Just a spit from Portobello Road, Westbourne Grove (aka Westbourne Cross, Westbourne Village etc), is now the most fashionable area in London, full of brooding, logo-intensive thirtysomethings skulking around in insolent sunglasses with just the occasional penitent drunk. Walking through this giddy social mix brings to mind the quip made by Aerosmith's Steven Tyler at a recent Grammy Awards ceremony: "You'd be surprised how expensive it is to look this cheap."
Here, built on the site of a dilapidated betting shop, among the purveyors of battered club chairs, marble obelisks, art deco lamps and an increasing number of chi-chi health food stores and recherche cafes, lies the most idiosyncratic jewellery shop in London: Solange Azagury-Partridge. The window and door are opaque. A square peep-hole gives
the only clue as to the shop's true nature. From the outside, it is as intimidating as the old Antony Price shop in the King's Road 20 years ago. Scary!
Inside, the impression is altogether different. Walking into Solange's shop is not unlike entering a comforting, if rather orange, version of the future. But whereas most retail approximations of tomorrow's world fall wearily into cliche ("Hey! It must be the future
because all the drinks are blue!"), Solange's shop is a giant jewellery box, with an orange leather floor designed by Bill "Handbag" Amberg, and padded squares of ruby and jade velvet covering part of the orange walls.
Velvet is everywhere. There is a 10ft purple-velvet sofa, while Solange's gold leaf cases - made by furniture designer Tom Dixon - are lined in jewel-coloured velvets of every description. It may look like a particularly inventive video set, but it's a paradigm of exotic modernism, an oasis of luxury bang next door to a launderette.
"I wanted to create a feeling of intimacy and comfort," says Solange. "When people are spending money, they need to be unhurried and made to feel welcome. I suppose the shape of the shop determined what it was going to look like, though I always knew I wanted padded walls. It had to be the perfect showcase for the jewellery. I always dreamed of having my own shop, but I don't want to get so DIY that I lose the personal touch. If you lose that, you've lost everything."
Solange herself is from Casablanca, with brushstroke eyebrows and Medusa- like hair. She greets potential customers with the required salon charm, while her husband - commercials director and screenplay writer Murray Partridge - mooches in the background, a laconic Stephen Fitz-Simon to Azagury's Barbara Hulanicki.
"Jewellery should shout, it is there to make you feel special, so I've always made jewellery which will be noticed," says the designer. "There's not much point spending over pounds l,000 on a piece of jewellery (her prices range from pounds 1,000 to pounds 15,000) if you're not going to shout about it."
Ah, the jewels. They are nothing if not ambitious: big, heavy pieces crafted from gold and silver and littered with precious and semi-precious stones. The craftsmanship is faultless, the designs complex - a rose quartz and aquamarine "Pope" ring, a gold and baroque pearl Bombay ring, a citrine and peridot "lattice" ring. Recently, she has had huge success with rings based around clusters of brightly coloured enamel, an idea which came to the designer whilst devouring a box of Smarties. These are not mere trinkets, and they're not for shrinking violets.
"My jewellery is extravagant as well as being unfussy," she says. "I can appreciate delicate, intricately made jewellery, and I may go that way in the future - in fact, I'm thinking of working with rough and polished diamonds mixed with enamel for my next collection - but I've always been drawn to bold statements. I started with rough stones because I liked the earthiness of them; they're untampered with and natural."
Without formal training, she worked for the costume jewellers Butler & Wilson, and then for the inter-War art and jewellery dealer Gordon Watson. Her first proper job was making her own engagement ring. Endless enquiries about it led to setting up her own business, in 1990. Two years ago came the shop.
Many of her new neighbours thought it was a brothel at first. "I kept getting phone calls from men wanting appointments, and it took me a week to work out what they wanted. My assistant and I would be lolling around on the sofa drinking cups of tea, and at that stage there was nothing outside the shop indicating that we sold jewellery, so obviously some people got the wrong end of the stick, so to speak. It was very funny."
Colette once wrote that artistic jewellery can wreck a woman's reputation, but Solange's customers are the kind of women whose reputations precede them: Isabel Goldsmith, Janet Street Porter, Dawn French, Mrs Richard Branson, Fiona Thyssen, Mrs David Bailey, Francesca Von Hapsburg, Mrs Rocco Forte, Lucy Ferry, Elle MacPherson, Naomi Campbell, Madonna. And fashion editors by the gross.
A closed door confronts them all - locked for insurance purposes as much as anything else. "I rarely let people in if I'm on my own, and I almost never let two men in," she explains. "It's strange, but the minute the door is open a lovely, smelly old tramp always appears from nowhere. He's quite sweet, really."
Outside, on Westbourne Grove, the weary Scandinavian tourists and the COAL-diggers (Concealers of Advantaged Lineage, Tatler records) stroll, oblivious, along the world's most fashionable street. The day is almost gone, and there is a sense of accomplishment in the air. Cash has been dispensed, cards swiped, armchairs haggled over
As thoughts turn to Long Island Iced Teas and dinner reservations at Kassoulet, the locals beat a hasty retreat. Look over there! Isn't that Jade Jagger?
Solange Azagury-Partridge, 171 Westbourne Grove, London W11 (0171-792 0197)
Dylan Jones is the group editor of Wagadon, which publishes `The Face' and `Arena'Reuse content