There’s a technical hitch when I call Stephen Webster, jeweller to the stars, multi-award winner and since 2008 creative director at Garrard, the world’s oldest supplier of glittering delights. When I get through, I explain that I’m late due to tape recorder problems. “You wanna get yourself an old reel-to-reel, an analogue,” says a voice that is the spit of David Essex in Stardust.
I’ve got an analogue, I assure him. “What’s wrong with it then, for God’s sake?” A laugh. “Are you using one of those microphones King George VI made his speeches into? Because those were made by Garrard, and we’ve got the original in our museum.”
In the staid waters of the high-class jewellery world, someone has been rocking the boat. A buccaneer has roared in with startling, seductive new ideas, and taken the place by storm. Webster’s finely crafted, gothic-style pieces mix decadence, debauchery and a smidge of rock’n’roll wit. His style, all glittering beetle earrings, dagger pendants with ruby drops of blood and spindly spider bracelets, tends to what he calls ‘the dark side’.
Even today I get excited about a gem if I think I’ve got something no one else has
For the launch of his Jewels Verne collection – exquisite fishtail earrings, emerald-studded stingrays – Kate Moss arrived with an articulated lobster in brown diamonds and coral entwined about her finger.
And those launches? Forget lily-livered champagne sipping. These are bumper bashes with outfits from Roxy Music to alt-rockers Band of Skulls shipped across the globe to provide deafening light entertainment.
In the midst of it all is the piratical Webster, 52. Raffish and tattooed, with curling black hair, he’s a cross between Johnny Depp and a wilder Hugh Grant. It’s a rock star charisma that only makes the jewellery more desirable.
His dedicated fan base includes Anne Hathaway, Mickey Rourke, Cameron Diaz and Madonna, and he’s sold in over 200 outlets, with seven international boutiques from Beverly Hills to St Petersburg.
The piece de resistance is his Mayfair flagship store, with its black and gold Dickensian shopfront and, some way across the deep pile carpet, six-metre central showcase, custom-built to resemble a snake’s spine.
‘I’d never thought about jewellery’
What the glitz perhaps obscures is that Webster has reached this position through obsessive perfectionism. He was born in 1959 in Gravesend, Kent, where his father Tom was a draughtsman on the estuary “for a company that made pumps”. A rueful chuckle: “He hated his job.”
Webster attended the local grammar school and, good at art, was told at 16 that he, too, might be able to get a draughtsman’s job in the dockyard. Instead, he took himself to Medway College, intending to study fashion design. One day of it was enough: “It was all girls and sewing machines!”
Instead, he found the jewellery course. “Oh my God. I’d never thought about jewellery, but it was a combination of something I could understand, with a workshop, tools, chemicals and flames, and then this beautiful, polished, wonderful thing that came out of it all.
“That was it for me. It was no longer about drawing, it was about the craftsmanship involved in this business. I spent the next ten years making myself the best craftsman I could be, constantly challenging myself with what I could do.”
Jewellery may be small, I say, but you notice if it’s not right. “You do. And as a jeweller I can tell you, a small hole you can’t pick up with the naked eye will ruin your day. I mean, devastating.” He sounds wracked.
“Any craftsman who cares will say the same. But anything where you need magnification – well, then the world you operate in is no longer part of the real world. Your hands and your work look massive, when of course the piece is tiny.”
A surreal, Alice in Wonderland existence. “That’s why the best jewellery is expensive: because it’s exquisitely made,” says Webster.
The Indiana Jones of gems
After college, he worked for a Hatton Garden firm, for designer jewellers, and then met a Canadian gemologist who flew him out to Banff (“I’d never even been on a plane”) to make jewellery for the affluent ski crowd.
His mentor, a gem adventurer, criss-crossed the world in search of exotic stones with names like superheroes: tanzanite, amazonite. “He would sit with the mujahideen, travel to Africa, South America, Pakistan and come back with amazing gems. It was very Indiana Jones.”
It was a baptism of fire, as uncut semi-precious stones tumbled into Webster’s hands. “But I pulled it off. In the end, I couldn’t think of jewellery any other way than built around these stunning things. And that defined my style. I loved them.”
You can hear he still does. “Even today I get excited about a gem if I think I’ve got something no one else has.” He travels to seek them out himself now, and has become a spokesman for fair trade gold and regulated mining conditions.
It was when the gemologist moved to Santa Barbara, California, that Webster’s life really began to change. “Elizabeth Taylor lived there, and she saw this ring, a lavender chalcedony in rose gold that I’d designed and made myself.” The lavender-eyed Taylor adored it, commissioning more. Then Michael Douglas came by, and Goldie Hawn…
London and Madonna
But homesickness got the better of him. Expensively divorced from his first wife Kathy, with whom he has a daughter, Amy, Webster moved in 1990 into a tiny flat in the Holloway Road and, unknown in the UK, started from scratch.
Then, in 1998, three things happened. Garrard put on Webster’s first one-man show. Madonna was pictured (with Guy Ritchie) in the Daily Mirror wearing one of Webster’s stunning Crystal Haze bling rings. And he met his current wife, St Petersburg-born Assia Vatnitsky. “I’d never met a Russian, and she’s incredible. Her energy is extraordinary, and it brought something new out in me.”
The result was a speedball of confidence, and Webster stepped out of the workshop and into the limelight, fronting his brand with the drama and personality of a younger Keith Richards.
But now he has to dash (“I’m sorry! Lunch with Tracey Emin!”) so I put my last few questions to the husky-voice Assia. Your husband is a driven man. How do you relax?
“That’s a tough one, but I’ve made it clear that every Friday, we drive down to our house in Kent. It’s right on the cliff, with a distant view of France. We play badminton, play tennis, totally chill out.
“But sometimes it’s hard to get Stephen there. I’m 13 years younger than him and I cannot keep up – the man’s got the stamina of God knows what!”
Finally, is there one piece he’s made for you that you particularly treasure? “Oh yes. It’s a locket that looks almost Victorian, set with blue sapphires and black diamonds. When you open it up, there’s a tiny portrait of our daughter, Nika. This is definitely my favourite piece.” An Eartha Kitt laugh. “And believe me, I have a lot.”
Video: Stephen Webster talks about the Highwayman collection