I have a huge soft spot for the style and glamour of the Sixties and Seventies. And the bold fine jewelry that first became de riguer then continues to be a favorite. Greek jeweler Ilias Lalaounis, the favorite of Jackie O. when she married Aristotle, is largely responsible for creating that aesthetic by adding modern twists to ancient classical designs. Today, his four daughters run the business and I had the pleasure of meeting Demetra, who currently lives in London, and is working on expanding the business her father began. Demetra is elegance personified, but at the same time there is an underlying vivacity and sense of fun, that seems to be inherently Greek. Here she shares what’s next, why jewelry has always been important to Greek women, and an example of her father’s saucy sense of humor.
Your father relaunched the family jewelry business in 1967 and it really began to take off. Why? In the early 60s, Americans started coming to visit Greece. We had recovered from the war, things were starting to look up, and also, of course, Aristotle and Jackie were really big. Jackie did a lot for Greece and the jewelry, because she would get her jewelry from us. Also American tourists would come and say, ‘Oh, I saw this lovely piece in the museum; do you have something like it?’ My father thought, “Why are we doing all of these pieces that have no history, no story to tell, no inspiration? We have to rethink the whole thing.’
He started by saying, ‘Okay, can we do the workmanship? Can we do the hand-weaving? Can we do the granulation? Can we do the hand-hammering?’ He started by copying pieces from museums. After a year or two he said, ‘That’s great. We can do it. But where’s the creativity?’
Then came the big shift. He said, ‘Okay, now we do jewelry inspired by … ‘ So we started with classical Hellenistic. Even before that period, Neolithic, Paleolithic, classical Hellenistic, Minoan, Mycenaean, Byzantine … there was so much out there to be inspired from.
These are collections that we still do today. These collections never die, they just keep growing and growing. For us it’s great when we see grandchildren of clients from the 60s come in and say, ‘I love this. I inherited it and I still wear it.’ Then I say, ‘Great. What can you add on to it?’ To keep the tradition going.
Why is jewelry important to you? Jewelry isn’t about its cost or its size, it’s about the thought—what it reminds you of. If it’s your grandmother’s or if it’s something you bought with your first pocket money, there’s always something positive that you can think about it.
You can tell a lot about a woman by the way she carries herself. And when you wear jewelry, it’s like wearing heels—you carry yourself differently. I notice it with myself. If I have an important meeting, heels. Always. It gives me extra confidence. And of course, jewelry, because the right jewelry … the way it gives you a glow. I think a few pieces of jewelry; I’m not for a lot. I’m definitely a minimalist. You do earrings, you do a bracelet or a ring. If I have a big necklace, I have very discreet earrings. You have to make the jewelry look its most, and for you to look the best you can.
I love to sell to clients, but if someone comes and just puts the whole thing on and wants to go out like that, I will stop them. I will say, ‘No, please.’ You may say, ‘Who am I to say how she looks best?’ But I have to use my own aesthetic.
And women must look to you for guidance. I say, ‘You know what? Just wear the earrings. You look smashing. You don’t need anything else. You want to put a bracelet or a ring, great, but don’t overdo it. How can you use jewelry to complement yourself, not take away from yourself. Also, make the piece your own? Choose something that fits your lifestyle, that you feel comfortable with.
I have the same philosophy with jewelry and clothes. Women today, we get up in the morning, probably have to do the school run, continue [to work], and then go out at night right after, and do not have time to go back home. So wear things that can take you through the day and make you feel comfortable.
There’s a very famous cartoonist in England … I always forget his name. And he has a cartoon which shows a man and a woman making a pot of tea. It’s hysterical. So you have little squares. In the first one the man puts the kettle on. In the next one he’s still waiting for the kettle. In the next one, the kettle starts whistling. And then it continues and he has his cup of tea. And then you have the woman. She puts the kettle on and she says, “I’m running to pick up the girls,” and then she does a thousand things in the house and then she’s vacuuming. That’s us. Men and multitasking? Forget it, it’s a no-go.
But we do so much, you have to incorporate jewelry in way that to makes you feel good, and then, takes you from morning to evening.
Did you always want to be part of your father’s business? In a Greek family business, you are told what you’re going to do. It’s easy, there’s no choice. When we were born my father took each of us from the hospital to the shop, then to the house. Basically, that’s how our careers started. And it went on from there. Summer school, holidays at the workshop, hand hammering, I would do enameling. And then if we wanted, we went through the workshop phase where we combined the workshop with going to the shops.
When I was 13, we had a small shop in the Hilton hotel. Because it was very small, there were two shifts. The person that had the afternoon shift fell sick. It was summer, everything was very busy, so I had to take over. And I was petrified. I didn’t know if people would take me seriously. But that was a very strong moment for me. To have that responsibility, even if it’s a tiny shop, with the jewelry and the clients. I don’t know if I would have let my daughter when she was 13 years old, even though she was very mature, do that. But my father was absolutely great in that way.
Would my sisters and I have liked to have done something else? I would have liked to have some experience elsewhere, because I think it’s important what you bring in. I did my degrees, then I went back to gemology school. But the moment my education finished my father, who was also quite old at that point, said, ‘Now you come back.’
I’m not allowing my children to come into the business unless they are dying to, and then they have to bring something to it. I’m like, ‘You go out there. There’s no job waiting for you,’ because I think you have to keep them motivated. If they know, ‘I have a job waiting for me’, even if you’re the best person on this planet, somewhere inside of you a little part will relax. And you shouldn’t be relaxed, because things are tougher now than they were when I was starting.
What’s next for Lalaounis? We’re trying to move more into the internet business. We want to start by adding a new online shop in the US, because I think that’s the future. I mean of course it’s the future, but especially for small family-run businesses.
Who would ever have thought that fine jewelry would sell well online? But you know what? The first indication that it would catch on was when we opened our first shop in 1979. People would get catalogs and order, in California, without having seen the piece.
One of our issues is how many family-run businesses are there nowadays? Not many. The problem is you cannot survive. The competition is too big when you have big organizations pouring in money for marketing, pr, locations.
But at the same time, I think there’s a growing appreciation for true craftsmanship and things that are unique. That’s why we have to keep true to what we are doing. We find that Americans really love our jewelry. They like the heritage, they like the techniques, they like to hear the history. I think the American woman is very jewelry-minded.
Greeks seem to be very jewelry oriented too. When my father started Lalaounis in 1967 there were 300 people in the jewelry business. In the 80s, it was 20,000. He definitely paved the way and created an industry in Greece, which was easy to grow because of the tourism.
I think, when you grow with art around you, with beauty, and you see jewelry as part of everything … Greek women always wore jewelry. They would always fix their hair and wear jewelry. Until the crisis hit, every corner had a hair shop. Greek women always, even to go to at the supermarket, had their hair done. It was never unkempt.
I remember when I went to college, it was 1980, and my roommate washed her hair and walked out with her hair wet. I was like, “What?!” I was 17 at the time; it was a rude awakening.
Your father sounds like quite the charismatic man. He was self-taught in English and French and when he first came to the States, people would ask, ‘How do you spell Lalaounis?’ He would say, ‘L for love, A for agony, L for love, A for agony, and I will not continue with the O.’ Quite sneaky!
If you were wearing a piece of his jewelry he would chat you up. Always. And he was a very charming man, so it was always interesting. For example, we did a bio-symbol collection. And that was very special, because it was like looking through the lens at cells and sperms. It was a whole collection inspired by that. Very modern. And my father had created this necklace, called Biosymbol, which was actually a sperm. This stunning tall woman was wearing one with a simple black dress, and he went up to her and said, ‘You’re wearing my sperm.’ Can you imagine?! But he had a way of doing it. Today they would probably say, ‘Politically incorrect. I’m suing you.’
I’m a chatterbox. Out of all my sisters, I think I’m the one that has taken that on, because I like talking to people. I love hearing stories. I’m also quite sensitive, so if I see you just want to stick to yourself, I will not intrude in your space. But if you give me a chance, I will start chatting.
Three words that describe Lalaounis: Heritage, craftsmanship, beauty and elegance.
Three words that describe you: I had to ask my sisters. They said, ‘Dynamic and hard-working,’ and I think I have a good sense of humor. I’m not the funniest person at the party, but I love sense of humor and I like to make light of situations and to not take myself too seriously, because c’mon on. You just have to.
Do you collect anything? Seashells. We always spend August in Greece. We all go as a family and we have a bungalow at the beach, and it’s all very much nature.
After I finished my studies in New York in the mid-80s, I had a roommate who worked for a cutting-edge art gallery. She introduced me to contemporary art in a very sort of mellow way. She now has her own gallery and through her I keep collecting.
Biggest splurge: A Tony Sherman painting which I totally love. I never follow trends. I like what I like. And I want to be able to live with it and just enjoy seeing it.
Favorite small indulgence: Anything that has to do with time, like sneaking out and taking my kids for sushi and a movie. Two are at the university, one is still at the boarding school. Ocasionally, they’ll say, ‘Mommy, can I pretend I’m sick today?’ And I’ll say, ‘I’ll pretend I’m sick too.’ You have to make time for each other.
Album currently on repeat: Amy Winehouse. I miss her every day. What would she have gone on to create?
Scent that brings back memories: My mother used to wear a Guerlain perfume called Chant D’Aromes. They had these beautiful bottles and she would reseal them. She still has the empty bottles in her bathroom. It’s the combination of the object and the scent.
Lucky charm: I have quite a few. The problem with us is when you are Lalaounis you cannot say you are wearing something else, even though I admire other pieces of jewelry. So my husband calls one of my sisters, who is our main designer and head of production, and says, ‘What can we give Demetra?’ She knows what I like. Very often they try to personalize it.
But one thing, which is a tradition where he comes from, is that he had a bracelet made with three hearts–a ruby, sapphire, and emerald, with the names of my kids and their birth dates. Then you know, being Greek, I have my crosses I travel with. I have my eye.
Favorite hour of the day: My husband gets up really early, and I love it when the sun comes up. I love the quietness. I love that moment where you have time to think things through, think about what you have to do, without phones ringing or anything.
Because Greece is two hours ahead of London and my sisters start at the workshop at 7 a.m.. I say, ‘Wait until 7 please, before we get started.’
Follow Lalaounis: Instagram.