In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
It's rare enough to turn a freelance gig into a full-time position — but to go from a freelancer to a head designer in just four years? That's takes skill. And when you manage to pull this off all before age 30, people are bound to take notice.
That's just the career path that Hollie Bonneville Barden sped through to become head designer at diamond giant De Beers. After graduating from London's prestigious Central Saint Martins with First Class Honors in jewelry design, Barden was approached by the company to submit some illustrations for a book. She hasn't stopped working for it since.
We hopped on the phone with Barden while she was in Hong Kong to find out what inspires her and how she turned a one-time freelancing opportunity into something much bigger.
Why were you first attracted to jewelry design and how did you pick Central Saint Martins?
My interest in jewelry design started at a young age without me really realizing — it's something I'm reflecting on now. I think those early memories of seeing my grandmother's jewelry and all those beautiful heirlooms from around the world must have sparked something in my imagination.
But then, taking it as a creative career is something that came around when I was about 18. I was doing an art foundation degree, which is something you do in England when you've finished your schooling, and I was really fascinated by the energy of the workshop, of making something three dimensional, whereas I'd been working in very two dimensional media before that. Jewelry really sparked an interest for me; it was a way for me to translate my ideas and my imagination into something three dimensional. I was also really drawn to the precious nature of jewelry and the sentimental value it holds, which probably does go back to listening to these amazing stories my grandmother used to tell me about her collection.
So when I completed this introduction to jewelry design at that stage, I went on to study at Central Saint Martins; it has a great reputation and it really did provide me with the environment to explore my ideas without any limitations. They really encourage innovation, pushing boundaries and finding your ambition within this scope, so it was really a great atmosphere for me to explore my own creativity. The rest is history, I guess.
What did you do when you finished?
I had been graduated for under a year. I was really exploring the industry and various different brands and I was doing a few different things, and at that point, I was approached by De Beers. They had been looking for illustrators, and they had been recommended myself from a previous tutor from Central Saint Martins — which is great, it really does remind you that you have to value these relationships that you build in the early stages of your career.
So I was given the opportunity to do a pitch to De Beers, and I think there were a few other people doing it. It was a very adrenaline-driven time; I think I got the call on a Friday, and I raced back to London from Wales, where I had been visiting family, with my portfolio. It was really quite an exciting time and they really loved the work that I was doing, and my ability, I think, to capture the story of the diamond in my own unique way, and how to illustrate what they were trying to tell around their diamonds.
Do you remember what you did for your submission?
Yes, it was a few things! I did some which were a bit more abstract trying to capture the light around diamonds, which is really important for De Beers. The other was more collection based, conceptualizing one of their collections called "Swan Lake," so it was drawing on the idea of the ballerina and capturing these very beautiful and elegant lines, which is then translated into the necklace.
How did you climb the ladder there once you got that job?
It's been four years now since I first started freelancing, so it's been in some ways a short journey, but it's also been a huge learning curve along the way. I was freelancing for a year, working for the book, working on various illustrations for the website. After a year of doing that with them, I had the opportunity to meet with François DeLage, who is the CEO of De Beers, and we just had a great connection immediately. He recognized my talent, I think, which was very lucky for me and he really wanted to start working with me on designs as opposed to the illustration work I'd been doing. They took me on board to work on Imaginary Nature, which was their first creative high jewelry gesture, I would say — it was eight unique pieces launched at Paris Couture week, and this was my first collection for De Beers, so I joined three years ago. After a year, I became head designer, and so in some ways it's been quite a rapid journey, but a really exciting one nonetheless.
I'm sure there is no typical day, but what do you do as head designer at a place like De Beers?
It's really varied, every day is quite different. I would say I work on an annual cycle, as you do in fashion or jewelry when you're launching collections, so in the early stages when I'm coming up with concepts and coming up with the initial ideas around a collection I'm very much based in my studio in London. It's a case of going to galleries, perhaps on some days, working a lot in my sketch book — in this moment, it's about exploring my creativity.
As my designs start to develop, I become more interactive with other members of the team, from our diamond sources to the workshops in Paris. This is really the development stage of launching a piece or a collection. Finally comes the moment where we unveil, and we're doing all the shows, so there's a lot of travel involved to the different markets and meeting press and clients. I think this is the dynamic nature of my role, which really attracts me to it and keeps me busy and it's an ever-changing kind of climate.
What kind of challenges do you face designing fine jewelry?
I think there's a style choice and how you approach it, design wise. Aesthetically, I think with fine jewelry and diamond jewelry, there's an ambition to create something with timeless elegance and timeless beauty. These are pieces which you hope will last forever, last as long as the diamonds themselves, and will be passed down through the family as heirlooms. Though I always try to create a twist in my designs, there is a timeless kind of style to them. On top of that, I think the parameters of the material vary depending on what you're using; I'm using platinum and diamonds so of course they come with their own limitations or liberations, you could say.
You're the youngest head designer ever for De Beers. How does that feel?
I feel privileged to have this opportunity and to be able to have so much creative freedom at this stage in my career. I know this is a very unique scenario, so I do feel really lucky. I guess I don't analyze it too much in that way; I'm just really enjoying the work that I'm doing for De Beers. I feel like I'm on a really good path working with them as head designer at this stage in my career.
It's obviously a really established company. What kind of inspiration are you able to mine from the archives?
That's the interesting relationship I have with De Beers: I'm a young head designer, I'm bringing innovation and freshness to a brand which has a lot of heritage. I think the marriage between my innovation and their heritage around diamonds is what gives us a unique kind of style and a unique selling point. But in terms of the archives, De Beers diamond jewelers' design side is just over 10 years old, and we've also gone through a lot of changes in terms of style; I'd say it's only been the last four, five years we've established our own creative identity and our own design voice.
So in terms of archives, there isn't much to draw [from] which I find relevant. What I do draw off of is the diamonds and the rich story around diamonds, and I do use that in my designs. What's interesting for me as a designer, and it's what makes it a really great place to be, is it's not about drawing off archives as it would be at say Cartier or Van Cleef. It's more about creating new stories.
What goals do you have in mind for the brand creatively?
There's still lots to do with them growing so much, and we're still establishing our voice, so we've done a lot in the past years that I've been there, diving into high jewelry. We introduced watches for the first time — well, returned to watches, rather, this year with the Aria collection. We'll continue to build off these platforms; we've got lots of exciting stuff coming up in high jewelry, in bridal and in watches in the next year or so. I think there's still lots of space for us to grow and develop and to find new ways to work with diamonds. We're a contemporary brand, so I think this gives us the ability to be very innovative in our field as well as embracing tradition and the classic codes of jewelry.
Do you work with engagement rings as well?
Yes, we're a very small team at De Beers, so I'm working on everything from solitaires and engagement rings — I launched my first engagement ring with De Beers, which was Caress, last year and it's doing very well — to the watches and the high jewelry. It's really diverse, and I think it's important [to] understand the different objectives depending on the categories; depending on the brief they're always very different, but still applying the same approaches in terms of inspiration and the DNA for the brand.
What advice would you give to a student like yourself, who had just graduated and was hoping to get into the business?
The industry is so rich and diverse that you really need to explore it first before you decide which area suits you. When I was graduating, I was much more a conceptual designer — I was more in the art/design field — and it took me a while to try out different things and finally discover that fine jewelry was my interest. Try out different brands or different techniques before you settle down into the area you think you'd like to work.
This interview has been edited and condensed.