Jewelry has always been in Susana Martins’ blood. Born and raised in northern Portugal in an area with a rich goldsmithing history, she trained as a goldsmith and stone-setter before pursuing a post-graduate diploma in design alongside gemology and diamond grading qualifications.
Fast forward a few years, and today her design work is exhibited internationally, in galleries from London to New York, and includes a permanent jeweled sculpture in the Jaguar Lounge at the Automobile Museum in Malaga, Spain.
After moving to Dubai as Chief Creative Director of a prominent regional jewelry brand, Martins embarked on an entrepreneurial journey of her own in 2016 by starting a fine jewelry workshop and studio called The Jewel Teller, alongside her co-founders Hayan Sheakh Othman and Ahmad Alqaz Alfalasi.
In this interview, The Jewel Teller Co-founder and Creative Director Susana Martins tells Tharawat Magazine about how her unique enterprise is working to increase appreciation for the art and craftsmanship of jewelry making.
Brought to you in partnership with Alserkal Avenue.
Why are you passionate about jewelry and what motivated you to start your own brand?
Through my training and professional experience, I have a deep respect and appreciation for the craftsmanship underlying the creation of fine jewelry. To have a true knowledge of the design process you need to have an understanding of numerous disciplines – for example, art, maths, science and engineering – to produce wearable pieces that are of exceptional quality yet made within budget.
The idea of The Jewel Teller grew from this understanding, and I wanted to create a space where we could share the full jewelry journey, from the initial design through to the finished article. The concept was developed so that our customers and clients can see their jewelry designs sketched, watch the pieces being made, and learn about the stones, materials and historical inspiration behind them – all in one space.
What is the story of how The Jewel Teller went from idea to reality?
When I began working as Creative Director for a jewelry brand in Dubai, I immediately noticed a gap between the design and production stages of the jewels; I had to travel twenty minutes each way from the office to the workshop. The initial idea came from the fact I wanted greater creative control over the making of the pieces and this quickly developed into the vision of The Jewel Teller.
I met my co-founder Hayan Sheakh Othman through a work project and explained my idea to him. He then introduced me to our investor Ahmad Alqaz Alfalasi, and they both believed in the concept. Together, the three of us have combined our individual experience and resources to make The Jewel Teller possible.
If you were to pitch what The Jewel Teller has become today, what would you say?
The Jewel Teller is a design incubator – a 360-degree experience that incorporates the three core concepts of jewelry design in a single space. The initial ideas of the jewels are created in the design studio, which is then brought to life in the workshop and finally showcased in the main gallery. Visitors are invited to learn about their jewelry by seeing any stage of its creative journey and are invited to a series of educational events and designer pop-up shows we regularly host at The Jewel Teller. This is done in the setting of Alserkal Avenue, Dubai’s premier arts hub, exemplifying the role of jewelry design as an art form.
What is unique about your enterprise that makes it different from other jewelers?
Each step of the story is here. We currently showcase five jewelry collections within The Jewel Teller’s portfolio, with every piece being made from start to finish on-site. Designs are sketched, materials are sourced, gems are cut, and the pieces are cast and polished – all within this single space. I oversee every stage of the process – the road is rarely straightforward, and I am known for pushing my craftsmen and machines to the limits of their technical capabilities to create the most innovative fine jewelry – I rarely accept no for an answer!
The gallery space is also used to display the work of emerging jewelry artists and holds educational events, such as diamond and gemstone seminars in partnership with the Gemological Institute of America. Initiatives such as this support the regional jewelry industry and involve the customers too. I want people to understand the language and the nuances of jewelry, for example, realising why one stone may cost more than another, and thereby develop a more personal and knowledgeable relationship with their collection.
Why was it important to create such a space when many other jewelry stores simply focus on exhibiting their collections?
I want clients to feel involved with the design evolution of their jewels – whether they are acquired from the existing collections of The Jewel Teller, or specially commissioned. This concept harks back to a bygone era of fine jewelry, which was handmade and personalised. In 1920s France you didn’t simply purchase an industrially made finished piece like most consumers do today – you could sit down with a jeweler at Cartier, Boucheron or Van Cleef, describe the jewel you wanted, and see it being sketched and created. Clients had a personal relationship with their jewelry, and this is an approach I want to recreate at The Jewel Teller that begins in the design studio.
In the workshop visitors can experience the number of hours that go into creating these pieces and the skills required to produce details such as a pavé-setting or a delicate prong to hold a diamond – the role of the craftsman is elevated to artist. Therefore collectors can appreciate the journey their jewel has undertaken, rather than simply purchasing it at its end.
What is your approach when designing a new piece of jewelry and where do you draw inspiration from?
There is a permanent mood board in my design studio, but I usually draw my initial inspiration for a jewel from a gemstone or material such as enamel. I then physically sketch the design before the workshop begins creating the jewel’s prototype in materials such as silver or resin. When we are happy with the wearability of the piece, we then cast the actual model and prepare it for the setting of the gemstones and the final polishing.
It is rarely a straight path from the initial design to the finished piece – there are often adjustments to be made to ensure the jewel is wearable and practical. For example, one design for a bracelet had cabochon-cut rubies the whole way around, but we soon realised this would be too delicate for the underside of the wrist, which often knocks other objects, and we reduced the rubies by half.
The inspiration for the designs come from a variety of historical periods – for example, I am particularly passionate about the Art Deco period with its range of exotic influences, and the glamour of the 1940s and 50s when ladies wore jewelry for most occasions. I then incorporate contemporary fashions and trends that I track via exhibitions, magazines, books and social media – for example, adding a velvet ribbon flourish to a diamond choker that is inspired by 19th-century velvet and diamond necklaces.
What makes a great piece of jewelry? What advice do you have for those looking to enhance their own collections?
A great piece of jewelry should be a conversation starter. If someone approaches you and compliments you on your earrings, or wants to try on your bracelet, it fosters a connection and invites a story. This is why the approach of The Jewel Teller is so important – when you receive these compliments, you can tell the story of how the jewel was made, what the gems are, and what inspired its design.
When clients come to me looking to enhance their collections, I ask for their time – each client is so different, and therefore all collections will be individual. I want to know them, to understand what they like – therefore when I am sourcing materials for new collections or commissions, I already have the customer in mind. I am now friends with a number of my clients due to this process, which is again reminiscent of past jewelry masters; Louis Cartier, for example, traveled the world to spend time with his clients – he was a great socialiser!
As a co-founder, what were the greatest ups and downs you faced as an entrepreneur and what have you learned from the experience?
The idea of The Jewel Teller was initially met with some resistance due to its unique concept. The project was shocking for people – they couldn’t understand why jewels would be showcased in a gallery that included a workshop, and asked me why I didn’t just set it up in a mall.
The UAE business laws were also a challenge, again due to the uniqueness of The Jewel Teller and the need to effectively combine three business licenses in one. There is also the ongoing challenge of running the business as a woman – there are far too few women in the international jewelry industry at a senior level, and I hope my role with The Jewel Teller inspires others to pursue similar ventures.
However, I love that as an entrepreneur I call the shots – I now have complete artistic freedom and am creating the type of fine jewelry I have always wanted to. My plans for The Jewel Teller are constantly developing – the brand and concept are growing and beginning to be recognised on an international level.
Do you have any tips for success that you wish to share with other business leaders and entrepreneurs looking to grow their companies?
It sounds very cliché, but I’d say: Don’t quit. I still have to remind myself of this today, as the road is rocky and the journey can be challenging. However, I believe that if you truly believe in your idea and are passionate then anything is possible; when I started out as a jewelry designer over twenty years ago, I was told by many people that I could never make a living from this.
Be selective with who you choose as your opinion leaders – everyone will have feedback to give but there are only a handful of people who have the right background and experience to provide valuable advice. Make sure to dedicate time to and listen to your customers, because it is important to understand what they actually want so that you can deliver.
On a final note, make sure you carve out time for yourself no matter how busy you are, and as for your company… constantly watch your budget!