Vania Leles Turned a Modeling Assignment into a Career in High Jewelry - 1stDibs Introspective

Bejeweled

Vania Leles Turned a Modeling Assignment into a Career in High Jewelry

Around 2003, Vania Leles was modeling on a shoot with fine jewelry when someone on the set told her that all precious and many semiprecious stones can be found in Africa. Intrigued, Leles, who hails from the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, did some research. And she discovered that at that time, there were no African haute-joaillerie designers working with these materials native to their continent. This was enough for the then-24-year-old to decide that she would establish the world’s first female-founded African high jewelry house. 

Vania Leles of VanLeles Diamonds
Vania Leles began her journey toward becoming the first female African founder of a high-jewelry house, VanLeles Diamonds, when she was on a modeling shoot in 2003. Top: These titanium and diamond earrings are part of her Kilimanjaro Collection, designed to evoke snow falling on Africa’s highest mountain. “I wanted the jewels to be lightweight and the color of the setting to be blue like the sky,” Leles says. Photos courtesy of VanLeles

“When I told my mother about my plans, she suggested I get ten years of experience before launching my own company,” remembers Leles. This seemed like a long time, but she agreed, quitting modeling and enrolling in classes on gems, design and business at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). “When I took the design classes using gouache paint, it came really naturally,” says Leles. “I felt like my creativity could run wild.”  

Even before getting her graduate gemology degree at GIA in London, Leles started planning her career path. “I wanted to work at Graff, and I sent them my résumé like fifteen times before I finally got a phone call and interview,” she recalls. She was hired as a gemologist, landing at the absolute top of the high-jewelry world in London. After two years and a couple of promotions, she left her dream job for a new role at DeBeers as a brand ambassador, to gain experience in a corporate environment and with the retail and sourcing sides of the business. From there, she went to Sotheby’s, where she became a jewelry specialist and client relationship manager. 

VanLeles Nile Collection, this bangle, rings, small hoop earrings and necklace were made crafted in 18-karat yellow gold and diamonds
From the Nile Collection, this bangle, rings, small hoop earrings and necklace are made of 18-karat yellow gold set with diamonds

In 2011, Leles finally launched a small jewelry company in London, naming it VanLeles. She made special commissions, classics such as tennis bracelets, stud earrings and engagement rings. After four years, one of her clients became an investor, and the business soared. In 2015, Leles opened a boutique on Bond Street, where all the most prestigious names in jewelry are located. And she established twin goals: to pay tribute to Africa and infuse her collections with the spirit of her life story.

VanLeles From the Enchanted Garden Collection, a model wears diamond and Zambian emerald flower cuff earrings with an Out of Africa diamond, ruby and rubellite cocktail ring and a Legends of Africa cocktail ring crafted more than four carats of Zambian emeralds.
A model wears diamond and Zambian emerald flower cuff earrings fom the Enchanted Garden Collection, along with an Out of Africa diamond, ruby and rubellite cocktail ring and a Legends of Africa cocktail ring set with more than four carats of Zambian emeralds.

Growing up, Leles attended boarding school and college in Portugal, returning to Africa during breaks to travel around the continent with her family. Upon graduating from Universidade Nova de Lisboa, she moved to London to learn English and became a social worker. She changed careers after being discovered by a modeling scout, and lived and worked as a model in Paris and New York for a few years. Then came that fateful day when she decided to join the jewelry world. All these events and influences are reflected in details of the Vanleles collection. “Some people expect my jewelry to be tribal or ethnic, but it is a combination of my memories of Africa and my experiences traveling throughout the world and living in Europe,” explains Leles. “The jewelry is manufactured in Italy.”

Left: Small rose gold hoop earrings from the Nile Collection feature detachable pink sapphire droplets. Right: From the Legends of Africa Collection, this bangle includes more than 25 carats of Zambian emeralds.

The gems in Vanleles jewels are an homage to Africa. “I use rubies from Mozambique, Zambian emeralds and diamonds from Botswana and Namibia,” says Leles. “I also use aquamarines and tourmalines from Mozambique and African Paraíba tourmalines.” She is acutely aware of the importance of the ethical diamond trade, employing stones only from suppliers that comply with the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, established to prevent diamonds from conflict areas or illegitimate sources from entering the market.

VanLeles flower cuff earrings from the Enchanted Garden Collection
These flower cuff earrings from the Enchanted Garden Collection are made of rose gold and titanium set with nearly 37 carats of Mozambican rubies and 2.5 carats of round brilliant diamonds.

Among her best-known designs are the Enchanted Garden earrings. Based on a bold floral pattern found in African batiks, these statement jewels come in different assortments of colorful gems and diamonds. 

A poetic vision of snow falling on the fabled Mount Kilimanjaro inspired the Kilimanjaro collection. The stunning sculptural diamond earrings and ring pop with a vibrant blue titanium setting. “I wanted the jewels to be lightweight and the color of the setting to be blue like the sky. That is why I chose titanium, which can be anodized to change colors,” Leles explains. 

VanLeles Nile collection earrings
These earrings from Nile Collection are convertible, composed of yellow gold and diamond studs with detachable chain tassels. “Some people expect my jewelry to be tribal or ethnic, but it is a combination of my memories of Africa and my experiences traveling throughout the world and living in Europe,” Leles says.

Like many fine-jewelry designers, Leles has a heart motif in her collection, but her version is unlike anyone else’s. The Amor, O Coração Africano ruby earrings have a curved gestural line that suggests the upper half of the symbol of love. The name is a Portuguese phrase that translates roughly as “Love, my African heart.” Says Leles, “It is my love letter to Africa.” 

The designer’s affection for the continent finds outlets beyond her gems and motifs. Philanthropy directed to African-related charities is an integral part of the Vanleles business. Leles has an ongoing relationship with the Malaika Foundation, which empowers Congolese girls and their communities through education and health programs, and has recently made donations to the African Union COVID-19 Fund. “For me, it is important. I was given opportunity and education by my parents, and then I was given an opportunity to be a model and then work at Graff and so on,” explains Leles. “When you come from where I come from, one of the poorest countries in the world, you have an awareness of how important those opportunities are and how important it is to give back to the community. I feel it is my moral duty to give back.”


Vania Leles’s Talking Points

“The abstract shape of these earrings is inspired by the continent. The bold use of a singular color in ever-so-slightly differing shades gives each piece a confident and contemporary feel, whilst allowing the intense color to flow uninterrupted.”

“This collection is an elevated and elegant take on the exotic theme of ancient Egypt. The Nile, the longest river in the world, also called the father of African rivers, served as inspiration for this collection.”

“This ring is part of a collection dedicated entirely to the beauty of Mozambique’s rubies and rubellites. The kaleidoscopic statement rings pay tribute to Africa’s opulence.”

“Inspired by vibrant African prints, these earrings are truly one of a kind — a garden alight with floral fantasy and delicate flowers twirling in the moonlight.”

“These earrings are exquisitely made and reminiscent of the tender snow falling on Africa’s highest mountain.Places of mystical beauty and fearlessness, Mount Kilimanjaro’s snow tops serve as a muse to this collection.”

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