Jeweller to the stars: the king of bling

Theo Fennell, a name forever linked with conspicuous consumption, is stepping down. By Jonathan Brown

When future generations examine evidence of Britain's long economic boom in the late 20th and early 21st century, among the more revealing items they might inspect from this extraordinary period of conspicuous celebrity-driven consumption could be a piece of jewellery by Theo Fennell.

For the designer, whose oeuvre contains everything from a £125 solid-silver lid for a millionaire's Marmite pot to a bespoke £250,000 Paraiba tourmaline ring fit for an oligarch's finger, is a man whose work has struck a chord extraordinarily in tune with the times. His witty, garish – some might say vulgar – creations are loved in equal measure both by the rich and the famous, and adored by those unwashed legions who aspire to either of the above.

Yesterday however, despite posting trend-buckingly buoyant Christmas sales figures following nearly half a dozen years of soaraway success, Fennell stunned his admirers by announcing that he was relinquishing his post as creative director of the company that he founded 26 years ago and was standing down from its board.

The charismatic Old Etonian said that he now hopes to involve himself with design projects beyond the luxury-goods market. "Design has always been the hub of my professional life, and so it will remain," he said.

His departure at the age of 56 follows the arrival two months ago of Pamela Harper, a former executive with Burberry, Hermès and Dunhill. It could, shareholders hope, presage a period in which Fennell's could finally achieve its long-term ambition of becoming a truly global brand.

For the man himself, a long-time critic of the City's failure to support Britain's creative industrial base, the development marks a new chapter in a life that – once it found its direction – has been passionately devoted to jewellery design.

Along the way, Fennell has picked up a glittering client base. Though he never discusses them, magazines and newspapers rarely mention the designer's work without reference to his roll-call of star clients.

Among his first patrons, and one he doesn't mind talking about, is Elton John, who discovered him back in the 1980s. Not only is the singer a "fantastically good patron of young designers" says Fennell, he is also now a "great friend".

David Beckham made headlines when he bought a £40,000 millennium cross from Fennell, while Victoria is rarely seen without some item of his work. Elizabeth Hurley is both a friend and a fan, Naomi Campbell loves him, as do Elle Macpherson, Heidi Klum and Sarah Ferguson. Ozzy Osbourne bought Sharon a Fennell diamond necklace and ring as a make-up present, while the king of bling himself, P Diddy, has been photographed sporting baubles from the British designer.

By his own admission, Fennell, a chisel-chinned charmer who combines disarming self-effacement with slick old-money confidence, happened upon the career of jeweller by chance. Born into a military family, he was sent away at five to his uncle's disciplinarian prep-school in Sussex while his father, an Army major, and his mother lived a peripatetic life between postings in Pakistan, Malaya and Germany.

Eton followed at 12 – a place he insists was "full of pretty normal people". There, he taught himself to play the guitar – he has since built up a large collection of his own instruments including one from his hero, Keith Richards – as well as learning to paint.

He stunned his teachers by becoming the first Etonian in living memory to go to art college, studying in London and York. By the early 1970s he was living by the Portobello Road, at the creative hub of London, though he struggled to make ends meet by living as a painter.

"I thought it would give me an enormous amount of free time to watch sport in the day, Crossroads in the evening and still have time for a big lunch, all while painting nude women and charging an enormous amount," he recalled recently.

The plan had a fatal flaw – he was not a very good painter. But a chance interview at London silversmith Edward Barnard lit up his world. Within six months, he had started his own company, established his shop in the Fulham Road and met and married his wife Louise.

"It is incredibly hard to make money – the costs are huge," explained Raymond Sancroft-Baker, director of jewellery at Christie's. "By the time you have stocked the shop and run it, it is so very expensive. It will be only very recently that he will have made much money."

But Fennell has built an international name – he has concessions in all the major centres of new wealth, Dubai, Moscow and Uzbekistan among them. He also has one of the best-stocked address books in London, though his penchant for a party was to reach its limits and nine years ago he gave up alcohol. He helped his wife fight breast cancer and now prefers to spend time at his Chelsea home with his grown up daughters rather than plying London's cocktail party circuit.

There are those who say that his gilded condiment holders, jewel-encrusted keys and "hero and villain" rings – sporting the faces of Lenin, Gandhi and Mao among others – are condemned always to play in the second division compared to the likes of Van Cleef and Cartier. But according to Mr Sancroft-Baker, his work will always command a following. "He is very trendy at the moment but he will have a legacy. Clients are always looking for quality – the diamonds have got to be good and at a fair price. People want something that has been designed and is a bit quirky."

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