed so much anyway.”
Much of the change the industry has experienced in the past two decades has, like everything else, been because of the web. Ducas whips out a kooky marketing tool she’s been working on: a sign language widget. You can send someone a video message signed out by hands bedecked in Annoushka. “The internet does affect how you design a bit – you have to think about how people are going to see it.” Crown and the limited edition Butterflies “work brilliantly” online, for example. Stacking some Crown rings on an unworthy finger, I can see why.
What would you be doing if not jewellery? I ask. “Oh, something to do with flowers. I had a period before starting Annoushka when I thought I would – you’ll still find me early in the morning at Covent Garden.” She adds that she’s a morning person anyway: after losing her mother, she took on her seafood supplier business, ferrying fish between Rye and London and leaving at 4.30am to do so. But doing something else now isn’t likely: “with Links, we always knew we were building to sell. I didn’t use my name and people never knew I was designing the jewellery. I didn’t want to be tied to it. But Annoushka is different.”
All that glitters
We turn to the mentoring work Ducas does – much of it with Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. “Three years is not a long time to teach someone how to make jewellery. It’s tough, and what I’m trying to do is help them to build their own design language.” Ducas explains that, for instance, a designer just starting out might have a design that works really well in silver, but the same one in gold would need the weight taken out of it to work as a product. “Making something once and making it 20 times are completely different things. But on the whole I focus less on the business side of things with them and more on developing their style.”
In September, the entrepreneur will launch her Russian collection. As yet un-named, “it’s inspired by my grandmother and will celebrate Russian design and architecture. It’ll be the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. My grandparents left in 1922; it’s a nod to my heritage.”
Eighty per cent of Ducas’s clients (spread across 48 countries) are women buying for themselves. “When we talk about the power of the internet, that to me is what it means.” Ducas says she’d “really encourage” women specifically to go and set up their own businesses.
“It’s far harder to go away and have children if you’re in a big corporation. As long as you’re happy to work hard, you’re passionate, and you can juggle... you’ll work all the hours god gives you, but you’ll have total control over your own destiny.”