Alex Monroe is a household name in the world of jewellery, yet endearingly says he doesn’t feel “part of the industry”. And he isn’t – not in the traditional cloak-and-dagger trading diamonds in Hatton Garden, Guy Ritchie kind of way – instead making beautiful, affordable things for people to wear and love.
“At art school, they push you towards putting things in a gallery or making things in quite a self-absorbed way. I realised pretty early I wanted to make something for people to wear, to have that conversation, that exchange of ideas.” Starting his career as “one of those kids who ended up in the art room, because I was rubbish at everything else”, Alex Monroe did the opposite of what you’re supposed to and “closed every door until jewellery was the only thing left. It was a sequence of everything you tell your kids not to do.” Fate or happy accident, the chain of events leading up to his training at the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art turned out to be ideal for the boy from Suffolk who loved building motorbikes as much as making his own clothes.
“I’d go into town in pink PVC trousers and get thumped in the face”, he says, explaining why he left Suffolk, London standing out as the only option for creative – and commercial – freedom. “I wanted to sell across the whole world and London is one of the few great world cities.” This decision paid off, as his unique combination of down to earth approach and wearable design collided with a gap in the jewellery market at the time:
“I spent four years at university getting a really good training for a skill; if you did that in any other discipline you’d be well rewarded so I’ve always thought there’s no shame in wanting to earn a living. While I was at university in the 80s there was Bond Street which was really expensive, high street jewellery on faded red turntables and then a ball of barbed wire hanging in a gallery called neckpiece no. 157.”
This was a time of change for fashion jewellery; hip hop had exploded bringing layered chains with it, Madonna was wearing catholic jewellery in her videos and the industry was opening up. Alex Monroe jewellery tapped into the energy of the era, bringing high end craftsmanship to the middle market: “When I started there wasn’t really anyone doing what I was doing, making affordable fashion jewellery using the kind of techniques you’d use for making expensive pieces: proper handmaking and good materials.”
Starting with these principles the brand grew into a global success, and is now run out of a beautifully on brand boutique-cum-atelier in Bermondsey. A team of craftspeople help edit each collection down to the curated story we see on the shelves: a process which starts with a theme or a meaning and ends with an edited narrative.
Placing this significance on jewellery comes naturally when creating for other people, but he doesn’t wear a scrap of jewellery himself, “There’s no jewellery in my family, I don’t wear a bit of it! There isn’t even an object like a penknife.” It’s perhaps this lack of personal preoccupation with jewellery which makes him so adept at noticing customers’ needs and wants:
“Sometimes you see jewellery and it’s just disrespecting people because you’re not crediting them with the sense to know what’s really nice and what isn’t. That’s craftsmanship, the other part is the customer service; some businesses look at it down the wrong end of the telescope. It’s always, totally, all about the customer – everything focuses on that person unwrapping their gift or purchase.”
It hasn’t always been plain sailing – followers of the brand will no doubt be familiar with the Bumblebee necklace, a signature style for Alex Monroe, “I showed [the necklace] to my Japanese clients, and the first lady who saw it threw it down in disgust. I thought we were bankrupt”, he says, going on to explain how the Sienna Miller/Vogue effect turned the style into the runaway success it is today. Catching the attention of the fashion press is only part of the story; the last 25 years have been “a marathon… basically a steady slog.” The hard work has allowed Monroe to add more strings to his creative bow, including writing a book, Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making and even designing a print for Liberty Art Fabrics’ Spring/Summer 2015 collection:
“Liberty has given me so much help and support, the marriage of the brands is just great. We call it our flagship store! My favourite part of the [print design] process was when Emma [Mawston] said ‘oh we’ve just tweaked it a bit’, as much as I can take credit it’s seeing it at the end that makes it so nice.”
Another plan for the designer’s future is to do his bit for British trade, bringing jewellery manufacture to the heart of London. Having totally designed and built his Bermondsey studio, the next step is to develop a property in Tower Bridge and establish a workshop where all his designs will be handmade. A fitting place to champion the individual, personal approach he takes to designing and making: “I never buy jewellery, my wife and kids get things that I make. I don’t give them advice about buying jewellery because there are no rules. It’s all about whatever floats your boat! You can’t tell people, either they get it or they don’t.”
Luckily, Alex Monroe is nowhere near short of people who get it. . .