Creating the Heirlooms of Tomorrow

Gillian Crawford talks ancient history, love and contemporary jewellery. 

It’s often said that women are excellent multitaskers, so it comes as no surprise to learn that Gillian Crawford has managed to successfully combine three entirely different careers and excel in each simultaneously. As the founder and creative director of Lily Blanche jewellery, a trained archaeologist and features writer for The Times, she certainly debunks the myth that you can’t ‘have it all’. Named after her highly creative, Isle of Skye dwelling grandmother, Lily Blanche Sheridan, Gillian’s jewellery business represents her passion for storytelling, blended with an appreciation of the beauty of ancient heirlooms. The brand’s most popular design – the six photo Memory Keeper Locket, has been championed by the likes of Judy Murray and actress Hermione Norris, due no doubt, to our unfailing human instinct to wear precious, durable time capsules to mark life’s most memorable life events. We spoke to Gillian about how she draws upon her background in archaeology to create unique and beautiful pieces that unite the past, present and future.

You studied archaeology at university. What drew you to the subject and how can findings from the past inform how we live today?

I've always been fascinated by prehistory – it allows you to take a really long perspective, which I find helpful. I was able to specialise in the iron age in Central and Mediterranean Europe which was when many beautiful pieces were made, and I was able to study and try out traditional techniques and materials. I cannot begin to describe the thrill of finding a piece of jewellery on an archaeological excavation and being the first person to look at something for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. There is something incredibly tactile and sensory about learning about the past from the artefacts and structures left behind by our ancestors. It has certainly played a big part in my inspiration for Lily Blanche.

It’s been said that jewellery connects us to our own history. You chose to pair jewellery design with your background studying ancient civilisations – why do you think it’s a recipe that works so well?

Philip Larkin wrote in ‘An Arundel Tomb’, "What will remain of us is love," and that is true – but also what will remain of us is jewellery. Jewellery connects us with the past in such an individual and intimate way. Inheriting jewellery, even if it is not particularly to your taste or if it has gone out of fashion, is such a humbling thing. A piece can be worn every day by women of different generations and takes on the patina of the life of the wearer. When it comes down the generations to you, it’s already pre-loaded with sentiment and meaning and that is something we aim for when we create pieces at Lily Blanche. There is a reason we mark important life events with jewellery and this is because of its endurance and durability. We want the occasions and people who matter to us to be represented, not by something ephemeral, but by something precious and permanent.

Can you tell us about how & why you developed your Memory Keeper lockets idea?

For me, lockets are the most sentimental pieces of jewellery. What can be more romantic and meaningful than keeping a picture of your loved ones close to your heart? Historically, they were worn by men - because men travelled and traditionally women didn't - and contained portraits of their fiancée. There are lots of historical references to people finding comfort and solace in difficult times in the portrait in their locket. I wanted to recreate that sense of intimacy and hidden meaning in my jewellery. Memories are more valuable than diamonds and what makes Lily Blanche lockets precious are not just the silver, gold and precious gemstones we use but the photographs inside them. We developed our six photo Memory Keeper Locket to be a real statement piece with a strong design ethos. We've invented a clever technique of inserting the photos to give great clarity at small-scale, so the results are stunning. It’s our most expensive piece of jewellery but it is also our bestseller.

Is there any advice you could give to other women who are embarking on a journey of self-employment – or juggling with an established career and eager to start something new? How do you keep yourself motivated with so much going on?

It's about keeping focused and keeping your eye on the main objective. It's really important to set and celebrate small goals and targets. Take a moment to see how far you've come, and you’ll find that without even noticing, you’ve breezed through doors which you once prayed would open. It also really helps to meet up with other like-minded entrepreneurs who are on a similar journey. I now have a great team in my studio and as an ambassador for Women's Enterprise Scotland and vice chair of the British Association of Women Entrepreneurs in Scotland, I have quite a few events and meetings to attend. I find that when everything is busy, I’ll occasionally crave a few hours of solitude, so I can really focus on something. I sometimes sneak into the studio at night to complete a task I know will be hard to focus on during the day, when everyone else is about. All in all, I love a challenge, and being stretched to my full potential is a fantastic way to learn. I’m never bored and can’t ever imagine retiring!

As a designer yourself, what are your thoughts on the provenance of things you buy? Do you gravitate towards ethically made goods?

I think it’s very important. Having said that, a good designer will know how to spot and get the best out of artisan craftsmen and women from other countries. We make a lot of our Lily Blanche jewellery in our Scottish studio but will work with Venetian craftsman on a particular component where they have a certain expertise which we can't get anywhere else. In this case, the ability to put gold and silver through glass to make the hearts for our Pearl Heart collection. It is helpful to be able to go to the right people for the right skill set and not to be too prescriptive, so I am all in favour of British design and manufacture where possible and a bit of flair from elsewhere when necessary. The really important person in it all is the designer and her attention to detail. Quality is a must whether it is made here or elsewhere.

In a world fixated with quantity over quality, your brand message seems very much in line with Sarah Haran’s alternative manifesto that aims to help customers understand the ethical benefits of buying something beautifully made that will last. What drew you to Sarah’s designs?

I’m a big fan of the Dahlia handbag – it’s understated British luxury at its best! I really do appreciate the thought and work that’s gone into engineering one piece with endless permutations. I love the fact that I can create a wide range of looks with my clip-on Ivy, so these days I never forget to take an evening bag with me when I’m travelling. The Sarah Haran bags will outlive all my others because of their versatility and quality, so much so, that my daughters' already have their eye on them, so they’ll be in circulation for a long time. Also, my previous handbags often became "travelling trashcans" (in the words of my husband) but this doesn't happen with the Dahlia because there is a space for everything, so I automatically put items in their right pocket. When I’m hopping between meeting and travelling to different cities, the pockets, key chain and design proportions make my life easier. I think Sarah Haran bags will become collectable classics and may prove to be a very shrewd investment down the line. I can say without hesitation, it’s the best bag I’ve ever had.