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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”