Antonia Sampson is, as you’d expect, effortlessly elegant. She’s a jewelry designer, so looking pulled together should be considered part of her job. She’s absolutely charming, with a British accent that, to these uncouth American ears, sounds almost like a Southern drawl. Almost.
You’ll probably see Sampson's jewelry for sale at Christmas and charity bazaars this season—although she currently lacks a website, she does event-based promotions and parties that help get her name into the community.
“My passion for jewelry started when I was about 7 years old,” explains Sampson. “I entered a competition in a famous children’s magazine, Jackie.” She won the contest; the magazine sent her a necklace with the name of the magazine spelled out in gold lettering. “So I had this friend at school called Jackie and I sold the necklace to her. That was my beginning in jewelry,” she says with a laugh.
Even when she was in London, working at The Guardian newspaper as a commercial editor, she never stopped working in jewelry. “I used to travel often to India. I love the jewelry [in India] and brought it back to sell to my colleagues at The Guardian,” Sampson explains.
She eventually left London to live in Warsaw, and then came to Beijing with her husband and two young children. Though packing up two preschool-age children might seem daunting to most, Sampson says, “We were so totally excited to have the opportunity to live and work in Asia.”
That was 14 years ago. In the intervening years, she’s had two more children. “I had another boy [in Beijing] and I was really keen to have a girl,” Sampson says. So they tried again and successfully had a girl. (Otherwise, she playfully whispers, “my husband would have sent me his forwarding address!”)
Sampson found herself traveling quite a bit between China and the United Kingdom to make sure that the grandparents had a strong role in their grandchildren’s lives. With her husband working long hours at his advertising job, Sampson decided to balance family life with a small gig supplying jewelry to shops in the UK. That meant scouring markets in the Silk Market and Hongqiao Pearl Market to find baubles that would appeal to the British market.
There was a huge pearl industry in Southern China in pre-Olympic times. “You could find the most amazing pearls and stones,” recalls Sampson. “I would buy different designs I thought were interesting. There was a whole range of costume jewelry that I thought buyers would like.”
Now, of course, the Silk Market and Hongqiao have attempted to go upmarket, with mixed results. But Sampson evolved out of simply buying eye-catching jewels and decided to try designing them herself. She knew more about the local market, knew the range and quality of material available, and had a sense of what made a piece really stand out. It was a really good training ground, she says.
“I was quite frustrated in having to buy jewelry that I really didn’t like. [It was] really kind of painful,” adds Sampson. The business of buying and selling stopped in 2007; the creative process of making her own distinctive designs began.
“I’ll find a material I really want to work with, then I’ll think about how to platform it so it looks most beautiful,” explains Sampson. If she has a fabulous stone, she thinks about how to best showcase its unique characteristics—would it work best as a bracelet? An earring? As a complete strand or broken up by other components?
When she explains her creative process, it sounds more like a logic puzzle than anything else. It’s not just about inspiration—although those pure moments of genius do arrive. The creative process takes hard work and dedication. “You struggle and agonize over it, because to do anything different … it’s tough,” admits Sampson. “You’re unsure whether people will like what you do.”
"I always feel [jewelry], in my heart. It resonates on a deep emotional level.”
She started with a humble booth at a charity bazaar at the British embassy many years ago. “It was really scary, because you’re kind of putting yourself on the line,” she says. “You think, ‘Am I really cutting it?’” The response, however, was really positive, and it encouraged her to keep going.
Now, she attends as many of the Christmas bazaars and summer markets as she can; as she puts it, “In order to be creative, I have to go and sell what I’ve created!” A line, we’re sure, that any struggling artist or writer would appreciate.
We ask if there’s ever any piece of jewelry that she’s not so keen on, but her customers seem to love. She firmly insists that this isn’t how it works. “If I make something and think it’s kind of OK, then I get the same response from my customers. But if I make something and I think it’s amazing? Then my clients think so as well.”
Design, it turns out, is not just logical. There’s also an emotional element as well: “Sometimes, when you make something that works well on every level and you’ve really done it right, you know it. I always feel it, in my heart. It resonates on a deep emotional level.”
“We attach emotional significance, symbolism and memory to certain pieces of jewelry. Like it encapsulates a time, a place, a moment,” she continues. It certainly is the case with Sampson. She describes her mother, a passionate jewelry collector who accessorized her outfits perfectly with jewels. (“And I helped her,” beams Sampson). Or her youngest daughter, who loves nothing more than to dig into Sampson’s extensive collection to “borrow” a few choice pieces. But who knew that the creation of jewelry can have the same sort of power?
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