It was the sort of email you never forget.
Could Helena Fine fly from London to Chicago, at two days' notice, to show a new client four different ten-carat diamonds. With a six-month-old baby in tow, it wasn’t an easy decision. But then it isn’t every day that you get asked to make an engagement ring for Rod Stewart and Penny Lancaster.
“The first question they asked me, Fine recalls, was, “Are your stones ethical?"
The celebrity couple had got engaged at the Eiffel Tower, so Fine's design used lattice work to echo the iconic building.
Many of the clients for her bespoke work are couples who have just got engaged, and demand a similarly personal touch. For example, the clients who brought in two rings, originally belonging to their grandmothers. The diamonds and gold were fused together to create a more modern engagement ring. “This way they think about them every day.”
For the divorcee who brought in her engagement, eternity and wedding rings, the story was different, as was the solution. “She wanted to use what she had to create a bold new start in her life.” The result: an impressive cocktail ring.
Fine got into the jewellery business in 1998, quite by chance. After moving from Manchester to London she replied to a JC advert for a PA to a diamond merchant. She got the job and for the next few years learnt every aspect of the trade on the job, from conveying parcels of diamonds to Bond Street jewellers, to taking single stones to the craftsman for design.
Eventually, when her friends were getting engaged, she set up on her own at home, working with diamond merchants, setters and craftsmen to create engagement rings at half the retail price.
During the last recession she took a break from the business to train as a nursery teacher, and worked at Woodside Park Synagogue nursery for three years. But when, four years ago, she took a call from a potential client, asking if she was still dealing in diamond rings, it reawakened her enthusiasm.
“I could access the diamonds and I still had the craftsmen and so I said 'yes, I can help'. I realised I loved the trade and I missed it.”
Then her diamond supplier suggested she become a member of the male- dominated London Diamond Board (Bourse). Membership, amongst other things, requires many years diamond experience, plus referrals from two traders. She passed the test and in 2014, set up her own company, Olivia Grace, named after her two daughters.
She creates colourful statement jewellery as she tries to bring back some of the glamour of the 1920s at affordable prices.
“Women are putting all their valuables in the safe and wearing inexpensive fashion pieces which can’t be handed down. There’s no value to the pieces. I am doing solid gold pieces with high quality diamonds and craftsmanship that are affordable, and yet can still be inheritance pieces.”
Her most popular line is the rose gold Venezia collection, inspired by the Cote D’Azur’s vibrant colours.
“We look for cut in the diamond, to achieve that brilliance of light coming from a stone. You want it to absolutely shine.” The success of this collection has led to her dressing celebrities for award ceremonies, and she exhibited at London Fashion Week in September.
Fine says the diamond trade is cut-throat. But she prefers to focus on the pleasure that creating beautiful objects brings to both her clients and herself. “I’d rather earn less and make the customer enjoy the whole experience.”
Her hope is to keep a person’s story alive through her work. This explains the two brightly coloured 1950s ornamental ashtrays, pride of place in her living room, which belonged to her late grandmother.
Orphaned as a child due to a fire, her grandmother was left with no family possessions.
“I was very close to my maternal grandmother Sybil and we lived together when I was 18. She died ten years ago, but when I look at the ornaments I strongly feel she has never left me.”