The big interview

Cece Jewellery: tattoos of a different kind

The 18ct vintage-inspired pieces by British goldsmith, Cece Fein Hughes, are a lesson in symbolism

Cece Jewellery gold tattoo inspired jewellery

By her own admission, jewellery maker Cece Fein Hughes had an unconventional upbringing. “My family are very creative people but I was actually the first person among them to go to university – and there are 30 of them,” she tells me over Zoom. “A mixture of musicians, artists and designers. My grandmother used to dress the windows of Liberty [department store in London] in the 1960s. She was a white witch and lived in the middle of the moors. But I rejected their bohemian ways when I was young. I remember telling my mother that I never wanted to do my own taxes. Ironically, I most definitely do now.”

Cece’s mother was “the coolest – always painting and making something”, said the Devon native who now runs her eponymous business, Cece Jewellery, from her studio in London. Her father is a retired deep sea diver specialising in mechanical engineering whose very first expedition was in the Persian Gulf in the middle of the night. “No lights, no help. They told him to dive and go as deep as he could,” said Hughes who clearly had the best bedtime stories growing up. “My dad was never frightened though. He’s the burliest guy. He has tattoos all over and still rides motorbikes at the age of 54.”

Understanding her family background is important. The designer’s handmade 18ct rings and pendants draw from her colourful past and especially vintage tattoos, from traditional seafaring designs – anchors, arrow-pierced hearts, swords and skulls – to more talismanic symbols such as snakes, spiders and swans. These insignia are meticulously rendered by hand in enamel by a master enameller in Hatton Garden who works directly from watercolour paintings created by Hughes. “They’re miniature versions of my artworks and I’m always amazed by the incredible and faultless detail that is captured in such a minute space,” she said.

Some of Cece's 18ct gold pendants with enamel design and diamonds, £1950

A quick scroll through her brand’s official Instagram page reveals a love of British folklore stories. “I think the natural landscape of Devon and my father’s career at sea instituted my fascination with mythical creatures and the mysteries of the deep,” explained the 27-year-old goldsmith, who studied history of art at the University of Exeter. Her first step into the creative industry was as an intern working in antiquities departments of Christie’s and Sotheby’s. “Sadly it was all office work,” she said. “I wanted to be downstairs with all the artefacts. I found it frustrating.”

At this time, Hughes was suffering with what she describes as “deep rooted anxiety”, which wasn’t helped by the pressure that comes with finding a suitable career path. On a whim, she enrolled in a five-day jewellery-making course in Hatton Garden. It proved to be a life  changing experience. 

“Once you tap into the jewellery world of Hatton Garden, you’re on a journey of discovery,” she said. “You can learn from the best stone setters, the best engravers. It’s tiny and everyone knows everyone.” Subsequently, Hughes spent a year studying jewellery design at the British Academy of Jewellery in Holborn, although this was more theory based than hands on. She left aching to start her own line of fine gold pieces. “What I do now is actually really dreamy,” she said. “I spend a lot of my time painting watercolours. Then I make the rings myself from my workbench. It’s very repetitive but it’s so satisfying at the same time, especially when I have, say, ten signet rings to complete. Each process has to be perfect and precise. At the end, you collect the gold dust. That in itself is kind of amazing, because it’s a craft that’s endured for centuries.”

Cece's Clam & Pearl 18ct ring with enamel and star set diamonds, £2860. Matching necklace, £1950

So what fairytale ending does Hughes envisage for herself as she continues to build magical narratives through her collections? There’s a delightful horoscope collection coming up, as well as many more bespoke commissions to keep her busy, she said. But if allowed to wish big, it would be for more space: “My dream is to have a workshop-slash-appointment-atelier. I’d have a gorgeous velvet sofa where clients could sit while we discussed their designs.”

Unlike unicorns or even enchanted lobsters and snakes rendered impossibly small by the magic of enamelling, an atelier with a sink-in sofa seems fully attainable. Watch this space and let’s hope for a merry assortment of mermaid-embroidered cushions.

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