x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

'Every collection is a journey'

Bea Valdes, the internationally renowned jewellery designer from Manila, Philippines, talks about her life in fashion.

Thew jewellery designer Bea Valdes in her Manila studio.
Thew jewellery designer Bea Valdes in her Manila studio.

Bea Valdes, the internationally renowned jewellery designer from Manila, Philippines, talks about her life in fashion. Looking back, I realise that there are two basic inspiration threads that continue to weave my story together. The first would be textiles, specifically antique embroidery. Growing up in the Philippines, I used to - and continue to - peruse my grandmother's mantels (tablecloths) and traditional piña dresses. Piña is a fabric made from pineapple fibre that's indigenous to the Philippines, and a single piece of the woven fabric would take a group of women months to finish. Even during my early days as an interior designer, I would spend hours poring over the different fabrics, discovering the nuances in colour, variances in quality and the depth of each design.

Another early fascination for me was jewellery. My family has been in the fine jewellery trade for three generations, so I have always been exposed to diamonds and other precious stones. In my work today, I use semi-precious stones and crystals, perhaps in an attempt to recreate that sparkle from my memory. These two separate aspects epitomise what I do: handcrafted jewelled pieces. In the early months of 2005, outfitted with a small workshop of eight women, I created a collection of one-of-a-kind, hand-beaded bags. Each piece took a month to complete and over 150 hours to finish. With the collection ready, and with the endorsement of the American designer Thakoon and his business partner, Maria Borromeo, we made an appointment to see the accessories director at US Vogue. I was told that she could spare us 20 minutes. We immediately flew to New York and in a whirlwind of a week, my handbags were photographed by the magazine, calls were made, orders started to pour in and in June of the same year, the collection was dubbed by the magazine as "this season's must-have evening bags". That was our first breakthrough moment.

As I am based in the Philippines, there was real excitement and interest here over that event. One of the local magazines decided to cover my story. The stylist at the shoot suggested that I create something special to wear for the cover of the magazine. Knowing my family history in the fine-jewellery trade, he strongly encouraged me not to wear diamonds. This is the story of how our famous Venom necklace came about. I had wanted to create something that had the impact of substantial jewellery, something with the same weight but of an entirely different sparkle to that of diamonds. I sought to create the very antithesis of fine jewellery while attempting to capture the drama of it. The Venom necklace is made with semi-precious onyx and black agate, both matte, and adorned with jet crystals and beads. I made two necklaces for that same local shoot. The other one was called Envie. It was also a large statement piece, a multi-pendant necklace festooned with turquoise, crystals and beads.

Unsure of what to do with these new pieces, I decided to send them to the same writer at Vogue to ask for her advice. For a second time, the two necklaces were immediately photographed and then featured shortly after in the December 2005 issue of Vogue. I believe at the time, there were not as many statement pieces like mine as you see today, and the idea of what jewellery was and what it could be was so much more limited.

Because I grew up in the presence of precious stones, I have always had the notion that if you cannot wear something out, then you cannot really enjoy it - I believe that even the precious should play. So I am truly benefiting from and enjoying the cross-pollination that has occurred between fashion and jewellery. For me, a collection has always suggested a journey. I do not have the usual mood board or tear sheets as references. What I have is a cacophony of odd bits strewn across a landscape of multiple tables - an assortment of shells, stones, a medley of wires, perhaps an antique brooch, some wood, a bit of wax, definitely vintage feathers, scattered Christmas ornaments and a profusion of semi-precious stone and ribbons lying about.

I believe this is the reason that I am constantly searching out new materials and vintage items. I do not draw my ideas any more as I find this process to be static and our pieces really evolve as they are sewn. I create minute swatches of embroidery and the real mood and feel of the collection is coaxed into existence piece by piece. I went to the University of the Philippines in Diliman. In my first year at the college, I took creative writing. Shortly after, I decided to shift courses and went on to take industrial design at the College of Fine Arts. My educational background has defined what I love to do: to tell a story and build things. Perhaps this is why I still seem surprised to be in the fashion industry, which is dictated by flux. My experiences have grounded my belief that things and objects should have long and meaningful lifespans. I think women should be guided by seasonless pieces that do not identify just a moment in time, but define who they are.