How do you create a cult item, an instant bestseller that becomes a modern classic? A piece so simple and yet so special, which comes out of nowhere and becomes a de facto signifier of cool almost overnight? Whether you're a fashion label aiming for a revival or a fledgling company trying to make it big, if you want to strike gold it helps to come up with a singular and impactful item that comes to define a brand. It's also a catch-22, however, because you don't want to become a one-hit wonder and put all your eggs in a single basket.
When it comes to jewellery, a field less prone to trends than fashion, it gets even trickier because, after all, the essence of a jewel is its timeless appeal. Indeed, when you buy something of great value, it will probably stay in the family forever.
Gaia Repossi, the jewellery scion whose family business, Repossi, was founded in Turin, Italy, in 1920, knows a thing or two about cult items and tradition – especially breaking with it. The soft-spoken, low-key 28-year-old has led the company for the better part of her adult life and has managed to turn a niche jeweller beloved by the beau monde in Monte Carlo – where the company eventually moved and Gaia was born – into one of the coolest luxury labels.
It all began with a very simple piece that Repossi, a former student of fine arts and archaeology, conjured up at the beginning of her tenure. Inspired by the tribal tattoos of the Touareg Berbers, a nomad group from North Africa, the Berbere ring is a multi-line-motif piece that features up to 12 rows and covers the entire finger. Its sudden success made the brand relevant to a young crowd, who might not have been aware that the company is almost 100 years old.
The ring, which spawned a range of additional styles, such as ear cuffs, in materials including black gold and rose gold set with diamonds, has become a brand signature. Look, for example, at the hands of A-listers such as Natalie Massenet and Miroslava Duma or Rihanna and Beyoncé and you'll notice rows upon rows of perfectly symmetrical rings adorning their fingers. Cementing her role as one of the most talented jewellers in the industry, the young Repossi has since delivered a series of hits, including the White Noise and the Antifer collections.
“The Berbere was a very systematic approach,” she says when we meet her in her office overlooking Place Vendôme in Paris. “It's a very simple object and very strong with a tribal connotation. The inspiration comes from the Berber tribes of the desert and the black tattoos on their fingers, and it became a bestseller right away.
“Even though it's a very simple object, it has a strong identity. It has a 3-D design and it lends itself to modern times because nowadays girls don't look at jewels as an investment; they don't buy a big diamond ring and that's it. A piece like the Berbere is beyond its intrinsic value, even if it's very well made and very high quality. It's a cool and well-designed object and that's the appeal. It's not just an investment, and has a stronger identity than a solitaire, for example.”
It's true that the way women approach jewellery has radically changed over the last decade, thanks in no small part to jewellers such as Repossi, who realised early on that unlike the generation of their mothers, young women nowadays don't wait to receive an important jewel as a gift from their significant others, but instead buy it by themselves and for themselves, just as they would a dress or accessory. Repossi and a cohort of other young jewellers also led a shift in the aesthetic of the craft, moving away from bold statement pieces to stripped-down creations that look great with a leather jacket and skinny jeans. “The change happened naturally,” she explains. “If a woman nowadays covers herself in big stones it would look out of place with contemporary fashion.
“It's also a reflection of the times, because it wouldn't reflect who women are now, their spirit. For a while jewels were considered too frivolous, something you'd only wear to go out at night, so women of a certain intellectual or professional level wouldn't want to stand out and would avoid wearing jewels to show that they weren't seen displaying such superficial values.”
One result has been a great deal of excitement in this previously dormant field, with a growing number of young people – most of them female and with very good pedigrees – trying their hand at jewellery making. That's not the case for Repossi herself who, though not trained technically as a jeweller, inherited a company that's been operating for decades.
“I'm different because I come from a family company and I would never have done it if I didn't have the support of a family,” she says. “I can't even imagine the difficulty in starting from scratch, the amount of investment and effort, the risks ... You have to know about gems and stones, finding them and so on.
“It's a job that without the background of an established company is not easy. The design part can be easy, but the rest ... It's like haute couture: you need a base, a savoir-faire and not everyone can do it but we've been doing it for a century now.” Repossi sees her artist's training as a plus in the realm of jewellery, where things tend to be done according to centuries-old formulas and where designers and artisans alike are not keen on change. “I think that an outsider's point of view brings novelty and a critical eye,” she says. “The eye of an artist is always critical and about change with this idea of tabula rasa, and an ambition to always want to do more and better, but not in terms of merit or success but from a creative point of view.”
But what was the reaction of the Italian ateliers, where most of the pieces are made, when she brought such radical changes? “That's the most difficult part,” she says. “Because I have a very abstract vision when I design. When they say that it can't be done, I always ask them to come up with a new technique.
“Jewellers think a certain way and are used to setting stones and know what to expect because they're used to codes that have been established for decades. So when you ask them to change, it's a challenge for them. But I don't limit myself within these techniques. I always start with my designs and then we proceed to create 3-D models and renderings that are quite detailed, to the level of architecture, something not often done in jewellery.”
She adds that even though she went in with the idea of starting with a clean slate, she was careful not to alienate the workers who'd been at the company for so long. “My only fear when I started was to do tabula rasa in a company with such a long history, but I wasn't afraid. The ateliers were very enthusiastic and excited. They were very open to the change also, because I didn't come in saying, ‘Let's make everything on computers and with machines,' getting rid of people, which unfortunately is the new reality in many cases. They were happy that their metier could continue.”
Given the growth of the brand under the young Repossi's leadership, they should be more than happy. Even peers such as Alexander Wang and Joseph Altuzarra, both darlings of the New York fashion scene, were not immune to her cool factor, calling in for early collaborations that helped anoint Repossi as the cool girl's jeweller, able to deliver pieces on a par with the most revered Place Vendôme houses, but with an edge that makes them stand out.
Repossi, who's also celebrated for her personal look – a super clean and sleek combination of separates from labels such as Céline, Louis Vuitton and more recently Loewe – can be credited with injecting a dose of much-needed attitude into the staid realm of high jewellery. Yet she's unafraid to say, “I'm not someone who covers herself in jewellery.” It may come across as a shock given her position, but when you look at her clad in a simple white shirt and just a hint of a Berbere ear cuff showing behind her undone hair, you realise that all you need to make an impact is one key piece – it just has to be the right one.