Clara Francis Necklace by Rebecca May Illustration.
Clara Francis and I first spoke about doing an interview when she had just given birth to her youngest and I was pregnant with Snarfle… but somehow life as a new mum got in the way and it’s only now, two years later, that I have finally been able to catch up with this super talented jewellery designer. Clara is self taught in the virtually lost art of beading, producing beautifully intricate but bold pieces that seem to take on a life of their own. Here she talks candidly about the swap from acting to making, how motherhood has changed her life, and her excitement about the production of a new bridal collection. She’s a total inspiration.
Clara Francis by N. Sukandiwirya.
Can you tell us a little about your early life, where did you grow up and what was it like?
I was born in miserable suburb of North West London in a street right next door to Brent Cross Shopping Centre. Spent the majority of my youth there pilfering and gobbing on peoples heads walking on the floor below… went to the local comprehensive where I proceeded to only be interested in art and squandered what little brain I had. Decided pretty early on that I wanted to be an actress and went to The Central School of Speech and Drama and studied there for three years. During my 20′s I worked pretty much solidly as an actress, mainly theatre and a little bit of tv and film. But I found the periods of unemployment deeply depressing and hated that I was solely reliant on other people to give me work. I was too thin skinned to be an actress…
All photography of model wearing Clara Francis jewellery by Matilda Hill Jenkins.
What were the first crafts you got involved with as a child in the 80s?
My cousin Marion in Paris has a jewellery business called Françoise Montagne and she would send me over boxes of these beautiful vintage French beads – all the ones lying about in her studio that she didn’t need anymore… how lucky was I? So I would fashion my own jewellery even then. Also my mum was very crafty and taught me to knit and crochet very young. She was always making me clothes and I remember girls laughing at me on the bus on the way to school in my very obvious home knit jumper and scarf combo… this was the 80’s and it was all about the label and the bling!!!
Clara Francis necklace by Lucy Eves.
Where and how did you first discover the art of beadwork?
In the bead shop in Kentish Town I saw racks of tiny japanese glass beads in hundreds of incredible colours and finishes. I enquired as to what one does with them and then went to the library and took out any book I could find on beadweaving and taught myself. Once I had taught myself the basic beading stitches I decided I wanted to created my own rather than work with other peoples’ designs. I absolutely love blending all the colours together… it’s like painting with beads.
Clara Francis by Stella Pong.
What experience did you have of market stalls before you set up shop in Spitalfields market?
My step father had market stalls all over London selling make up and cosmetics and often things that fell off the back of a lorry (once we had to sell 3 legged tights and umbrellas that you wore on your head!??) so I would work for him at Wembley Market every Sunday all through my teenage years. I couldn’t have hated it more but in retrospect I feel it taught me loads about how to sell to the public, people skills and even how to dress for cold weather!!! And most importantly I learnt the art of a good display… his mantra was ‘flash means cash‘!!!
Clara Francis by Maia Fjord.
How did the switch from acting to jewellery designer happen?
I always carried on crafting and decided that in between acting jobs rather than work in a call centre I would see if I could earn some money making and selling jewellery. I made a small collection and took it to the buyer at Harvey Nichols… and they bought everything I had there and then. I then got my stall at Spitalfields market which I had for about 8 years, and as my jewellery got more popular my acting career got LESS popular so I decided to knock the acting on the head. This was also around the time my partner and I decided to start a family.
How does each design evolve?
I’m always ALWAYS thinking about jewellery and beads and all the possibilities that go with them. When I get an idea I sit in my studio and just play around with beads and various stitches (flat and three dimensional) until I get the effect I had pictured in my head. Some pieces will take weeks to get right as the beading process itself is so slow. I can spend an entire week making something and it’s only when I finish it and take a step back that I realise it hasn’t worked, so I have to start all over again.
I believe you recently made your own bridal headpiece, what did it look like and where did the inspiration come from?
Yes, I got married a couple of months ago. I knew that I wanted to make my own headpiece and five more for my little bridesmaids. I based my entire wedding on these incredible gold glitter brogues I found for all the bridesmaids AND the film Paper Moon which I’m currently obsessed with. So a celestial theme appeared quite organically. I beaded with 24 carat gold plated beads to make 3D stars for my headdress and flat stars for the girls’ ones. I also beaded wedding favours for all my female guests; a beaded butterfly ring or brooch or forget-me-not flower. It was a massive labour of love but worth it whan I saw everyone wildly dancing and butterflies and bees sparkling on everyones fingers and lapels. (A: what a beautiful beautiful idea!)
Clara Francis by Melissa Angelik.
How did the experience of becoming a mother affect your business?
I had my two girls, Bessie and Maude very close together and continued to build my business whilst changing nappies and breastfeeding, doing lots of wholesale. I exhibited at LFW, selling all over the world particularly in the US, Japan and Korea… plus I was working freelance for Topshop and River Island making jewellery ranges for them. I collaborated with Tracey Boyd for a season plus I did a collaboration with the V&A museum.
In January 2011 Maude died very suddenly from a flu virus and my whole life changed in that instant. I couldn’t work for a long time. Simply couldn’t concentrate on anything. My perspective on life changed completely, and when I did tentatively start working again after many months it was in a very different way to the way I worked before. The creation of two collections a year and everything that went with it was too demanding… I live more simply now. I want to keep my business small and manageable and not travel too much. I want to take and collect my daughter from school most days. I’m so much less ambitious. I have also had another child since losing Maude: my son Gilbert who has just turned 2. It is such a joy to be with him everyday and watch him grow, and I want to savour every second of him as before I know it he will be at school…
How do you run your business now and what designs do you have in the pipeline for 2014?
I currently have 3 beaders who work from home and I send them patterns and beads and they do piecework for me. All of their work gets sent back to me and Fiona (who works with me part time) and we sew everything together and finish pieces off in my studio, which is at the bottom of my garden. It is very hard juggling young children with running your own business and I am constantly berating myself for not having enough time to do anything properly (parent or business) but I am doing the best that I can and that is all I can do at present. I often have to work into the night when everyone else is asleep as that is the only way things will get finished, it’s not ideal but not forever… I’m definitely going to bring out a bespoke bridal collection in the near future as there is a definite gap in the market for the more quirky bride and I enjoyed the whole process of making mine for my wedding so much I want to share it with the world!
80s, Beading, Bridal, Butterflies, Clara Francis, Françoise Montagne, Harvey Nichols, interview, japan, jewellery, Kentish Town, korea, Lucy Eves, Maia Fjord, Matilda Hill Jenkins, Melissa Angelik, N. Sukandiwirya, Paper Moon, Rebecca May Illustration, River Island, Snarfle, stars, Stella Pong, swans, The Central School of Speech and Drama, Tiaras, topshop, Tracey Boyd, US, Wedding, Wembley Market, Wholesale
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